Casting about for ways to combat a tight labor market, call center executives are loading on employee perks in an attempt to reduce turnover among people who must endure the tedium of answering customer questions or making pesky telemarketing calls.
It used to be that being named employee of the week was the biggest plum for a customer service representative. But now call centers are putting in laundries and coffee bars. Some centers have mood lighting to create a more pleasant atmosphere. Among the more offbeat efforts to boost morale have been paper airplane competitions and chili cook-offs.
Though small, the gestures are sometimes just what employees need to lift their spirits. Indeed, enjoyable activities and helpful touches may make a big difference for service companies that find themselves losing employees to the new jobs being created by the healthy economy.
"These e-agents - they're in demand," said Anne Ivey, a vice president and senior call center consultant at Frontline Group FTR, a training firm in Lombard, Ill. "If you don't find things" to motivate them, she said last week at Thomson Financial Services' Call Center Conference in Las Vegas, "somebody else will."
Though money is an obvious motivator, it is not the most powerful, according to survey results presented by Frontline. In fact, employees ranked wages fifth on their list of the top 10 incentives, Ms. Ivey said. Appreciation came first, and feeling "in" on things, supervisors with an understanding attitude, and job security came next.
Rounding out the top 10 were interesting work, promotion opportunities, loyalty from management, good working conditions, and "tactful" discipline.
There is plenty of room for banks to improve their record in this area. According to the American Bankers Association, only 26% of financial institutions have motivational programs to compensate call center employees.
At Hibernia National Bank of New Orleans, top performers get time off on Fridays, as well as parking spots. "It sounds like a simple thing, but it means a lot to them," said Elizabeth Spring Garcia, assistant vice president in the consumer sales department.
At Capital One Financial Corp. in Richmond, Va., managers have "fun budgets," which they can spend at their discretion. "We don't really care, as long as the end result is that folks have a good time," said Marge Connelly, senior vice president of domestic card operations and information technology infrastructure at Capital One.
But perks and frivolity alone do not make for happy employees. Training is key, Ms. Connelly said, and new employees, whom she refers to as "nestlings," get plenty of individual attention and encouragement after completing a training program and being put in "the nest."
Gail Hoffman, senior vice president of Charlotte, N.C.-based First Union Corp.'s corporate customer service center, has a similarly nurturing view of her employees. Supervisors "have an obligation" to love their employees, she said.
"I care deeply about these people who are on the phones," Ms. Hoffman said. "I don't know about you, but I could not do what they do every day."
Ms. Ivey of Frontline described some of the unusual call centers she has seen. PeopleSupport Inc., an online customer service outsourcing company in Los Angeles, has created a funky environment, with neon lights and a disco ball. It also stages weekly Sega video game contests, has installed a coffee bar, and after surveying employees about what they most wanted, put in washers and dryers, Ms. Ivey said.
Amy Berkus, public relations manager at PeopleSupport, said the company is installing hammocks in the "quiet room" of a call center it is building.
Managers have donned aprons and served meals to employees in other call centers, Ms. Ivey said. At one, a "day in the life" program in which company executives worked alongside employees was a success, she said. Executives took the same breaks as employees and followed the same rules, including no e-mails or personal calls.
The call center reps "got a lot of mileage out of that," Ms. Ivey said. "It was a huge morale booster, a huge motivator."