10 Considerations for Successful Culture Shifts-Contact Ctrs #1

teampicIn this series  we will cover 10 considerations for creating successful cultures shifts in support contact centers.  Although not a complete or exhaustive list, it calls attention to areas often overlooked or of critical importance.  These considerations can apply to other types of organizations and contact centers.

These postings will shortly be compiled into a whitepaper available on our website.  If you’d like to receive a FREE copy, please click here and we’ll email you a copy once compiled, or click here to be notified of updates.

Contact Centers form very specific kinds of cultures, which can present challenges not usually seen elsewhere in the organization.  The proactive management of cultures is often avoided because it is seen as a difficult and even dangerous long-term endeavor.  This does not have to be the case, in fact, the proactive management of cultures increases the likelihood of success and is rewarding to all those involved.

Bob Greenberg, CMO of Panasonic, a dear friend and mentor, once said to me: “left alone, disarray and lack of grace always prevails.  If we want to maintain grace and beauty in our systems, we must be involved”.  An example is: A house left alone will deteriorate faster than one that is lived-in and cared for.  For the same reason, we need to nurture cultures over time.  Left alone, the forces of everyday business as well as changes in management and staff can move cultures away from the desired focus.

Through experience, we can list a few guidelines:

–        Cultures require management ownership
–        Cultures are not the employees.
–        Cultures are usually the effect, not the cause.
–        Cultures cannot be changed; they are either shifted or damaged.
–        Culture shifts cannot be mandated.  Mandate = Damage
–        Cultures must be seen as a labor of love.

We feel strongly about these factoids forming a foundation for success.  If you disagree, we’d love your comments.

1. Definition

Although there is room for interpretation, an over-simplified definition of a corporate culture is offered as:

“The  generally accepted norms and values of an organization that result in a behavioral or operational paradigm”

In short, an organization adopts certain norms and values that result in certain consistencies in the way it thinks, feels and acts.

Considering the definition we are tempted to equate “culture” to “workforce”.  But that is an incomplete view.  The culture is not simply the sum of the workforce, but is instead, the result of what can be considered a “chemical” reaction between People, Purpose and Environment.


This interaction results in the set of values and norms that allow us to predict organizational behavior under certain conditions.  To the extent that these norms and values magnify or support the core purpose of the organization, we can say we have a satisfactorily aligned culture.

Let’s cover the components briefly:

As mentioned, the people component is not limited to employees but include all those in the interaction: management, customers, vendors as well as employees.  Some organizational behaviorists may include special external influencers such as labor unions or immediate family.

The importance of managing the people component is obvious, but the reason often eludes us.  We must manage the people component because it is “the people” that set the stage for the purpose, the environment and the chemical reaction and it is in “the people” that the chemical reaction takes place.

People are the most important asset of the culture, nothing happens without people.

In today’s experience economy (The Experience Economy“, Pine and Gilmore), products and services are no longer considered long-term brand differentiators.  The market differentiators have now become “experiences”.  Experiences are a broader output and are driven by the organization’s intention or purpose.

The purpose of the contact center goes beyond the pragmatic “job” to be done, it reaches for the “WHY” or essence for which the contact center stands. (see “Start with Why”, Sinek)

By aligning our departments, employees, policies, processes, etc., to this “WHY”, we can create consistent and repeatable experiences for our customers across the organization.  A clearly defined purpose simplifies decisions, facilitates empowerment, promotes employee engagement and creates focus.

The purpose defines the required culture.

The environment is the sum of all other variables creating the conditions for the “chemical” reaction.  It is comprised of processes, policies, systems, tools, expectations, metrics, etc.  The variables we normally manipulate to improve our performance are most often part of the environment.

In Short
The Purpose defines the Culture, while the People and Environment make it possible.
By managing People, Purpose and Environment we can shift cultures.

Next Posting:
2. Management Ownership
3. Ensuring a Need for a Culture ShiftRudy Vidal

Committed to XCL

Copyright 2009 Vidal Consulting Group LLC

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Front-line Empowerment Can Make All the Difference


This story is sad, but a little funny at the same time.

Continental Airlines Flight 47 kept about 50 passengers on this regional Jet on the tarmac overnight.
Fifty people in a regional Jet with babies and backed up bathrooms can be a pretty scary thing.

The airplane was diverted and landed in Rochester about 12:30 am.  Passengers were not let off of the plane because the security officers had already left for the day.  The airport reports that it told the crew they could deplane, but the crew disagrees. (full story on USA TODAY.)

Of course, we can expect confusion when a flight is diverted after hours to a small airport that is not serviced by the airline.
But what a difference a little front-line EMPOWERMENT would have made !

A crew member calling the police on their cell phone saying – It seems very unreasonable for us to keep 50 people in here all night.  Can you help us reach some authorities that could give us options? – Instant emotion, Instant Loyalty.

Take a chance on Empowerment, it works !

(I wonder what a SouthWest Airlines crew member would have done)

Rudy Vidal
Committed to Extreme Customer Loyalty

Copyright 2009 – Rudy Vidal

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Some Culture Mechanics


Yesterday, I had the pleasure of speaking to a group of CCNG members in Cincinnati, and the topic of contact center cultures came up, again.  Seems to be a popular theme lately, so I thought a couple of points on contact center culture management might be nice.

Because it’s rare that people agree on the definition of corporate culture, I feel I should put one in. So, here is my definition (since I don’t like wikipedia’s)

A set of generally accepted norms and values that result in the behavioral/operational paradigm of an organization.

Regardless of the type of organization, I have found some consistencies with cultures:

  • Cultures require management ownership
  • Cultures cannot be changed.  They are either shifted or destroyed
  • Cultural shifts cannot be mandated.  Mandate=Destroy
  • Cultures are not the employees
  • Cultures are usually the effect, not the cause.
  • Cultures are a labor of love.

Key Levers

Before any culture work takes place, management must assume responsibility for the current and future cultures.

Culture management is much like gardening.  When the harvest is poor, an expert can easily point to our errors: we planted at the wrong time, used the wrong soil, provided too much or too little water, etc.  However, when the harvest is plentiful, we can hardly take credit for the miracle of nature, when all we did was ensure the right conditions.  Management’s responsibility is to place the right components in the right conditions and keep the balance.

When boiled down I find the key levers to be

(Expectations + People&Capabilities + Environment)/Purpose

Ensure clear Expectations.
Ensure the right People have the right Capabilities (knowledge and tools)
Provide an Environment conducive to gaining the desired results.
Alignment of each to a clear and accepted Purpose

The shifts in culture are determined by the balance of these variables in relation to the corporate purpose.

Please note: All of these variables are under the sphere of management control.  Again, management ownership is key.

Simplified Dynamics
When the key levers are sufficiently aligned to the purpose of the organization, things tend to go well.  The culture rarely feels problematic and business issues can usually be addressed through specific and focused action – ie. changing a policy, adding a person, adjusting a process etc.

When one or more of these key levers are sufficiently misaligned with the overall purpose of the organization, the culture will shift in an effort to regain purpose.  The shifts seem to happen in 2 major ways:

1. The culture will compensate through one of the key levers  (ie: people may work harder) or

2. The culture will adopt a new value system to reconcile the imbalance and justify the misalignment.

An oversimplified example:
A contact center is asked to cut costs through headcount reductions, and expected to increase its service levels.  The culture may keep alignment to the purpose by working harder.  If this solves the issue and is sustainable, the shifted culture compensates.
If the adjustment is not sufficient to achieve the management expectations, a new value system may be adopted – “Management is Unreasonable”.  This newly added cultural value will help or hinder the culture’s effectiveness (alignment).  As before, if it helps, it is accepted and maintained.   If it does not help, yet another value will be formed to further cover the gap – “the harder we work, the more they expect”.

In short, any time the culture has a continuous perception of being ineffective or misaligned, a new wave of value adjustments will take place to address the gap.  This will continue until the culture sees itself realigned or until it reaches “shift saturation”; the point where it stops making  adjustments for the overall benefit of the system.  At this point, shifts become personal in nature (at the employee level), and the inherent power of cultural wisdom is lost.

We can’t over-emphasize the importance of communications (to ensure correct perceptions) and the maintenance of balance to avoid a a series of shifts that do not serve the company well.  It is also important to keep in mind that the key levers for change hold considerable power in managing the culture and the effectiveness of the business.

Cultures Drivers
Although I know organizational behaviorists will not appreciate this oversimplification, I’ll throw caution to the wind in exchange for a graphical explanation of  cause and effect.


–    Management expectations or beliefs, set the wheels in motion.
–    These expectations result in the creation of policies & procedures.
–    The policies and procedures create an environment which promotes (or not), the attainment of the management expectation.
–    The interaction of all these with employees (at all levels), produce a cultural paradigm.
–    This culture interacts with customers.

The power of WHY?
Most management with whom I speak regarding culture are looking to “change it” in order to gain better business results.  However, the culture is rarely the cause of good or bad business results.  Unless the business model or market expectations have drastically changed, I find the culture is usually effect of an underlying cause.  Although it may definitely be problematic, it is rarely the cause of the problem.

I believe many of the difficulties in today’s corporate cultures are the result of an unclear or undefined purpose.

Most companies know WHAT they do
Some companies know HOW they do it
Few companies know WHY they do it.
See Simon Sinek

Without this clarity of purpose, the culture is usually left to rely charismatic leadership, which when changed, causes havoc and great loss of direction.

Next post: considerations for creating culture shifts.

Rudy Vidal
Committed to Extreme Customer Loyalty

Copyright 2009 – Rudy Vidal

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Average Handle Time – A Good Metric? For Whom?

Two things drive me to a posting on Average Handle Time (AHT).

  1. A previous posting on Average Speed of Answer (ASA) remains the most popular posting on the blog, so I thought another Contact Center metric may be welcomed by our visitors.
  2. A recent discussion with a group of the Contact Center managers clearly showed AHT to be a point of interest.

Metrics can be a subjective bunch, and as such, definitive answers about their use may be ilusive, so please be ready for some generalizations based mostly on my personal experience – which by no means is definitive.

AHT is an often misunderstood metric because on the surface it looks like a problem to be managed, while if we look deeper, it tends to act more like a symptom.

AHT Definition: The average length of time it take agents to handle a customer, wrap-up and become available for the next customers? (This differs from Average Talk Time (ATT), which excludes wrap-up and other ancillary activities such as research).

The obvious benefit of a short AHT is that agents can take care of more customers in a set time and therefore, less agens are required to handle the incoming load. Expectedly, management, usually upper management, feels very comfortable placing attention on AHT as a way to control the largest cost of a contact center, people. Likewise, many Contact Center managers concentrate on AHT ensuring agent efficiency, at times incenting agents to achieve lower an lower AHT levels.

In my experience, the control-point for AHT is not the agent. In stead, AHT is more directly affected by our ability to provide the appropriate environment, knowledge, tools and expectations.

Here are the areas I believe contribute most to AHT.

Appropriate Staffing Levels
Staffing can become a vicious cycle. “If we had more staff we would not have this problem, but, if we were more efficient we would not need so much staff”. Although this posting is too general to address this important balance, we do know that bad Average Speed of Answer, Service Levels and excessive hold times which are greatly affected by staffing levels, can add 30 to 60 seconds to your AHT. Primarily, in the time it takes to calm down irate customers and the composure time for agent stress. Irate customers have a great effect on agent morale and the efficient flow of the call. It’s amazing how much more efficient we can be when our customers are cooperative and our agents are not stressed out.

It goes without saying that knowledgeable agents have lower AHT than new agents. But technical and product training only take us so far. Our agents must also know how to quickly assess a customer’s needs, troubleshoot and create an interactive flow that is conducive to quick resolution. They must also know when to escalate. An simple analysis of call length within a queue can show us the tipping point of AHT. Passed a certain call length, we can see calls have a higher likelihood of reaching astronomical AHTs. That is the point at which to intervene and ask your agents if they need help. I know of a team that calls this the 12 minute rule – at 12 minutes a lead agent or supervisor would simply ask “need help?”. Less stress for the agent, lower AHT.

How many screens do your agents need to manage in order to manage an interaction? Do they need to get up from their station and send faxes, pull manuals, etc? Inefficient processes can add considerably to handle time.

An empowered agent is a less stressed agent who knows he/she has some decision-making power to do the right thing for the customer. Less time is spent working towards an unlikely solution while giving the agent more ownership of the outcome and more perceived value as an employee.
Of course, empowerment is not for every agent and requires proper training and clear guidelines, but we would do well to push as much empowerment as possible to the front lines of our customer touch-points. Surprisingly, empowerment can be easier to manage than the policies and processed designed to ensure customer satisfaction through escalations.

Attrition is an indicator to most, if not all agent inefficiencies. It is the single most costly event in a contact center, mostly occurring within 90 days of hire and costing up to $8,000 per agent.
When we have high attrition, our average newbie rate on the floor is high, which means knowledge and efficiency is low (just think what happens to your stats -including AHT – when you have a new team nesting? uhgg!).

Also, high attrition floors have more challenges in agent dynamics which make empowerment, quality, and employee participation less likely and more difficult.
Average Handle Time is therefore, greatly affected by our ability to hire and keep the right employees. If you have an attrition rate of more than 50%, don’t worry about AHT. You’ve got bigger problems.

Perhaps most controversial, is the topic of agent relations.
At times, we can enter into contentious cycles with our agent community. Usually driven by frustration in our inability to improve operations, we’ll begin to feel a disconnect and a difficulty sharing the same side of the fence with those who directly manage the customer.

As long as it’s acceptable for us not to share the same side of the fence with our agents, AHT will remain difficult to manage and, unfortunately, we will continue to press the wrong button, expecting different results. AHT is not a measure of agents approach or willingness to follow direction, but a measure of management’s ability to Train, Hire and Empower.

I believe AHT is not the best indicator of agent efficiency but a greater indicator of management effectiveness.

Rudy Vidal
Committed to XCS!

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To Err is Human, so is to Care.

My father called Quest to have a new phone installed at the house.

On Monday, as scheduled, the technician came and connected the new line on the outside of the house. After some time, not knowing they had come, my father checked to see if the line was working and found the main line was not working, but the secondary line (available only in some of the rooms in our house) was now present.

He called Quest and asked them to return and install the line correctly. A new visit was scheduled on Thursday.

On Thursday a technician knocked on the front door to let my father know he had finished re-installing and was leaving. My father, who is not easily fooled twice, asked him to wait so they could test the line together. They found once again, the connection was made incorrectly. They both went outside and the technician quickly discovered the problem, fixed it and went on his way.

What is wrong with both of these customer experiences?

Most of us might say what went wrong was the technicians’ inability to complete their work correctly the first time. However, when I talked to my father about it, he seemed to understand and accept the inevitability of human error. What he was having trouble with was the lack of intention to provide a good service. Both times the technicians were uninterested in the effectiveness of their effort and more interested in moving on to the next task. The problem in my father’s mind did not seem to be lack of expertise as much as lack of intention.

Interestingly enough, if the right intention had been present, the problem, the costs associated with the second visit and the strain on the customer relationship would have been averted.

Why then, would Quest not ask their technicians to check with the customer before and after doing the work? The return on investment is certainly clear.

Intention overpowers errors and inefficiencies – because we are human and we value experiences more than error-free service.

Rudy Vidal

Committed to XCS !

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Have we what it takes to be like Johnny?



Today a colleague sent me this video which I think is not only inspiring but revolutionary in its simplicity and effectiveness to present the essence of XCS.

Please view it, it will make a difference.

Johnny’s video

Thank you.

Rudy Vidal
Committed to XCS !

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Reverence for the Feedback!

youstink.jpgToday I was part of conversation where it came to my attention that a feedback mechanism at a certain company was being ignored. When digging a little deeper into the matter, the reason for the lack of attention was “there are too many complaints being submitted and many of them are user problems”. This is the kind of thing that gives me a sense of job security.

The reality is that 93% of companies gather customer feedback. However, only about 33% actually use the information to make changes to product or process in order to improve the customer experience. The reason for this negligence is more often than not, unfavorably perceived ROI and perceived degree of difficulty. It’s too hard; it’s probably not worth it.

Although these perceptions may be true in any one case, feedback is no less important and should not be ignored. Customer feedback is the embodiment of the customer, who otherwise may not be directly represented.

In my mind, the voice of the customer is the ultimate driver of all experience initiatives. Until we hear the voice of the customer we will never know if we are moving in the right direction. No one in the company should be trusted to foretell, or indirectly assess the customer’s point of view.

Here are some thoughts on Customer Feedback.

  1. Too much is better than not enough – (be careful not to overwhelm customers with surveys).
  2. Never allow the culture to ignore it. It’s better to suspend it if you are not willing to act on it. Ignoring customer feedback causes the culture to devalue the customer and will make any improvement harder still.
  3. Get feedback as close to the time of interaction as possible.
  4. Provide the feedback directly to the person interfacing with the customer or providing the service – employees accept criticism and praise better from customers than they do from their supervisors.
  5. Analyse and act – it helps the culture, the customer and your business.
  6. The ultimate form of customer feedback is to bring dissatisfied customers to your office. Pay them as consultants for a day so they can provide their point of view to your team. Make sure you have some Q&A time. You won’t be sorry!

Here is a link to a recent podcast in which I had the pleasure to participate with BTQ magazine.

A customer is the personification of all possibilities in your business. Hug one.

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People want to do business with People.

arbinger.jpgToday I was discussing the underlying tenets of customer satisfaction with a couple of colleagues. We came out of the discussion with . . “the difference in XCS comes from treating customers like people as opposed to objectifying them as “customers, accounts, etc”. It sounds overly simplistic, but it’s true.

The discussion lead to a methodology by the Arbinger Institute that rang a chord with me. The methodology, as explained by my colleague, provides a better ability to control our “way of being” as opposed to controlling our actions.

It occurred to me that often our actions fall short of customer’s expectations because we are are simply acting (following the expected customer satisfaction practices) possibly lacking inner honesty. We are missing the proper “way of being”.

There are 2 ways to see people, he explains:

  1. as Objects and
  2. as Human beings.

You might think that one naturally treats people as human beings, but many times we don’t.

As we were in the discussion, our waiter came to the table to fill up our water glasses. I noticed that one of us acknowledged the waiter with eye contact and thanked him for the service. Then I thought – it wouldn’t be uncommon for me to simply move the glass as to make it accessible to the waiter, and accept the service without acknowledgement. This is an example of objectifying the waiter.

When we objectify people, he further explains, we can see them as:

  • Vehicles (sources of wanted activity)
  • Barriers (those people that stand in the way of what we want to happen),
  • or Indifferently

The very nature of objectifying people makes us the center of focus – HOW DO THEY AFFECT ME?

This makes XCS impossible. I cannot think of the customer’s point of view, assess their expectations and exceed that expectation with a “service mindset” if I am focusing on how he or she affects me.

XCS is about treating people like human beings. Seeing their humanity before we judge how they may or may not affect us.

This is not so easy, but if we can do it, we will gain the respect and loyalty of our customers.

Customers are people too.

People want to do business with People, not companies.

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XCS – A New Paradigm, kind of.


Colleen’s last post about mindset shifting brought to mind the importance of Paradigms.

The primary reason for cultural resistance to change is the momentum held in the current paradigms.

A paradigm is a set of rules or expected actions used to solve problems. After time, the paradigm becomes the norm and thus drives the way we act in certain circumstances, many times without thinking or justifying our actions. We simply trust the paradigm. (For more info on paradigms check out Joel Barker, he is my paradigm guru- quite good.

For example:

Problem: traffic accidents at intersections

Solution and new paradigm: traffic lights – red=stop, green=go.

At first the current paradigm (slow down, proceed with caution dodging crossing traffic) will resist. After a while the new paradigm will begin to take hold as it proves effective in solving problems. Over time the paradigm is refined (add a yellow light, add arrows, add time delays) with more problems being solved as the paradigm matures.

The adoption of new paradigms can be painful but can also be very beneficial. There are risks – (to be discussed in future posts, if there is interest).

The current Customer Satisfaction paradigm is: Customer satisfaction is good as long as we can afford it (CS is a short term expense, for an unquantifiable, future benefit) This paradigm never really worked, but lacking the tools and processes to measure the benefits, what seemed logical prevailed.

XCS is a new paradigm that solves many of the uncertainties of the old and shows us the mechanism to attain loyalty and measure the progress and financial benefits to the organization. It is simple and easy to follow.

As Paradigms go, its not the most difficult to introduce into a culture.

Try it.

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