How not to motivate staff

At the moment I’m reading a rather interesting book ‘Obliquity‘ by an economist John Kay which has helped me to see just what is going wrong in the call-centre. The key point which Kay makes is that by aiming purely to make profit a business sets itself up to fail. He uses a quote from the book Built to Last by Jim Collins and Gerry Porras in which they argue:

Visionary companies pursue a cluster of objectives, of which making money is only one – and not necessarily the primary one. Yes, they seek profits, but they’re equally guided by a core ideology – core values and sense of purpose beyond just making money. Yet paradoxically, the visionary companies make more money than purely profit driven companies.

It’s a very interesting point which goes against conventional wisdom which states that the overwhelming priority of a business should first and foremost to make a profit for its owners, but it is a view which has been gaining some support. In the book ‘Small Giants; Companies that choose to be great instead of big’, essentially a case study of several firms, Bo Burlingham makes exactly the same point

The shareholders who own businesses in this book have other, nonfinancial priorities in addition to their financial objectives. Not that they don’t want to earn a good return on their investment, but it’s not their only goal, or even necessarily their paramount goal. They’re also interested in being great at what they do, creating a great place to work, providing great service to customers, having great relationships with their suppliers, making great contributions to the communities they live and work in and finding great ways to lead their lives.

It all takes me back to when our manager first started and she spoke to us each individually about her background and philosophy.  I’d waited several weeks for my turn, by which time I knew all about her anyway which perhaps she knew as she seemed to be particularly weary when trotting out her biographical details; worked in a high-powered sales job climbing up the ladder, divorced, company bought out, took redundancy, went travelling, wanting a new challenge, then she announced “I’m passionate about customer service.” The cynic in me felt like telling her that she had got the job and that there was no need to still be in interview mode, but a small part of me was hopeful as I felt that customer service had hitherto fallen by the wayside the emphasis simply being on getting through as many calls as possible to maximise our profits.

There were so many things that could be done to improve customer service; providing customer service training, making sure people had sufficient knowledge about the products to be able to help customers, even making sure customers received a call-back within the specified time rather than the enquiry form finding its way to the shredder would be a start not to mention ending the over-emphasis on call volumes and call times which actually provides a disincentive to customer-service.

At the beginning a few changes were made the biggest being that all staff received some basic customer service training . Awards for ‘best customer service’ and ‘best teamwork’ were instituted there was even talk of the focus on call-times being relaxed. The new call-time charts no longer had gold, silver and bronze medals for the three with lowest average times respectively, though they still contained a paragraph at the bottom about the need to keep below a three minute average. This however, was as far as any attempts at improving the customer service we provided were made before the pendulum swung wildly in the other direction.   

Generally my manager can be found at her desk facing the three banks we work on watching what I assume to be a live feed of our call stats. Very rarely does she leave her post. Occasionally can she be witnessed typing one of her grammatically poor (I know I’m no one to talk) memo’s or ‘newsletters’ which tend to criticise us for one reason or another, or else to remove yet another small liberty or privilege like being able to visit the water cooler between breaks. Just take the most recent memo produced in my managers own unique conversational style:  

As discussed on numerous occasions our priority is to take calls. I cannot stress enough the importance of staying seated for the duration of your shifts. Everytime some one leaves their desk we lose a call, whether it’s for a query, loo break or to get water. This, over a week can equate in excess of 2000 calls lost, with a loss of revenue which we cannot afford in this difficult economic climate.

The memo then goes on to say:

All queries to be placed in the tray. (No visiting client managers to discuss) Even discussing with a colleague will mean 2 people off the phone, which is more calls lost.

There’s a number of interesting points there, firstly there is a strong emphasis that customer service should be subordinate to dealing with as many calls as possible; quantity over quality. There is obviously an argument to be made for efficiency, but just take the example which cropped up earlier today. I took a call for a client (incidentally whose products I have never seen and have very little knowledge of). A person wanted to know if a gazebo featured on our website was in stock. Now, it turns out the client has two websites one which only one person can access – the rest of us having our internet restricted. Both sites have different product lines with different prices.  I had no knowledge of this website, but had a feeling my colleague sat on the next bank would, or failing that the client manager. As we all take incoming calls their lines were busy, and thanks to my manager I could not just tap them on the shoulder so had to take the callers details and promise a call back soon as they needed to place an order straight away. Two hours later my manager came and emptied my query tray. Good customer service? It’s not even efficient as it would have taken me seconds to get an answer and deal with the query.

I’ve also got a big question over the 2000 calls lost claim. I’ve already come to the conclusion that my manager knows little about statistics, so just what technique has she come up with this figure? As there is no way of knowing why someone is ‘out of group’ (our slang for being off-line) then it’s impossible to calculate how many calls are actually lost through toilet breaks or getting water the only way she could have done this was to guess. How good is her guess? Well let’s do some really crude working out and say that on average a toilet break, water-cooler moment or chat with a client manager takes three minutes, the same time as an average call, this means that if we had taken those 2000 calls it would have amounted to an extra 100 hours on the phone. As there is usually no more than 15-20 people in each day I leave it to you to wonder where those 100 hours come from.

And what happened to the notion of team work? Here is the person who instituted a ‘best teamwork’ award telling us explicitly to not help eachother out! It’s almost as if this one time champion of customer service has been corrupted by the stats to the point where serving the stats has become her obsession. Any previous ideals of customer service have now been subordinated to the aim of getting through as many calls as possible to ensure our firm maximises its profits.  In her search for greater profitability our manager has squeezed us becoming ever more punitive restricting us to our seats, stopping us helping each other, stopping us going to the toilet between breaks. There have been disciplinaries and sickness reviews which were unheard of under the old regime. One former colleague who had been at the firm 10 years said shortly before leaving ‘this used to be like a family business and now it feels like working for a big corporation’

I’m not given the stats so I don’t know if my manager’s strategy is working. I suspect not as she doesn’t look happy when she’s staring at those stats. Experienced staff are also becoming increasingly disgruntled losing motivation and voting with their feet – the latest handing his notice in this week. As it takes someone about six months at least to become proficient on all the systems and to begin posting sub three minute call times then it doesn’t bode well.

Maybe in fairness she is being pressured from higher up, but at best she has abandoned the principle of customer service she once purported to have a passion for.  The irony is that according to the philosophy in Obliquity following that guiding principle rather than becoming a slave to the stats would have seen better stats. Instead we are now in a position where my manager, increasingly desperate to justify her salary and  keep her job, takes it out on us, blaming us for her failure something which is evident from the language used in her memo which she ends tersely

The screen behind me is a clear indication of the volume of calls lost or waiting, please look at this so you become aware of how busy we are and the importance of taking as many calls as possible.

I’ll leave the last words however, to John Kay in Obliquity:

The stonemason committed to the glory of God will build a better cathedral than the stonemason who is motivated entirely by the bonuses offered and scourges threatened by his employer. Likewise the Japanese who cared about their company built better cars than the Detroit workers paid according to the number of cars that came off the assembly line.


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