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Next Level Customer Service Blog

News, tips, and trends to help you reach that next level of customer service.

Entries in employee engagement (7)


Using the Employee Engagement Cycle

This post originally appeared on the International Customer Management Institute (ICMI) website as part of their Expert's Angle series.

Call centers with customer-focused cultures achieve their success by getting a high level of agent buy-in. One way to do this is to ensure that your culture is aligned with the five steps in the Employee Engagement Cycle. This is a framework that identifies critical points where a call center can influence employee engagement.

Read on to learn about each step in the cycle. At the end you’ll find a questionnaire you can use to evaluate your own call center’s alignment.


Recruiting new employees represents an opportunity to find people who are passionate about our products or services. Even more important than previous job experience or call center skills, we want people who will love to do what we want them to do. These employees will serve our customers better, work harder, and are less likely to leave the company than someone who is just here for a paycheck.

Call centers can hire for passion by identifying a set of specific traits that the ideal employee should possess. For example, a company that connects people with music teachers hires people who love music. A software manufacturer hires people who work with computers in their spare time. A company that sells accessories for boats and RVs hires people who love boating or camping.


The on-boarding process is more than just new employee orientation or that pile of new hire paperwork. On-boarding really refers to the period that begins when the employee accepts the job offer and ends when the employee is fully trained. This is a critical time when the employee decides whether they made a good decision to join your company. This is also when they learn about your call center culture and the behaviors that are expected to go along with it.

One medical device manufacturer used the on-boarding period to help their new employees unlearn habits they picked up in other call centers. For example, in their previous job a new employee may have referred to an out of stock product as being “on backorder” and simply quoted an expected time when the item would be back in stock. Here, an unavailable product wasn’t acceptable since a patient might need it for an upcoming surgical procedure. Finding the right product was the top priority, and employees were expected to go to great lengths to find a solution, even if it meant contacting another client to see if they had one that could be borrowed. Most new employees were never expected to do all that in their previous call center jobs, so the on-boarding period was an important step towards creating new habits.


Companies that spend time hiring right and instilling cultural values in new employees can still lose their way if those values aren’t consistently reinforced. In many cases, the cultural norms taught during the on-boarding period don’t match the reality of the new employee’s day-to-day working environment. One way to avoid this problem is to ensure that all employee development includes a culture component as a way of consistently reminding employees about culture.

A software company successfully reinforced its culture throughout their call centers by insisting that all employee development programs be connected in some way to their company values. For example, when they instituted a customer service training program, a module was included that showed call center agents how to serve their customers in a way that was consistent with the organizational values. After the training, call center supervisors reinforced the values when providing an agent with feedback about their performance or coaching them on how to handle a particular call.


Annual performance evaluations don’t have a lot of fans these days. They are often treated as little more than a stack of annoying paperwork designed to give employees seemingly arbitrary ratings on a set of generic qualities such as “teamwork” or “dependability.” Annual performance reviews can become much more impactful when they are used to reinforce company culture

In one example, a company’s values were incorporated into performance evaluations and employees were evaluated in part on how aligned they were with the culture. The evaluation form contained a set of behavioral descriptions for each value to help differentiate between positive (or “aligned”) performance and negative (or “misaligned”) performance. This turned the evaluation into an opportunity to discuss culture, set goals for future performance, and align employee performance with desired norms.


We’ve all seen the impact of employees who actively work against the company’s best interests. These employees’ behavior becomes so toxic that it impacts other employees’ performance, and they may even attempt to recruit others to join them in their state of discontent. If left unchecked, toxic employees can lower morale, reduce call center performance, and cause increased turnover.

The best solution to dealing with toxic employees is to make it clear their behavior won’t be tolerated. Give them the choice of aligning their behavior with cultural expectations or leaving the team. Employees who refuse to be a positive part of your culture should be removed from the team as quickly as legally possible. It’s never an easy step to take, but I’ve observed countless managers who immediately saw improvements in morale and productivity after letting a toxic employee go.


Here’s a quick quiz if you’d like to evaluate your call center’s cultural alignment. It can be used to foster internal dialogue around better aligning the steps in the Employee Engagement Cycle.


Never reward employees for outstanding survey scores

The Westin Portland is one of my favorite hotels. Their warm and attentive associates always make me feel welcome and you can’t beat their location in the heart of downtown Portland, Oregon. I’ve stayed their many times over the years and have come to feel like the hotel is my home away from home.

When I started writing my customer service book in 2011, I interviewed then General Manager Chris Lorino to learn some of the hotel’s service secrets. One of Lorino’s strongest beliefs was that you should never reward employees for achieving outstanding survey scores. He felt it was important to build a team of people who naturally wanted to serve guests at the highest level. In Lorino's opinion, a reward system would inevitably get in the way.

Both leading research on employee motivation and Lorino’s own success as a General Manager suggest that he is absolutely correct.

Rewards vs. Recognition

It’s important to differentiate between rewards and recognition. The purpose of this post is to demonstrate that employees shouldn’t be rewarded for outstanding service, but go ahead and recognize them all you want.

Rewards are if-then propositions. The prize and the criteria for earning the prize are spelled out ahead of time. For example, if you average a certain score on your customer service survey, then you will get a gift card.

Recognition is unexpected reinforcement of results that have already been achieved. An example would be giving an employee a gift card out of the blue to thank them for achieving a high average score on their customer service survey.

Eyes On the Prize

The biggest problem with rewarding employees for good customer service is it takes their attention away from providing outstanding service and re-focuses them on winning the prize.

We’ve probably all seen examples of the behavior changes this can cause:

  • Directly asking customers to provide the top score on a survey
  • Selectively encouraging only highly satisfied customers to complete a survey
  • Submitting phony surveys to bolster scores (yes, this happens)

The Goal is not the Goal

What’s the purpose of conducting a customer service survey?

When employees are rewarded for achieving a certain score they may act as though achieving that score is the ultimate goal. However, most customer service professionals will tell you that the survey is really a tool that can be used for continuous improvement.

Here are a few ways that focusing solely on a survey goal might prevent continuous improvement:

  • Employees may care less about service failures if the average looks good.
  • It lessens the need for analysis to identify customer pain points.
  • Employees may stop trying if they feel there’s nothing left to prove.

Let’s imagine a survey of 100 customers where 90 are satisfied and 10 are unhappy. If my employees are focused on achieving a specific target, they may feel great about a 90% customer satisfaction level. However, they’ll be much more eager to find out how to win over the other 10% if their true focus is continuous improvement.

So, how do I motivate the team?

If you want to learn more about the science behind rewards and employee motivation, check out Daniel Pink’s fascinating book, Drive. Pink's biggest point is that the true motivating factors are purpose, autonomy, and mastery. Let's look at each one in a customer service context:

The very best organizations have a clear and compelling customer service vision that describes the type of service they're hoping to provide. It's amazing what happens when the whole team is unified around a common objective. 

Nobody wants to be micromanaged. Give people the resources, training, and authority to get the job done right and then get out of their way and you'll see people taking responsibility for the results they achieve.

We all want to be good at what we do. Help bring out the best in employees through coaching, training, and continuous feedback and you'll find that people will step up to the challenge of becoming the very best they can be.


What are we really talking about when it comes to service?

P.T. Barnum famously bet on his customers getting confused by fancy words when he wanted to pump up profits at his museum. Barnum posted signs marked “This Way to the Great Egress” that led people towards what they assumed was the museum’s latest attraction. Gullible patrons were surprised to learn that "egress" is really just another word for exit when they followed the signs straight out of the building.

That sort of trick wouldn’t pass muster with today’s customers (imagine the Yelp reviews!) but there’s still plenty of confusing language used in customer service. Clearing up this confusion may be one of the keys to preventing service failures in your organization.

Here are a few examples:

Customer Satisfaction. What is it? Is it good? Or, is aiming for customer satisfaction setting our sights too low when we really should be achieving customer delight? And, if customer delight is the goal, should I scrap my C-Sat survey in favor of a C-Del metric?

Employee Engagement. It seems to be a matter of fact that positive employee engagement is strongly correlated with high levels of customer satisfaction. Or is it correlated with high levels of customer engagement? What exactly is employee engagement anyway? Even the top employee engagement consulting firms don't agree (see my post).

Outstanding service. This is good, right? Just ask five people and they’ll all agree. Then ask them what outstanding service looks like and they’ll all give different answers. None of them will be necessarily wrong, just different. (See my simple explanation.)

These are really rhetorical questions in an effort to highlight the need for a common frame of reference, though I wouldn't mind you sharing your answers in the comments section below.

Practical Application
Here are a few simple examples of how you can establish a common frame of reference when talking about customer service.

Training. Before conducting customer service training, I work with my clients to create a clear definition of outstanding service using a Customer Service Vision tool.

Surveys. Before writing your survey questions, take a moment to think about what you really want to learn about your customers and what you will do to act upon that data. (See "C-Sat: So what?")

Strategy. Frame customer service or employee engagement initiatives around SMART goals rather than writing fuzzy objectives like “improve customer service.” 


What's your definition of employee engagement?

Employee engagement is a hot topic. Engaged employees are more productive and loyal, while disengaged employees can hurt your company's bottom line. And, research shows that employee engagement and customer engagement are highly correlated. 

You won't find much debate about the merits of employee engagement. However, you will see disagreement when it comes to finding a common definition of employee engagement. Which leads to my question:

What is employee engagement?

Here are three different definitions from respected sources:


The Gallup Organization may be among the best known of the big consulting and research firms that focus on employee engagement. However, finding their definition takes a little bit of work. The best I could find was this: "Engaged employees are involved in and enthusiastic about their work." (Link to article reference.) There are many great resources on the Employee Engagement section of their website, but I couldn't find a definition.


Page 4 of the BlessingWhite 2011 Employee Engagement Report defines employee engagement as the intersection of job satisfaction and job contribution. (Download their free report here.) This seems to be an important distinction from the Gallup model which focuses more on employees' emotional connections to their work. The BlessingWhite model also takes into account employees' contributions to organizational success.


Tracy Maylett, DecisionWise's CEO, co-authored an article on employee engagement with Julie Nielson, the American Society for Training and Development's (ASTD's) Senior Director of Human Resources and Organizational Learning. The article, titled "There Is No Cookie Cutter Approach to Engagement," appeared in the April 2012 issue of T&D Magazine and argued that employee engagement is the intersection of an employee's job satisfaction, effectiveness, and motivation. Their model seems like a hybrid of the Gallup and BlessingWhite approaches. Maylett and Nielson are hosting a free webinar on April 26 called "Halting the Engagement Exodus" where you can learn more. (Click here to register.)

Why does it matter?

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but there is a potential for confusion when we're all talking about engagement but we mean different things. Here's why I think this is important:

  1. No matter what the definition, research has shown that employee engagement is a critical driver of organizational success.
  2. If we want to improve something, we should gain agreement on what "it" is.
  3. Your definition will affect your strategy for getting better results.

My Definition, and a Resource

I prefer to think of employee engagement as the extent to which an employee is deliberately contributing to organizational success. This would be the "contribution" aspect of the BlessingWhite model or the "effectiveness" component of the DecisionWise model. I don't disagree that job satisfaction, motivation, and an emotional connection to the company are important, but I also view them as drivers of an employee's willingness to help their company succeed. 

When I work with my own clients on employee engagement issues, I will often use a simple alignment assessment to start the conversation. This assessment looks at how well the organization's core "people processes" are aligned with organizational goals. The closer the alignment, the more likely you are to have engaged employees. Try the assessment out for yourself.

What's your definition?

Please comment on this post with your definition of employee engagement. Do you agree with one of the three mentioned above? Or, perhaps you have another twist you can share? Please share links if available!


Less than half of U.S. employees are satisified with their jobs

A new report from the Conference Board reveals that only 45% of Americans are satisfied with their jobs. A natural first reaction is to blame the current economy, but  worker satisfaction has been steadily declining from a high of 61% in 1987, when the Conference Board begun studying worker satisfaction.

I'm sure there are many contributing factors, but I have two primary theories on why this is happening.  (I'd love to hear yours, so please leave your comments...)

Theory #1: Employers are not doing a good job of hiring people who will love their jobs

The typical employee selection process includes a glance at the resume for similar job experience, an interview full of "tell me about a time when" and "where do you see yourself in five years", and a post-interview discussion about whether Candidate A or Candidate B is the best hire. Most organizations I've encountered do not put any deliberate effort into identifying whether a job applicant will fit in with the organizational culture. Sure, there may be some form of gut-check like "I think Mary would really get along with the team," but nothing specific. Some companies administer pre-hire personality assessments, but the results are often compared to a model provided by the assessment vendor rather than the employer's own workforce.

A few companies do a great job of hiring for culture fit and have some great results to show for it. Online retailer puts a lot of effort into hiring people who will love working there. It's no wonder they have developed a reputation for amazing customer service and they are currently #23 on Fortune's "Best Companies to Work For" list.

Theory #2: Employees are not taking enough ownership of their job satisfaction.

The current economy has definitely made it difficult to be satisfied at work, but the trend in declining worker satisfaction has spanned both good and bad job markets. There has to be more to job satisfaction than "the economy". I think it comes from unrealistic employee expectations. We want high pay, enjoyable work, wonderful co-workers, a great boss, and awesome benefits, and we want it all right now. If we're lucky, we'll get some of these, but it's wishful thinking to get it all without a lot of effort.

There seem to be two reasonable choices for dealing with a job you don't like. Choice #1: proactively figure out how to make the job enjoyable. (GREAT book on this - Love It, Don't Leave It). Choice #2: find a new job that you love, even if it means developing new skills, entering into a different field, or even readjusting your expectations. Many people expect a Choice #3: be miserable and wait for someone (the boss? the government? a genie?) to come along and make it all better, but that's unlikely to happen.