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Business Journal
Creating Paths to Success
Business Journal

Creating Paths to Success

by Glenn Phelps

Companies that focus their call center management on agent performance achieve superior financial results.

Believe it or not, this idea runs counter to current conventional wisdom, which holds that call centers pose mostly technical management challenges. But the fact is, call centers are the ultimate people management business.

The Gallup Organization's own centers illustrate this principle in practice. They operate at 158% of the efficiency of the next best centers in the market research industry using a technology environment so primitive that it lacks PCs and a GUI interface. Gallup's productivity is a direct result of its agent workforce and the techniques used to manage them. Change the nature of the workforce or the way agents are managed, and financial performance suffers greatly.

An overview of agent career advancement

A key part of Gallup's center management philosophy, and that of other successful centers, is a system that promotes the role of customer service representative (CSR) as a career. Doctors and lawyers do the same job throughout their entire careers, so why shouldn't a CSR have the same opportunity? Frequently, though, the job of CSR is structured as an entry level position on a career path that leads to other jobs. This strategy is a disaster for center performance -- the proof is in CSR length of stay and quality of work. High CSR turnover and poor service are the scourge of call centers and both are inconsistent with a well-run CSR career development system. The best CSR career development programs differ significantly from the traditional by promoting across, not up; paying for value creation; and supporting CSRs with a great coach.

Promote across, not up

Seniority-based CSR career advancement systems generally result in an under-performing center. In one glaring example from the telecommunications industry, agent experience was negatively correlated with customer ratings of service. The most experienced agents were delivering the worst service as judged by the customer. In this center, customers (and the company) were far better off if a new agent answered the phone. The service delivered was better, and the associated costs were lower. In effect, this company had instituted a CSR career path that rewarded incompetence and its primary feature was tenure-based promotion.

In the most successful centers, career advancement is achieved through outstanding performance -- not seniority or experience. In addition, CSRs can achieve career goals, such as increased pay and recognition, while doing the same kind of work for their entire careers. CSRs may change projects, but they stay CSRs. However, for most centers, the value a CSR creates for a company is poorly understood, and that inhibits this kind of CSR career development.

An outrageous example of the CSR's ill-understood impact on company value comes again from the telecommunications industry. In the workforce studied (5,000 CSRs), the bottom quartile of CSRs (when measured on value created or conserved for the business) produced a customer attrition rate three times higher than the top quartile performers, and the cost of a completed interaction was twice as high. The business case was clear in this instance. This company would have been better off paying the bottom quartile of CSRs to stay home than to show up for work and inflict the financial damage that their normal performance produced. It's hard to imagine managers ignoring this kind of a situation, if they understood it. And certainly bottom quartile CSRs would not be promoted -- but they were, because of a tenure-based career path.

Pay for value creation

Increased pay is the functional definition of any career advancement system. The best way to make more pay available to CSRs is to link pay to job performance, specifically value creation. Agent tenure, experience, and knowledge should not be direct qualifiers for increased pay. Those factors are only important in that they contribute to an individual CSR's ability to do the job of creating value.

Performance based pay is the key to a viable career development program and measurement is the key to a successful performance based pay system. The most effective PFP systems use a scorecard that balances three classes of job performance measures -- Internal Quality (IQ), Productivity/Efficiency (PE), and Customer Impact (CI) and links them to value for the business. The result is a unit of CSR work expressed in terms of value for the business. Creating the link between CSR performance and value is where systems often fail, like the company mentioned earlier whose promotion system was advancing incompetence.

Support agents with a great coach

A great CSR needs a great manager as a partner in career development. A manager must understand the interests and strengths of individual CSRs to help them plan their career goals. For instance, a CSR who is geared toward efficiency may be happier and more productive on a project that allows him to handle a great many simple requests quickly, while a CSR who enjoys problem solving may fit best where callers bring the toughest issues for resolution. A great team manager helps each of her CSRs make those decisions.

A great manager also produces a work environment where a CSR's daily performance is supported. The best indication of this is a high score on Gallup's Q12 workplace engagement survey. CSRs on teams with high Q12 scores produce better job performance scores.


It is a rare call center management team that puts its efforts behind maximizing agent performance. The most common management philosophy rotates around getting the technical aspects of the center right. However, the largest opportunity for creating value in a center lies in the performance of its agents. Realizing the value of increased CSR performance, though, takes a management philosophy structured to support individual CSR performance.

A vital part of this CSR-centered management approach is creating a viable career of the CSR job. Agents operating in centers that provide career opportunities stay on the job longer, produce more work for less cost, increase sales, decrease customer attrition, spend more time in the seat, take fewer sick days, file fewer workman's compensation claims, and are safer. This adds up to big value for a center.


Glenn Phelps, Ph.D., is a Senior Consultant with Gallup.

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