Dial Up Engagement to Boost Sales and Service

Problem: In 2008, attrition among AT&T Mobility’s retail sales consultants cost millions annually and impacted the service experience.

Solution: AT&T reduced costs, increased revenues and improved the customer experience by developing employees to be more inspired and engaged.

Driven by an economy ripe with job opportunities, increasing numbers of part-time positions and other factors which were not fully clear to AT&T at the time, the company’s retail sales consultant attrition increased steadily through the mid-2000s. Karen Bennett, vice president of sales strategy and support for AT&T Mobility, was determined to reduce the rising expense associated with turnover and position the company to compete in the new, dynamic market. She initiated a number of strategies to increase employee retention and improve the customer experience.

AT&T partnered with talent management consultancy TalentKeepers to build a systemic approach to identify key retention and engagement drivers, as well as clear processes to leverage the influence front-line leaders have on team members’ decisions to stay or leave.

Understanding the reasons employees were leaving and having clear action plans to address them was appealing given the attrition problem. To test the efficacy of this approach, three sales markets — north Florida, upstate New York and east Los Angeles — were selected as trial sites. The sites were chosen for their diversity in size, attrition rates and union representation. If the solutions worked across these three markets, they should work everywhere.

AT&T Mobility began by surveying retail sales and support team members and their leaders to measure key organizational, job and leader factors that influenced their decision to join, stay and consider leaving the organization. Survey results were used to drive changes in a variety of areas including compensation models, work schedules, leadership skills and sales consultant training. Leaders, from directors to store managers, received detailed reports for their part of the business and training on their role in engaging and retaining team members. Each leader was held accountable for his or her influence on employees’ decisions to stay with or leave the organization.

Through the first nine months of the initiative, attrition rates dropped in two of the three trial markets, including the north Florida market, headquartered in Orlando. The site began the trial with the highest attrition rate in the company. Its leadership team embraced the employee engagement program and deployed companion projects spanning several areas in the organization:

• Market specific initiatives: Improved new hire training to help new employees reach proficiency more quickly.
• Hiring process enhancements: Effective use of behavioral selection interviews, realistic job previews and having candidates observe a customer interaction.
• New employee on-boarding processes: Manager touchpoints throughout training, manager follow-up based on trainer feedback, a buddy system and enhanced coaching activities.
• Increased focus on tenured employees: Enhanced coaching, communication and active listening, team building, recognition and rewards.

By the end of 2008, attrition in north Florida dropped 38 basis points and was one of the lowest in the company. “The structure and rhythm of this effort began a new culture of genuinely listening and appropriately responding to employees’ concerns,” said Jake Mullins, the director of sales in the north Florida market.

As employee attrition dropped, the market’s sales performance increased to one of the best in the southeast region. Bennett and her colleagues realized that what was accomplished was much more than a process to retain sales consultants. They had a way to increase leadership skills to help improve both employee engagement and the customer experience (Figure 1).

During the next four years, the employee retention initiative was transformed into an organization-wide employee engagement effort with the goal to create an inspired and engaged culture which would deliver an extraordinary experience for AT&T’s customers and lead to increased revenue and profits.

As the employee retention initiative evolved into a performance improvement strategy, so did AT&T Mobility’s operating focus. After years of emphasis on sales growth metrics such as new customers, new devices, new features and revenue, the organization recognized the need to focus on customer service levels.

Creating an extraordinary customer experience became the new mantra, and along with it came new metrics for success: willingness to recommend, Net Promoter Scores and net rep satisfaction were now receiving as much attention as traditional sales growth metrics. To be successful on these new service-oriented metrics, the people driving the metrics had to focus on the change.

In 2009, AT&T Mobility developed a three-year plan to measure and move the organization to an inspired and engaged culture. One underlying premise was that customer satisfaction is driven by employee engagement, which is defined as an employee’s willingness to provide discretionary effort — to go above and beyond to help the organization be successful. The culture change process consisted of four steps.

Step 1: Measure what drives employee engagement within AT&T Mobility: To determine this, the company worked with consultancy McKinsey & Co. to identify the key drivers of employee engagement (Figure 2).

Step 2: Measure the strengths and components of each engagement driver every six months: AT&T Mobility adapted TalentWatch, the survey used during the first three years of the initiative, and renamed it the leader and engagement (L&E) survey.

Administering the L&E survey every six months enabled the company to establish a rhythm of measurement, action planning, skill building and re-measurement. Constantly updating metrics clearly communicates to everyone that leaders are serious about change, and everyone is accountable for doing his or her part. This includes all levels of leadership, from regional presidents to assistant store managers. While the score is tracked to determine the direction of progress, it is also about the dialogue between the employee and his or her immediate supervisor. This relationship building is core to having an engaged workforce that wants to give discretionary effort.

By the end of 2012 more than 6,500 leaders will have received individual feedback reports with data from their own teams after every survey. Each leader then creates goals for key metrics such as the leader engagement index, employee engagement index and team satisfaction increase to be met in the next L&E survey. Further, each leader creates an action plan identifying the key behaviors he or she will improve to meet the next set of goals.

Step 3: Measure what is important to each employee in a leader and in his or her career: While the L&E survey determines how employees feel about the organization, their jobs and their leaders, the data is only available at the team level or higher. AT&T Mobility decided to go a step further and measure what was important to individual employees when it came to attributes they value in a leader and elements they value in a career. The company implemented FirstFit, a non-anonymous survey each employee completes roughly once every two years and as part of the on-boarding process for new hires.

FirstFit serves as a scouting report for leaders on how to best lead each of their team members. Each leader receives a discussion guide containing survey results for each employee. Leaders then meet with individual team members to discuss the results and agree on ways they can best lead them and help them achieve their career goals.

Step 4: Develop leaders’ employee engagement awareness and engagement skills: Employee engagement research studies from organizations such as Gallup and Kenexa have shown that an employee’s immediate leader is typically one of the most impactful factors when it comes to employee engagement and retention. Most leaders underestimate the influence they have on their teams, especially in larger organizations.

Results from AT&T Mobility prove to leaders just how much they matter to their teams. L&E survey results show leaders their team members’ ratings of organization, job and leader factors, and team members routinely rate their leader as the strongest of the three. Leaders learn how to interpret their survey results, set realistic goals, meet with their teams to share findings and ask how they can be more effective in the areas which have the greatest opportunity for improvement.

FirstFit survey results were aggregated for 18,000 front-line team members, and the most desired leadership attributes are shown in Figure 3.

Using this prioritization, AT&T Mobility implemented blended learning modules covering many of the aforementioned leadership attributes. First, leaders complete an e-learning module which introduces the skill and provides virtual practice sessions. Then they participate in a three- to four-hour, instructor-led workshop where they discuss potential obstacles to utilizing the skills, participate in role-plays and prepare to work with their teams on specific on-the-job practice activities. It is all about asking for feedback, receiving feedback and acting on the feedback.

Going into 2013, AT&T continues to expand the initiative that now includes more than 50,000 employees. Performance metrics in total sales, accessory sales and feature sales continue to improve as engagement increases. Further, customer experience metrics such as a customer’s willingness to recommend AT&T products and services to others are increasing as well.

Sherie Britain is director of sales operations for AT&T Mobility — retail sales and service, and Christopher P. Mulligan is chief executive officer of TalentKeepers. They can be reached at editor@talentmgt.com.