Our quality coaches may be focusing on specific skills without truly understanding what is motivating the agent to improve or not improve.
When observing center coaches in action, I find that some will ask an agent very few questions or often the wrong questions during their coaching sessions. Questions are not just conversation controllers and great service/sales skills to use during customer interactions. Supervisors and Quality Analysts must learn how to ask appropriate probing questions to uncover the real reasons for skill issues.
Using open ended questions that allow the agent to discuss what they think, feel and the “why”of a skill, are most effective. When the right questions are asked, we stop assuming and learn the real why an agent seems to be challenged by certain skills.
These are some examples of skill “why’s” uncovered during recent coaching sessions I’ve observed:
1. Why?… Prior job habits brought to your center.
One rep had major problems showing empathy. When asked why: Her 10 years of military service had conditioned her to think she (and her customers) just needed to “suck it up and quit whining”
2. Why?… Agent Burnout
A long time agent shows up every day and goes through the motions for minimal skills quality. Just enough skills demonstrated to get by. The agent admitted during the coaching that they were tired of handling complaints and didn’t enjoy the job anymore. Despite the coaches great efforts to work with them, the agent eventully left the center.
3. Why?….Agent was Bad Hire
They did well in the interview. They were great in training. They faked it all. The agent just wantd a job…any job and is waiting for the better opportunity to come along. They really aren’t interested in improving their skills more than the minimum required. Asking these agents questions regarding how they feel about the customers, what they could improve in often confirm that they just don’t care and your customers or their job enough to want to make more effort.
4. Why?…Agent Unwilling to Change
I observed a supervisor coaching with an older agent who refused to engage with callers. She was flat toned and brusque sounding but never rude. The coach asked some great questions and the Agent told us that she just knew that the customers wanted to order and didn’t care how she interacted with them. She’d worked in the center without engaging for a long time so why start now?
This Agent didn’t have a skill problem, she had an attitude problem towards changing her behavior. Fortunately there was a happy ending as the wonderful coach working with her convinced her to try the new skills and demonstrated them for her. Once the agent attempted and received feedback from customers about her “excellent service skills” (which she had never heard from them before), the agent continued to improve and connect with her callers.
Teach your coaches to ask more questions during coaching and then discuss the Agent responses in an open coaching. By creating a positive coaching environment which allows the Agent to speak freely, you not only find out the stumbling blocks to their success, but you’ll learn which Agents want to learn and grow, and which are just a poor fit for your center.
The cat is out of the bag. Sixty-nine percent of contact center leaders say agent training positively impacts customer satisfaction. Yet, despite its effectiveness on quality and performance results, 46 percent of the same respondents don’t train their agents frequently. Notice a disconnect?
Most of the traditional methods used to manage agent performance just aren’t working anymore for contact centers. The ongoing operational demands, combined with the budget restraints and resource limitations have left many coming up short when it comes to developing and effectively training their front line. And many contact centers find themselves delivering the same cookie-cutter training for their entire workforce. The result is uninspiring training sessions for agents and lackluster results for your dashboard. Instead, consider a “crawl, walk, run” approach to maximize performance results using personalized agent training.
A contact center’s journey to achieving a high-performance culture isn’t an easy feat – it’s marked by milestones. Take your agent performance from its first wobbly steps to running at full speed using the “crawl, walk, then run” method below.
Crawl back to the basics.
By its nature, training should be targeted, but it’s difficult for managers to create digestible content that doesn’t require half-day sessions due to scheduling limitations. After all, you want to be sure your agents are able to take in as much as possible. However, adult learning theory affirms that short lessons have the best chance at retention. This concept is clearly important in a fast-paced environment like the contact center where the unplanned nature of calls gives agents less control over their day than most. So, remember to focus on first things first. A 15-minute learning break allows a short break for targeted information that is used on the next call for maximum reinforcement.
Walk the walk with personalized training.
Even if training is provided frequently, a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t provide maximum value. If the center and the agent invest time in training, it should meet the needs of both. An agent does not want to be trained on something that isn’t relevant to their needs, and the center doesn’t want to train an agent on an area at which he or she excels if there is another area that needs improving. Basing individualized training on performance meets the targeted criteria and provides the highest value.
According to recent data, we retain 5 percent of what we see/hear, 10 percent of what we read, 20 percent with a visual and 30 percent with a demonstration. Create quick quizzes at the end of training sessions to help agents retain more information and “walk the walk” by giving them ample opportunity to apply their new skill set.
Run circles around your performance goals by finding time for training.
Too often training is an infrequent occasion as opposed to a consistent, systemic part of the contact center operation. Many centers provide agents with access to a learning management system or knowledge base with the hopes that agents will go get the information and knowledge they need. Considering the enormous pressures to meet service levels, it isn’t hard to figure out why so much of what is scheduled doesn’t occur and why agents don’t often take the initiative to get the information they need when they need it. Yet dips in call volume occur when agents have little to do. The underutilized asset in this equation is this down time between calls. Pushing training to your agents during these small pockets of down time is the only way to ensure training happens frequently.
A Last Word
Performance-based training gives you the ability to deliver the right training to the right agent at the right time. By embedding a measurement system that shows how much, who is getting training as well as its link to performance, constant improvement through training becomes systemic.
Customer service isn’t for everybody. Dealing with clients, setting appointments, and most feared of all, cold calling, is for some people and not others. This being said, there’s far too passive an attitude about customer service coaching in the workplace. While customer service may be for “some people”, there’s a massive factor of alienation to those who might actually be superb customer service agents, but don’t receive the care and attention they need to rise to the position and challenge to make a positive impact in the company.
Have Supervisors with a Plan
Too many companies have the mindset of, “if they’re not good at the job, we’ll just hire somebody else.” While this may sound reasonable to some, it’s a poisonous mindset that seeps into the very life of the customer service representative. How will an agent feel when they know you don’t care about them? What about the star representatives who do very well for your company? Are they just doing so well because it affects their commissions?
You don’t want “the bottom line” being the pure existence of your business, of your employees. You need a workforce that cares about one another, who cares about improving results and performance without sacrificing integrity. A person whose sole motivation is money has a far more questionable integrity than one whose prominent desire is to do a great job because it makes the customer happy and to show their employer that they made a good choice in hiring that individual.
This is where a plan needs to exist. There must be performance tracking and work efficiency statistics, but it has to be in a friendly way, an encouraging and caring manner, not a totalitarian workplace with a supervisor breathing down their employee’s necks to “hit their numbers”. Environments like that suck, and there are a lot of good employees who leave such oppressive jobs because not only do their bosses crack the proverbial whip on them, they don’t offer any real encouragement, wisdom, or training on the matter. This is what needs to change.
Catered Customer Service Training
The job isn’t a one-stop training session. There needs to be expansion, growth, and adjustments. Giving a customer service agent some training and then sending them out into the field seems natural, but when their numbers aren’t that high what do you do? Cut them loose? Some people just aren’t cut out for the job, and that’s understandable, but there needs to be consistent involvement in training from higher-ups, from supervisors and managers.
Employees need guidance, and how can they know what to adjust if you don’t help them? You can bark at them for not having a high enough conversion rate, or you can SHOW them what they need to do, how to adjust their approach, their pitch, their greeting, their confidence, or whatever else needs to be remedied. This does take time and effort, but only an employer who’s out of touch with their own workforce won’t understand or appreciate the value of workplace happiness.
Remember, this isn’t just about your employees, but the results that your efforts in constant training can help them bring to you as a business owner. Who do you think will have a better impression on customers? The customer service representative who’s under the threatening, stressful, and painfully scrupulous glare of their manager? Or the one who can confidently come to work and do their job each day, knowing that they can and will be helped to better fulfill their position by a boss who not only cares about the customers, but their employees as well?
To your customers, the most important C-level position in your company is the CSR.
Hopefully your contact center understands just how valuable and influential its CSRs are.
The greatest centers I have worked with in my 20 years in the industry certainly don’t underestimate their CSRs (a.k.a., agents). They view agents not as ‘the folks on the phones’ but rather as highly insightful internal consultants – individuals who know what processes, practices and improvements are needed to provide optimal customer experiences and increase operational efficiencies.
Such contact centers keep getting better and better – and retain agents and customers longer and longer – by empowering staff to serve as…
Recruiting & Hiring consultants. Nobody knows what it takes to succeed on the contact center firing line better than the people who man it everyday. Smart centers solicit agent input to enhance recruiting and the applicant selection process. This may entail having them help develop ‘ideal agent’ profiles, provide suggestions for behavioral-based interview questions, interact with and evaluate candidates, and/or create job preview descriptions or videos (that give applicants a clear view into what the agent position is really like). It may also involve having agents sneak into neighboring contact centers to kidnap top talent.
Training & Development consultants. Agents know what skills and knowledge they need to create the kind of customer experience one usually only reads about in corporate mission statements or sees in dreams. Creating a training & development task force and including on it a few experienced agents – as well as a couple of not so experienced ones – is a great way to continuously close knowledge gaps and shorten learning curves. Agents will gladly tell you what’s wrong with and missing from new-hire training, ongoing training, one-on-one coaching and the center’s career path (assuming one even exists). Only by actively involving frontline staff in the training & development process can a contact center become a truly dynamic learning organization.
Quality Monitoring consultants. Oneof the best ways to keep agents from being afraid of or resistant to your quality monitoring program is to actively involve them in it. Agents will hate monitoring and you a lot less if you…
ask them to help develop/improve the center’s monitoring form and rating system
let them self-evaluate their performance prior to having a supervisor provide feedback/coaching
allow them to take part in a peer monitoring & coaching initiative
collaborate with them when creating development plans during coaching sessions
give them a chance to “coach the coach” by asking them to evaluate how effective their supervisor is at rating calls and providing feedback.
Technology consultants.While you probably don’t want to have your agents designing the actual systems and software your center uses, you definitely do want to have agents share their ideas and suggestions regarding what tools they need to enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of the service provided to customers. Agents’ take on desktop applications, knowledge bases and workflows can be invaluable for decreasing handle times and increasing contact resolution rates. In addition, agents often know what’s wrong with the center’s IVR system and web self-service applications (because customers constantly tell them), thus they can provide input that leads to a reduction in the number of unnecessary calls, emails, chats and death threats agents must contend with.
Rewards & Recognition consultants. Empowering agents to enhance the rewards and recognition they receive is akin to letting your partner pick out her/his engagement ring. But hey, it’s all about making people happy and keeping them from running into the arms of another. I know of a lot of contact centers that ask agents for input on incentives and contests, individual and team awards, and how they’d like to be recognized. Many centers have even implemented peer recognition programs where agents themselves get to decide who is most deserving of special accolades and attention. Managers and supervisors still need to show plenty of their own initiative with regard to rewards and recognition, but collaborating with agents in this area goes a long way toward elevating engagement and performance.
At the 10th Annual Call Center Exhibition (ACCE) show in Seattle this year – a global gathering of the call center industry – one theme stood out above the rest: a renewed focus on the customer experience.
As a speaker at this year’s conference, I asked my audience of 40-plus contact center executives and operators a simple question: Who among you would say that improving the customer experience is your number one priority? Every hand shot up. And I found this to be consistent throughout the conference.
In comparing conversations I’ve had with these industry peers in previous years, the top priority of most contact center executives and senior managers has been pure efficiency, focusing on agent productivity and “doing more with less.” I found when talking to attendees at the ACCE conference, that focus is clearly shifting from simply operating “faster, smarter and cheaper” to taking a close look at the impact agents can ultimately have on the customer experience, which in turn protects a company’s brand and drives customer retention and overall success.
Though the great call centers have understood the critical role agents play in customer satisfaction for some time, I am encouraged to see senior management across the board now paying closer attention to these frontline employees and investing in their performance with a new sense of urgency.
Emerging technologies showcased at the conference reflected the need to respond to customers in a more comprehensive way since today’s customers are better informed and more empowered than ever before. They expect speed and accuracy from their contact center interactions and when they don’t get it, they have plenty of social airways to share their feedback about a company and its brand.
Some of the most interesting technologies showcased at the conference were those designed to make sense out of disparate data sources, capturing and analyzing data on every customer interaction including not just calls into the contact center, but touch points like individual retail visits and website clicks as well.
These technologies will enable companies to see a more complete picture of their customers, which will help them determine how to best interact with individual customers to improve the customer experience.
As the focus on customer service and satisfaction finds renewed intensity, ACCE attendees acknowledged that agents play a major role in the success or failure of a company’s overall customer satisfaction program. And for agents to truly be effective, they must have the training and coaching they need to successfully engage with customers and handle their inquiries.
As companies turn their focus to improving the customer experience, they will invest in holistic solutions that help them not only provide this critical training and coaching to drive agent performance improvements but also help with improvements in other areas as well.
Looking forward, contact center professionals can expect to see a push in the industry for intraday management technologies that enable call centers to better respond to changing customer needs and fluctuations in their operations. This takes the form of a few applications. One, utilizing available time for agents to complete activities designed to improve their performance and productivity gives customers the experience they expect and deserve.
Other uses automate processes around queue management to drive customer experience improvements. These include automating skill updates to ensure the right agents are available to take customer calls as soon as they complete their training or certification and technologies that enable multi-channel centers to easily move agents from queue to queue across disparate technologies based on capacity. Automating these processes allows contact centers to be much more agile and promptly give customers the assistance and attention they deserve.
When selecting strong candidates for your contact center’s peer mentoring program, don’t overlook your agents who aren’t wearing any pants.
Home agents, despite their general affinity for pajamas and an aversion to bathing or shaving, are typically among the most skilled and experienced frontline workers a contact center has. Failing to include your at-home crew in peer mentoring initiatives is a waste of highly valuable resources. Sending top agents home and not allowing them to serve as mentors is like tossing tons of coaching and training arsenal in the dumpster.
With modern communication technologies making it so easy for humans to stay connected despite geographical divides, there’s simply no excuse for not tapping the teaching power of your talented virtual staff. If fully accredited online colleges and universities can thrive without the benefit of a physical classroom, certainly your contact center’s mentoring program can, too.
Make sure each home agent wants to participate before enlisting them in the peer mentoring program. Just because an agent is skilled at helping customers doesn’t mean they’re interested in helping co-workers. In fact, some of your home agents likely jumped at the chance to work remotely just so they could get away from their peers. This is not to suggest that all home agents are sociopathic when it comes to work relationships, but don’t automatically assume they are not. When selecting which home agents to include in your peer mentoring program, choose those who eagerly want to participate over those who begin to sweat or cry – or both – at the very mention of mentoring a colleague.
Take time to make good mentor-protégé matches. There may be some added challenge matching up home agents and protégés since the two individuals in question may not have had much interaction before due to the former’s off-premise location. In such cases, take a good look at the core personality traits and communication styles of each person to help ensure they’ll spend most of their time collaborating rather than colliding. Involve the agents themselves in the selection process by giving them a couple of people to choose from. That way they won’t be able to blame you entirely if their mentoring relationship ends in a nasty divorce.
Schedule mentoring sessions without sacrificing service levels. Once your mentors (both virtual and on-premise) and protégés are paired up, it’s important to make sure that: a) they interact on a regular basis; and b) they’re not all offline at once. You want the protégés to benefit as much as possible from the skills and wisdom of their mentor, but you don’t want these partnerships to come at the expense of customer accessibility and satisfaction. By taking the time to schedule mentoring time around heavy call loads, and by staggering who’s offline at what times, the mentoring program can bloom without customer relationships wilting.
Have mentors and protégés take advantage of all the communication tools available to them. While traditional mentoring involves plenty of face-to-face interaction (without the use of Skype), virtual mentoring requires partners to take advantage of various communications devices and channels to sustain a fruitful relationship. Phone, email, chat (and/or SMS), and video are invaluable in virtual mentoring. Protégés with pressing questions can initiate a quick chat session with their mentor. When in need of more in-depth coaching or assistance, a chat session or a phone call – with screen-sharing – can be very effective, as can video calls, which add a nice face-to-face element to help foster a sense of connectedness and camaraderie. And email can come in handy for less urgent or in-depth matters, or whenever the virtual mentor wants to attach a photo of their dog wearing their headset.
Monitor mentor-protégé interactions (occasionally) to ensure effectiveness and compatibility. While peer mentoring programs are all about agent empowerment and trust, supervisors and managers still need to help ensure that the mentoring relationship is compatible – and that actual progress is being made (i.e., the protégé’s performance doesn’t stink as much as before). To that end, it’s a good idea for supervisors to drop in on virtual mentors’ phone calls and chat interactions with protégés once in a while, and to provide necessary coaching (as well as deserved praise) via the same channels afterward.
NOTE: Just be sure to let agents know that occasional monitoring/coaching will be a part of the mentoring initiative before the actual initiative gets off the ground. This will eliminate accusations of spying or micromanagement and keep agents’ strong sense of empowerment and autonomy in tact.
Having virtual mentors share progress with protégé’s supervisor. Supervisor monitoring of mentor-protégé interactions isn’t the only – or even the best – way to ensure mentoring effectiveness. Supervisors should also schedule “meetings” with virtual mentors to give the latter a chance to share what they feel their protégé is doing well and where he or she could stand to improve. This not only keeps supervisors abreast of their newer agents’ performance from another perspective, it helps the virtual mentor develop important supervisory skills (evaluation and reporting). In addition, having virtual mentors share their insights with supervisors makes them feeling like a highly valuable member of the contact center team despite their distance from the actual contact center, and despite the fact that they work each day in nothing but their underwear.
Do you ever notice how employees usually start a job, coming into their first day of work bright-eyed and enthusiastic? Then as time goes by, that enthusiasm burns away to the point that it’s just another nine-to-five trudge to get through what they feel is another mindless, menial workday?
What happens here? Why is the standard to go downward into complacency, effortlessness, mediocrity, and trying to skate by while only doing the minimum amount of work possible? Why not upward into learning, growth, enthusiasm, passion, and a strong work ethic? We’re going to go over that, as well as the mindset necessary to overcome it.
The Workday Blues
The average person wants to do the least amount of work in order to obtain their paycheck. When they get a new job they’re happier because it’s fresh, new, and it could be higher paying than their old job, which is definitely a bonus… but at some point it stops mattering. At some point it’s “just another job”, filled with – in their eyes – incompetent coworkers who don’t understand them, a stupid boss who doesn’t know how hard the job really is, and a paycheck that’s less than what they’re worth.
People inherently grow bored with the familiar, and so they decide to acclimate and complain rather than strive for new heights. This isn’t to say all people are like this, so don’t start thinking your workforce hates you and are all skimping on their duties as much as they can.
The Winner’s Edge
Some employees never really fall into this undesired rut of doing the least amount of work as possible. They’re certainly less common, but they’re model employees who should be recognized for their efforts. That said, what sets them apart from those who trudge through the workday? There are a myriad of factors, but it usually comes down to a basic principle that can be referred to as “the winner’s edge”.
The winner’s edge is something employed by people who do something small each day to improve something about themselves. If it’s somebody on a customer service job, then they learn their job a little better each day, and over time adjust their personality and mannerisms to be more receptive, efficient, flexible, and appropriate to the customers they interact with, the employees the work with, and the place of work itself.
Getting employees to improve their performance is getting them to adopt the principle of the winner’s edge. If they can improve one thing about their workday, something small, and make small changes accordingly in a positive direction, they’ll be a remarkable employee in only a few months. This can be achieved through incentives such as bonuses, classes that are actually motivating – none of that typical boring corporate garbage – and genuine specific praise. Not GENERAL praise like, “Good job, Bev!” but something more direct, like, “Great job, Bev, on handling that tough client just now. You worked through that very well!”
Show your employees that you care about them. Treat them, reward them, and they’ll reward you. Teach them about the winner’s edge, let them know you’re paying attention to them for all the hard work they’re doing, for learning and growing a little by taking daily action to incorporate and develop something – however small – from the workplace.
One last thing: Remember, there will always be workers who don’t care, who don’t want to work, who are lazy, and who just want the work day to end so they can collect their paycheck. This is really tough to avoid, so if you employ plenty of people, expect this to be an occurrence. As for the rest, just remember to value them, to treat them like gold. Your personality and treatment will trickle down to the customers, and happy customers almost always translates to more money for your business.
The first thing that I notice when walking into a contact center is the visual layout and then the busy hum of all those lovely agent interactions with customers.
Supervisors are an important part of that “hum” so I like to see what they are doing:
Are any out on the floor working with agents?
Are they locked in their cubicle staring at their computer monitor?
Are they taking calls and if so, what type of calls are they handling?
Are agents lined up outside their cubicle waiting to talk with them?
Center managers promote agents to a supervisory role with leadership expectations for them in addition to a variety of other duties. Despite these leadership expectations, some managers have supervisors constantly acting as “super-agents”. I call them this because they are treated as part-time leaders, part time phone agents.
The supervisors I’m talking about have reporting, coaching and motivational goals but in actuality, spend a lot of time daily taking regular (not just escalated) customer calls from the queue. These are often smaller centers without a quality team or person to monitor and coach so guess what they aren’t doing in addition to leading their team to success.
The managers who encourage this “super-agent” role will tell me that they need the supervisors on the phone to help keep abandonment rate down due to the large call volume fluctuations. When I ask them about coaching, many of these same managers will tell me “It will have to wait for now”.
In this time of “lean” hiring where added agents may be tough, the challenge is to keep your Supervisors doing what they are supposed to be doing: lead, coach and motivate their team.
What can be done to keep your Supervisors focused on their teams’ needs? Here are a few suggestions:
Make sure you have effective workforce scheduling processes and check agent schedule adherence. When is that last time you’ve reviewed/revised your related processes?
Encourage supervisors to do active coaching and stop seeing it as a time eater since the results will bring better call control (more calls handled) and fewer escalated calls.
Use technology to monitor and maximize agents’ time during idle times. Coach, motivate, and schedule meetings with them when time is best.
Actively coach with your Supervisor on how to balance their daily workflow to achieve best results.
Your Supervisors may still have to roll up their sleeves and take calls in queue sometimes times, but if this is their primary focus lately, you will find both agent and customer engagement going downhill in no time.
In a recent industry poll, we asked call center leaders how they handle intraday management challenges. The survey was conducted in conjunction with an interactive web event, The Ultimate Call Center Survival Guide, Intradiem hosted earlier this year. More than 100 contact center professionals answered questions about their intraday management challenges, specifically around the topics of fluctuating contact center intraday staffing needs as well as queue management and real-time notifications. Below are our findings.
Intradiem (formerly Knowlagent) provides the only call center software that increases agent utilization by delivering shrinkage activities during idle time. Intradiem creates active wait time through dynamically delivered sessions for common shrinkage activities between customer interactions. Intradiem created this Productivity Plus Blog to provide contact center leaders with tips, tricks and techniques to improve productivity and increase revenue within their call center. A panel of contact center industry experts share their knowledge based on their experiences and what they have observed in hundreds of call center environments around the globe.