Incentive Programs for Service Agents: A Pre-Implementation Checklist

Photo Credit: Nevit Dilmen via CC License

This article was originally published on CustomerThink on September 14,2017 as my regular Advisor column. Click here to read the original.

As a contact center leader, I’ve tried it all when it comes to motivating agents. I’ve done gift cards, bagels, pizza parties, games, leaderboards, and trophies all in an effort to get my team to go above and beyond in their work. I’ve personally handed out many a gift card in my day after saying something along the lines of, “if you get this extra thing done today or you complete X amount of this thing this month, you’ll earn $X to Amazon, Starbucks, and the like.” But what happens when the work still doesn’t get done?

Incentives can be a valuable tool in the contact center manager’s toolbox for motivating agents, but must be done carefully and intentionally. Done incorrectly, and they can have little to no effect, or even cause problems. Let’s first explore some of the problems that have resulted from some of my past initiatives, and then I’ll give you six things to think about when you want to incentivize in the future.

Problem #1 – Only the competitive participate

At one time wanted our agents to upsell a certain feature to customers on every phone call. We created an incentive program where we tracked successful upsells and the top performers each month earned a reward. It didn’t take long to realize that the same people topped the list every month and they also happened to be the most competitive members of the team.

I polled members of the team who weren’t as successful and heard a number of responses like:

  • “I was successful but I didn’t care enough about the incentive to track it.”
  • “I tried but I’m just not that good at upselling.”
  • “I was so busy assisting customers that I wasn’t able to work this upsell into the conversation.”
  • “I’m horrified at the thought of having my name and stats shared with the rest of the team.”

Initially I was taken aback because I personally love a good incentive. This discovery, however, helped me understand that even though one person or group is motivated by an incentive, others might not be.

Problem #2 – Just another thing to maintain

It was also disconcerting to see the same people top the list because my real aim was to drive a behavior change on the team. I wanted my agents to add these important skills into their routine. Instead I was left with this beast I had created where those that wanted to be rewarded were and those who didn’t care just ignored it. Furthermore, the incentives became an expectation and part of the monthly income for top performers. I was stuck maintaining something that was totally ineffective.

Problem #3 – You can’t incentivize everything, can you?

When the go to solution to get people to do something is incentives, what do you do when you have multiple initiatives you really need the team to carry out? In my case, the time came when we decided that customer satisfaction (CSAT) was a major metric we wanted to drive up. But what about our other incentives? If those went away, would people still do the old behaviors in addition to working to drive up CSAT? I often found myself wishing I’d been a bit more selective about my incentives, especially in the presence of budget constraints.

A pre-incentive checklist

As I reflect on some of my past problems with incentive programs and have spent time researching and discussing the topic, I’ve developed my own mental checklist to run through before making the move to incentivize an activity or behavior. Here’s the list:

  1. Should this be an ongoing incentive program or is it just an expectation of the job? Perhaps CSAT or NPS are of significant importance in your organization. Obviously, the quality of agent interactions with customers has a huge bearing on the success of these metrics. Does it really make sense to incentive these or are they simply expectations of the job? At some point we need to focus on managing and coaching to the behaviors we want to see rather than turning to incentives to motivate people.
  2. Is this incentive something we can sustain? If not, how will it impact the team down the road if we discontinue it? As I mentioned earlier, the longer you keep an incentive around, the more it becomes an expectation. If you find that it only motivates a small set of your agents and doesn’t create sustained behavior, it can be demotivating when you take it away — and your top performers are the last group you want to demotivate.
  3. Will this actually motivate my team to achieve that goal? I’m a big advocate of tools like Strengthsfinder which help get to know your agents and better understand how they operate and how best to manage them. You’ll quickly discover the unique set of strengths each team member possesses. Money and gifts might work for your high achievers but not but probably not for those with other strengths.
  4. Can this incentive be abused? Before you incentivize something, play it out a few steps down the road to make sure it has sound reasoning and drives the right behavior. For example, if you want to incentivize CSAT but you know your agents have to manually send surveys to customers after each interaction, it’s not that likely they’ll send one to an upset customer. This could really skew your results.
  5. Does this actually make the work more meaningful? At FCR we’re big fans of Drive by Daniel Pink. The core principles of the book are giving employees the Autonomy to perform their jobs, Mastery to perform with excellence, and Purpose to know the impact their work has on the business, the community, and the world. Before you think about incentives, have you empowered and equipped your agents to truly take care of customers?
  6. Do I need software to track this? I’ve seen a number of gamifications platforms complete with elaborate games and leaderboards to foster competition around contact center metrics. I have two thoughts on these. First, notice that most of the major customer interaction platforms do not currently promote gamification as a feature of their product. Second, this sort of gamification may mean a culture shift for your customer service team and may only appeal to a small subset of your agents. Is this the sort of culture shift that’s going to help you achieve your larger goals?

Concluding thoughts

If you find yourself considering elaborate incentive programs or games for your team, I have a few things for you to consider before you go out and spend the money. I have the luxury of observing dozens of different customer service programs in my work at FCR. We have some programs that consistently achieve a high CSAT and it’s no coincidence that agents are empowered to take care of customers and generally deliver a good, lower effort customer experience. It’s also no coincidence that agent turnover is lower on these programs as well. Our agents actually want to do good work!

As I look back on various incentives and rewards of years past, I’ve found that the most successful ones have been those that recognize a job well done. Some involved tangible rewards and others simply offered words praise and recognition. Perhaps an action an agent took on behalf of a customer was exemplary and promoted our values. In other cases, a team member might have adjusted their schedule and worked an overtime shift when someone else was sick.

These unexpected acts of appreciation reinforce the behaviors we want to see in our contact centers. Couple these with efforts to empower your agents and you can watch the engagement and motivation of your team increase.

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  • Your conclusion is a compelling argument against using incentives!

    “As I look back on various incentives and rewards of years past, I’ve found that the most successful ones have been those that recognize a job well done.”

    What you describe here is not an incentive at all. It’s recognition, and there’s a clear difference. An incentive is an if-then proposition. “If you do X, you will get Y as an incentive.” The idea is to motivate the person to do something because what they really want is the prize (cash, gift cards, a day off, whatever).

    Recognition is different. That’s unexpected and delivered after the result. It’s more like, “You did X, so I’m giving you Y to show my appreciation.” Unlike incentives, good recognition isn’t predictable or even. It’s a positive surprise that reinforces good performance.

    • Nice article, but I definitely agree Jeff.

    • Great points here, Jeff and I appreciate you better delineating between recognition and incentives. I will say that while mostly what I did was in fact recognition, I found it really easy to slip into a routine where it had some regularity that started to look like incentives. I’m much more a fan of recognition for sure.

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