Motivating Contact Center Agents – Do Your Rewards Match Your Goals?

“On the Folly of Rewarding A While Hoping for B” was written by Steven Kerr in 1995 and published by The Academy of Management Executive. It is posted on the Internet under the rubric of business classic, although the topic is equally relevant in our personal lives. (Parents, listen up!) The author describes the practice of building a reward system that reinforces one behavior, while managers (or parents) are secretly hoping for something else. It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that human behavior being what it is, we tend to gravitate to what’s actually being rewarded. The article is a cautionary tale on the result of mismatching incentives with desired behavior. Among other areas, it covers rewards gone awry in war, politics and business.

Ask yourself if you have somehow perpetuated this type of folly in your work life? In the contact center, for instance, are the rewards really in tune with the behaviors you want to see from your agents? I’ll admit that in my former life as a Director of a Technical Support team, I built such a system early on. We can all be guilty of tunnel vision. Many times we focus so heavily on internal goals such as productivity (the number of interactions taken), and average handle time (the amount of time we spend on them) that we give our customers short shrift, and provide less than stellar customer service. If the contact center sells products, we may actually be forgoing significant add-on sales by hurrying customers along. If we also score agents for their sales figures, and we’re asking them to achieve goals that might be mutually exclusive, what are we really reinforcing? Those who really want to achieve both will discover it can’t be done consistently, and will eventually give up, or leave. Of those who stay, you won’t get the performance you were really looking for. If one of the goals has a higher reward than the other, that’s what you’ll get. Or if not, and one of the goals is easier to achieve than the other, that’s the one people will shoot for.

In a pure customer service environment, if we forget to include a quality score in our evaluation– perhaps we’re so busy we simply didn’t have time to do the sampling and scoring necessary to get the quality score–what are we actually reinforcing? If an agent’s annual review only looks at quantity and handle time, then we’re encouraging that agent to spend the least amount of time possible with a customer. In some contact centers with such a reward system, agents have been known to hang up on customers, or mute themselves so that the customer hangs up, in order to boost the quantity of calls they handle and achieve their numbers. In a skewed way, if we aren’t assessing quality, we’re encouraging that kind of behavior. And I know that we as managers can do better in building our reward systems to encourage better behavior.

I’d like to find out from our readers—who has built an incentive system they think really works well, and motivates agents to the right behavior? What types of rewards did you use, and how do you measure performance? Where did you find challenges in building such a system? And what can we contact center vendors do to make the process better overall?

For the rest of us, the next time you receive poor service from a contact center, ask yourself—are they practicing the Folly of Rewarding A While Hoping for B?

Thanks in advance for your input,

Rachel Wentink