What Does Employee Empowerment REALLY Mean?


A picture of an empowerment megaphone

We investigate what an empowered employee looks like in the contact centre.

What Is Employee Empowerment?

A concept where staff members have a large amount of control over what they do, how they do it and when they do it.

Employee empowerment is a concept where staff members have a large amount of control over what they do, how they do it and when they do it.

In other words, an empowered employee is an employee who is given a large amount of autonomy.

The theory is that when employees are empowered, they feel as if they have more control over their own working lives.

With this control, staff members are more engaged, as they have the space to better reach their full potential because you, as their employer, are not holding them back.

From this definition of employee empowerment, it is clear that empowerment is dependent on the culture you create in your workplace.

Yet contact centres typically struggle to achieve a culture of empowered employees…

Why Is Employee Empowerment So Hard to Achieve in the Contact Centre?

Traditionally, with advisor performance being micromanaged, notoriously inflexible schedules and rigid call scripting, employee empowerment is low in contact centres.

Instead of focusing on creating advisor autonomy, we follow old processes and procedures that aim to create compliant employees. These employees are trained to do what we want them to, in the way that we like it done.

While this approach may have achieved some success in the past, this adherence-based approach will not stand the test of time, according to Martin Hill-Wilson, the founder of Brainfood Consulting.

A thumbnail photo of Martin Hill Wilson

Martin Hill-Wilson

“Now that we have more self-service, the average issue that is finding its way through to live assistants is much more complicated and far less predictable,” says Martin.

“In that environment, you are not going to be able to reduce that to a set of call scripts or checklists easily, so it makes better sense to leverage individual and peer wisdom to get a better outcome.”

Yet in the contact centre, we tend to stick to doing things how they’ve always been done. We promote internally and, when we do so, can be fully focused on replicating the job of our predecessor/mentor, instead of moving away from traditional, adherence-based processes.

But to create employee empowerment, we need to move away from this approach. We need to create a vision for what employee empowerment looks like and follow that through.

What Does a Contact Centre of Empowered Employees Look Like?

Let’s go back to our definition for employee empowerment. It centred around giving advisors more control over what they do, as well as how and when they do it.

From this, we can come up with lots of quick ideas for how to improve employee empowerment in each of these three areas:

1. You can increase employee empowerment in the contact centre by giving the team more control over what they do. This could be through:

  1. Creating additional roles such as customer ambassadors, subject matter experts and managers of review sites (e.g. Trustpilot), which advisors can apply for.
  2. Offering advisors the chance to move across different contact centre departments – don’t just think “upwards” in terms of progression.
  3. Enabling advisors handling live chat to request an extra chat if the person/people they are responding to are being slow to respond.
A picture of orange arrows

You can increase employee empowerment in the contact centre by giving the team more control over what they do. This could be through offering advisors the chance to move across different contact centre departments

2. You can increase employee empowerment in the contact centre by giving the team more control over how they do it. This could be through:

  1. Lowering the importance of script adherence, instead focusing on creating visual flows and regularly updating your knowledge base.
  2. Allowing advisors to have a voice in how their performance is measured, to ensure that they feel comfortable going “off script”.
  3. Recognizing and rewarding advisors who find new ways to handle difficult call queries, inspiring everyone to embrace innovation.

3. You can increase employee empowerment in the contact centre by giving the team more control over when they do it. This could be through:

  1. Using WFM tools that allow advisors to view schedules and make shift-swaps from their phone.
  2. Measuring annual leave in hours not days, so advisors don’t have to take a whole day off if they are just unable to work for a couple of hours.
  3. Giving everyone the chance to set a personal rule within their weekly schedule (e.g. do they want one hour free every week to watch a certain TV show?).

But the big task is creating a culture where it is possible for advisors to be autonomous in answering customer queries while also ensuring that they feel fully supported.

After all, we can’t just take away call scripts and say: “There you go, you’re empowered!”

Instead, as Martin tells us: “We ideally want to create vision of a culture where advisors are empowered to use their own personal judgement, but to also leverage the wisdom and experience of their colleagues.”

When we consider this vision, we are left with an interesting question: how can we facilitate that flow of information and enable people to work in such a collaborative culture?

For more quick tips like those put forward in this section, follow the link: 5 Ways to Empower Your Agents

5 Ideas for Creating a Collaborative Culture That Allows for Employee Empowerment

To create a flow of helpful information which enables advisors to use their own personal judgement to help customers, here are some ideas for creating a collaborative culture that supports this.

1. Develop Subject Matter Experts

Advisors feel more empowered when they employ strategies that have been suggested to them by colleagues, as opposed to us, as their “boss”.

We can not only give these experts more control over what they do as they apply for the role, but we can task them with creating this invaluable flow of information.

So, by creating subject matter experts amongst our contact centre population, we can not only give these experts more control over what they do as they apply for the role, but we can task them with creating this invaluable flow of information.

For example, we can give them the time and the necessary tools to create visual call-flows which advisors can fall back on if they are struggling to handle contacts on their own.

Also, they can manage a special support channel to better assist the wider team.

2. Open up a Support Communication Channel – With Special Hashtags!

This idea is one that we picked up on a recent site visit to the Gousto contact centre in London.

In the contact centre, Gousto use Slack as a tool to improve communication and empower advisors, creating three special groups:

#ccsupport – This is a space to empower advisors to share best practices with one another and solve each other’s general queries.

#ccfeedback – In this part of Slack, great customer feedback can be shared to give contact centre-wide recognition for new approaches to help customers.

#cclive – This section in Slack is consistently monitored by subject matter experts and senior agents and it is where advisors go to get in-the-moment support.

While each of these categories can help to increase employee empowerment, it is this final group (#cclive) that is really interesting.

By getting real-time advice from experts, advisors have a great source of information to fall back on, which will prove invaluable when trying to encourage an autonomous approach.

3. Post Links to Call/Screen Recordings on Your Intranet/Community Group

Sharing best practices by spreading tips and hints throughout the contact centre is great, but we can go further than that by sharing call/screen recordings of great contacts, to really bring these best practices to life.

Talk to advisors when they handle a tricky contact superbly. Tell them that you thought that how they dealt with that difficult customer was excellent, so let’s post a link on our intranet or internal community group so others can listen to how they did it.

Tell them that you thought that how they dealt with that difficult customer was excellent, so let’s post a link on our intranet or internal community group so others can listen to how they did it.

By providing guides like this to the rest of the contact centre, we are showing and not telling advisors what good looks like. This helps to build a sense of empowerment.

We are also showing public praise for great individual performance. This is important because people come to work to make a difference, so we need to celebrate successes – especially when they succeed with an innovative, new approach.

4. Create a Clear Strategy for Knowledge Management – With Advisor Involvement

As one of our readers suggests: “A solid product knowledge base will allow advisors to interact and adapt to customer queries. It will also provide advisors with the confidence to expand their discussion and believe in what they are saying to customers.”

Having this belief in what we are saying to customers is critical, as when we empower employees, we need to assure them than we can support them when something goes wrong.

Therefore it is good to create a knowledge management strategy, which advisors buy into and, to achieve this, it is great to make the advisors central to the strategy itself.

Nobody knows how to answer customer queries better than your high-performing, experienced advisors.

So, pair these advisors up with those with good journalistic skills and create content for the knowledge base, written in advisor-friendly language, which the rest of the team will be confident in using during calls if needed.

To continuously update this, we can make templates available to advisors when they spot gaps. These can then be looked over and enhanced by a knowledge manager.

For more great tips for putting together a powerful knowledge strategy, read our article: 11 Ideas to Improve Knowledge Management in the Contact Centre

5. Involve Advisors in Your Own Decision-Making Processes

To be empowered, advisors need to have a say in how they do things.

If we don’t consult our team when implementing a new process or procedure, they become far less likely to buy into the proposed change.

Managers can then be surprised when they don’t achieve the results that they expected, concluding that their plans were not implemented as they wanted, and how they defined, to begin with.

Yet if a manager discusses the purpose and benefits of the change, as well as listening to any concerns with advisors, before wrapping up plans – we give the team a voice.

Then we can show advisors how we have adapted plans, based on their concerns, highlighting that we empowered them to have a say in the change.

If we do that, define what success looks like and follow up after roll-out, we can empower employees by giving them a voice in how they do things.

How Can We Change Our Leadership Style to Support Employee Empowerment?

Creating employee empowerment requires a collective effort from everyone in the contact centre, no one more so than team leaders.

If we want to encourage autonomy, we cannot micromanage and lay down the law in terms of pushing advisors to meet certain KPIs, such as Average Handling Time (AHT).

Instead, we need to align our leadership with the idea of creating a collaborative culture and empowering employees, thinking about what we can do to facilitate increased autonomy.

This starts with gently encouraging advisors to use knowledge-sharing platforms – like Slack, intranets and knowledge bases – but it also entails following the five pieces of advice below.

1. Explain the Purpose Behind Why We Do Things

Encouraging autonomy often starts with positive reinforcement, which can be specific, public, private, individual or team-based. As a team leader, you should know what individual members of your team will respond best to.

Then, look to tell them that: “When you did X, the positive impact of that was Y.” Making these connections can be very powerful.

A picture of a person with a flag looking up at a mountain

It all comes back to purpose: what are they here to do? Empower, involve and enable them to buy into the vision and know their role and impact.

This is a thought shared by a reader of ours, who says: “It all comes back to purpose: what are they here to do? Empower, involve and enable them to buy into the vision and know their role and impact.” 

“NASA and their man on the moon is an example. Whether you asked a cleaner or a chief engineer what NASA were there to do, they all answered, “to put a man on the moon”. Whatever role they were in, they knew they were critical to the purpose.”

So, next time you are with an advisor, tell them “why” they should do something, not “how”. This will empower them to be creative in finding a solution and be motivated by a purpose.

2. Avoid Spoon-Feeding Answers to Advisors

To engage and empower our people, we have to spend time listening to them and coaching them.

Remember, it’s more about eyeballs than emails, so sit down with your team and ask them “how are you?” and create the time to do some informal coaching.

We are not taking the easy route of spoon-feeding the answers, which can be very tempting when time is tight.

In the long run, this can be so valuable, as we are not taking the easy route of spoon-feeding the answers, which can be very tempting when time is tight.

During busy times, when someone asks a question, we just want to tell them. But a good coach that is interested in employee empowerment will turn around and say: “Good question. What do you think?”

When you ask this question again and again, it takes up more time initially, but eventually you help to build a culture where people know that you will ask them that, so they start coming up with the answers themselves.

As the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu once said: “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.”

3. Be Visible and Involved

Creating a culture of empowerment doesn’t just mean empowering advisors, it also means empowering leaders too.

If you, as a leader, are spending most of your day sat behind your PC, you’re not visible enough, you are not getting involved enough.

So managers should be empowering team leaders to empower advisors, and this means thinking how that whole empowerment chain flows down within your own contact centre.

Maybe this involves empowering advisors or other team members to take on some of the team leader’s responsibilities and admin tasks, to strip out almost everything other than coaching.

Having this informal coaching time, where leaders can sit down with their team and ask them “how are you?”, reduces our reliance on processes and procedures that can negatively influence employee empowerment.

Find out how to better utilize your time as a leader in our article: Being Super-Busy: The Modern Excuse for Not Coaching Staff

4. Make a Concerted Effort to Be Consistent

We all have bad days when we are likely to behave in a way that is not consistent with how we normally behave, so, as leaders, we need to recognize those behaviours and call them out.

If you fluctuate and are inconsistent in your style and approach from day to day, it can make people very nervous about whether or not you are in a good mood.

If you fluctuate and are inconsistent in your style and approach from day to day, it can make people very nervous about whether or not you are in a good mood.

When advisors work in an environment like this, they will certainly feel less engaged with their work, but they may also feel nervous around you. This can negatively impact empowerment if advisors feel hesitant to push the boundaries.

So we must recognize when we are having a bad day and not let that impact the conversations that we have with our teams.

On a bad day, we cannot allow ourselves to be harsher when doing things like analysing calls and we mustn’t let our personal feelings towards certain team members be any sort of a factor at all.

It’s in these situations that you can rely on your data, not just opinions, to ensure that you are being fair – not using it to confirm your biases, which we all have!

5. Delegate, Show Trust and Avoid the Blame Game

If we are going to delegate to improve employee empowerment, we want to do that in order to help people grow, not just to make your personal workload lighter.

But how can this delegation improve empowerment?

As an example, let’s say that we have two people in our team, Jane and John.

Jane is great at task A, but John isn’t. This means that we should be delegating the task to John, so he can increase his skills in this area.

But what we can also do is ask Jane to work alongside him, as a peer, to help John get to where he needs to be.

Then, if John doesn’t get there first time, remember that is likely to be expected while he is still learning, so have trust in the process and avoid blaming him if something goes wrong.

So it’s very important for us to think about how we delegate, what we delegate and what point within an individual’s competence level is the right time to do that. This is because if we try to delegate to a new starter, we will be unlikely to achieve our intended outcome.

If we get this right, our team will feel like they have become an expert in the area, which can be great as we can motivate through mastery, but we can also empower them to feel confident in taking on extra responsibilities.

For more on the importance of trust, read our article: It’s Not Empowerment Unless You Trust People

Does Employee Empowerment Really Improve Contact Centre Performance?

You may be thinking that the premise of creating a collaborative culture to empower advisors is great in principle, but does it actually generate the right results?

After all, it does seem like an awful lot of effort.

In this regard, you are right. A culture shift and a change in leadership to accommodate engaged employees is a lot of work. But, 2017 research by Harvard Business review does show that it is worth the effort.

A photo of balloons shaped like "50%"

Highly collaborative cultures, or what they call Network Judgement cultures, within customer-facing teams operate 50% better.

In fact they found that highly collaborative cultures, or what they call Network Judgement cultures, within customer-facing teams operate 50% better – in terms of customer effort, customer satisfaction and productivity.

Commenting on the results, Martin adds: “If you’re building out a different way of empowering and starting to redefine the roles of your customer support team, the research shows that it’s time to start thinking differently about this issue of culture.”

“It seems to show that we should be considering which type of culture is most appropriate, and it probably means that most of us need to migrate.”

What Tips Do Our Readers Have for Improving Employee Empowerment?

While we have so far presented our own approach for empowering employees, many of our readers also got in touch to tell us which employee empowerment strategies have worked in their contact centre.

So we collated 16 of the best ideas that were sent in and we are delighted to present them below.

1. Let Advisors Deliver Good News

If an advisor has to get something “above their paygrade” approved by me, I allow them to go back to the customer.

When responding to the customer, they can then say: “I spoke to the manager because I felt you should be given this credit and she agreed.”

This makes the advisor the winner in the situation.

  • With thanks to Lisa

2. Get Your Team Involved in Writing Procedures

Get your advisors involved in writing the procedures that they will be using.

This will help them to be closer to the customer, the process and the system.

  • With thanks to Gemma

3. Help Advisors to Better Understand Their Purpose

Have deeper conversations with your advisors and explain the purpose of their work, and why their requests can and can’t be actioned.

For example, you may say: “I’m asking you to change this because of Y.”

  • With thanks to Stephanie

A picture of people looking at a CVs4. Ask Advisors to Get Involved in Recruitment

Involve agents in your recruitment process.

This empowers them with really important decision-making responsibilities.

  • With thanks to Gemma

5. Allow People to Swap AND Extend Their Shifts

We have rotating fixed-shift patterns and everyone has the flexibility to swap.

We’ve also introduced the option for extended shifts with Fridays off.

  • With thanks to Harj

6. Practice Management With “Walk Arounds”

Get out of your office on a regular basis and see and hear what is going on around the floor.

It may be best to schedule time for doing this in order to ensure that a good chunk of your day is spent empowering employees.

  • With thanks to Michael

7. Allow for an Hour of Flexibility in the Schedule

Just offering an hour’s window of flexibility in our schedule has allowed for better confidence in the company and reduced staff turnover.

  • With thanks to Stephanie

Find out how to increase schedule flexibility in our article: Top Tips on Flexible Shift Patterns

8. Designate Pods for Advisor Contributions

We have designated pods in our contact centre where agents can go and help decide what will happen within the company from a strategic point of view.

  • With thanks to Gemma

9. Help Employees to Understand “Why Are We Here?”

Advisors can get lost in their day-to-day work.

The first step to empowerment is to strip things down to basics and allow advisors to really question: “Why are we here?” And: “What really is our job?”

  • With thanks to Ian

10. Allow Advisors to Set Their Own Goals

A picture of an arrow in a target

Express concern for your associates beyond work. Develop a relationship and a goal-setting pattern that allows them to set their own goals based on what their personal life involves.

This works for us because of a tiered bonus structure, so I talk with each associate weekly and we discuss: “What bonus do you want to meet?”, “What are the steps you need to make to hit that goal?” And: “Are you on target to hit the goal that YOU set?”

  • With thanks to Stephanie

11. Involve Advisors in Designing the Team Commission Structure

We had some dissatisfaction around the team commission structure, so I asked the team to nominate a panel of agents. These nominated individuals collectively gathered people’s thoughts and inputs and created a new plan.

They then presented this to the team, along with the reasons why they had chosen the categories they did. There has been great improvement in associate morale and buy-in to the good of our business.

  • With thanks to Harj

12. Ensure Employees That All Managers Care

I find employees who have lost motivation and empowerment because their direct manager and their direct manager’s supervisor just sit at their desks.

For employees to be empowered, they need to know that their direct manager cares, but also that people further up the line care as well.

  • With thanks to Stephanie

13. Increase “Advisor Power” in Line With Experience

We have a tool in our customer relationship management (CRM) system that gives “power” by time with the company and advisor abilities.

Seasonal workers have much more limited “power” or authority than our full-time advisors.

  • With thanks to Lisa

14. Find out Why Employees Feel as Though They Are Not Empowered

If someone is not behaving in the expected manner despite being empowered, investigate the thinking around this and seek to change it.

For example, if a sales advisor is empowered to do something customer service-wise but is not doing so, the thinking might be that it is a waste as it does not gain a sale. You need to address this head on.

  • With thanks to Gemma

15. Hold Focus Groups and Give Advisors Control of the Conversation

We hold focus groups with two or three very open questions and allow the agents to talk about whatever they wish.

Our questions are generally:

    • What are your current frustrations?
    • What are our opportunities?
    • What would make us more effective?
    • What do you feel our customers want?
    • What have you done in your previous companies that has worked well?
  • With thanks to Harj

16. Involve Team Members in Training of New Staff

Empower employees by including them in decisions, new projects, and the training of new staff.

  • With thanks to Michael

In Summary

Employee empowerment is a great concept, but it is very difficult to achieve in a contact centre because so many have adherence cultures where advisors rely on policies and procedures when helping customers.

As Martin Hill-Wilson says: “Through the work that I’ve done, I think we still sit pretty strongly in adherence cultures, I’m afraid to say.”

“This is because, when we consider efficiency and cost effectiveness, most people instinctively go for a command-and-control approach, thinking that’s the best way to do it.”

However, research instead suggests that a collaborative culture is key to employee empowerment and that contact centres who achieve this operate much better in terms of customer effort, customer satisfaction and productivity.

With this in mind, we have shared a great number of ideas to help create a culture and mould a leadership style that best supports employee empowerment, so you too may be able to achieve these excellent results.

Good luck!

For more advice on increasing empowerment in the contact centre, read our articles:

If you are interested to hear how MOO, the online design and print company, created a great culture of fun and employee empowerment in their contact centre, listen the podcast below.

The podcast features a conversation with Dan Moross, MOO’s Director of Customer Experience:

Published On: 29th Apr 2020 - Last modified: 29th Oct 2020
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