Contact Centre Manager Interview: Martin Teasdale of Affinion

This post is part of our Contact Centre Manager series where we speak with an industry expert to understand the challenges they face and the strategies and tactics they are deploying for success.

In today’s post we speak with Martin Teasdale, Contact Centre Manager at Affinion. Please note that Affinion are not a customer of NewVoiceMedia.

Martin Teasdale of Affinion

In 2010 Martin was tasked with setting up a new contact centre team at Affinion’s Portsmouth site. Prior to the creation of Martin’s team Affinion used a range of outsourced contact centres, and the pressure was on for the new team to deliver higher levels of service at a lower level of cost than the outsourcers. From a standing start Martin was responsible for defining the culture of the team and recruiting over 100 agents.

As part of the judging process for the London and South East Contact Centre Awards we visited Martin’s team and witnessed an amazing culture and passion for their customers. We asked Martin to share some of his thoughts on how this was achieved.

1. Culture comes from the top

When starting out Martin knew that for the new team to compete with the outsourcers they had to have something more – they weren’t going to succeed purely on cost savings. With the backing of the Affinion Executive team Martin focused on building a great culture with a vision that customers and team members could buy in to.

When you meet Martin you see his passion for the team’s work, but he is quick to highlight that this passion is endemic in the upper tiers of the business making it easier for him to deploy some of the tactics he discusses later.

2. Put People First

Being a contact centre manager is more than understanding metrics and disposition codes. Martin says that “in some respects you are a social worker. You need to listen to and understand your team members. You need to ask ‘What’s your story? What motivates you, what are your concerns and fears?’ Ultimately you need to say ‘I care!’ ”

For many of the team Martin was recruiting, this was their first or second job. There was coaching that needed to happen to help new starters understand the working environment, but it went both ways, with Martin and his team leaders spending many hours learning about their new team members.

You can’t fake this. You either know that your team member is planning to buy a new house, or get married, or you don’t, and you can only know it by being genuinely interested in their lives.

In addition to this Martin steers away from the usual Contact Centre term Agent. “It’s hard to put people on a pedestal and develop their career when you use words like ‘them’ and ‘the agents’. From the start we’ve used the term ‘team member’ because that’s what we all are.”

3. Create A Flat Structure

In other Affinion teams the Team Leaders reported into Team Managers who then reported into the Contact Centre Manager. With the new team, in June 2011 the Team Leaders started reporting straight into Martin. ”This meant everyone had to step up a level – team leaders and the team members had much more responsibility – but they thrived on it.”

In addition Martin makes time to dial alongside his team, clocking up 100 hours on the phone last year with above average performance. ”I feel a lot closer to the team on the phone than I had been previously which helps me make better decisions.”

4. Develop Careers

When the team was first set up there was quite high attrition, as might be expected in a contact centre environment. But Martin was not happy to settle for that. Understanding that for many of his team this was the first step in their career he takes a proactive attitude to supporting their progress. Affinion is a global business, and Martin views it as a success if one of his team can move on into other areas of the company.

Once his team understood that Martin was not a career-limiting leader and that he could actually support them in moving up attrition and absence fell significantly below the levels of the outsourcers.

5. Be Creative with Incentives

In a contact centre role, especially in an outbound sales team, it can be difficult to maintain the passion and motivation from the first call on Monday, to the last on Friday. Martin has taken an innovative approach to incentives, by involving the teams in creating them. ”Rather than dictating an incentive and saying ‘you will have fun’ we asked the teams to come up with ideas.” says Martin.

“We took the top three ideas and asked the teams to present them to the rest of the group and then take questions in a Dragon’s Den style format. The winning team was then responsible for creating, implementing and managing the incentive.”

“I learned a lot about our team members through the process, those that won, as well as those that didn’t. And because the team had come up with and voted for the incentive themselves they were much morecommittedto making it a success than if I’d putsomethingtogether.”

6. Manage Quality Carefully

Affinion provides contact centre services to their own clients, as well as a newly formed outsourced contact centre that services 3rd party customers. Quality is therefore very important to the long term success of the business. We asked Martin how he balanced the need for a Quality Management team with maintaining a strong culture.

“At the start the team used to dread the Quality Management team coming onto the floor! ‘Oh no, are they coming for me?’ was the usual feeling” says Martin.

To counter this Martin focused on building bridges between the teams – Quality Management are people too! Martin ensured the QM team spent more time sitting alongside the calling teams, and encouraged them to spend time dialling themselves. This gave them credibility when scoring other’s calls, but also gave them much better understanding of what makes a good call.

The QM team also voted on a call of the month and a team of the month, so they were seen as a supporter of the callers, and that what they want is directly aligned to what the calling teams want.

7. Delegate as much as possible

Depending on the call volumes there were often times in the early days when team members had time off the phone, and they were filling this by reading books they had brought in. Martin didn’t feel this was appropriate but did recognise that the team needed something to occupy them during quiet periods.

“We asked the teams to design a workbook each month. Every team gets involved, with pages covering incentives, new starters, tips and tricks, as well as some crosswords and puzzles to fill those quiet periods”

By delegating the production to the team it has developed some fantastic skills in the team that would have gone unrecognised.

Why It Matters

Martin has a great focus on his team members, supporting them, coaching them, delegating and progressing their careers. The financial benefits to Affinion have been clear – outperforming the outsourcers on sales, and at a lower cost per hour.

But the real value to Martin is the thanks that comes from his team, whoaffectionatelycall him Mr T. In a recent workbook a team that were leaving the call centre to progress their Affinion careers published a letter to Martin which ended:

“Martin, you are an inspiration to us all…although we will miss being in your team the lessons you have taught us will be eternal. The journey isn’t over, we are just taking a different route. We all know that whoever you manage next will get to share the sameprivilegesthat we have all been so blessed to have experienced.”

Our thanks to Martin for taking the time to speak with us. The in-sourcing of the contact centre has been so successful that Martin’s team have now set up their own outsourcing operation for other businesses to use. Check out Dialogue’s website to get a feel for the culture that Martin has developed.

Written by Vonage Staff

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