Featured Image for the blog: Balancing Positive and Negative Feedback for Contact Center Agent Growth

You recruit and hire personable, competent agents. You get them ramped, comfortable with their roles and responsibilities, and aligned with team and company expectations.

Then, everything runs smoothly without your intervention forever and ever…right?

Nope. Unfortunately, that’s not the way this works.

As a manager, even your top performers need feedback and developmental opportunities for continued success.

Most of us know the importance of feedback. And, we do our best to give it regularly. The problem is, we’re still not doing enough.

Some 72% of employees get praise less than once a week. And, another 32% of employees have to wait three months for any kind of feedback from their manager.

Holding back your recognition and not jumping in to correct the course when things go wrong causes your agents to disengage with their work. Then, that disengagement brews and spreads, mounting into more attrition in your contact center and a harder hit to your bottom line.

According to Gallup’s book How Full Is Your Bucket, penned by Tom Rath and Donald Clifton, the top reason people leave their jobs is that they don’t feel appreciated.

Agents need ongoing coaching to better understand what they’re doing well and where to improve. But, identifying and offering the right balance of positive and negative feedback, challenges many managers.

With a limited number of hours in the day, how do you share enough feedback with each of your team members? And how do you strike the right balance between positive and negative feedback?

We’re here to talk you through that challenge, so you can deliver the right feedback to your agents, at the right time.

The ideal ratio of positive feedback vs. negative feedback.

You may be reading this article, thinking, the ideal ratio of positive to negative feedback is whatever my agent’s performance warrants. 

And there’s a bit of truth to that. Your agents performing in the top 90% of your team won’t need as much constructive feedback as those performing in the bottom 10%. Performance drives feedback, sure, but research shows there’s a golden ratio for high-performing teams.

According to research, the ideal praise-to-criticism ratio is 5:1. Meaning, for every negative comment you make, you need to share five positive comments as well.

The original research by Emily Heaphy and Marcial Losada IDed this 5:1 ratio of positivity to negativity in high-performing business teams. In medium-performing teams, the ratio was about 2:1. With teams sharing two positive comments for every negative comment. And, in low-performing teams, the ratio stood at stark contrast. Teams shared nearly three times as many negative comments as positive ones.

So, how can you, manager, get the ratio right to create a high-performing team of agents?

How to share the right mix of positive and negative feedback.

Dumping positivity onto your agents as you share negative performance feedback isn’t impossible. These types of feedback enhance each other. They work in tandem to impact both your agent and your customer experience.

Specific and actionable negative feedback plays a crucial role in agent growth and development. Gallup research identifies clear expectations as the most basic and fundamental employee need. 

Often times, you set and redefine those expectations as you share negative feedback with your agents. The key is to stay objective and keep your cool as you share the feedback. Encourage your agents and tell them what they did right in addition to what they need to improve. Look to their past interactions to showcase their strengths and remind them of positive performance. That’s when negative feedback acts as a tool for growth instead of a slap on the wrist.

Positive feedback, on the other hand, is typically easier to share. Though, not all positive feedback is helpful. Positive feedback that’s vague and shared too late feels ingenuine and forced. When positive feedback is specific and tied to something bigger than just business results, you play to your agents’ strengths. And playing to those strengths drums up intrinsic motivation that empowers agents to do more for customers.

“Only positive feedback can motivate people to continue doing what they’re doing well, and do it with more vigor, determination, and creativity.” – Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman to HBR

Delivery matters. Why your approach to feedback makes or breaks agent-manager relationships.

A direct correlation exists between how a manager delivers agent feedback and how engaged or disengaged an agent is likely to feel as a result.

Getting your delivery right has huge implications. Gallup found that 67% of employees whose managers focused on their strengths were fully engaged in their work. That’s compared to only 31% of employees whose managers focused on their weaknesses.

Certain situations make negative feedback a non-negotiable. Like if an agent loses their temper on the phone with a customer. Some scenarios play out and need immediate intervention. But, how you share your negative feedback is important, too. It sets the tone to either help your agents change their behavior or to make them feel even worse. When the latter happens, you run the risk of sending agents into a downward spiral, only to repeat those bad behaviors.

Getting negative feedback right is essential.

As contradictory as it sounds, it’s possible to give negative feedback while still remaining focused on an agent’s strengths. And that’s how you encourage meaningful change.

Let’s look at an example.

Say your agent loses their temper during a customer interaction. You overhear the tiff and walk over to address it.

If you’re course-correcting your agent and playing to their strengths, you might say something like this:

“Hey Jasmine, your passion for your role and our company beliefs really showed through in that last interaction. I understand it can be frustrating when customer beliefs and actions don’t align with ours. It gets to me, too! Next time, I encourage you to take a step back before answering the customer’s questions. You’re an incredible problem-solver, and it’s okay to take a minute to gather your thoughts before coming to a resolution. Your customer will be happier with the outcome, and you’ll save yourself from frustration.”

If you don’t think intentionally about your delivery, your negative feedback might take this route:

“Hey Jasmine, your frustration during that last interaction was unacceptable. The customer is always right, and I need you to think more about your actions before you speak. Now, we have an angry customer on our hands that I have to deal with.”

The first response encourages a positive change in behavior and reassures your agent that their actions don’t define who they are as an individual. It’s okay to mess up, as long as you learn to handle future situations differently.

The second response does the opposite. It comes off as an attack on your agent’s character, and it puts them on defense. This erodes trust and diminishes your agent’s work. It’s also a primer for repeat bad behavior.

The ideal ratio promotes a positive coaching culture.

Companies with strong coaching cultures report 61% of their employees as highly-engaged, compared to 53% from companies without a coaching culture. And, nearly 46% of companies with strong coaching cultures reported revenue above their peer group, too.

Keeping the ideal ratio in mind promotes a positive coaching culture in your contact center. It means every conversation focuses on growth and improvement – even the negative ones. It gets your agents on board to do better in future interactions rather than tanking their confidence.

Learn how else you can build a positive coaching culture in your contact center.

Get our abbreviated guide with 29 key takeaways for better call center coaching.

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We originally published this post on May 29, 2018, and we updated it for new insight on September 19, 2019.