Lessons From Dangerous Minds: How To Keep Your Team Onboard

In the 1995 movie Dangerous Minds, Michelle Pfeiffer plays the part of a former marine who teaches poetry to a class of high school students. To their surprise, she starts the class by giving all the students an A, arguing that it's easier to get an A than to maintain an A.

Almost thirty years later, we feel that struggle is real when it comes to our customer contact team. In a recent poll, the majority of the voters indicated to struggle more with keeping team members on board, than attracting new employees.

In my opinion, there is only one reason why employees are leaving your team and company, and that is because it’s more attractive for them to be someplace else.

Customer contact teams usually have a unique position within a company. They are different from other teams in the following aspects:

  • Motivation to work in customer contact

Customer contact is a very important part of organizations that deal with customers. It is an easy entry position for most people, as few skills are required before on-the-job training, and it offers flexible hours. However, not many people dreamed of working in customer contact when they were a kid, so for most, it is not the dream job but rather a stepping-stone to another role.

  • Scheduled shifts

Company policy aside, there are just a few departments that require set working hours. This also means lunch is scheduled and due to the scheduling, management is strict on maintaining the break times. Also, when after-work festivities start (December parties, Friday drinks), the customer contact team needs to finish the shift even if this means they miss a part of the party.

  • Less connected to the rest of the company

While customer contact agents focus on helping the customers, other departments might wish to deflect direct interactions with the customer contact department. To prevent receiving too many questions, for example.

  • Low social status within the organization

Unfortunately, customer contact teams tend to have low social status within companies. It can be a struggle to have team members promoted, increase salaries, or even for other departments to see the value of the customer contact team.

 While it is a challenge to change a company culture, there are 5 easy steps for you as a leader to make your department an attractive place for your team.


1. Understand the background of your team members

Have you ever really sat down with everybody in your team – not just your direct reports – and understood the background of each person who is in your department? If not, this is your cue to do so. Without being intrusive, you can find out a lot about their background, challenges, wishes, aspirations, fears, and strengths. With this information, you can learn a lot about people’s values, beliefs, and personalities. Maybe you can even determine who is happy or fit in their role, and who is with one foot out of the door already.

2. Have a deep understanding of their day-to-day tasks and challenges

Next to understanding your team, take ample time to understand their work. Take phone calls, answer tickets, and solve cases. The aim here is not to do their work (maybe even better), but to understand how many manual actions, Excel files, loose rules, common knowledge, and struggles your team deals with daily. You can find lots of inspiration to improve! Ask your team, too, what they think you should solve for them. Probably they won’t ask you to improve the C-SAT or FTR metrics. Instead, they will give you insight that you cannot determine from a trend line.

By showing genuine interest in your team and their work, you will automatically become more approachable. This is exactly what you want to connect people to you and your team.

3. Re-evaluate the salary

Even though the salary is not the main driver for employees to stay with your company, we can acknowledge that the average salary in customer care is not a mind-blowing figure either. When I started as an agent in 2006, I was earning the same hourly wage as most companies in The Netherlands offer to date – 16 years later. If you want people to stay with you, you should also offer them something to make it worthwhile.

4. Promote growth

Now that you understand your team and their challenges, you should have great knowledge of the skills represented in your customer contact team. Where are growth opportunities? Try to determine (together with the employees) how you can support their ambitions for growth. Is that within the company? Or would it be outside the company? Actively connect with other departments to understand their staffing challenges and try to understand how you can promote your team to meet everybody’s needs.

5. Create a safe place

Last, but not least: create a safe space. If your customer contact team is managed through direct reports, you still need to understand that you are their manager’s manager, and by default, you’re difficult to approach for them. Still, you should be the first point of contact in case of any issues between the employee and your direct report.

So make sure you’re approachable. Listen to initiatives, and connect on an emotional level. Return phone calls, messages, and e-mails the same day. Let them know that you are here for them as well, not just for your direct report or for your bonus.

Safety does not only relate to you, but also to the extent to which you allow everybody in your team to be themselves. Can people be vulnerable without being made fun of? Can somebody have a bad day without consequences? Are people able to pitch ideas that you don’t like, without being burned down?

Michelle Pfeiffer was right, even thirty years ago. Attracting employees is only the start. Keeping team members on board is where the hard work begins.