Ockham’s Law and the Long-term Telephone Service Representative

Note to the reader: This is an article I wrote for a telephone answering service trade journal many years ago, directed to answering service owners. However, the message is simple and the points are applicable anywhere. Read between the lines to find the application to your own business or work situation. –sc

updated 04/27/2017

Ockham’s Razor: A principle attributed to the 14th-century English philosopher William of Ockham. It states that “entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity, or that one should choose the simplest explanation, the one requiring the fewest assumptions and principles.” (from the NY Public Library Desk Reference).

Exactly, What is the Problem?

What do answering service owners and managers want from their telephone service representatives (TSRs)? The short list includes high quality performance and long-term employment. Needless to say, we would also do just about anything for cheerful and constructive attitudes.

Employee turnover and training are the major topics in our trade meeting get-togethers, both in general sessions and in one-on-one discussions among ourselves. In our industry, it’s an accepted fact of life and of our industry’s history that too many TSRs don’t stick around for the long term and for those that do, that there are sometimes “negative comportment” problems.

Why is there such tumult within answering service TSR operations departments? Why are owners and managers constantly trading tips and secrets in an attempt to stem the tide of incessant TSR staff turnover, and why are they constantly berating themselves, their employees and the telecom industry in general?

I contend that the problem is not due to unqualified job applicants or a general lack of work ethic. Instead, it’s the owner/manager’s failure to address the real-life requirements of staff while proffering gimmicky and manipulative incentives and/or punishments.

No more Band-Aids, please.

According to Sir Ockham, the solution will be simple.

I know an answering service owner who claims that staff turnover is not the largest problem in his TAS (although it is the number two problem). This owner says the largest problem is the state government’s mandated increases in the minimum wage. It keeps going up! Another owner has a well thought-out, documented punishment procedure for giving people time off from work for non-performance or “bad attitude.“ And, here’s a comment I overheard from a TAS operations manager: “We can’t do drug testing. I would have to fire everyone and there would be no one to answer the phones.”

And, what about TSR compensation? Here’s the ubiquitous historical industry excuse for offering meager pay: “You just don’t understand. This is a cut-throat, hyper-competitive, low income industry and we just can’t pay a better wage. Telephone answering service is a commodity and although quality is important, in the end, success is a function of low price to the customer.”

Of course service rates to clients are a major influence. But what if we could pay a higher rate of pay to our TSRs while making their work environment more stable and more predictable? If this produced a stable staff that provided better service quality, could clients be charged more? Of course!

So, what are the causes of staff turnover? What are the root, no-frills, no-cover-up, no band-aid actual causes of the problem? The answers will invariably jibe with Ockham’s law. The solutions will be simple and in their simplicity will expose previous unsuccessful attempts for what they were: smoke screens offering some initial excitement but which couldn’t possibly offer a long term solution because they had nothing to do with the fundamental needs of TSRs.

I will interject this here. It’s a simple yet critically important concept: A long time ago, when I had just started in the business, the owner of a large and successful service told me that “Your employees want to do a good job. It is your job to make that easy for them to do. Don’t ever second-guess their motivation. They want to do a good job!”

If an owner or manager begins with the basic premise that “all employees are lazy,” or “there is no work ethic anymore,” or “I can’t pay enough to find and hold quality people,” where will that lead? If these are your fundamental beliefs, you must change them. If you can’t, you are doomed.

Here are the three primary reasons why most answering services can’t keep employees long-term. They are disarming in their simplicity: First, employees aren’t getting what they want in terms of pay and benefits. Big surprise. Second, they simply don’t know what to expect. They must be mind-readers in order to stay out of trouble. That’s impossible. And third, TSRs are manipulated in subtle and not-so-subtle ways while at the same time their hard work is not acknowledged. This promotes negativism.

Very simple.

So, the money is not good, requirements for performance are mysterious, and manipulative reward and punishment schemes erupt sporadically from the minds of owner/managers. And on top of all that, good work goes unacknowledged. Not a terrific work situation.
Hence, relentless turn-over. It’s so simple and obvious it sounds ridiculous when stated on the written page.

A Philosophy and a System of Employment
To begin, understand that incentive plans that don’t address the fundamental needs of employees will be doomed from the beginning. These programs are worse than a waste of time and money as they will dampen morale. And punishment? Don’t even think about it.

Instead, develop a philosophy of employment that will address the true needs of your employees. If you worked for someone else, would you want it any other way?

And remember this: You don’t need super-human people. There are hoards of good people out there and this is your bread and butter. You need stable employees; ones with backbone, who are reliable and honest and hard-working. There are lots of people out there like that and they will find their way to you and they will stay long-term while they give you 110%. All you must do is serve their needs, not ask them to be mind-readers and treat them like the adults they are. It is your job to provide an extraordinary employment system, one that acknowledges their worth and fulfills their needs.

And you need to be crystal clear about the arrangement without being afraid to throw up a challenge – this is the “deal” between the company and the employee. At Centratel, our deal with TSRs is simply “we will pay you very well if you give us 110%.” Again, very simple.

And remember, your extraordinary employment system must be put down on paper so your people know exactly what it is. This takes time but, so what? You are breaking your back already. Just channel that same time and energy and money in a different direction that includes not only simplicity, but documentation. Swallow this pill: Documentation is a pre-requisite for long-term staff stability and I promise you that if you do it, stability is what you will have.

What to Include. What to Leave Out.
Before discussing what to include in a new employment system, it is important to consider what not to include. This is the best part because by simply dropping useless actions, you will promote an overall simplicity. Here are some “motivators” that I’ve heard about in other answering services: Useless gifts (as exemplified by a huge bag of plastic Mickey Mouse ears brought back to TSRs after the owner visited Disney World), complicated formulas to award cash bonuses for perfect attendance; at staff meetings, “fun” games and rewards for attending those meetings. Also, gift certificates for having a “good attitude” and movie theater tickets as prizes for making it through initial training or for “good behavior.” Also, useless: long, drawn-out conversations with “problem” employees in attempts to reason with them, to convince them to have better attitudes. Or, worse, discussing their personal problems with them, trying to help them out with their problems outside the office. That’s not your job and it is none of your business.

What do all of these strategies have in common? First, they have nothing to do with the real, long-term needs of people. Arriving inconsistently, they are of low intrinsic value and they miss the point. They are band aids. Second, and this is worse, the games and heart-to-heart chats are perceived by employees for what they are: manipulative and childish, management’s adult-child effort to hood-wink them into being good little girls and boys. This is what a gerontology professional would call “infantizing.” It is insulting in a low-key, almost imperceptible way. This is carrot-on-a-stick, Bugs Bunny methodology and within your staff it will breed an underlying disrespect because it’s disrespectful. You employ adults: treat them as such.

At Centratel, we have little turnover in our operations department. Only occasionally will a TSR call in sick nor are they often tardy. Everyone makes it to staff meetings. Yes, our people have their own personal life problems like everyone else, but nonetheless these are exceptionally positive and solid people. It’s not because of something we did to them. It’s because that’s the way they are. It’s the way they were before they came to us and it’s the way they continue to be. It’s who they are naturally. They are good people who, by meeting their needs and by being respectful, we were able to find and keep.

Rather than attempting to cultivate the personal attitudes and work ethic we seek, we carefully pick good people and then we don’t alienate them.

In addition to giving them what they need for compensation and treating them like adults, we work hard to give them a stability that is in contrast with personal worlds that may be unstable. It may be just a job but when TSRs come to work, it’s a place that is safe: calm, collected and predictable. This stability is especially a result of our rigorous documentation: Our TSRs don’t have to be mind-readers because what we ask them to do is written down thoroughly and precisely.

As a sidebar: In the history of my own business, the ground shaking paradigm shifts came at the blackest of times. It was usually “do something dramatic, right this minute or file for bankruptcy tomorrow morning.” In these on-the-edge times, a huge and immediate change in philosophy and operating policy was exactly what was needed. I won’t go into the details but that is what happened here, with my awakening regarding the people who work for Centratel.

Be thankful, I say, for the hard times.

Getting Specific
So, what would William of Ockham do if he owned a telephone answering service? Following is my best-guess list. None of these ideas are new or revolutionary, and the list is not complete, but what they have in common are that they meet the needs of both TSRs and owner/managers and they are simple. And remember that a critical key to a stable staff is to presume the good intentions of each TSR.

OK. Let’s get to it:
1. You’ve already guessed the #1 item: Pay a generous wage. Money is why people come to work. Forget the convenient theory that “pay isn’t the most important part of a job, it’s the feeling of being valued”, etc. How Sixties is that? Don’t ask a business theorist, go to the guts of the matter and ask your staff what’s most important to them! Long ago, to see if I was missing anything with that contention, I actually submitted a written questionnaire to our TSR’s asking why they worked for Centratel. They overwhelmingly told me it is the pay that is most important – and so I was relieved to know that “I had a firm grasp of the obvious.” And, remember that a high pay scale has payoffs that are not always obvious and measurable: high quality performance from long-term employees. These non-measurable benefits more than make up for the seemingly extra cost.

2. I’ll get some argument on this one: No part time people. All full-timers. Part-timers simply won’t have the same experience on the phones; they can’t get the same workout with the accounts and the techniques. How can a twenty-hour per week employee possibly attain the same degree of expertise as a forty-hour per week employee? Also, for part-timers, the job usually ranks a low priority in their lives and we want career-minded, serious people who consider their jobs important enough that what we want, and what they get, really matters to them in the long term. We don’t take our business casually and neither will a full-time employee.

3. No paid sick days or Paid Time Off (PTO). Why? Because paying people when they are not at work is a reward for not going to work! We give PTO but it is a cash payment showing up as it is earned as a separate line-item on their bi-weekly paychecks. They are allowed time off, two to three weeks depending on seniority, but they are not paid when they are gone. Pay is only earned when the TSR shows up. Simple.

4. Health insurance: Yes.

5. NO MOTIVATIONAL OR PUNISHMENT GIMMICKS OF ANY KIND.

6. No employee-to-employee contests. Intra-office rivalry guarantees winners and losers. TSRs are on a single team with a single group motivation: to support each other in order to take care of callers and clients.

7. If an employee does a good job, say so. If an employee does a poor job, also say so. However, constant back-slapping will work against you. Do it occasionally and it will be more appreciated. Another “however”: You must point out errors and poor performance every single time (and that won’t be very often once you have improved things: Centratel’s most recent statistics show a Customer Reported Error Rate of one error for every nine thousand messages processed).

8. Shift schedules are put out to bid and awarded by seniority. Inevitably, the most senior TSRs will occupy the best weekday daytime shifts, understanding these prime shifts are a reward for their long service. The less tenured TSRs will also value their time with the company, seeing their company histories as assets which grow more valuable every day. And of course, the seniority method eliminates bickering and allegations of unfairness.

9. Put the job down on paper. This includes a clear and concise operational manual, an employee handbook and individual job descriptions. It’s a stressful occupation as it is: Does a TSR have to also be a mind-reader in order to survive? To the very last detail, instructions for performing the work should be in black and white; hard-copy and/or on-line.

10. “Pay by performance” with an absolutely objective method of measurement. At Centratel we have a full-time quality specialist, Pattie, who rates call quality and reviews performance weekly with each TSR. TSR’s can boost their take-home by up to 35% with this plan. For the TSR, that additional 35% is the “fun money beyond the mandatory money.” It’s something extra that can really enhance a personal life.

So, this all begins with a mind-set change regarding employees and a business employment system. Stop looking for the perfect employee, inserting gimmicks or blathering away with the generic excuses about unmotivated employees and a declining work ethic. Instead, per Ockham’s Law, “choose the simplest explanation, the one requiring the fewest assumptions” and document a plan that addresses the real needs of your TSRs; TSRs “who want to do a good job.”