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Managing poor employee performance is a fraught area. As an employer, the least desirable part of my role is when it comes to disciplining staff members whose performance really hasn’t come up to standard. It’s a situation that causes anguish, anger, and negativity in the workplace. But all of those attributes pale in comparison to when the employee in question is a customer service agent. It’s when dealing with those staff members who spend their days engaging with external customers that we really see the sensitivities about performance management coming out.

Recently Dan McCarthy wrote a post on MyVenturePad, offering some guidelines for dealing with poor employee performance. It’s worthwhile reviewing McCarthy’s advice and looking at what extra issues arise when the employee in question fills a customer service role. McCarthy’s advice for managers was to:

  • Get your ducks in a row (preparation), gather data, get input from other sources and write an outline of what you want to say
  • Explain the performance issue – get to the point and explain to the employee where the performance issue lies
  • Ask for reasons and listen – let the employee state their case
  • Solve the problem collaboratively eliminate the causes to make the problem go away. Ensure the employee feels committed
  • Ask for commitment and set a follow-up date – summarize the plan and obtain the employee’s commitment
  • Express your confidence (and possible consequences) – let them know you think they can do it, but explain the consequences if they don’t

Now how does that advice change when thinking specifically in terms of a customer service employee? Well in general the advice holds – it’s always important to be prepared, to give explanations, to find solutions and end positively – but when the employee is going to walk straight out of the meeting and start engaging with customers, everything becomes that much more important.

So what are our specific tips when disciplining customer service agents?

  1. Assess where the performance issues lie. Potentially this could be a situation with an employee having issues with their workmates, or taking too many breaks, or other matter unrelated to their customer service role. If this is the case, there’s no issue with taking things slowly and running through the process as detailed by McCarthy. Especially in the event that an employee’s performance issues relate directly to customer interactions, things need to move much faster. Managers need to make an assessment as to just how damaging the poor performance can be, and they potentially need to think about removing the employee from customer-facing activities – true this might cause tension and even problems down the line, but if the organization lives and dies by customer service (and who doesn’t) poor performance by customer service agents demands immediate and aggressive intervention.
  2. Look for root causes. Customer service is one area where sometimes poor agent performance simply isn’t their fault. We all know that customer service agents often bear the brunt of customer anger; factors that are sometimes entirely beyond their control (imagine being the customer service agent handling calls for an airline during the recent snowstorms). My bet is that there were a bunch of very annoyed people on the line. It’s important then to look for the root causes of the performance issues and assess whether they are related to either some flaws in the systems in use by the organization or to some unusually taxing event.

The key thing to remember here is that customer service agents are the lifeblood of an organization – poor agent performance can be harmful, but a badly handled poor performance situation can be worse. It’s especially important to handle these situations sensitively so as to avoid a disenfranchised customer service agent turning around and really dropping their service levels. Above all, think about all the eventualities that may arise, and the impacts upon your end customers.

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Ben Kepes

Ben Kepes is a technology evangelist, an investor, a commentator and a business adviser. Ben covers the convergence of technology, mobile, ubiquity and agility, all enabled by the Cloud. His areas of interest extend to enterprise software, software integration, financial/accounting software, platforms and infrastructure as well as articulating technology simply for everyday users.

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