It’s Not Empowerment Unless You Trust People


Paul Cooper argues that if you want to improve productivity, you need to empower your staff.

And you can really only empower staff when you start to trust them.

In a recent webinar we discussed making agents more efficient by empowering them more. This proved to be a very popular topic and so I’d like to expand on the points made, to share them with a larger audience.

The first point that I want to make, however, is that not all organisations understand the critical importance of having a contact centre that is great at customer service, and this means having great people working in it. Two recent quotes from research work by Dr Nicola Millard, BT Futurologist at BT Research, sum it up well:

  • 86% of people say that a good experience with a contact centre agent impacts positively on their loyalty to an organisation
  • 83% of people want organisations to make it easier to deal with them

Yes, it’s as easy as that. The agent’s behaviour has a massive effect on customer loyalty, and all customers really want is to have their experience with contact centres made easier.

The reputation of an organisation is driven by its values

However, that’s not all. The reputation of an organisation is also driven by its organisational values.

 “The first step is to recognise that good management starts with good people; all the processes in the world will not make up for weak individuals.” – Simon Wolfson, CEO Next.

The problem is that, though many senior managers and boards will sign up to this in theory, far fewer of them actually do it in practice. In this respect it’s a bit like the home-working issue – “of course it’s a great idea….but do we trust them?”

I believe that part of this is due to the fact that not only the board and senior management, but Personnel and other areas still don’t really understand what goes on in the typical contact centre, and the real worth of it to the organisation.

What drives agent stress?

I remember a few years ago at the ICS we looked at some research done by AMA on stress at work. At that time it was “trendy” to offer stress counselling to agents as it was thought that those horrible customers out there were adversely affecting agent performance and morale.

The research, however, showed that the agents’ stress actually came from such things as poor and unreliable systems support, and all the agents wanted to do was give great service to their customers!

Contact centre staff can often feel out of the mainstream. In fact, two of the most often-heard complaints are: “Nobody ever tells me anything” and “Nobody ever asks me anything”. And yet these are the very people who are, often, the only customer-facing staff in the organisation, so who else knows more about customer needs, opinions, complaints and desires?

“The majority of the workforce has more talent than they are able to use in their job.” – Stephen Covey

What does he mean? Well, many of your staff have more responsible things to do at the weekends – run volunteer groups, be treasurers of clubs, manage sports teams, even run households with their accounts, etc. Do they come to work on Monday for a rest?!

What I’m really driving at here is that, if you have the right people, and they are doing a good job, then they can probably be more empowered to take on more independence and responsibility. And empowerment is just another word for trust.

It all fits together like a jigsaw

Letting go of the reins is always difficult, in all areas of life – letting your child out on a bike for the first time alone, trusting your teenagers (OMG!), and many more examples prove the point.

In business, too, although most people can see that giving staff more responsibility should provide considerable benefits, it isn’t always easy to commit. It is certainly true that:

  • Some people can’t be trusted – well, yes, but not that many, and why are they working for you in the first place?
  • Some people don’t react well to responsibility – well, yes, but much of this can be traced back to training, and anyway why are they working… see above
  • Some people might not follow procedures – well, yes, but how much damage can they really do, and… see above
  • Some people might lose us money – well, yes, but how much are they responsible for really, and… see above

And so on. There really isn’t any good excuse not to try to increase responsibilities, empowerment, and therefore trust in staff. If you like, it can be “softly softly” – selective by experience/level or individual. It can also be a pilot, and therefore reversible if it doesn’t work. Also it should be measured well to see the real benefits as they happen.

Here’s a quote from a large credit card centre:

“We stopped over-controlling the amount of time agents spent on the telephone. Average call handling time went up 10 seconds, but overall call volume went down 10% due to improved call resolution!”

Agent empowerment improves productivity

Over the years, I have seen innumerable examples of organisations trying more empowerment of agents, introducing home-working, flexible hours, taking out scripts, being involved in their own target setting, and so much more.

I have never yet heard complaints that these strategies didn’t work. In fact, what happens is that the workforce relishes the extra responsibility: discretionary time increases, staff morale improves, and customer satisfaction rises, too.

Of course, there are others things that are needed to maximise these effects, and perhaps the most important one of these is measuring the right things, i.e. metrics, and feeding back the data to staff.

Here are a few golden rules of metrics:

  • Measure the right things, not the easiest things
  • Only measure things that will be reviewed/analysed/acted on
  • Measure what is relevant to time/need, and look to change these over time
  • Look for, and act on, trends, not one-offs
  • Remember human nature: Set a target, staff see it’s important and find ways to “cheat”, especially if a bonus is involved!

Now the last one looks as if I’m arguing against myself, but this is not the case. My point is that, as Tom Peters once said, “It’s not that your staff don’t listen to you, it’s that they DO listen to you.”

And so, to pull all these points together, we must see staff development and productivity as a whole – many things influence them and to maximise the effects all need to be in place.

Thus to summarise:

Making agents more productive

  • Hire the right ones in the first place
  • Have a comprehensive induction programme, then ongoing coaching and training
  • Introduce as much empowerment as possible
  • Have clear targets, objectives, culture and practices
  • Measure the right things and feedback
  • Use positive strokes to develop responsibility
  • Have clear and well-understood career and job opportunities
  • Have an active programme to make sure they stay

Paul Cooper

There is no ceiling in organisations below which people don’t care and above which, somehow, miraculously, people do care and consider it is “their” organisation.

Everyone is involved in making an organisation successful, and for this to happen, people need to be proud of their work, their colleagues and their business.

By being given, and accepting, more responsibility, empowerment and trust, staff in any organisation will give more and deliver more.

QED – more productivity!

Paul A Cooper is a Director at Customer Plus

Author: Jo Robinson

Published On: 3rd Apr 2013 - Last modified: 25th Apr 2024
Read more about - Customer Service Strategy, , , ,

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  • Great article!

    You had me 100% until you said ‘have clear targets’…I would rather say have a clear purpose and only measure what matters to your customer.

    For many customers the front-line staff are the business…so companies should value them more and monitor them less.


    Steven 6 Apr at 07:38
  • Paul, I could not agree more! Nice to see how Covey is coming back into vogue on his simple truths about trust and how to create it. So glad to see this post, thanks for sharing these insights, particularly as they relate to the Call Centre environment. Please check out my recent post “Are you a Trusted Leader” which reinfoces many of your points.
    Once again thanks for a great post. Jim

    Jim Nicholson 6 Apr at 17:36