2019 … From the Year of the Pig to the Year of Your People

Kathleen Peterson Rants & Raves by Kathleen Peterson

According to the Chinese New Year website, “the Pig is the twelfth of all zodiac animals and the symbol representing the year 2019.¬†According to one myth, “the Jade Emperor said the order would be decided by the order in which the animals arrived to his party. Pig was late because he overslept.” Another tale has the pig arriving last because a wolf destroyed his house and he had to rebuild it.

Pigs are the symbol of wealth in Chinese culture; their chubby faces and big ears are signs of fortune. They are considered to be realistic and to have a “beautiful personality.” Pigs are the opposite of the “all talk and no action” crowd. “Though not wasteful spenders they let themselves enjoy life. They love entertainment and will occasionally treat themselves. They are a bit materialistic, but this is motivation for them to work hard. Being able to hold solid objects in their hands gives Pigs security. They are energetic and are always enthusiastic, even for boring jobs.”

By now you may be wondering why the reference to the Year of the Pig. Good, because I think there are characteristics of the Pig that can apply to what we look for in Contact Center agents. We seek realistic, energetic, enthusiastic, and happy people that are motivated to work hard … even for boring jobs. To use the Year of the Pig as a “spirit” theme in the Contact Center may bring on the wrong kind of engagement from non-Pig types. So I propose that we make 2019 the Year of the People!

Why now? For far too long, Contact Centers have struggled to return to the once robust operational model of the late 1990s and early 2000s. As we entered this 21st century, the Call Center industry was morphing into the Contact Center industry. Technology was making new headway via more automation; more reliable and abundant options; web, digital, and cloud solutions; and cell phones with cameras. The smart phone was just around the corner. Many industries had genuine Call Center management disciplines down pat and executives were accepting the Call Center as a critical part of the customer “journey.” They allocated proper funding for staff, training, facilities, and technical infrastructure. Then 2009 hit! The financial crisis burst the bubble of Call Center progress.

Contact Centers became easy targets for cost reduction efforts as company revenues dipped. Budget cuts targeted staffing and such “extras” as training. Contact Centers were still charged with delivering on brand promises; only now, it was with less. For many, “do more with less” was the drumbeat of the times.

Staff that retained their positions took on additional responsibilities because they were happy to still have a job. Their workload often grew without regard for the skill or time required to perform the task. Take the example of the Quality coach who was expected to add workforce management to his/her duties or the Workforce Management asset who was asked to deliver training. These assignments were made regardless of the fact that the individual had no background and the company had no intention of providing relevant training for the new assignment. Was the person even interested in the new task? Excessive workloads induced stress and often rendered individuals to become sick or to disengage.

Fast forward to today. Nearly ten years have passed since the 2009 crisis. Still, some organizations have not effectively lifted the restraint on resources. Staffing and training budgets remain lethargic for many companies. But make no mistake …. TIMES HAVE CHANGED.

As we enter the Year of the Pig, we must take a long look at our Contact Center environments. Are we at risk of a mass exodus of our best assets? The Contact Center industry is “hot.” While automation, Artificial Intelligence, cloud solutions, and other advances in technology are attractive to consumers, voice calls continue to dominate. I believe that the primary reason for continued calls is NOT that bunches of old people refuse to use automation tools. (This is ridiculous considering that today’s “old” people invented most of this cool stuff.) NO, I believe that voice remains central to the Customer Experience because there are so many internal service failures that it takes a human to navigate the complexity of fixing screw-ups.

Many of the contacts handled by humans, regardless of channel, are in fact the things that need fixing. There are promo codes that do not work on the website, loyalty programs that cannot be applied to a purchase, packages that are lost en route, goods that arrive damaged, and warranties that are complicated. There are also the genuinely complex interactions such as trying to schedule an appointment with a specialty provider in a top hospital or academic institution.

Understanding the complexities associated with contact handling is critical to understanding the need to protect our best assets. The tables are turning on Contact Center employers unwilling to staff and train appropriately. The unemployment rate in the U.S. is currently at a 50-year LOW; 2018 ended with a rate of 3.9%. This is low especially when you consider that in 2009 the unemployment rate was 10%. WARNING TO EMPLOYERS: This is an employee’s market and many organizations are losing valuable resources.

Contact Center recruiting has become a poaching game. The “poachers” are looking to address candidate vulnerabilities such as smart resources feeling overworked and underappreciated. They offer pleasant work environments and a Contact Center that is a revered asset and managed/funded accordingly.

The goal of retaining your best staff is a great ambition, but it must be part of the bigger picture. Holding onto staff while at the same time being understaffed and assigning more and more tasks to frontline management and agents only bears the fruits of stress … errors, tardiness, absences, and exits. Staff engagement is key to retention. Engagement means that managers and agents are properly staffed with clearly defined roles; they are bolstered by ongoing education, an exciting work environment, and continued opportunity.

I recently called Zappos and spoke with a terrific agent in the Contact Center. At the end of the call, I thanked her for the prompt and satisfying resolution to my problem. She remarked, “That is what I’m here to do” and went on to explain, “It’s easy to do that here because they are so good to us.” What a concept!

Please make 2019 the Year of Your People. Take some time to listen to what they have to say about your current state. Take the bold step of addressing the potential value of the Contact Center that may have been sacrificed at the altar of “doing more with less.” Look for the Piggies … your hard workers, your optimists, and your enthusiasts. These are the ones who have willingly and actively participated in trying to make do with “less.”

Think like the Pig. Build a wealth of employee experiences that will yield loyalty. Think about yielding proper staffing levels, using effective leadership methods, developing staff via training and education, offering competitive compensation and benefits, building a spirited and motivated team, and maintaining a healthy work habitat. The “symbol of wealth” in Contact Centers is the added value brought to the enterprise by having the right number of people, in the right place, at the right time, doing the right things. So, have fun transforming the Year of the Pig to the Year of Your People!