Training, coaching and burning the boats: How to inspire customer contact center agents to do what they are capable of doing

By Bob Davis

My company—Robert C. Davis and Associates (RCDA)—was working on a culture-change project in a client’s customer contact center, and a quote from Emerson kept going through my head: “Our chief want in life is somebody who shall make us do what we can.”

It was time for the all-hands meeting, and agents were arriving from every direction. From the north wing and upstairs they came, all gathering in the first-floor meeting center. I heard the chatter driven by the excitement that comes when agents have time off the phones, much like what children experience when they get snow day off from school. They all thought it was a celebration, and it was. But I knew that on this day we would drop the bomb that would truly make them do what they can.

I am, however, getting ahead of myself. The culture-change project started in earnest during September 2011. The goal of the project was to use a proven approach that I call the Quality Conversation to turn order-takers into consultative sales people. (Learn more about the Quality Conversation approach at

Before September, RCDA had completed a highly successful pilot program in the customer contact center with a small group of agents. They had increased their closing ratio on all calls by 13 percent and multi-product sales to single callers by 14 percent. We had won the hearts and minds of the pilot team, and in September we had started working hard to drive these sales increases across the entire enterprise.

We had conducted hundreds of hours of classroom training on the Quality Conversation so everyone would learn and master this process and its consultative approach to selling. We had spent thousands of hours coaching these skills for mastery and sustainability. Activities included running contests and providing rewards and recognition, and we were making progress on winning the hearts and minds of the agents enterprise-wide.

Although most agents had taken advantage of the training and coaching, many did not. At this point about 80 percent of the agents were following the process about 80 percent of the time. This was good, but not good enough. So we started a certification process with prizes and incentives to get certified on the Quality Conversation approach. During the first month we spent a great deal of time giving close guidance, coaching and feedback.

The standards for certification were high. As a result, only about five percent of the team became certified. At this point we had two choices—either lower standards or find something that, as the Emerson quote indicates, would make the agents do what they can.

This optimist became a realist. We decided that becoming certified would affect base pay. Agents who became certified would receive an additional $2. Those who did not would lose $2. This $4 per hour differential was significant, representing about 30 percent the agents’ base pay.

Failure not an option

We were, in essence, doing what the commanders of ancient Greek warriors did when they landed on enemy shores from the sea. “Burn the boats,” the commanders ordered. With no boats, the warriors had nowhere to retreat. There would be no turning back and no surrender. The warriors knew immediately that failure was not an option. The victory had to be won.

It was stunning when we made the announcement about base pay in the all-hands meeting. You could see in the agents’ faces that they did not consider it an acceptable option to lose $2 per hour. To them, failure was not an option. The look of determination in the agents’ eyes was the same as what must have been in those Greek warriors’ eyes. Their victory—getting certified and increasing base pay by $2—had to be won as well.

My team and I had never worked harder to win the hearts and minds of any team before we tied certification to base pay. This one bold move pushed the call center team from good results to great. Within the first week, nearly 100 percent of the agents were using the process nearly 100 percent of the time.

It would be easy to conclude that tying pay to performance is the only thing that is needed to turn a culture around, but we all know it is not that simple. We gave them the culture-changing tools first, and then used pay to drive the idea that failure is not an option. This is what drove the results over the top.

When Emerson said, “Our chief want in life is somebody who shall make us do what we can,” he added, “This is the service of a friend.” So I did not feel so bad about effectively giving the command to burn the boats. With training and coaching followed by tying base pay to certification, we helped the agents do what they are capable of doing. In the end, that’s being a friend indeed.

Bob Davis is the president of Robert C. Davis and Associates (, a consulting firm in Alpharetta, Georgia, specializing in improving sales, customer service and retention results in customer contact centers across North America. Bob is also co-founder of Surpass (, a highly specialized outsource customer contact center serving the needs of business clients across the country.