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by Lulu de Beer, Legitimate Leadership associate and former call centre company executive, writing for the call centre industry.

Every employer struggles with the issue of how to get employees to come to work every day and put in their best effort.

Imagine how much more time the leaders in the call centre would have if they didn’t have to monitor every employee every minute of the day and every step of the call centre process. And what time you would save if employees stayed in your organisation and you weren’t recruiting and training new employees repeatedly.

Think of how your productivity and results would improve if employees remained in the business for longer to fully use their experience and learning in the interests of the business results.

Where can I get some of these employees you might ask?

You already have them!

You the leader and your leaders in the call centre could have the employees you want – it is fully within your control.

There is no quick-fix IT system you can just plug in, you will not be able to buy this level of engagement, and it is not about the soft issues!

What is required is that leaders think about their employees as human beings, people who come to work wanting to learn, grow, provide for their families, enjoy some social interaction, do work that makes a difference and, above all, succeed.

You are not simply paying for labour with a salary and incentives. You are offering people an opportunity to work in your business so that they can achieve their personal goals, provide for their families, meet and make friends, learn skills, develop from doing a job to building a career, and look back with the satisfaction that they have done something useful, meaningful – and can be recognized accordingly.

If you can convince your employees that you aren’t just trying to pay them as little as possible in exchange for getting them to work as hard as possible, but that you care about them as people, a shift happens.

As an employee, I want my leader to prove that he is interested in me, in whether I am okay, and in whether I am still learning.

I want her to give me an opportunity at some time to apply more of my skills, or even contribute to me gaining additional skills.

When my employer includes me in the vision of the business by giving me information about it and showing me where it is going and how I can help make that happen, I have an opportunity to be part of something bigger. I can tell those around me about the amazing thing I am part of; I can dream about how I will arrive at new levels in my career. Now I want to come to work every day, even when I have a headache or tummy ache, because I don’t want to miss out!

I start to think about my manager as a leader, someone I can respect, who sees me and is willing to take me with on this journey. Someone who invests not just money – that’s easy – but personal effort and time in me. This is a person I want to follow, want to work for and don’t want to disappoint. I might even turn down other job opportunities because I like what this leader is doing and where he is taking us.

In leadership development workshops, I do an exercise where I ask leaders what they want from their leader. Once I have those suggestions, I ask the same leaders whether they are doing these things for their employees? Often I see slightly shocked and embarrassed faces. In reality, mostly we all want the same things from our leaders, so it isn’t that hard. Just do for your employees what you would like your leader to do for you. Here are some typical examples:

  • Please greet me! Notice me!
  • Don’t display your bad moods for all to see, we have our own problems!
  • When I ask you a question please answer me as soon as possible.
  • Please treat me with respect, then I’ll do the same for you.

The core message here is that a leader is accepted or rejected to the extent that he is perceived to be interested in the well-being of the employee. The employee is willing to support this leader and consider him trustworthy; this leader has earned legitimacy.

This leader has now established himself as trustworthy, but is the feeling mutual?

When leaders and employees can trust each other, the work goes more smoothly, more effectively and with better results.

The leader who can trust his employees can spend his time differently. In some call centres leaders spend 90% or more of their time monitoring activities, checking call volumes, conversion rates, wrap-up times, and putting together yet another report for senior management.

Watching the numbers on the board will however not make any difference because the real work is happening as the agent carries out the business actions.

The leaders focus – when it is placed on the employee, his mood, his tone of voice, his energy level, the quality of the conversation he is having – is much more useful.

Does the leader have the courage to move his focus away from the outcome to the process, and give his employees the opportunity to display their trustworthiness? This leader will ask his employees, “what can I do to help you make a better quality call? How can I help you increase your energy levels to stay fully engaged with carrying out your duties?”

The untrusting leader watches every movement of every number, and possibly of the employees if they dare to leave their seats. This leader rants and complains about “making the numbers”, “increase productivity”, “give me more”, not realising that this behaviour is having exactly the opposite effect.

This is demoralising and draining for the agents, who are just waiting for the next empty reprimand which will bring about no change in behavior for either leaders or employees.

When the leader reduces his focus on control, instead placing it on pushing the employee to realise their best potential, trust is established in the relationship. An employee who feels trusted will want to live up to that expectation.

In any business, there are expectations on both sides that must be met. Clearly, I want my salary and I want it how and when we agreed. I want the opportunity to earn incentives. I want job security. I want appropriate benefits. I contract for these and expect my leader to provide clear expectations of what I need to contribute in exchange. We negotiate and discuss, and sometimes I feel he is asking for a bit much, but if I know where we need to go and I realise I am part of making it happen, I’ll take a challenge.

I also knows that my leader will be demanding, but because he knows me and I trust him, I am willing to take some risks. After all he is going to keep teaching me. If I fail or make a mistake, I must discuss it, but it will become part of a lesson and I will become smarter and achieve even bigger goals going forward. I don’t have to lie and cheat, because while I will be held accountable, it is being done to grow me and ensure my team and I and the business, learn from past experiences.

So, leaders, determine with the employee what she will be held accountable for and that those actions are within her control. Also agree the steps to follow when where expectations are not being met.

Throughout this process the goal is to extract the maximum potential from the employee, in his own interest as well as that of the business. The employee is empowered by this process and can proactively and willingly contribute to ensure he meets and exceeds expectations. Repeatedly threatening to dismiss people will not get willing contribution. Instead employees will be focused on finding alternative employment.

Cultivating accountability remains a challenge for many business leaders. Having agreed contribution, leaders often fail to hold employees accountable for such failure. Even worse, even the leaders themselves are seldom held accountable for their inability to develop their legitimacy, build trust and extract the best potential from their employees.

If a leader fails to give feedback, recognition or reprimand, per the agreement, trust will be damaged. Giving feedback to employees should not just be a painful bi-annual process during which we tick the boxes to keep HR happy. When we give an employee meaningful feedback to allow him to grow and learn, the trust relationship strengthens and the legitimacy of the leader is confirmed.

Additionally, the leader must maintain trust and legitimacy by taking appropriate disciplinary actions against employees who have carelessly or malevolently failed to contribute. Not doing so leaves contributing employees feeling betrayed and creates confusion about expectations.

Show your employees that you are interested in their wellbeing. Encourage employees to consider their long term goals. If an employee is clear on what he wants and where he wants to go, self-motivation takes over.

Another example: in a financial services call centre, help employees learn to manage their personal finances and live within their means. Learning to budget and plan creates the ability to see what is possible now, and by working hard to increase earnings, in the future. The employee becomes more settled at work as they see how their current job is contributing to their future, instead of being frustrated by the level of their current earnings. These employees have fewer personal financial problems so they come to work with a mind focused on work as opposed to their worries about how they will pay for food tomorrow. The company has helped the employee! The bonus is that the company is benefitting from employees who understand the products and services they are providing in the call centre better as well.

It’s not good enough to say, “I pay you a salary”. What shifts the employee’s perception of their leader and the company is when the leader gives time and energy. It’s about a giving of self (by the leader) not a giving of things. Make learning available, run mentorship programmes, provide regular and quality performance feedback, and thereby show that you are interested in the growth and success of the employee in the long term.