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May 2007

The contact center can be a very stressful place. Every day, agents are challenged by irate customers and abusive callers. Handling these difficult interactions is an art, a combination of innate sensitivity and communications skills acquired through training. The importance of training cannot be overstated, as it is crucial for empowering agents to deliver consistently outstanding service and a positive customer experience. But too many companies fail to recognize many agents are either temperamentally unsuited or insufficiently prepared to deal with the public. Inadequate training, coupled with corporate policies that encourage agents to confront, rather than empathize with customers, results in poor service and unhappy customers. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Challenging callers are a fact of life, but the agent’s response is critical. The best agents have a natural ability to keep their cool under the most trying circumstances and keep interactions on track. This level of patience and empathy is rare, but the basic techniques of dealing with customers can be improved and reinforced with appropriate training and coaching. As important as any other trained skill, agents should be taught that it’s all right to say “I’m sorry” when a customer expresses anger or frustration as a result of a company’s policies or actions.

Unfortunately, the simple phrase “I’m sorry” has taken on many negative connotations. It seems to imply weakness, vulnerability or admission of guilt. But that’s not what it’s really about. At its most basic level, the phrase expresses empathy and a genuine desire to correct the situation. When spoken sincerely, “I’m sorry” can take the sting out of a confrontation. Rather than escalating a fight, these words can defuse the customer’s anger, enabling the agent to guide the interaction to a positive resolution. Sincerity is an essential component of the agent’s approach—a token or patronizing apology can come across as an insult and leave a negative impression and ultimately result in customer attrition.

We can all think of instances where agents have argued or “passed the buck,” rather than simply empathizing with the customer. Overbooked hotels or airline flights are prime examples. Having agents blame corporate policy or try to justify the circumstances are counter-productive tactics. Offering a sincere apology, however, can quickly reduce the tension inherent in the situation. Although it may cost a bit to train agents to apologize, it’s certainly more expensive to lose customers. Likewise, when customers call to express frustration with a credit card company error, it’s much more efficient to express a sincere “I’m sorry” and attempt to rectify the situation than it is to make an offhand gesture of sympathy and then force the customer to submit volumes of paperwork. Customers have no patience for unpleasant agents and seemingly arbitrary corporate policies, but even the most aggravated customer can be calmed somewhat by a genuine apology followed up by appropriate actions.

Companies need to develop policies and training programs that encourage agents to express sincere empathy. Agents represent the company to the public. They are the “voice” of the company to its customers. Even a single bad interaction can create a deep and lasting negative impression. It’s remarkable how much customer aggravation can be relieved when agents use common courtesy and unabashedly say “I’m sorry,” but agents will only do so if their training teaches and reinforces this essential communication skill.

Ask the Experts

What are the parameters for increasing the salary of a call center agent based on a performance appraisal? Should an agent who has more experience in the same line get more of an increase, or should it be based purely on agent performance?

Salary increase guidelines and parameters should be administered in accordance with policies established by your Human Resources department.

That being said, agent salary increases should be based on performance and achievement. It should be evaluated using a fact-based balanced scorecard that measures agent performance against established key performance indicators. Typically, this should include agent productivity scores, quality scores, customer satisfaction survey scores (if applicable and available), sales and revenue metrics (if applicable), reliability factors (attendance and punctuality), and work habits (cooperation, attitude, interpersonal skills, etc.). Any additional tasks that the agent performs, such as participation in contact center initiatives, conducting up-training sessions, assisting as a subject matter expert, etc., should also be considered.

Here’s another way to look at it – if you were to reward agents based solely on experience or longevity, it would be very difficult to attract new talent. Why would an agent work for an organization where performance is based on factors beyond his or her control? Additionally, this practice encourages mediocrity, as there is minimal incentive or recognition for outstanding behavior.

Performance management applications have recently started to be used in contact centers to help managers accurately capture and measure agent performance data and deliver to departmental and enterprise goals. At a strategic level, contact center performance management provides a framework for aligning the goals of the contact center with those of the corporation. On a tactical level, CCPM applications allow enterprises to create balanced scorecards for complementary KPIs that evaluate all aspects of an agent’s or department’s performance. The KPIs are weighted to take into account their relative importance in achieving the overall goal. Additionally, some CCPM applications provide an automated performance appraisal module. CCPM applications provide timely (in some cases, real-time) statistics via dashboards and allow agents to self-manage and self-monitor their performance on a daily basis. Many also include an automated performance appraisal module that can be integrated with a company’s Human Resource system. For more comprehensive and in-depth information on all aspects of CCPM, please view DMG Consulting’s detailed 2007 Contact Center Performance Management Market Report.

DMG Consulting LLC is a leading independent research, advisory and consulting firm specializing in unified communications, contact centers, back-office and real-time analytics. Learn more at