Unorthodox Wisdom for the Uncommon Call Center

Stop Obsessing About the Job Satisfaction and Customer Loyalty—Focus on Performance

Brooks Mitchell, PhD
Posted: 10/22/2009

I have noticed an increased interest in the desire of call centers to improve their job satisfaction level. Now before I say anything else, I want to be very clear: Job satisfaction in a call center is important, but it is an acutely complex issue and must be considered in context with many other organizational objectives. I think some of the recent interest is due to the bad economy. Managers feel that their call center operators are depressed and they need to do everything they can to make the operators happy. Furthermore, it is assumed that if the call center operators are happy (high job satisfaction), they will be more productive and nicer to customers, which in turn leads to increased levels of customer loyalty. Not so! There is nothing in legitimate research that suggests there is a correlation between high job satisfaction and increased productivity and customer loyalty.

The search for this relationship has been kind of like the quest to find the Holy Grail. There are some studies that indicate that job satisfaction and turnover and absenteeism are related, but overall, the relationship between job satisfaction, performance, customer satisfaction and loyalty has been elusive and not proven.

Some of this recent interest in job satisfaction of call center managers emanates from a well-intended but misdirected search for a silver bullet or a magic pill. "If I could just find out what makes my call center operators unhappy and fix it, then I will have job satisfaction." No, no, no! That clearly is not true. Frederick Herzberg, a professor at the University of Utah, addressed this issue 50 years ago. He reported that people are made dissatisfied by a bad work environment, but they are seldom made satisfied by a good environment.

Herzberg explained that all jobs are comprised of "hygiene" factors such as working conditions, pay, supervision, policies, physical environment, etc., which must be maintained in order to create an atmosphere where employee motivation (job satisfaction) can occur. But solving "hygiene" problems will not make workers motivated and certainly will not lead to job satisfaction. For example, suppose there are immense parking problems at your call center. Not an uncommon occurrence, by the way. Do you think if you make parking close by and easy for all operators to access you will create a higher level of job satisfaction, or a higher level of productivity or motivation? Of course not! All you do is make them not unhappy with parking.

Pay is a big "hygiene" factor. Increasing wages will not solve job satisfaction problems. In fact, if you overpay people, it will lead to a higher level of dissatisfaction than before. I will talk more about this in a future column.

Now don’t despair, there is hope and strategies you can embrace that will lead to higher job satisfaction and customer loyalty. This involves an intense focus on employee performance. I maintain that if people are performing adequately and at a fair level, they are more likely to have a high level of satisfaction. This is one of the conclusions of Professor Ben Schneider at the University of Maryland, who was the recipient of the 2009 Michael R. Lacey $50,000 Human Resource Research Award. Loyaltymyths.com, writing about Dr. Schneider’s research, states, "It is not how happy your employees are that helps satisfy customers and improve business results. What really matters is how well equipped your employees are at accomplishing their duties. Schneider created the concept of a service climate: an atmosphere and conditions that enhance employees’ ability to properly carry out their responsibilities." What this means to me is that good performance leads to job satisfaction and customer satisfaction and loyalty.

The nice thing about this approach is that performance is much easier to observe, measure and reward than is job satisfaction. You can’t observe job satisfaction. It can only be measured via a survey. There is some value to conducting a survey to measure job satisfaction. A survey can show leaks in the boat or the "hygiene" factors that need attention.

Stated another way, job satisfaction, customer service and customer loyalty are not problems; rather they are symptoms of the real problem: inadequate performance! It’s equivalent to taking an aspirin to alleviate a headache. The pain will temporarily disappear, but will return unless the cause of the headache is treated.

So, anything your call center can do to fairly increase and maintain performance will do more for job satisfaction and customer loyalty than any other methodology I am aware of. How about clear and fair work expectations, or constant and consistent recognition?

Please understand that nothing I am saying should be interpreted as a license to treat employees unfairly or abuse the fundamentals of good employee relations. A total focus on performance without consideration to the need of any employee to work in a positive environment will only lead to long range problems of turnover, absenteeism, internal strife, and filed complaints. But it is unrealistic to assume that efforts to increase job satisfaction will lead to high-performance, customer satisfaction, and customer loyalty. I know it sounds trite, but busy hands are happy hands.

Brooks Mitchell, PhD
Posted: 10/22/2009

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