Call centers are constantly evolving. 20 years ago, workforce management technology was a major driver of productivity. 10 years ago, customer chat was in its infancy.

Today, call centers continue to evolve with omni-channel technologies shaping call center operations, and social media as an important channel. Across the industry, we’ve made big leaps in self-help and call center analytics. That has left us with an inevitable result: call center agents that are required to handle an increasing amount of more difficult tasks. These tasks routinely are the most time-consuming and require the most critical thinking.

In the most successful call centers, this means you can no longer recruit and employ someone who thinks customer service is a fallback career. You can’t build a successful team by impressing the best low-wage workers with a bottom-of-your-range offer. If you are using technology to optimize efficiency, you can stop hiring Customer Service agents and start hiring Customer Service professionals.

 "​If you are using technology to optimize efficiency, you can stop hiring Customer Service agents and start hiring Customer Service professionals"

This is easy to say, harder to do. Identify the right people and keep them motivated. That’s the key to running a successful call center in an increasingly technological environment.

How does that work in practice? At ezCater, these are some of the guidelines we use to identify the best-of-the-best when recruiting Customer Service professionals:

• Hire for culture. If you are hiring the best, you will be able to train your specific skills. Some of our most successful agents have come from non-call center, non-telephone support backgrounds but they fit into the culture and learned the skills to be successful.

• Set high standards and never lower them. It is better to hire the right people slower than focusing on getting the right number of people hired to match your budget.

• Skip the college career fairs. No one wants to tell Mom and Dad that they just graduated from college and are going to be doing customer service.

• Make a writing sample part of the recruiting process. Provide the candidates with a scenario and give them a time limit to complete the exercise.

• Have at least three levels of interviews. The first can be a phone screen. All interviewers should be required to provide feedback. Allow veto power.

Once you have hired the best employees, the next (and biggest) step is to impress upon them what will make them successful. The goal is to motivate employees and get them to be truly invested in the well being of the company and its customers. From a management and cost perspective, a high retention/low turnover rate is one of the keys to call center success.

Motivation efforts begin as soon as the new employees start. At ezCater, we follow a schedule during training to impress upon the employees how much they are valued:

• The first week: We have spontaneous management “pop-ins”. The Customer Service Supervisors pop-in at least once during the first week. The pop-ins reinforce our open communication policy and create an environment where the new hires are comfortable talking to the management team. The Director and Vice-President also pop-in during the first week.

• The second week: In addition to continued supervisor pop-ins, we hold a 2-hour afternoon meeting with new hires and the Director and the Vice-President. This meeting takes place away from the training area (off-site or on a different floor work best). The two-hour meeting is a free flowing discussion. We review what people like, answer questions, and collect initial feedback. The management focuses mostly on culture, and continues to communicate the company norms. We want everyone to feel comfortable participating in the cultural environment.

• The third week: We do an afternoon offsite—a fun, interactive event. We ask the new hires for activity suggestions.

• When the training is 100 percent complete: The Vice President takes the graduating new hire class to lunch. This is a final affirmation of the culture, and a chance to provide more feedback. The feedback that we get during this last lunch is typically the most valuable.

Once the newest hires are out of training, we continue to motivate them to be the best.

Every customer service person attends at least a monthly one-on-one with his supervisor. We do not track average handle time or total numbers of contacts per day, but we do review our standard metrics quickly and focus on call quality. We encourage people to ask for a raise if they feel they deserve one. Some ask rarely, others ask frequently. Sometimes they get a yes. Other times, they walk away with direct feedback on what they need to work on to get that next raise.

ezCater Customer Service does a number of fun things to show our staff how much we appreciate them:

• First month of every quarter: We have a call-based contest where employees usually earn $100 - $250 each.

• Second month of every quarter: We have an off-site team building activity.

• Third month of every quarter: We have a contest to predict one of our growth metrics. This encourages employees to watch the company metrics on a daily and weekly basis.

In addition to these “fun” activities, we do the following to keep Customer Service motivated:

• We share as much company information as possible (everything short of salaries)  

• We ask everyone what future opportunities he or she is interested in pursuing. Then we develop them so they are in a position to move into that area.

• We ask for feedback and system recommendations. Great recommendations earn a gift card. We respond to all recommendations and explain what action is being taken, or why we aren’t taking an action.

Every time a call center automates a process or implements a new technology to improve efficiency it reduces manual, low-touch tasks and increases the number of manual, high-touch tasks. If the automation is especially effective, it will also slow down headcount growth in the call center. That leaves less staff with more high-touch processes. ezCater has been very successful in keeping our call center employees involved and motivated. This has allowed our company to focus on our culture and utilize our highly invested customer service team to drive customer satisfaction and company growth.