Anyone can send an email, answer a phone call, reply to a chat — heck, even AI can reply to a chat. But what makes an exceptional support rep is someone who will go above and beyond. Someone who can create a customer experience so delightful and surprising that people come back to your business and tell all of their friends about it. So, how do you motivate reps to do that?
Motivation is mysterious. Countless psychologists (along with teachers, business leaders, parents, and dog trainers) will tell you you can’t conjure motivation on demand. But psychologists have discovered ways to bring motivation around more consistently and sustainably.
In this article, we’ll help you understand what really motivates support agents to create memorable customer experiences. We’ll go into the science behind motivation, refer to experts on the topic, and cover practical ways for managers to tap into intrinsic and extrinsic motivation in the workplace.
If you’re worried about your support team’s performance or simply interested in learning about human behavior, read on.
1. Raise the stakes of each encounter to help employees find meaning
One reason we all go into work is to make a difference in people’s lives. Support reps may enter their field because they like helping people or have cared for others in the past.
But when you’re seated behind a phone or computer and working with digital products, it can be easy to lose track of how support work makes a difference. It’s easy to lose the feeling of relatedness, or a sense of support and interconnectedness to others. If you don’t care about the frustrated person on the other end of a phone call and don’t understand how or why you’re helping them, then motivation will be hard to come by.
But if your team understands the urgency of customer problems or understands how their performance has a direct impact on the business, they may feel more driven. Craig Stoss, Director of CX Transformation Delivery at PartnerHero, calls this “setting the stakes,” and it is the one thing that’s worked best for him in terms of creating meaning for reps.
“We get into this routine of answering a ticket, hanging up the phone, or sending an email and that’s the end of it. But in most types of support, there are stakes to it. You’re helping someone get their job done,” he says.
Practical ways to raise the stakes in your team:
- Define the stakes during onboarding. Craig defines the stakes of support encounters for new team members during customer service training. “You’re not dealing with anonymous emails and phone calls or chats,” he tells them. “There’s a person there, and that person has a situation you may not know the full scope of.”
- Remind employees they’re the customer’s voice during big pivots. Change is necessary for business growth. But changes can break things, bringing about customer pains and leaving the support team to clean up the mess. When this happens, remind reps that they are the customer advocates during this time. They are the only ones who can tell leadership what people need and expect from the company. That’s real power.
2. Place purpose ahead of strict guidelines
The psychological concept of autonomy states that people need freedom to make choices and feel in charge of the outcomes. Support reps can more easily find motivation when they’re empowered to solve problems based on their knowledge and experience, not just on orders from above.
There are several ways to encourage more autonomy in your team.
Practical ways to increase support reps’ autonomy
- Create guardrails, not policies. Guardrails are less strictly enforced and thus more flexible. Craig says, “There may be a very good reason to hop over that guardrail. And you should feel free to do that if the situation requires it. Policies lead to the end of a conversation. Policies that shut down a situation don’t bring value to anyone.”
- Encourage creative problem-solving. Customers don’t like to hear the word “no,” especially if they have a high-stakes problem. The sentences that support reps need to practice, Craig says, begin with, “Here is what I can do.” Then, they can have a more open conversation and arrive at a compromise with the customer.
- Give support reps a budget. Nykki Yeager, Founder of Flight CX, recommends giving customer service employees a budget to solve problems. For example, discounts or rebates under $20 are up to their discretion and don’t require approval. This leaves the implementation of resources up to reps and helps them feel autonomous.
3. Create a culture of recognition and celebration
Studies have shown positive feedback can enhance self-determination, increase internal motivation, and lead to perceived competence. While extrinsic rewards (such as cash bonuses or gift cards) can be a good thing, positive reinforcement is still a necessary motivator.
Even a simple acknowledgment of a support rep’s work can go a long way in restoring motivation.
Consider this experiment from behavioral psychologist Dan Ariely. He set up three groups of people assigned to complete a simple task. Those who got an affirmative acknowledgment of the work were willing to go back and complete the task again. In the other two groups, he either said nothing or placed their work in a paper shredder. The kicker? He found that not saying anything at all was nearly as bad as shredding their efforts right in front of them.
Practical ways to implement a culture of celebration
- Praise in public; criticize in private. Technology makes giving employees a public pat on the back easier than ever, whether in a Slack channel, all-hands meeting, or group chat.
- Use material incentives (sparingly). Craig adds, “When people go above and beyond, put in some extra effort, or spend more time on a particular issue, there should be some sort of benefit to that.” Some examples include spot bonuses or a peer point system that can lead to nice prizes like an Apple Watch or Nintendo Switch.
4. Replace gamification with genuine impact
Pitting your employees against each other in competition has never been a sustainable strategy for success. Even when challenges are friendly, contests that focus on certain business metrics or skill areas can be gimmicky and ultimately unmotivating.
Even if you see an uptick in numbers initially, gamification can detract from intrinsic motivation over the long term.
According to cognitive evaluation theory (CET), rewards such as those offered in a gamified workplace “can have a controlling aspect that pressures people to think, feel, or behave in specific ways.” This pressure redirects motivation from inner satisfaction to external prizes.
Craig backs this theory up with his real-world experience. “I think gamification leads to gamification. If you’re incentivizing average handle time, people will start hanging up the phone earlier, even if the question is not solved. If you start incentivizing the number of tickets, [reps] might create three, four, or five tickets for one phone call because it looks good on paper.”
Instead, give employees opportunities to make a real and lasting impact on the business.
Practical ways to create impactful incentives
- Reduce boredom with automation: Customer service automation makes tools more efficient and eliminates repetitive tasks. This frees up mental space to work on innovation and creative problem-solving, areas where reps can follow their interests and show independent growth.
- Allow employees to try different tasks and roles: Craig says, “I would focus on making sure there’s a variety. A role shouldn’t be so specialized that one person answers the same question 1,000 times a day.”
5. Continue to gather feedback and listen to your support reps
Unlocking motivation is a continuous process, especially as your team and organization mature over time. Observing and listening to employee feedback can help managers stay on track.
You can ask reps direct questions, such as:
- How do you feel about the level of autonomy you have at work?
- Do you feel like you can adequately complete tasks and projects?
- Do you feel supported by managers and colleagues?
Annual or semi-annual performance reviews can be a good time to ask more personal and/or philosophical questions about work satisfaction. It can also be a great time to re-evaluate the scope of a team member’s role. Perhaps they’re interested in managing juniors or want to learn more technical skills to become a support engineer. As a manager, you can facilitate these changes to allow for greater satisfaction while also benefiting the business.
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Making adjustments to fit a support rep’s wants and needs will show them they’re not only in charge of their success, but they’re supported in their path toward achieving it.
If you’re looking for more ways to support reps, it may be time to develop or revisit how reps can progress in their careers. Check out our guide to customer service team structures to help you navigate potential new opportunities for seasoned reps and how you can organize your department to scale effectively.