Innovation in Employee Engagement Programs for Call Center Representatives

This column is dedicated to exploring common call center management practices that might not be in synchronization with the conclusions and implications of solid research regarding human behavior and motivation in the call center environment.

The Ineffective Monthly Contest in the Call Center Environment

It's hard to walk into a call center and not be immediately aware of posters and displays proclaiming the current "flavor of the month" contest. For example, I recently observed a glaring banner encouraging operators to meet monthly attendance and performance goals in order to receive a raffle ticket for a $1,000 flat screen television.

Although well intended, most such efforts are ineffectual.

At best, they are a waste of time and money, and, at worst, they cause internal resentment with the call center operators.

Why Monthly Goals Do Not Work in the Call Center

There are five reasons monthly goals do not work in a call center:

One: The participating call center representative does not see a clear relationship between call center performance and a positive outcome. Even if the call center representative meets the eligibility requirements for the drawing, the chance of winning the TV (receiving positive reinforcement for the call center representative’s achievement) is remote.

Two: The reward given to the call center representative is too far removed from the behavior of the call center representative. One of the most accepted principles of human motivation is, "the closer the reward is to the behavior, the more likely the behavior will be repeated."

Imagine the folly of a statement such as, "Thanks for cleaning up the lunch room three months ago."

Three: It is far better to reward small incremental goal accomplishments, which, if achieved, will lead to the attainment of the larger goal. This is the well documented psychological concept of "behavior shaping."

The achievement of small goals (i.e., daily attendance and performance excellence) results in a much higher percentage of your workforce achieving monthly perfect attendance and established performance goals. And the accomplishment of these small goals creates a process of continual feedback (score keeping), which, in turn, allows people to feel good about their contribution to the work group.

A few years ago, daily feedback and reward would have been almost impossible to manage with a large call center work group. Now, with Internet-based systems that can instantly reward small performance accomplishments with points, it is relatively easy to implement and administer.

Four: It is arrogant for a manager to think that all of employees would want the flat screen TV in the first place. How do you motivate a call center representative who has no burning desire for the ultimate reward?

Research has consistently demonstrated that people want choice in all areas of their life and that money is the ultimate reward of choice.

If you don’t believe me, ask your call center representative, "Would you rather have a flat screen TV or $1,000?" Further, the good news about money as a reward for performance is that it can be delivered incrementally in small amounts. Nice!

Five: Almost all contests are short lived and thus lose the opportunity to reap the rewards that research has demonstrated can be reaped from consistency linked directly to measurable metrics critical to the success of the call center.

Only One Third of Performance Improvement Programs Work

Consider the following actual comment from an employee job satisfaction survey in a call center. "The monthly drawings are a joke. I have been at this call center two years and have never won anything." Statements such as this, which borderline on resentment, support past research, which reveals that only one-third of performance improvement programs actually meet or surpass targeted objectives.

I am aware that these types of drawing are easy to administer, hence their proliferation. But, other than temporary exhilaration for the single winner and momentary interest for the remainder of call center representatives, I don’t think there is any significant return on monthly contests that only reward a random minority of call center representative group. If you have a thousand bucks in your budget and you have to "use it or lose it," I suggest buying lunch for everyone.