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.
Teams rarely succeed without a good coach. Contact center teams are certainly no exception. Solid coaching is essential to keep both new and experienced agents focused, forever improving, and from jumping out of windows.
How effective is the coaching that occurs in your contact center? If any of the following 10 signs accurately describe your situation, your center could likely use some coaching itself. Perhaps even some painkillers for agents … and customers.
1. You read the title of this blog post and thought, “Coaching? What’s coaching?” If coaching is non-existent in your contact center, so is agent development and engagement, customer satisfaction, and continuous operational improvement.
2. Your supervisors are foregoing sleep and taking performance-enhancing drugs to find time and energy to provide coaching. Coaching should be relatively easy to conduct, not a Herculean task to pull off. Processes and policies need to be created/revamped to free supervisors up to deliver comprehensive coaching sessions that set agents – and the center – up for success.
3. Your center’s use of e-learning as a coaching tool consists of supervisors texting your agents, “You really blew that last call – get better.” E-learning is an invaluable coaching tool, but modules need to be comprehensive, customized and actionable.
4. By the time agents receive feedback on a call they handled, they’ve already been promoted to Marketing. Post-contact coaching needs to be delivered in a timely manner, while the interaction is still fresh in the agent’s mind. Timely coaching also provides damage control – ensuring that the agent doesn’t continue their poor performance traits with too many other customers going forward.
5. Agents have created a secret underground fight club to help them vent their frustration over their latest coaching session. Coaching should be engaging and collaborative, not demoralizing and authoritative. Following a coaching session, agents should be eager to improve – not eager to punch someone in the face.
6. During unexpected lulls in call volume, agents are left twiddling their thumbs rather than honing their skills. In the most agile contact centers, supervisors/coaches take advantage of slow periods by delivering “just-in-time” coaching and training to agents’ desktops – thus maximizing productivity and development (while being careful not to overwhelm agents with SO much work between calls that they never get a chance to decompress.
7. Your agents receive more hours of therapy than they do coaching. An hour or so of coaching per agent each month won’t cut it, and leads to poor service and customer frustration that will likely land the agent in an asylum.In the most successful contact centers, supervisors spend 60%-70%of their time monitoring and coaching – thus sustaining a culture of perpetual learning and improvement… and sanity.
8. Your agents wear protective gear to coaching sessions. Coaching isn’t about beating agents up over what they’re doing wrong; rather it’s an opportunity to empower them to improve, and to praise them for what they’re doing well.
9. Your agent development plans read like mandates from Mussolini. The best coaches are collaborators, not dictators. They actively involve agents in the creation of development plans, realizing that a participative approach to coaching leads to much more improvement than an authoritative one does.
10. Nobody ever coaches your coaches. To ensure that your agents are receiving timely, fair and effective feedback, it’s important for your center’s supervisors to find themselves on the receiving end of a coaching session every once in a while. It’s dangerous to assume that every supervisor naturally knows how to coach. Having a manager or trainer evaluate them on their ability to develop and empower agents can prove invaluable to agent performance and engagement – and, of course, the customer experience.
BONUS sign: When your agents sit around a campfire, they tell coaching stories instead of ghost stories. Nuff said.
Make no mistake: technology has fundamentally changed the nature of customer interactions.
Today’s customers are better informed and more empowered than ever before. Not only do they expect speed and accuracy from their contact center interactions – they demand it. Fail to provide satisfactory service and they can (and will) hit the social airways with instant feedback about your company and your brand.
As a result, many organizations have increased their focus on the customer experience, but improvements don’t come easily. Contact centers face increasing pressure to do more with less. They are constantly charged with operating faster, smarter and cheaper.
At the same time – while trying to meet the increasing demands of customers and the enterprise – a third stakeholder, the agents, play a major role in the success or failure of a company’s overall customer satisfaction program.
In order to be effective, agents must have the training and coaching they need to perform their jobs better and successfully interact and engage with customers. But as we all know, in the contact center, time is a scarce resource.
Where can you find the time to give agents what they need so that they can give your customers the experience they expect and deserve?
The truth is, this time already exists and you are already paying for it! Research shows that the average agent spends 49 minutes of every day sitting idle, waiting for the next call. The problem is that this time comes in 2-3 minute increments, which isn’t enough for agents to complete any meaningful activity.
In the past, a static approach to intraday management has not allowed centers to respond to unexpected changes in call volume in real time. The process is manual, with an agent’s day filled with scheduled time for either handling calls or various off-phone activities, as well as a sizeable chunk of unproductive downtime throughout the day as call volume fluctuates.
The most successful centers are taking a new approach to better utilize their time. Idle time is aggregated across the entire agent workforce, creating larger, more usable blocks for agents to complete the critical training and coaching they need as well as insert some variety into their day.
New intraday management technology is transforming agent idle time into active wait time for agents to complete prioritized activities that improve their performance and productivity. When call volume increases again, they are directed to answering calls so service levels are not negatively impacted.
By finding and utilizing time more efficiently, contact centers are able to better serve agents, enterprises and, most importantly, customers without wasting anyone’s time.
Assurant’s average agent tenure is an astonishing three to five years, which is impressive for a call center environment.
Nikki Gresham, Supervisor of Workforce Planning at Assurant Solutions shared how she keeps moral up by creatively balancing the agents’ needs with those of the company.
“We want to meet those service levels, but we want to give them flexible scheduling options. We realize that we have the biggest impact on their lives outside of their jobs. We try to provide a good mix of schedules. We try to give them a lot of flexible options,” explained Gresham.
One successful tactic they implemented is to allow their top performers to choose their own schedules. Assurant had tried flex scheduling but didn’t get the results they were looking to achieve.
“I know a lot of call centers are in flex scheduling, and we have tried that and we found that it helped for a while depending on the client, but we’ve actually been able to achieve the same sort of results with having schedules that are relatively set,” stated Gresham.
She explained that they minimize schedule realignments and only do them four times a year. During the realignment Workforce Planning will work with Operations to understand how many top performers can pick their own schedule based on staffing needs and strategy. Operations will then have their top performers provide Workforce Planning their schedule of choice.
“We allow them to tell us, ‘I want to work Monday through Friday, eight to five. I want to work Monday through Thursday, eight to seven.’ Then we build the other schedules around them,” Gresham shared.
They have seen a tremendous amount of success with this tactic. Workforce Planning lets Operations choose the criteria. For example, if they’re driving case ownership, they can make that part of the performance criteria. If they’re driving handle times, they can make that part of the performance criteria.
Gresham explained, “Operations sets the expectations with the agent as to what they want to see from their top performers, and then once they’ve identified who those top performers are for us, we reach out to them and say, ‘Hey, what schedule do you want to work?’”
Assurant has seen a lot of positive results with this tactic. It gets some friendly peer pressure going out on the floor and operations loves it. Gresham’s team holds a sit-down bid. The whole process takes about six weeks.
“We will have all the schedules printed out. The agent will come and sit down in my office and I’ll say, “Here are the schedules. You’re fifth in seniority or fifth in performance… Now you pick what schedule you want,’” Gresham told us. They leave and the process continues down the line.
The agent may not like any of their choices by the time their turn comes, but they still get to pick the one they feel is the best option. Assurant has a Workforce Management System where the agent can see their schedules from their desks, but Gresham believes it makes it more personal by sitting down with them and saying, “Here are your options.” She also says that they feel like they have more choice in the matter this way.
Gresham highlighted that it was important to give operations lead time. They provide operations with a timeline that has everything from the point of the first communication to the effective date of the schedule.
“Operations always has a good amount of lead time, and at that point they can tell their supervisors, ‘Okay, in your team meetings this month, I really want you to push ‘x’ in your performance objectives and tell the agents that this could be part of the criteria for them to bid.’”
Allow high performers to make their own schedule
Let operations set the criteria for high performance
Try a personal approach to shift bids
Provide enough lead time for the whole process to work
All work and no play makes Jack a dull agent – and quite possibly an unmotivated and unproductive one, as well.
While customer care isn’t all fun and games, in many progressive and high-performing contact centers, fun and games definitely factor in. These centers have discovered the power of gamification to enhance agent development and engagement.
Gamification is the use of game design and game tactics to inspire employees to learn new skills and/or change behaviors to achieve business objectives. According to Gartner, “Humans are ‘hard-wired’ to enjoy games, and have a natural tendency to interact more deeply in activities that are framed in a game construct.”
With gamification being shown to enhance employee skills, knowledge and enthusiasm, it’s no surprise that it’s starting to take off in contact center circles. After all, higher-performing and happier agents can only lead to good things from a cost and customer experience standpoint.
But like any potentially powerful tool or trend, gamification must be well understood, implemented and managed in order to achieve desired results. Rushing through a gamification initiative could actually end up causing pretty much the opposite of what it’s intended to deliver, bringing about agent disengagement and dissention, hindering performance, and damaging customer relationships.
Give Agent Training and Coaching Some ‘Game’
One of the best ways to safely tap the power of gamification is by incorporating it into agent training and coaching. Games help to make training less of a ‘pain in the class’ for agents – breaking up the monotony of traditional instruction – and have been shown to accelerate the learning process as well as increase long-term retention of training content.
Many centers purchase or create games where agents earn points (or badges) for answering training questions correctly, completing a training module, or for showing proficiency or improvement in a key skill area. Points may be redeemable for small prizes, preferred schedules, time off, et. al., or may just be used to spur some healthy competition among trainees and to create opportunities for supervisors/managers to publically recognize agents who win as well as those who make notable progress.
Incorporating gamification into coaching is similar. Using fully customizable game software, supervisors can create engaging little games that help agents to learn the specific skills they show to be lacking. Supervisors can send such games directly to the agent’s desktop following a coaching session, or, in certain instances, even use the game to serve as the actual coaching itself. Since every agent has different coaching needs, coaching games are less about competition with the group and more about self-competition and improvement.
Use Gamification with Care in Incentive Programs
Some contact centers incorporate gamification into their agent incentive programs – creating games based on the key call objectives agents aim for. Unfortunately, some centers do so without first thinking through their strategy.
Let’s take a center that creates a game where agents earn points for the number of calls they handle. Such a game could very well entice agents to speed through calls and not provide the level of service customers expect and deserve, all in an effort to get to the top of the leader board. The “winning” agent(s) might earn some extra cash or a prize, but the customer – and the company – ultimately loses.
This is not to say that using gamification to inspire agents to improve key performance metrics is a bad idea, but managers need to make sure that the games drive desired behaviors, not just agent competition and straight productivity numbers.
Play at Work Works
If your contact center has yet to embrace gamification, I recommend you at least look into how it can drive positive results – particularly in the areas of agent training and coaching.
If I were a contact center manager being challenged to engage, entertain and continually develop my agents, I’d definitely be saying “Game on”.
Customer service in the call center today is a rapidly changing landscape. More and more companies are figuring out that it’s no longer effective to hire just anyone off the street, stuff them in a large room with hundreds of other random people, tell them follow a script, and expect customer service to happen with positive results. This type of service isn’t real customer service; it’s really customer dis-service.
The effective, customer-centric, thriving call center of today requires a completely different approach to hiring, incentivizing, and training customer professionals who work in the call center. Attracting the best talent in the call center and incentivizing the right results from call center agents once they’re trained and working efficiently is one of the primary challenges to any contact center manager. Unfortunately, our performance measurement and review systems today are contributing to the negative atmosphere in customer service and creating the very customer frustrations we dread as call center managers.
Connect incentives with the desired results
A professional visiting a big city for the first time recounted having to take the bus from his hotel to a client location across the city. He asked for instructions to the location and was told where to go and which bus to take, it should be a relatively simple process. Upon arriving at the bus stop, he waited only to see a bus approach, but pass the stop without stopping to pick up passengers. Frustrated at the fact that no bus would stop to pick him up, he eventually got a taxicab to the client’s location. When he arrived, he recounted the story and his frustration with the busses that never stopped. The client explained that in the city, the bus drivers’ bonus is dependent on reaching the destination on time, so during heavy traffic times, if drivers are behind schedule, they simply skip stops and don’t pick up passengers. This is the epitome of an incentive system, though based on the right intentions, disconnected from the right results. At the time that customers need the service the most, the incentive system keeps them from receiving the service that they need.
One major challenge in the call center today is that while we aspire to some great goals, behaviors, and actions that are customer-centric, we base contact center agent performance and incentives on a completely different set of standards. So while we, as an organization, desire to deliver a premier customer service experience, we then turn around and judge our call center agents on performance standards that really have nothing to do with actual customer service deliverables. So while we want exceptional customer satisfaction with your organization, contact center agents are incentivized on actions that are associated with service, but not directly tied to the service experience.
Take for example, the metric of average handle time, or the average time from the start of a customer interaction to the completion of tasks associated with that interaction. It’s a very common performance standard for call centers and a hot metric with customer service managers. Contact center managers naturally want low handle times so that call center agents can take more customer calls, thus keeping staff levels low. However, simply measuring and pushing for lower handle times often creates a negative impact on the service experience as agents then are pressured to hurry customer interactions, or in some instances, just end them without resolving customer concerns. Frequent disconnected phone calls, excessive transferring between departments, and rushed service are all common complaints from customers interacting with customer service, and why does it happen? It’s because we’re measuring the wrong deliverables.
Incentivizing the right results
My local credit union bank is known for its fantastic customer service. The lobby of the bank has a children’s play area where my kids can play while I take care of my banking needs, candy is always offered and my children can’t wait to go to the bank with dad. But beyond that, I’ve noticed that the moment I walk in the door, someone at the branch welcomes me. If more than two people are in line at the teller, someone from one of the other offices will come out and help customers in line. When you are refinancing or working with an investment specialist, they will travel to your local branch of choice to work with you. You can’t help but come away feeling that they care about you. Service is more than just a talking point and a line in the mission statement. It’s part of their culture.
Working in customer service, I’m always interested in how they create this culture of customer service. I recently asked about their approach to service and how they are incentivized to deliver great customer service, the answer was simple. Tie compensation to actual customer service. The credit union uses it’s customer satisfaction scores as the basis for the overall pool for employee compensation. Yearly bonuses, for example, are set aside for the organization in general, but the percentage of the total amount that managers can actually use for compensation is directly tied to the customer service satisfaction scores. So if the organization achieved only a 50% customer satisfaction rating with their customers, only 50% of the total pool would be available for employee compensation. Suddenly, a few points change in customer satisfaction scores mean a whole lot more to employees than it did before. It’s on everyone’s interest to ensure that 1) front-line employees deliver an exceptional customer service experience and 2) back-end employees do everything they can to help and support the front-line customer experience.
Customer-focused organizational culture
By re-thinking performance measurement and compensation being tied directly to the right performance results, organizations really can execute on the mission of delivering exceptional service experiences. No organization sets out to deliver bad service. No organization has a mission statement that includes delivering bad customer service or ensuring terrible customer experiences (even though you can probably name a few companies that do). The problem is that we often become disconnected between our organizational aspirations and the tools that we have at our disposal to implement and evaluate our actions in carrying out that mission statement. This level of disconnect breeds the service atmosphere that we have today. Re-thinking how we approach compensation in the contact center and connecting the right results to performance appraisals gets us back on track.
When it comes to pushing for change in the contact center, it’s all about enhancing the customer experience. Despite its intent, forced changed on your workforce sometimes creates problems. Management should always ensure thoughtful planning and involvement of anyone affected. To help you navigate the ins and outs of contact center change management Robert Patterson, Business Analyst, provides three proven ways to successfully drive change in the contact center.
A Quality Manager once told me, “We seem to focus on activity, not results” and unfortunately he spoke the truth.
When working with Quality teams, I ask them to explain their tools and processes in place for coaching: who coaches, how often monitoring and coaching is done, their quality goals, etc.
Some Quality Managers are setting an exact number of coaching sessions for each agent every month supported by an exact number of calls, emails, interactions monitored for each agent every month. I’m not talking “minimum” numbers. They hold analysts to a specific number each and every month per rep.
If a manager is focused more on achieving this exact number of coaching sessions and monitorings to complete, then it follows that their supervisors and quality analysts who are coaching also become more focused on completing that process and number goal instead of what is actually resulting from those activities.
You may have observed the last minute rush by some analysts and supervisors to get their coaching or monitoring quota reached before month end. These coaches are moving people in and out of coaching meetings like a factory production line in operation. When I observe the fast coaches, their sessions are what I like to call a “cookie cutter” process. The same things are said to the same agents, over and over again.
The cookie cutter coaches have little enthusiasm for what they are doing and simply churn out pieces or paper or online documentation stating “coaching completed”. No surprise that the results aren’t stellar when this happens.
Coaches need to understand that people learn differently and coach to that understanding. Some pick up skills quickly, others need repetition to build the skill through practice.
Neil Fleming’s VARK learning styles theory (www.vark-learn.com) deals with learning differences in great detail. VARK stands for Visual, Aural, Read/Write, Kinesthetic.
VARK Learning Styles are generally described as:
Visual: Learn by viewing charts/graphs/pictures
Aural: Learn by hearing information presented
Read/Write: Learn by reading or writing information
Kinsesthetic: Learn by experience, doing activities
We may not have the time or resources to test everyone for their VARK learning style, but we can make sure our coaches are using a mix of learning styles to see what is most effective for each agent.
For Visual: Posted Skill Stickie note, goals posted at cubicle, graphs or charts
For Aural: They listen to you handle calls, listen to their own calls
For Read/Write: Ask them to write down skill reminders for themselves, write list of phrases for them to practice, offer e-learning modules
For Kinesthetic: Role play together, side by side call observation with coach
Make coaching personal and appealing to the way your agents learn and you’ll see greater success in skills improvement and retention of those skills.
Event 360 conducted teammate satisfaction surveys and Molly Fast’s newly inherited team ranked lowest on many of the questions such as: the company values the contribution I make, I’m satisfied with the culture of the company and I feel like my opinions and ideas are respected and given consideration.
Molly Fast, Associate Director, National Sales & Service for Event 360, Inc. shares how she pushed call center agent morale to the highest levels the company had ever seen.
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.