April 29, 2022

How to improve the employee experience without sacrificing workforce planning needs

Adrien Seldon
Workforce Management, Assembled

You’ve heard a lot about the need for a customer-centric workplace. And you know that this environment is critical for running an effective and empathetic support team. 

But your team members are just as important as your customers, and improving their experience is just as crucial to success. So, how can you foster an employee-centric workplace?

For the recent SWPP Annual Conference, we caught up with several workforce managers to learn how they’re adapting to focus on agent engagement and satisfaction. But before we dive into their insights, let’s take a quick look at the power of positive employee experience. 

The importance of the employee experience

If any sector can benefit from improving the employee experience, it’s customer support. According to a 2020 report from Cornell, 87% of call center employees reported “high” or “very high” stress levels at work. 

Focusing on workplace experience has benefits that go far beyond more smiling team members, as well — not that smiles aren’t great 😃. They include:

  • Increased Customer Satisfaction: Customer experience and employee experience are closely related. According to ICMI, agent satisfaction and customer satisfaction are directly correlated. When 90% of your support team is happy, 90% of your customers will be, too. This correlation has an impact on the success of your support team: Microsoft reported  56% of people worldwide stopped doing business with a company after just one negative support experience.
Graphic with smiley face emoji and dog emoji that reads: "When 90% of your support team is happy, 90% of your customers will be too"
  • Increased Employee Retention: According to Gallup, those 87% of stressed-out call center employees mentioned above are 2.6 times more likely to be actively looking for a new job. The more employees leave, the higher your turnover rate becomes. High turnover rates create onboarding headaches and lower morale among your remaining employees. Worse, it can cost up to one-third of an employee’s yearly salary to find a replacement. As call centers and support channels become more diverse and complicated, retaining talented agents is critical.
  • Increased Profits and Revenues: Companies that focus on employee experience tend to be more profitable than ones that don’t prioritize it. According to SHRM, companies that lead the way on employee experience and engagement see four times as much profit, twice as much revenue, and 40% less turnover than similar companies that don’t offer great workplace cultures. And having a poor workplace culture will actually cost you money. Gallup found disengaged employees cost US companies $450-550 billion a year. 

Because workforce managers aren’t wizards 🧙, there’s no way to pull a Harry Potter move to improve your employees’ experience with the wave of a wand. Finding the right balance between keeping your agents happy and hitting customer success goals can be challenging — especially in today’s changing workplace environment.

The challenges of balancing the employee experience with workforce planning

Focusing on agent engagement and satisfaction requires changes to existing work structures and processes. This is especially important when you consider how the customer support industry — and agents' expectations — have changed.

First, work flexibility isn't going away. While remote work might create workforce planning headaches, it’s something 70% of customer support employees want to continue to do, according to Gartner

Support agents also increasingly expect the ability and support to grow professionally. 

“Growth opportunities and more flexibility is something that agents are now definitely expecting and something we’re working with them to ensure,” says Hannah Santisi, a Support Team Lead at Care/Of

Providing growth opportunities is a great way to improve the employee experience, but making time for your agents to pursue these options can reduce their time for assisting customers. This makes your workforce planning job more difficult, both in terms of scheduling and staffing. You may need to change your scheduling practices or hire more agents to reduce customer wait times. You’ll also need to spend some time strategizing and soliciting team feedback on what kind of growth opportunities to provide and how to implement them.

Balancing employee expectations and needs with your customer support or call center workforce management needs may require nuance, but it’s doable and will yield significant benefits. Besides, the time to prioritize employee experience is now: 90% of companies surveyed by WTW report prioritizing employee experience in 2022 and beyond, compared to just half before the pandemic. 

How to improve the employee experience 

Our SWPP panelists shared a ton of knowledge. Most of their employee experience ideas fell into three main categories: workplace changes, proper tools and technology, and agent-empowering leadership. 

1. Make workplace changes that promote a better experience

It pays to keep up in the rapidly changing customer support space. Remember, employees expect work flexibility and growth opportunities. 

Enable employee growth

Providing your team with career development opportunities is one of the most important ways you can improve their overall experience. According to Axonify, 76% of employees agree their company would be more appealing if it offered more skill training and professional development opportunities. Investing in your employees makes them feel valued, increasing engagement, lowering turnover rates, and helping to recruit top talent. 

Consider providing additional training in areas like: 

  • Technologies your company uses, such as WFM software
  • Soft skills like problem-solving, active listening, and time management
  • Call center etiquette
  • New products and/or features

You can also set your agents up for success by making sure you’re providing comprehensive technical onboarding and implementing a shadow program to pair inexperienced agents with customer support gurus. You can use creative or flexible scheduling methods to make time for professional development and avoid interfering with customer support goals. 

“Our ultimate goal is to hit a balance of 6 hours of active work per day and 2 hours of non-active work per day, just to give everybody a couple of hours every day to really focus on other projects,” says Jake Alster, a Senior Project Support Manager at Patreon. “We’ve found some rudimentary success so far, considering it’s something we’ve only started implementing more thoroughly in the last couple of months,” he said. 

Promote workplace flexibility

Allowing for flexibility, like letting agents work from home and choose their hours, lets your night owls field calls as the sun sets and helps your early birds manage those crack-of-dawn queries. Besides, offering more flexibility boosts results. A survey by CoSo Cloud found 77% of workers said they were more productive when working from home. 

Talal Naboulsi, Head of Support at Assembled, explains how he would lay flexible work arrangements out to agents.

“How you cut your time up is really up to you. Whenever you’re more productive, this is the amount of work to get done, and this is how we’re going to measure you,” he says.

Providing your team members “wherever, whenever” autonomy improves motivation, engagement, and job satisfaction. Good news — creating a flexible work environment is less complicated than you might expect.

2. Use technology to improve the employee experience 

You wouldn’t send a construction worker to the job site with a toy hammer and expect them to build a house, so don’t try to tackle all your WFM projects equipped only with a spreadsheet. 

Optimize forecasting and scheduling

Imagine that on the first day of every month, your customer support team receives a 400% increase in calls and tickets. If you’re Jake from Patreon, you don’t have to imagine. Since Patreon charges everyone on the first day of the month, Jake’s support team fields four times as many tickets that day. Instead of watching his overworked agents tear out their hair, he worked to understand why it was happening and how he could fix it. 

Good forecasting makes it easier to handle unique staffing problems like Jake’s and reduces agent burnout while increasing customer satisfaction. For instance, Assembled’s built-in forecasting tool uses historical ticket data and the power of machine learning to create scheduling forecasts that stay accurate within 10% of actual contact levels. 

Good scheduling software allows agents to see when they’re working, move shifts, request time off, and even schedule their own shifts. Using an all-in-one scheduling solution also reduces the amount of time you spend creating schedules. Well-planned, flexible scheduling also makes it easier for agents to better control their work-life balance, another key component of a positive employee experience. 

Monitor and evaluate performance

Good metrics and analytics practices set workforce managers up for success. Beyond seeing average response times and closed tickets, in-depth analytics provide you with a host of information about your agents, clarifying what’s working and what’s not. 

Shelton Wirth, Customer Service Manager at Assembled, stresses the importance of the performance reports she gets through her Assembled dashboard. 

“It gives us a lot of insight into what our team is working on at any given point during the day, especially when we’re not working in person side-by-side,” Shelton says. “It also gives us a really positive way to coach agents when maybe they’re falling behind or perhaps a bit less productive than we’d like to see.”

Robust analytics can also be used to help your team members learn and grow. 

“The reporting features also helps us understand where people are spending their time, which is super useful when we are advocating for growth and opportunities in other departments,” notes Hannah from Care/Of noted. She also suggests reviewing performance results with your employees personally–even sharing your screen to show them exactly where they excel or need improvement.  

3. Focus on leading in a way that empowers agents

The way you lead plays a big part in your agents ’experiences. According to Gallup, team managers account for 70% of the variance in team engagement. Since you’ve gotten this far in an article about improving employee experience, we’re willing to bet you’re a caring and proactive manager. 🤗 So, here are a few quick tips to take your leadership to the next level. 

Graphic that spells out each of the leadership tactics below that help to empower agents: be empathetic, promote team socializing, act on feedback, set realistic goals, and recognize success
  • Be empathetic: It shouldn’t come as a surprise that leading with empathy is essential to retention and positive employee experiences. Our own Tully Gibney says it best: “You need tools and systems to show your agents that you care about their experience. Happy people make for successful agents. But success doesn’t come easy, so it’s on you to be a leader that creates an entire environment where not only the needs of the business are met but the people who are putting in the work, that their needs are met.”
  • Set realistic goals: Your agents will perform better when they’re working toward a set of concrete goals. The trick is making them realistic since no one will close every ticket they open every week. Goals give agents purpose as they work and become even more helpful in remote workplaces. Zendesk suggests focusing on measurable goals like resolution time, average wait time, and calls missed.
  • Promote team socializing: Ensuring your agents don’t feel isolated or lonely is crucial to their engagement and satisfaction. According to a McKinsey & Company study, call center employees who can socialize twice a shift have a job satisfaction rate double the average. Consider holding fun, on-camera team huddles every shift. You don’t even need to talk about work — just letting your teammates see and hear from each other regularly does the trick. 
  • Recognize success: When someone on your team does something awesome, make sure everyone knows! Achievers found employee recognition motivates 90% to work harder. Consider celebrating specific actions agents took rather than sticking to generic platitudes. Why? Because 92% of employees surveyed said they’re more likely to repeat a particular action if they receive praise. 
  • Listen to and act on employee feedback: Professional assessments shouldn’t be a one-way street. Your agents may notice support trends, issues with the programs you use, and other pain points you miss while you’re busy managing. Acting on good feedback will improve your workflows and employee experience strategy, and it provides a significant morale boost to agents. Try using pulse surveys, frequent check-ins, and employee brainstorming groups to understand how your agents feel and what they’d like to improve or change. 

Do What Works for Your Team

Improving the employee experience is an ongoing process, and keeping employees engaged at work will look different for every support team. It will also take time, so don’t try to implement workplace, technology, and leadership changes simultaneously. Talal recommends starting with small changes and working up from there. 

“Shift things around at a more basic level,” he advises. “You can gain a lot of momentum just with relatively little work.”

However you start, it’s important to keep your agents’ workplace experience at the forefront of your goals and initiatives. Strive to make their lives easier and their working hours more fulfilling. By giving your team the benefits they expect and leading thoughtfully, you can improve their overall experience greatly. That’s a win for you, them, and your customers. 

Wondering where to start? Check out our guide to creating flexible work arrangements.

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