Developing Exceptional Call Centre Leaders

Posted by Geoff Oakie,
Senior Vice President, Operations and IT, HGS Canada

This article first appeared in Smart Customer Service and is reproduced here with permission.

In most businesses, when leaders and managers struggle to balance many competing priorities, coaching is often the activity that gets pushed aside first. In many cases, our daily activities can be easily formulated by others, with an assumption that coaching opportunities will somehow mysteriously find their own way into the calendar. This is especially true as you step inside any company’s customer service organization. Everything else always seems to be more urgent.

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At the same time, customer service organizations face tremendous pressures to deliver consistent, exceptional service. To make this happen, leaders need to be well equipped to coach and inspire customer service representatives to create a great experience on every contact. We must therefore understand how coaching is used as either the accelerant or the governor in this model. If we can overcome the “time” hurdle associated with coaching, we must be prepared to answer the question,

Does this coaching activity truly create sustainable and long term performance improvement for the employee and the organization?

Coaching as Both Art and Science

Coaching is an activity some may describe as both an art and a science. The more variables you add to a scientific experiment, the more risk you have in predicting the outcome. Given that organizations are constantly on the journey to re-invent the customer experience model, reducing variables through a consistent and repeatable coaching methodology is a logical place to begin.

Even for high performing managers, the transition from manager to leader and coach is often very difficult, not only because of all the business variables we throw at them on a daily basis but more importantly because no one has ever shown them what appropriate coaching looks like. If an organization does not invest in defining and developing its coaching culture, new leaders will colour the picture themselves, based on their own experiences and coaching role models. Under that scenario, a company’s coaching culture therefore can be more easily described as an artistic mosaic rather than a repeatable and effective model of consistency.  To achieve consistent and improving results, we need to know that our coaching culture is well defined, repeatable and, most importantly, supported by all functions within the customer service organization on an hour-by-hour basis in all activities.

 Where Does the Time Go?

To build effective leaders, senior management must first try to understand where a team leader’s time goes and how they spend their energy. To be most effective, team leaders should be spending the majority of their time (75-80%) coaching and developing agents and leading the team. However, typically, we find only 25-40% of time is focused on these important functions.

It is crucial for senior leadership to make an ongoing commitment to investing in redistributing administrative tasks to other departments. This mapping of time and redistribution of administrative work frees team leaders to develop further skills around leadership management and developing strategies to inspire their teams to better performance. However, it cannot be a one-time event. It must be a concerted effort to continuously check in on your coaches to see how effective they are in meeting their coaching schedules. Due to no fault of their own, leaders will quickly fall back into managing their to-do list, which likely is headlined by something that was delegated to them with the label “URGENT”.  Senior Leaders need to be the filter and challenge the notion of what is truly urgent to make sure our coaches maintain their coaching activities on an hourly basis.

Changing the Perception of Coaching – From “Walk of Shame” to Opportunity

One of the challenges inherent in training leaders to coach agents to exceptional performance is the perception of coaching itself. For most contact center staff, coaching is perceived as the “walk of shame” to the coaching room rather than an opportunity for the coach and employee to celebrate successes and develop great skills. For many years, we, as leaders have created this condition because we have embraced the notion that coaching is simply a performance management exercise designed to fix something that is apparently broken. As such, we have to foster a perception that the activity must be confined to an office for fear of exposing the employee’s errors to their peers. However, what if we change that reality and turn coaching into an engagement of positive reinforcement? Would the activity create a different outcome of acceptability? Long-term and lasting success of performance coaching starts early and often with a strong foundation of positive validation and recognition. To truly create a successful coaching environment, it is important that the coach earns the trust and buy-in of the employee. Without earning this trust, coaching becomes no more than a simple transaction between two people that has no real purpose for either party.

A lack of understanding as to what the outcome of a coaching moment should be from the employee’s perspective can also be a barrier to improving performance. As part of the coaching process, team leaders should be trained to encourage agents to look for evidence that the proposed outcome or behavioral change is the best option by:

  1. Practicing how the change will sound to the customer,
  2. Assessing the impact to the customer experience, and
  3. Putting the strategy into practice on the very next call.

The Path to Effective Coaching is Not a Casual Event

One of the most overlooked but fundamental steps to an effective coaching environment is to install a consistent methodology to help leaders improve agent skills and teach leaders how to identify gaps and be better coaches. For many organizations, the approach to performance management is so deeply rooted with a myriad of coaching assumptions and urban legends, the commitment required to evolve into a coaching culture requires a fresh and long-term approach.  As with all habitual changes, breaking old paradigms is not the result of a one- or two-day workshop that comes in the form of a big, thick “how-to” binder, but rather a slow and layered learning environment that allows for a huge serving of practice and calibration. This process is similar to teachers building capable skills to teach students only after months/years of steady education and practice. Our performance coaches require the same functional path to acquire the necessary skills and tools to effective coaching to ensure long-term change in habits. Ever-improving results are the expected norm due to today’s competitive pressures. However, the variables of time and effort in developing coaches and leaders are not always clearly aligned with the expected outcome.  Support and reinforcement must be ongoing and committed to over time to ensure correct habits are formed by our leaders and that this commitment is shared and practiced at all levels of a customer service organization. This will ensure that learnings and gains are cemented and reflected in the performance results over time.

Exceptional customer experience that creates customer loyalty and improves customer lifetime value can only happen when coaching and training is a priority for all levels of the operations team. Senior management needs to ensure that team leaders aren’t bogged down with administrative tasks. Team leaders need to fully appreciate the importance of the investment in coaching. Agents need to see the value of the strategies through first-hand implementation to gain their commitment. When the goals and commitments of all parties in the call center are aligned, the customer receives the biggest benefit.