Enabling the Contact Center Agent: Red Lines, Gray Areas and Upholding Brand Standards

Virgin America is an airline on the cutting edge of the industry, offering fleet-wide WiFi before all other airlines and adding touch-screen entertainment to flights. They even mood-light some of their planes. Richard Branson, the Founder of Virgin, is known for empowering his employees to solve problems and create memorable customer experiences.

Allowing agents to have more independence produces a happier team. Increasing your agents’ job satisfaction will, in turn, increase customer satisfaction. When employees are empowered to make judgement calls, decisions can be made quickly. Over time, as agents become accustomed to their new autonomy, less feedback from management will be needed. Along with letting agents know what they are allowed to do is clarifying what they’re not allowed to do.

Clarifying Red Lines: Determine What Employees Can and Cannot Do

The Ritz-Carlton chain of hotels is known for their top notch customer service. One reason for their stellar reputation is that they allow their associates to spend up to $2,000 in order to please a guest. In doing this, the Ritz-Carlton draws a red line for their employees: their associates now know how much they’re allowed to do and at what point they have to stop. This empowers employees while still maintaining control of the business and customer service policies. There are a number of things that can constitute a red line: a dollar amount, like the Ritz-Carlton sets; a policy that employees can waive; or extra goodwill, like a shipping upgrade or a freebie.

It’s important that customer service agents know that the red line is the limit, not the only option. They shouldn’t start out by proposing the red line offer. For example, if a customer service agent has permission to offer product samples to customers, having the sample delivered is the red line. The circumstances under which that sample will be sent is the gray area. The customer representative shouldn’t order a product sample every single time a customer has a question.

The Gray Area: How Employees Weigh Options

Everything before the red line is a gray area. Employees shouldn’t be punished for making a gray area decision that they felt was right. Employees won’t want to utilize their empowerment opportunities if they feel that their decisions are going to be criticized. Plus, it can be confusing when you tell an agent that they’re allowed to do something, but they then are criticized for doing it. There can’t be a policy that covers each and every situation. There’s always going to be something that wasn’t anticipated. Specific guidelines don’t have to be setup, but standards do. Formal guidelines aren’t necessary so long as the standards are being upheld.

Chris DeRose, co-author of “Judgement on the Front Line: How Smart Companies Win by Trusting Their People,” says that agents should operate in a “judgement playing field.” Management defines where employees can and cannot deviate from the rules, allowing staff to have flexibility when dealing with customers, but without making major mistakes for the company. For example, in a restaurant, employees can alter food displays, but they can’t change food handling procedures. Employees first have to have a framework within which they can test out new ideas, but within that framework, they should be empowered to be independent and explore any options they see fit. With the judgement playing field can also be guidelines about which types of interactions are appropriate to have with customers. Ultimately, employees should be allowed to express themselves and have fun, so long as they’re polite and respectful.

Why Managers Should Provide Feedback

If you’d like your agents to behave differently in the future, provide feedback on their choices. Employees and managers have to discuss gray area scenarios, even if it’s after a decision has been made. This is the chance for the supervisor to find out why the agent made a certain decision and for the agent to learn the best options in similar situations. Then, that feedback can be shared with the rest of the team so that everyone operates in a similar way.

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