Business Romance for Telemarketers
Business Romance at call centers? It seems like a tall order, if not a mission impossible, but as a former call center agent (I worked as one during my undergrad studies in Hamburg, Germany, and telemarketed, among other items, anti-cellulite pants), I couldn’t resist the challenge to ponder how romantic principles apply to the seemingly mundane world of call centers when the Future Contact Center invited me to speak at their annual summit in Orlando this coming January, and leading up to the event, conducted a brief interview with me. You can find it hereor in full length below:
Phrases like “what’s good for the customer IS what’s good for the business” are becoming commonplace, but at the end of the day, many organizations continue to see business interests and customer interests as conflicting forces? What allows that perspective to persist? What can be done to transform it?
Customer and business interests are often conflicting forces. The very tension between what’s good for customers and what’s good for the business must be negotiated every day.
For starters, how do you define “good”? Just reflect for a second on what “good” means for such different businesses as Facebook, Uber, the tobacco industry, or advertisers—and the choices they have made because of it. For customers, is “good” the highest perceived value at the lowest price? Or total convenience? A cause marketing program that brings social or environmental benefits? How important is the shopping experience versus the product they take home? Steve Jobs and other visionary innovators might even argue that customers often don’t know what’s “good” for them and that it’s the business’ job to tell them. Conversely, it might be good for the business to take advantage of a tax harbor, but it’s clearly not “good” for society and in the long run probably neither for the business and its customers.
Of course companies need to create the perception of value and deliver on it for customers, but if customer satisfaction and loyalty are short-sighted and occur at the expense of employees and other stakeholders, companies will lose their legitimacy and find it hard to stay in business. Studies show that people are more likely to join or do business with a firm whose values they share and buy into.
Companies have agency and are made up of people—not even the most data-driven firm is just a machine that fulfills orders. They have a unique ability to serve as arbiters between people’s needs and desires and those who have the talent and capacity to create products and services that meet them. Sometimes, this means they might have to do things that are against their customers’ interests but honors their employees, and sometimes they might even act against their own self-interest for the sake of the greater good. Ultimately, doing the right thing will engender respect and trust from all their stakeholders, including their customers—and that’s the only sustainable competitive advantage in an age where the values of a business and how they live up to them are constantly scrutinized in the hyper-transparent echo chambers of the social web.
Take the recent buzz about the new social network Ello, which positions itself as the anti-Facebook. I was intrigued by Ello’s manifesto which—with its warm, human tone—was a big part of its initial explosive growth. People are attracted to businesses with clear values that take a stance. The good old manifesto is back—and that wouldn’t happen if the value, or better yet, values proposition was as simple as “do what‘s good for your customer” or “do what’s good for your shareholder.” It’s interesting to think how that applies to contact centers. Do you have a manifesto? Can you think of one? Do you have other values besides the bottom-line and doing what’s “good” for your customers?
When it comes to workplace culture, customer management thought leaders often cite examples of “fun” places to work. They talk about great atmospheres with great social environments – employee happiness is obviously up in those environments. But what kind of culture is the key to productivity? Are there simpler, more fundamental ways an organization can inject culture into its organization AND focus directly on performance and customer-facing outcomes?
It’s great to see that we’re shifting from a sole focus on productivity to more holistic qualities such as happiness, purpose, or meaning. Productivity can’t be viewed in isolation; it is inextricably linked to these other qualities. Millennials in particular—50% of the work force by 2020—are no longer content to work in an environment where productivity is the single metric of performance.
I believe though that “fun” in the sense of perks is superficial and overrated. What’s more interesting is all the research that shows that organizations with a strong sense of purpose exhibit higher levels of employee and customer happiness AND higher productivity: it’s a contagious, virtuous cycle. This requires creating a culture of empathy, respect, and challenge, as well as providing a humane environment with concern for employees’ health (there are such simple things as walking which enhances cognitive strength: the ideal amount of distance covered by a knowledge worker is apparently 1.8 miles in an 8-hour day) and wellbeing. And there is a need for community, one that meets the full range of workers’ spiritual, emotional and intellectual needs. So it’s a mix of keeping body, mind and heart engaged. It all comes down to a simple maxim: treat your employees the way you want them to treat their customers.
And what do employees truly want from a call center environment? Do they want to be measured against particular performance elements? Do they want empowerment to provide more flexible solutions for customers? For what is today’s customer looking?
Employees in a contact center environment want the same things from their work that employees everywhere want: First, they want to believe in the mission of their firm so they experience a sense of purpose and feel that their work makes a real difference toward something greater than themselves. Second, they want to have enough autonomy to create and truly own something—even if it is at a micro-level—rather than just executing mechanical tasks like a machine.
And, I would argue, there is a third quality they’re looking for: romance. This may sound strange at first glance, but I’m proposing that having a romantic relationship to work is key for productivity. Romance is not the same as happiness or purpose, it’s slightly different terrain: the ability to be “all in,” maintain a sense of wonder, mystery, and even magic at the workplace. Romance is the experience of intensity and thrill, and is the opposite of boredom. This doesn’t mean a billiard table or a private chef. Neither does it mean frequent praise or constant happiness. We find romance in experiences that are unexpected, inconvenient, challenging, and perhaps even painful. It’s the feeling that anything can happen every day, that things are exciting, full of possibility, rather than automated and standardized. One of the main reasons we get up every morning and go to work is the insatiable curiosity for what might happen. We just never really know. The moment we do know is the end of romance.
So instead of simply offering more perks or social events, contact centers should think about how they can create little “hacks” that disrupt employees’ day-to-day work routine before it begins to feel deadening. Neuroscientists back this up by highlighting that exposure to things that pique our curiosity, that deviate from the norm, make us more engaged. And we perform better—we are more communicative, creative, and productive—if we’re fully engaged.
Here are three concrete suggestions for how contact centers could do this:
1) Encourage employees to be mini-entrepreneurs by giving them permission to be creative in writing or tweaking their call scripts;
2) “Interrupt” their routine and work flow once in a while for an unexpected altruistic task that exhibits the random kindness of strangers (e.g. calling elderly people in senior homes on their birthday without any sales intention or on Giving Tuesday, the Tuesday after Thanksgiving; donate a day of calls to help a nonprofit raise funds for a good cause; or simply thank donors who have already contributed). Interestingly, employees who are interrupted for altruistic tasks report higher productivity;
3) Dramatize the work day, e.g. by having employees give talks about their calls, create a “secret society” in which employees can anonymously share some of the more obscure customer interactions they had; swap roles, switch desks, create playlists of best calls, use social media sites such as Pinterest, Somewhere, or Tumblr to keep a collective diary with impressions from customer interactions and things they’ve learned that are worth sharing.
I understand that all this might be somewhat counter to the efficiency-driven culture of most contact centers, but imagine the potential for a highly differentiated and fully engaging employee experience! It may be inefficient in the short term but pay off in deep loyalty and intrinsic motivation in the long run. Furthermore, it offers opportunities for training, testing, and growing new skills.
Let’s apply that same logic to the customer. We often talk about concepts like abandoning average handle time to focus on deeper, strategic calls. We talk about having personalized, specific, lengthy conversations. But are those concepts consistent with what matters to the customer? If yes, how can businesses actually deliver on those expectations in a productive, cost-efficient manner? If not, what should they be trying to deliver?
I once worked in a contact center myself, and one of the beautiful things to me was the direct connection with strangers. On the one hand, contact centers are pretty unambiguously about numbers and have very explicit goals. Efficiency is the name of the game. How many calls can you complete in the shortest amount of time? How much product can you move in a short period of time, and so forth. On the other hand, contact centers offer people on either end a powerful conduit for a meaningful human exchange, no matter how commercial its intentions. Research shows that micro-interactions with strangers are surprisingly powerful in shaping our feelings of happiness and wellbeing. For example, a random chat with a stranger on the commuter train, a casual exchange with the barista at the coffee shop, a heated exchange with a cranky cab driver—or a call with a customer rep—can make or break your day. This means that contact center agents have a tremendous power and responsibility.
Zappos has famously explored the benefits of such “thick presence” by valuing the depth of a conversation with a customer over efficiency and “thin” distribution of one’s time and attention. The retailer has demonstrated that true care for a customer might lead to increased customer value and ultimately loyalty. True to its brand promise, Zappos is indeed delivering a little bit of happiness.
I think this is just one example of a broader shift from a purely transactional to a smart and personalized to a more generous romantic economy. From the Burning Man festival to dinner series with strangers to real-world social clubs, against the backdrop of datafication and hyper-connectivity online we’re witnessing the renaissance of the authentic, raw experience, the almost nostalgic need for real human connection, for full presence, surprise, empathy, and adventure. In short: for romance. Contact centers are right at the frontline and can use this trend to their advantage. Personalization helps, a “smart” understanding of individual customer needs, too, but the ultimate value lies in an experience that represents a small fleeting moment of romance.
What do you see as the greatest bottleneck on achieving the harmonious balance between business, customer and employee interests? Where is the greatest opportunity for forging a more optimal balance?
The biggest obstacles are a lack of courage—many business leaders tend to fall back on what feels safe and what is widely accepted by business mainstream—and short-termism: a blindness to the long-term implications of today’s actions. You might close a sale today but lose the customer or employee tomorrow because of the way you treated him or her in the process. As Maya Angelou wrote: “People may not remember exactly what you did, or what you said, but they will always remember how you made them feel.”
Employees or customers, we are all craving a more romantic relationship to work or to a product or service. If businesses can realize this, they will build strong connections and delight both their employees and customers in the short-term—and run a more successful business in the long-term.