Agent Motivation

How ESPN Built a World-Class Customer Service Team From Scratch

In 2005, Micah Citti received an offer he couldn’t refuse.

Micah had begun his career in the early ‘90s as a customer service agent. He eventually worked his way up to become a regional manager in charge of customer service training and development for AT&T Wireless. Then out of the blue, he got a call from a former subordinate. ESPN needed to build a customer care operation center from the ground up, and they wanted Micah to lead the effort.

“They wanted world-class service, but they wanted it ESPN style,” Micah says.

As ESPN’s very first customer service operations manager, Micah’s challenge was to not only define ESPN style, but execute it on the front line. This meant establishing service guidelines, developing agents’ skills, and driving progress.

“We came into an environment where there was no customer care group,” Micah says. “We were not only new to the company itself, but we had to figure out, what is a best practice here?”

Today, the ESPN contact center team includes Micah and two other internal leaders as well as 60 outsourced agents and managers. The front-line team handles hundreds of thousands of contacts per year from ESPN customers, or “fans,” via phone, chat, email, and SMS. Agents tackle everything from account management to fantasy football to troubleshooting live streaming issues. And the team’s overall average customer rating routinely exceeds four out of five stars.

Here’s how Micah achieved this Herculean feat.

Give Agents a Say in How They’re Managed

Micah knew instinctively that to represent the brand well, ESPN’s outsourced agents would need to feel like valued members of the brand team. Rather than having a one-way conversation with agents and telling them how it is, Micah enlists their help to shape and improve quality standards, performance metrics, coaching, and training. He asks them which management practices are working, which are making their job more difficult, and what’s fair (or not) about the QA scorecard.

“The only way we’re going to succeed is to be fully transparent, fully accessible, and fully engaged. And more importantly, willing to listen to what the agents tell us, because they’re the ones doing the work.

When you establish that kind of relationship, you get something that’s critical to any operation, and that’s trust.”

Prioritize the Tech Stack

Micah came in knowing ESPN wouldn’t settle for a second-class customer service operation. With an eye toward customer experience, agent experience, and business growth, Micah conducted many months of exhaustive research to find what he considers to be the best combination of tech tools for the contact center team.

Take Customer Engagement to the Next Level

Because the ESPN team uses a CRM database that’s proprietary to parent company Disney, it uses Zendesk solely for customer communications via chat, email, and SMS. Soon, the team will use Zendesk for voice as well. Micah says it’s a great tool for connecting with fans.

“We had one other group from the Disney side that had been using Zendesk, so we talked to them and all they did was rave about how great it was,” Micah says. “My agents will ultimately be in a pure Zendesk environment. That’s my end-all, be-all dream.”

Use Timely, Relevant Data to Manage Performance and Guide the Brand

Micah began measuring CSAT by doing 100 outbound calls to fans who had contacted ESPN in the previous 30 days. But out of tens of thousands of calls per month, 100 was statistically insignificant. These data had little practical value when it came to managing performance or evaluating company initiatives and policies.

Micah then turned to Stella Connect, an agent-level feedback platform that sends survey requests immediately after every service interaction. Customers rate agents’ performance on a scale of 1-5 stars, suggest rewards, and leave comments. Micah was amazed to see completion rates of at least 25%, which equaled thousands of pieces of near real-time feedback daily.

At one point, Micah noticed that the email channel was performing much more poorly than the brand’s other channels. He took a closer look at the feedback and the original emails (thanks to a seamless Stella Connect-Zendesk integration) and realized ESPN fans weren’t unhappy with the agents, but with impersonal templated responses. So the team started inserting personalized language into each response, and star ratings for email jumped from 1 star to 3.6 in the course of a single day.

“I needed something that would give me insight as to how my agents were performing, but more importantly, help me understand how our fans are responding to things we do as a company.

It makes me a better partner to the product team and to our marketing team to be able to say, hey, this is resonating, or it backfired.

Bringing in Stella Connect was actually one of the easiest parts of this whole thing.”

Motivate and Strengthen the Team

As a former customer service agent, Micah knows the stresses of the job and the importance of keeping morale high. He also understands the need to incentivize excellence and continual growth. His recognition and rewards program does both.

Each month, in the Stella Great Connections newsletter, agents are publicly recognized for outstanding feedback. Each customer review is accompanied by a reminder of the brand standards it reflects. Based on agents’ input about the types of rewards they’d like most, Micah also awards cash to the top performer on the monthly leaderboard as well as to top earners of “suggested rewards.”

One welcome result of the contact center rewards program is an unusually friendly, cohesive culture. Agents keep a close eye on their scores, supporting each other while they compete to win. Agents also compete with themselves to continually improve their star averages.

“We have a really great community where they call each other family, joke with each other, tease each other. This is how life on the floor has evolved. I’d love to say that I did that, but it’s just an outgrowth of [Stella Connect]. That was a very pleasant surprise.”

Get More of the Inside Story

A lot can and does happen on the way to building a world-class customer service team. Our conversation with Micah touched on everything from the QA process and service recovery to coaching top performers and rolling out new tech. View the free webinar to learn more about how ESPN customer service came to be and continues to evolve.