Managers often perceive differences in how individuals perform sales and customer service, implementing management practices that make things worse. Faced with the challenge to improve results, many establish numbers-based, “pay-for-performance” systems to reward good employees and punish bad ones. Motivating by comparing, ranking, and paying people according to their individual results just makes sense. After all, prestigious business schools and prominent corporate leaders espouse meritocracies. The “carrot and stick” approach is so widely used that it must be right. But this philosophy is flawed and counterproductive, especially in operations like Customer Success Management. Why? Supervisors wind up focusing on the wrong things and demotivating their employees.
Call centers are a case in point. Managers keep detailed statistics such as call handle time, call quality and conversion rates. Most then rank agents based on their numbers. A pep talk might sound like, “Bill, I see you are near the top on quality, but you’re only about average on your call handle time. Keep up the good work, but you need to go faster!” In addition to coaching, call centers use a variety of bonuses and awards to single out and further motivate agents, believing it’s the answer for achieving high service performance.
How well does it work? The fundamental question is to what extent performance can be attributed to the process (i.e. technology, workflow, customers, training, policies, etc.) or to the people. We studied this question examining average handle times (AHT) and quality scores (QA) for a group of 55 agents over several months. If performance was due exclusively to process factors, individual rankings would be decided by chance alone. If people factors entirely determined results, ranking would always be same, month after month.
Using statistics no more complicated than the probabilities of flipping a coin, we found that individuals played a role, but nowhere near as much as managers expected. In the agent population, only 13% exhibited non-random behavior for QA and 22% for AHT. Combining both metrics, we showed less than 6% of agents had performance that could be attributed to something other than chance. Clearly, rewarding and recognizing individuals for outcomes dominated by systemic variation was a waste of time—and many agents knew it. Management time was much better spent improving the process than motivating the people.
Surprisingly, experts have shown that reward systems can be demotivating, especially when it comes to tasks people enjoy. Psychologists classify motivation as intrinsic (doing something for its inherent satisfaction) or extrinsic (doing something in anticipation of a separable, dependent consequence). Ask people in customer service why they do the job and most will say it’s not the money but because they like helping people. In other words, service people tend to be intrinsically motivated. Years of scientific analysis confirms that virtually every type of reward that is contingent on task performance undermines intrinsic motivation.1 The flip-side is also true—management threats, deadlines, directives, and competitive pressures also backfire. Quality guru W. Edwards Deming felt so strongly about the obstacles caused by ranking people according to the numbers that he insisted leaders eliminate it in his famous “Fourteen Points for Transformation of Western Management.”2
So does this mean employees shouldn’t be rewarded or held accountable for their work? Absolutely not! In any distribution of people, some will excel and others will struggle. Leaders must help everyone do a better job, and for statistical outliers “manage up or manage out.” But leaders must also understand better results come from better processes, and should make process improvement their primary focus. They should also set aside relative ranking and competitive reward systems, choosing instead to practice leadership and instill teamwork. And not all extrinsic motivation is bad. We found that service employees respond very favorably to team-based goals and incentives that promote cooperation and process innovation—enhancing, not hindering, their natural inclination to serve customers and each other.
And what about CSM functions mixing sales and support? In these cases, small, individual sales commissions may be appropriate, but great care must be taken to balance and clarify job expectations and goals. Many times employees view sales and service to be at odds, and for good reason: customers don't want to be "sold to," but appreciate assistance making a decision. Framing the task as identifying needs when they surface and helping customers decide in a subtle, consultative way tends to be much better received than pressuring CSMs to meet monthly upgrade and renewal quotas at the expense of good service.
Often the road to hell is paved with good intentions when it comes to performance management. With great service increasingly the market differentiator and a primary driver of customer retention in subscription-based revenue models, managers can’t afford missteps. Spending time unproductively improving service performance or lowering front-line employee satisfaction and engagement can be disastrous. Using a more enlightened approach to performance management avoids pitfalls and pays much higher dividends.
1. Ryan, R. and Deci, E. (2000). “Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivators: Classic Definitions and New Directions,” Contemporary Educational Psychology, issue 25, pp. 54-67.
2. Deming, W. (1982). Out of the Crisis, pp. 70-85, MIT Center for Advanced Engineering Study, Cambridge. ISBN 0-911379-01-0