Employee Relations in the Contact Center

Republished from a prior post.

I recently had the opportunity to talk about employee relations (ER) issues in the customer contact center with the Human Resources executive responsible for talent acquisition and organizational development for a Fortune 500 retailer.  Her company is in the process of growing their customer service team.

One of the more memorable ER issues in recent memory occurred supporting a Global 1000 telecom client.  An Operations Manager (manager of front-line Supervisors) was overheard by numerous customer service representatives (CSR) complaining to a Supervisor about the performance of a specific CSR – even threatening to terminate the CSR.  What’s more, the conversation was not even with the Supervisor of the CSR in question.  As one might expect, a complaint was filed with Human Resources against the Operations Manager.

Naturally, an investigation followed, along with the necessary corrective action.  Despite the corrective action, this sort of behavior had a lasting effect on the culture of the 400-seat contact center.

Of course, the real story here is prevention.  How do we protect our corporate culture – and our employees – from this kind of inappropriate behavior?  The reality is that for most, the CSR role is usually occupied by those early in their careers with limited professional experience.  What is more, those who excel in the CSR role are often promoted to Supervisor with limited development and limited selection tools.  Similarly, promotion to Operations Manager is often based on great results by the Supervisor’s team and is accompanied by limited development and limited selection tools.

I do not doubt for a moment that the CSRs who overheard that Operations Manager were impacted and delivered less-than-stellar service to their customers that evening.  That rant never should have taken place.  So, what are the lessons here?


Now, I have long believed that what you sow in your corporate culture you will reap in your customer experience.  Leaders must be selected based on their ability to actually lead others, not simply because they have the best sales results or highest customer satisfaction.  Further to the point, new leaders especially must be developed and nurtured.  Here are my thoughts:

  • Take time to document job descriptions and position requirements: This may be one of the biggest misses.  We are all busy and tend to hope this will take care of itself.  If won’t.  Spend time to think about the skills that are truly required for a role before posting the role and interviewing candidates.  Consider your business’s competency model when completing this exercise (you do have a competency model, right?).
  • Improve candidate selection: Have a formalized approach to interviewing and selecting the best candidate for the job.  Consider an approach like Topgrading.
  • Formalize individual development planning: Tie individual development plans (IDPs) to your performance review process.  Train managers how to focus on both strengths and weaknesses for balanced people development.
  • Don’t underestimate leadership training: You don’t have a big training department or resources?  Consider your regional employers’ association.  Many of these organization have training programs that can help you deliver great results.

In my experience above, both the Operations Manager and the OM’s Director were coached.  The fall-out with other employees lasted weeks.  It was difficult to fully quantify the impact to customer satisfaction and employee satisfaction that event had on our business and our culture.  That’s my take.

© Bryant Richardson and CX Champion, 2011, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication prohibited.

The Customer Experience That Shouldn’t Have Been

It was the best of experiences.  It was the worst of experiences.

Okay, that’s a little dramatic.  It was actually a good customer experience with AT&T that followed a poor experience.  I know, you don’t see “good customer experience” in the same sentence with “AT&T” too often, but it was.  It’s just a shame it was in response to a poor experience.

I’ve been a customer of AT&T Wireless and its predecessors through many acquisitions for about 14 years – starting with McCaw.  So I’ve had my share of poor experiences with their call centers, particularly after Cingular’s acquisition of AT&T Wireless.  This interaction started with a SMS last week to my iPhone recommending that I enable a password for my voicemail.  The text read:

AT&T Free Msg: AT&T recommends you enable a voicemail password for added security. Visit att.com/vm to see how you can set your password today.

Having an iPhone with visual voicemail and already having a personal voicemail PIN, I thought this was odd.  But I followed the link using my iPhone and received a webpage written for users of conventional phones with a link for BlackBerry smartphone users. However, there was nothing here for iPhone users.  What’s more, AT&T refused replies to the SMS.

Well, I wasn’t about to call AT&T’s Customer Service department.  Why not?  Because I know from many prior experiences that queue/hold times would be excessive (I seem to have a knack for calling AT&T Wireless only when they are experiencing unusually high call volumes).  What’s more, I know from experiences that I would talk to an agent who had no idea how to handle this (I apparently have a knack for that, too).  So, I decided to tweet about the experience.

That did the trick.  AT&T Wireless may still be in desperate need of help with their call centers, but their social media monitoring & response team is well staffed.  Within three minutes, @ATTCustomerCare replied with an apology and offer to help.  As a side note, while I am not endorsing any specific product, AT&T responded using Attensity Engage.  After a few posts back and forth, JohnF called me to assist.  We discussed what happened, the nature of the original SMS and the webpage it referred me to.  We validated that I already had a personal PIN (not a generic password).  He collected my feedback and would send it along.  Will anything come of my feedback?  Who knows, but as a customer I felt good about the interaction, and that’s the point here.

So I had a good customer experience with AT&T’s social media customer service team.  The only problem is that it never should have happened.  So what are the lessons here?


So how could AT&T have done better?  And how does this apply to all of us in the business of serving customer?  Here are my thoughts:

  • Apply basic database marketing principles: Although well-intentioned, AT&T never should have simply broadcast this SMS to wireless customers.  Perhaps they didn’t, but from appearances the same message was broadcast to users last week regardless of device or how the topic applied.  A better approach would have been to segment customers based on how this topic applied to them.  For example, as an iPhone user, AT&T could have sent me a message better tailored to my device.  Even better, as a customer who already had a personalized PIN, the message could have suggested simply making regular changes, or they could have suppressed me altogether.
  • Be ready to respond via like channel: When our customers contact us, we should always be prepared to respond via the same channel, whether by phone, email, online chat, Twitter, Facebook, or even SMS.  The reverse is also true.  When we choose to communicate to our customers via any particular channel, we should be prepared to hear back via any channel, but especially the channel by which we initiated the dialog.  Who should have better ability to interact with customers via SMS that your wireless carrier?  Instead of the “Please do not REPLY to this message” response I got from AT&T, the carrier should have been prepared to better respond to replies via the channel they chose to initiate with.
  • Dialog with your customers: Whether delivering a servicing message or a marketing message, we should be ready for the responses that will likely ensue.  While dialog marketing is not new, most businesses are still trying to figure out how to effectively automate dialogs with customers.  In this case, rather than automatically opting me out of AT&T marketing messages and telling me not to reply to AT&T’s SMS, how much better an experience would it have been if I could have dialogued with AT&T via SMS?  Assuming they could not do this, it still would have been better to respond with a message that suggested a URL to visit or phone number to call for more help on the topic.  This could have included an option for response help for stopping future messages, etc.  Some way to respond would have been helpful, even if directed to another channel.
  • Relevant content: Finally, the URL that AT&T originally directed me to should have had relevant content tailored to what they already know about me.  There are many ways to go about this, so I won’t expand on that here.  Even a more exhaustive webpage (addressing iPhone customers – probably AT&T’s largest wireless segment) would have been more useful.  For that matter, they could have served up content based on the operating system of the browsing device (iOS Safari would have been a good hint).

Had AT&T applied some of these basic principles in the first place, my interaction with their social media response team would have been unnecessary, along with the corresponding cost.  That’s my take.

© Bryant Richardson and CX Champion, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication prohibited.