Turn Up the Volume of Your Inbound Service Channel
White Paper

Turn Up the Volume of Your Inbound Service Channel


In today’s burgeoning self-service environment, customers often prefer to take care of issues at a time and even a location of their own choosing. Outcomes for the businesses serving them, however, may be less than optimal, as the self-service climate greatly reduces and sometimes even eliminates personal contact with customers. This, in turn, limits the number of opportunities companies have to establish and maintain the close customer interactions that lead to brand and product loyalty, increased sales and low customer attrition.

When the economy experiences difficulties, every business wants to keep the “right” customers. For example, banks in the past kept a number of card holders on their rolls, even though these customers never used their cards. Many banks have since closed these accounts, leaving only the customers they want to keep…and keep happy. And given the likelihood that many telcom and technology customers will buy again and again, companies in these industries want their share (or better) of that repeat business.

Coming at a time of increased competition for preferred customers, the quest for customer satisfaction and positive customer interactions is more important than ever. The challenge is how to accomplish this given the growth of the self-service environment that causes fewer and fewer customer touch points. Across industries, companies are now developing strategies aimed at selling more products to current customers, selling the right products to the right customers and improving retention and profitability – all of which are considerably less expensive than identifying and attracting new customers.

One answer lies in maximizing the value of the touch points, taking advantage of any and all customer contacts. For some businesses, this may mean making the most of inbound calls. Standard performance is no longer sufficient to retain customers and improve profitability.

The inbound sales function – previously something of a stepchild in the sales profession – is emerging as a significant part of the sales and marketing mix, reflecting the new realities of customer purchasing and service preferences.

Unfortunately a number of bad practices have crept into inbound sales programs over the years, leading to dissatisfied customers and poor performance. These include:

  • A “pop-up box” mentality, in which agents are required to sell a particular product, often at sizable margins, regardless of customer needs
  • Poor performing technology that impedes the ability of agents to discern or elicit customer needs
  • Inadequate needs assessment by agents that makes it difficult to match the right product with the right customer
  • Scripted responses that annoy customers, who generally prefer more natural conversational styles

The best sales platform is a satisfied customer – and inbound call agents can play a significant role in this process. Solving customer problems creates trust and rapport between callers and agents. The information gained during the interaction allows agents to make the most appropriate offer – one that will likely improve the customer experience by meeting their needs.

Excellent inbound agent performance doesn’t happen by accident. This white paper will examine best practices in five areas of sales programs, including:

  • Sales team selection
  • Sales training
  • Program measurement
  • Sales management
  • Incentive compensation

Companies that adopt these best practices will reap the benefits in a number of important areas, including improvement of customer satisfaction, increased profitability of product sales, reduction in agent attrition and the linking of agent compensation with company performance

The bottom line is that inbound agents who handle calls well and make the right offers to the right customers will result in “stickier” product offerings that result in higher levels of customer satisfaction. And these are results any company can be satisfied with.


Before building an effective inbound sales team, companies should develop a profile of a successful sales agent. This profile, a blend of sales and service competencies, can then be used for both new hires and transfers of existing staff.

A case can certainly be made that of the two, service competencies should be the over-riding concern, as service enables sales to occur by creating the proper environment for the offer. The human element creates the touch that makes the sales element work. Agents come in the door with the human elements and the sales elements are the value add of a program that works. Service competencies include:

  • Integrity/ethics
  • Customer service orientation
  • Communication skills
  • Interpersonal skills
  • Positive attitude

Sales competencies can typically be taught more easily than the service competencies, which tend to be personal characteristics. Sales competencies include:

  • Problem solving
  • Ability to listen and adapt
  • Influencing skills
  • Tenacity and resilience
  • Social confidence
  • Results orientation
  • Ability to work under pressure

New programs provide the opportunity to hire agents with the optimal blend of service and sales skills from the start.

However, in existing programs, where agents already have the much desired service competencies, the importance of the sales profile should not be underestimated. These agents can and should be enabled with a service-to-sales mindset by receiving training on the skills they lack. With careful screening for soft skills followed by a focus on the training of sales skills, agents will achieve success quickly. And as attrition occurs and new agents join the team, the agent “mix” will change to incorporate those hired with the optimal blend of skills, often elevating the overall level of competency within the team.

BEST PRACTICE: Telecom company offshore sales team selection

The company compared the performance of high conversion sales agents with that of those with lower conversion rates in an effort to identify the key traits that lead to success.

n a study of 10 percent of the agent population (including five agents below the conversion goal and five above the conversion goal), the company reviewed personal information about each agent and administered a personality assessment to identify traits in five categories: neuroticism (the tendency to experience negative feelings), extroversion (proactivity and engagement with the external world), openness to new experiences, agreeableness and conscientiousness.

As a result of the study, the company found that there were minimal differences in neuroticism, extroversion and openness to new experiences. However, agents in the more successful groups tended to be less agreeable (in that they were less accepting of the status quo and prone to work harder at overcoming objections) and had a higher level of conscientiousness, reflecting a drive to see that things were done properly.

Based on these findings, they determined that although all five factors were important, agreeableness and conscientiousness appeared to have a more significant impact on success, so long as they were part of the “package” of factors. They were then able to improve their hiring profiles and coaching initiatives accordingly.

Bottom Line – hire with the service skills and train on the sales skills as part of a good sales program


Sales training, using sophisticated adult learning methodologies and the company’s actual product examples, should be designed to speed the sales cycle and maintain a high level of agent effectiveness.

Best practices include:

  • Ask the caller the “right” questions to understand the customer’s needs, listen for buying cues and establish a relationship of trust.
  • Use caller responses in combination with product and market knowledge to identify a good offer, communicate its value and transition the call to an offer. This is one of the critical points in the conversation and underscores the need for the agent to be trained in how to ask the correct questions. It also demonstrates how scripted responses that have little to do with caller needs may have the opposite result of “turning off” the caller, rather than leading to a discussion (and acceptance) of a well-selected offer.
  • Handle questions and objections and close the sale: These are “technique” skill areas in which a certain level of scripting may be helpful, particularly for agents transitioning from a service to a sales environment. Successful agents will be aware of competitor offerings and value, know how to overcome customer resistance and ask for the sale.

Adult learning concepts recognize how adults prefer to learn and typically include a great deal of practice and participation. Elements include:

  • Listening to successful call examples: This can include “nesting,” in which less experienced agents are matched with more experienced and successful agents to watch, practice and then do.
  • Class interaction and role playing: Participants can practice what they learn in a safe and controlled environment.
  • Live calls: Agents receive immediate feedback to reinforce successful behaviors.
  • Continuous learning environment: New modules are added to supplement and refresh training on a regular basis.


BEST PRACTICE: Financial services company agent training

The training process began with team managers participating in a three day curriculum on managing high performance sales teams. Key elements were sales performance management, high performance sales coaching and motivating teams and individuals.

A subset of 30 agents participated in a five-day service-to-sales training program that focused on:

  • How effectively servicing the customer also includes sales
  • Identifying customer needs
  • Transitioning to the solution
  • Handling objections and closing the sale
  • Becoming a high performing sales agent

Agent performance was tracked for two months, showing sales conversion numbers that outperformed other agents by as much as 40 percent, while also exceeding customer satisfaction goals

Bottom Line – avoid scripting and train agents using adult learning concepts that allow them to interact successfully with callers to make the best offer and close the sale.


Performance measurement may cover a wide range of factors and methodologies, from basic quality scores to more sophisticated calculations of conversion rates and orders placed. Whatever the metrics used, they should be carefully thought out and then incorporated with agent goals. These establish the groundwork for negotiation on the meaning of success of the program for the two parties in the business arrangement. A tradeoff is created – behavior goals are addressed and financial goals are laid out.

It’s important to understand how standard factors such as customer satisfaction, offer rate, close rate, stickiness, ROI and average handle time are interrelated, so companies can prioritize desired outcomes and, therefore, the most suitable metrics.

How should the most appropriate KPIs be selected? As indicated above, it often involves negotiation. For example, companies that want their products satisfaction to be higher need to be willing to accept lower offer rates. In balance, higher customer satisfaction often accompanies lower offer rates but higher acceptance rates. Ultimately the outcome is maximized by the tradeoffs in the achievement of the metrics.

As demonstrated in the following illustrations, average handle time is often the “outlier” metric. Although this is a factor that may matter a great deal in service programs, it is less significant in a sales program. In fact, it may even have negative consequences related to the other factors. For example, closing a call too quickly seldom supports the development of an effective customer relationship, and may actually impede the agent’s ability to select, make and close the right offer.



Following is an example of how a company incorporated desired metrics with the stages of agent effectiveness:

  • Learning and applying the basics: Content included using the process consistently, asking the right questions, making effective transitions and asking for the order. Metrics included AHT, offer rate and QA rate.
  • Converting: Content included asking the right questions and selecting the best method of probing the caller for each call type. Metrics included conversion rate by product and offer rate.
  • Revenue: This content included conversion rate percentage, call control by call type (clear, simple offers and closes) and effective use of tools and information. The appropriate metric was conversion rate by average order value.
  • Advanced performance: At this point, there should be week-to- week consistency that maximizes the value of each call and converts even the hardest calls. The metrics were revenue per hour, including the appropriate product mix; conversion rate and AHT.

Bottom Line – select performance metrics that are most closely aligned with corporate objectives and then integrate with employee performance standards.


At its heart, sales management is about motivation. Overall, the goal is to motivate people and create an environment in which selling brings a balance between personal and business satisfaction. Rather than focusing on whether agents “get the sale,” selling should be viewed as a service provided to customers because the product can make their lives better.

Within the inbound sales environment, there are typically several levels of sales management. Making every lead role comfortable coaching sales-related activities and keeping the activities fully integrated into the operations environment are keys to sales management success.

Let’s begin with the team lead. The team lead often provides frontline direction to approximately 15 agents and may report to an account manager. Additional support can be provided by a sales coach and/or quality analyst. The quality analyst also gets actively involved and listens to calls, identifies and analyzes patterns and makes recommendations to team leads to help create a more productive sales environment. The sales coach’s role is to create a sales environment that supports a more successful sales effort, and often includes research into motivational programs to see how they can be incorporated to have a positive impact on sales results.

Managers in high performing sales teams should be adept at the following:

  • Sales performance management: Understanding corporate objectives and how they drive KPIs; balancing operational and sales performance
  • High performance sales coaching: Creating visibility for performers, modeling top performers and controlling team performance variation
  • Motivating teams and individuals: The following three elements are integral to accomplishment of this objective:
    • Motivation and team energy: Agents perform best when they work in a high energy team setting that encourages enthusiasm and success. Using tools such as on-the-floor tracking boards and awards walls can create a highly visible motivating atmosphere that incorporates competitive elements to enhance motivation and performance. Making selling fun should be one of the goals, changing the environment from a pressure-driven situation to one that inspires creativity, teamwork and achievement.
    • Creating the right environment for a sales program: Selling skills should be improved on a continual basis. Effective coaches focus on successful performance elements rather than what has been done incorrectly. Thus, when done properly, sales coaching moves beyond a “corrective” approach to one of positive reinforcement as managers coach the desired behaviors and establish an enthusiastic environment.
    • Balancing sales and support metrics/effective use of rewards and recognition: Although metrics are discussed in greater detail in another section, it’s important to identify and communicate how agents will be evaluated and the relative importance of service and sales metrics. Above all, metrics should support successful efforts, but without creating stresses that leads to sub-par performance. For example, rather than simply checking a box when an offer occurs, focus must also be on how well that offer was actually made.


BEST PRACTICE: Technology company conversion rate study

The company sought to increase conversion rate goal attainment during a three-phased program called “Sales Zone.”

Phase 1 provided an intense two-week sales coaching experience on a 1:5 basis for 10 middle-performing agents at a time. Agents were carefully selected to identify those who were close enough to goal to move to the next level relatively easily. The objective was to raise the average conversion rate from 22 percent to 25 percent by concentrating on effective coaching, goal setting and rewards/recognition. At the end of two weeks, agents returned to their regular teams and their performance was tracked to ensure they did not lose focus. Average performance increased beyond expectations to 26 percent.

In Phase 2, middle performing agents were grouped into teams for three weeks of intense coaching, after which they challenged the top sales team to a performance-based contest. Winning was less important than spreading a sales culture across teams. This raised the bar to a 27 percent conversion rate.

Finally, Phase 3 targeted new agents to engrain the sales culture and positive behaviors immediately and to bring them up to speed more quickly. By dividing by experience, and creating focused efforts on small groups, the “Zones” created a safe environment in which everyone had a chance to improve and succeed. As a result, the conversion rate remained in the 25-26 percent range for the next two quarters.

Bottom Line – motivate agents for better performance by creating a positive sales environment that incorporates coaching, healthy competition and valued incentives.


Incentives and bonuses form the top of the compensation “pyramid,” which begins with base salary and moves up through benefits and perquisites. Before discussing incentives, it may be helpful to define each of the other compensation categories to establish a context for how they can be integrated with each other:

  • Base salary: defines a standard of living
  • Benefits package: takes care of family needs
  • Perquisites: support ability to get the job done and provide some personal advantages as well
  • Bonus: a payment made after something good happens – but is discretionary and is not promised in advance. A bonus may make employees feel good about the company for a brief period of time, but does not motivate them to adjust behavior or performance on a longer term basis.
  • Incentives: payments that are promised in advance of a performance period in return for specific, objectively measured performance. Incentives, therefore, have ongoing utility and are both powerful and constructive.

Research indicates that agents in most service-to-sales programs need incentives and occasional bonuses to sustain successful performance. The ensuing competition, and the proper incentives should motivate, yet not create stress. Effective incentives are based on well-considered guidelines that include:

  • They must be large enough to get an employee’s attention.
  • The performance result required to earn the incentive must be within the employee’s control.
  • Performance results must be perceived as achievable, but still require a “stretch.”
  • The payout must be worth the effort.
  • The payout must not be a surprise (otherwise it’s not an incentive!).
  • The factors to be tracked must be communicated and understandable.
  • Calculations for determining payouts must be easy to understand.

Human behavior being what it is, there are always negative as well as positive issues associated with incentive programs. Those who are closest to programs should manage the use of the incentive budget, as they know best what motivates staff and creates enthusiasm. Warning signs of problems in the incentive program design may include:

  • Salespeople begin to factor the variable incentive into their personal budgets, thus viewing it as part of base salary rather than an incentive.
  • As a result of this disconnect between performance and incentive results, salespeople who miss their quota may feel that the lack of an incentive payout is a punishment, rather than the payout being a reward.
  • Or the opposite occurs. When too many people make quota, the quota has not been set aggressively enough to be a stretch. Agents lose motivation to be successful and can become bored or feel entitled. This state diminishes the reward that comes with a job well done.

Well-designed incentive compensation programs typically include the following elements:

  • Incentive programs should be piloted before broader implementation.
  • Consider the value of products – revenue or other – in creating the incentive program.
  • Incentives should match the financial contribution made to the business.
  • Creating a progression for performers provides an ongoing motivational tool that allows agents to move up based on their performance.
  • Top earners should be paid enough for a visible lift to their lifestyle, particularly compared with peers. Top agents may earn as much as 50 percent above their base.
  • Agents should only earn incentive compensation for above average or above goal performance.
  • Account managers and team managers should participate in incentives based on the success of their teams.

Bottom Line – create incentive programs that encourage employees to achieve stretch goals, rewarding top performers accordingly

BEST PRACTICES: Financial services and other examples

The best programs are an ever-changing suite of agent motivational programs that are a blend of recognition, reward and payout designed to drive required behaviors. Some examples include:

  • In a Financial Services program, where adherence to regulation is very important, agents were rewarded in a blend of measurements:
    • Call Sound – 60 percent
  • Agent was able to communicate and interact with the customer with ease.
  • Agent made an effective transition from services to sales.
  • Agent promoted product retention by helping the customer see the value in the products.
  • Agent went above and beyond to advocate on the customer’s behalf, thus promoting a partnership.
    • Adherence – 40 percent
  • Agents followed the protocol dictated by rules and guidelines of the industry.
    • The call of the week was awarded the” GoldenTicket” plus cash. The “Golden Ticket”, a preprinted ticket that looks like the well-known prize, was provided for display on the agent’s desk. The cash handed out to be spent right away. The team lead and quality coach whose nominee was selected as the call of the week also received cash. By the end of each month, agents with golden tickets became finalists and vied for the title of being the top Oompa Loopa, and are set up to be recognized publically in the Chocolate Factory (aka site). In addition, cash was also awarded to the team lead and quality coach. This produced a 3 percent lift during that period in already high performance. The reason this program worked is because it contained elements that appealed to the agents on both an ego and monetary basis. Each element filled a need.
  • Other examples include:
    • Rigorous tracking of what agents consider important, even if it’s as small as a cup of Starbucks coffee or movie tickets, and then presenting that award when goals are achieved. Personalized rewards vs non-personalized are preferred by agents 2:1 in an offshore telcom company program. (In other words, the agents like to be rewarded with what they choose.)
  • In a customer retention program, every time a credit card customer decides to keep the credit protection product rather than cancel the service, agents can run up and push a button on a candy machine to dispense M&Ms®. Not only do they get the candy, but they also have the visibility in front of their peers when they push the button. Agents say they love this program and for a short term lift, it is a nice, low-cost addition to the usual cash payouts.


At a time in which customer contact is increasingly rare and there are fewer opportunities to sell additional products and services, customer satisfaction is more important than ever. And, in fact, a good case may be made for stating that company performance is tied to customer satisfaction.

The satisfied customer – the one who doesn’t get away – is the foundation of a company’s profitability and the subject of untold numbers of research studies. However, customer satisfaction/loyalty/retention concerns should go well beyond “maintaining” to actually increasing sales to current customers. And that means selling the right products to the right customers.

It’s only been recently that the role of inbound sales agents has been recognized as a key element in this process – reflecting the industry-wide transition from the view of inbound agents as service personnel to those who play a significant role in the sales process.

Thinking about it, it was quite a logical progression. Inbound call agents have the few remaining opportunities to bond with customers. By solving customer problems (the reason for the call), agents create a relationship of trust, acquiring information that allows them to make the right offers that will please customers and increase their satisfaction. The best sales programs are built on such a platform of customer satisfaction.

At SYKES, we believe the best inbound sales programs incorporate best practices in the five areas we have described earlier: sales team selection, sales training, program measurement, sales management and incentive compensation.

Many companies are still feeling their way through the process, some excelling in some stages but still learning in other stages. It’s our hope that the material contained in this white paper will demonstrate how the best in each category are performing.

ABOUT THE AUTHORKirsten Jepson, Director, Global Marketing, Sykes Enterprises, Incorporated, leads the development and communication of SYKES global offerings to clients in the Financial Services marketplace. For more than 25 years she has held senior Product Development, Marketing and Sales roles with companies like Sears, Gallo Winery, Citibank and JP Morgan Chase. Kirsten is deeply involved with evolving and refining sales programs for contact center services companies to create a satisfying customer experience.