Off Center
 
Timely and positive coaching is one of the most important tools in the contact center. Notice I said “timely” AND “positive” – this is no either/or scenario. Giving agents immediate feedback following an interaction with a customer is great, but not if that feedback makes them cry or want to punch you. By the same token, positive praise and constructive comments are wonderful, but not if the praise and comments refer to an agent-customer interaction that took place during the previous President’s administration.

A good coach plays a big part in determining whether an agent becomes a service nuisance and an early turnover statistic, or a long-lasting high-performer.

So, what comprises good coaching? Here are five practices that coaches in the best contact centers use to give their agents serious game:

Letting agents self-evaluate. When it’s the agent starting the “what needs to improve” conversation, things tend to flow much more smoothly and agents remain much more open to input and feedback compared to when the coach launches a unilateral attack. The best coaches give agents the opportunity to review their monitored contacts and allow them to express how much their performance stunk before the coach goes and does it for them.  

Agents are typically quite critical of their own performance, often pointing out mistakes they made that QA staff and supervisors might have otherwise overlooked. Of course, the intent of self-eval sessions is not to sit and watch as agents eviscerate themselves – as much fun as that can be – but rather to ensure that they understand their true strengths and where they might improve. Self-evaluations should cease if agents begin to slap themselves during the process, unless it is an agent whom you yourself had been thinking about slapping anyway.

 
Praising before pouncing. When it comes time to provide feedback, the best coaches start off acknowledging and recognizing what the agent did well, as opposed to opening with something of a more critical nature that may put the agent on the defensive. Even if the agent stunk up the call, it’s still important to start off with something positive: “Mary, you did an excellent job of being in your seat, continuing to breathe, and not pressing ‘release’ when the call arrived. Now I’d just like to talk a little bit about how you swore at the customer before breaking into tears…”

If an agent fails to identify a performance issue during their self-evaluation, good coaches don’t shove it down their throat. Rather, they point out the issue or behavior in question and ask the agent what they could have done differently, and then engage in an interactive discussion featuring constructive feedback and sometimes lollipops.  


Tapping the power of ‘ideal contact’ archives. One of the biggest complaints you hear from agents about coaching is, “They tell us what we did wrong, but they don’t help us to get better.” A great way to show agents how to get better is via recordings (or email/chat transcripts) of past agent-customer interactions that demonstrate a desired skill or behavior you want the agent in question to emulate. For example, if you have an agent struggling with excessive handle times, have them listen to a recording featuring an agent demonstrating excellent call control. Or maybe you have an agent who unwittingly comes off as rude to customers. If so, sit them down to listen to a call handled by an agent who isn’t a total sociopath.

Telling an agent they have to decrease their handle time and/or not be so mean doesn’t work nearly as well as showing them what call control and courtesy sounds like and asking them to comment on what they’ve just heard. Plus, most agents like learning from "one of their own” – more than being told what to do by a cranky supervisor who likely has it in for them.


Taking the “customer as coach” approach. Sometimes the best coaching in the contact center comes from folks who don’t even work there. As experienced and proficient as your supervisors and team leads might be at providing feedback on how agents can improve performance, it’s your customers’ direct comments that often have the biggest impact on agent development. This is certainly not to suggest that agents don’t require and value feedback from their superiors as well as from experienced peers, but there’s something about hearing things straight from the customer’s mouth that causes agents to not fall asleep during coaching sessions.

Having a supervisor tell an agent he needs to work on his empathy doesn’t hit him the same way as having him read “The agent I spoke to was colder than a naked Eskimo” on a survey completed by a customer he recently interacted with. Where agents may occasionally feel a supervisor’s or QA specialist’s take on their performance is subjective, there’s no arguing with the “Voice of the Customer”. So, whether you share customer comments taken from post-contact surveys, emails/letters sent from customers, or customer’s direct conversations with supervisors/managers (following an escalated call), those words can do a lot to engage agents and drive them to stop stinking so much.


Collaborating with agents to develop action plans. At the end of each coaching session during which a key area for improvement is identified, the best coaches typically work together with the agent to come up with a clear and concise action plan aimed at getting the agent up to speed. Such collaboration, just like with letting agents self-evaluate, is engaging and empowering to agents and makes them more likely to work hard to improve. The supervisor/coach still has the final say, but the agent is actively involved in the creation of the action plan.

A typical action plan may call for the agent to receive additional one-on-one coaching/training offline, complete one or more e-learning modules, work with a peer mentor, start taking powerful psychoactive medications, and/or undergo a lobotomy.

 
“Why is morale so low?”
“Why can’t we hang on to our best agents?”
“Why do we lose so many new-hires during or right after initial training?”
“Why are some of our agents carrying around voodoo dolls, and why am I suddenly experiencing such sharp pains in my face and back?”

If you often find yourself asking one or more of the above questions, it’s likely due to one or more of the following issues:

1) The metrics you measure (and enforce) are killing agents' spirit and the customer experience. Your agents bought into the “customer-centric” culture you sold them during recruiting and came on board excited to serve, but then the center started slamming them over the head with rigid Average Handle Time (AHT) objectives and Calls Per Hour (CPH) quotas their first day on the phones.

Focusing too strongly on such straight productivity metrics – and punishing agents for not hitting strict targets – kills agents' service spirit and compels them to do whatever is necessary to keep calls short and to handle as many as possible. This includes rushing callers off the phones before their issues are resolved, speeding through after-call work and making costly mistakes, and even occasionally pressing “release” to send unsuspecting customers into oblivion. You need to start emphasizing metrics like Contact Quality, Customer Satisfaction, First-Call Resolution, and Adherence to Schedule (the latter is a productivity-based metric your agents actually have control over). Do so, and you’ll be surprised how things like AHT and CPH end up falling in line anyway. Oh, and better do it soon – before your agents AND your customers decide to leave your company in the dust.   


2) Your quality monitoring program emphasizes the “monitoring” much more than the “quality”. Your supervisors and/or QA team are too focused on your internal monitoring form and not enough on how customers actually feel about the quality of the interaction they recently had with your center and agent. All agents see are subjective scores and checkmarks on a form that is likely better suited for measuring compliance than quality.

To get agents to embrace the quality monitoring process, let them have some input on what the form should contain, and, even more importantly, start incorporating direct customer feedback/ratings (from post-transaction surveys) into agents’ overall quality scores. For some reason, agents prefer it when a customer – rather than a supervisor – tells them how much their service stunk. Who knows, some agents might even try to improve.


3) Your contact center doesn’t fully embrace a culture of empowerment. Your contact center has failed to recognize and/or act on the fact that agents possess a wealth of insight, and know your customers better than anyone. It’s time to start empowering agents to use that insight and knowledge to improve existing processes and come up with new ones. This is probably the best way to continuously better the center while simultaneously making agents feel respected and valued. You’ll be amazed by the positive impact their ideas and suggestions will have on operational efficiencies, revenue and customer satisfaction. And because empowerment greatly increases engagement, you should see a big reduction in agent attrition and arson attempts.   


4) Coaching & training continuously get buried beneath the queue. Agents are eager to continuously develop and add value, but your overworked supervisors can’t find the time to stay on top of coaching and ongoing training. Your center needs to begin exploring feasible and effective ways to fit coaching and training into the schedule, such as using “just in time” e-learning modules, creating a peer mentoring program, and empowering agents to take on some supervisory tasks – which will free supervisors up to conduct more coaching and training while still giving them time to go home and visit their families on occasion.  


5) Agent rewards & recognition programs are uninspired – or non-existent. You’re merely going through the motions in terms of motivating and recognizing staff – futilely hoping that such stale incentives as cookies, balloons and gold stars will get agents to raise the roof performance-wise. It's time to revamp your agent rewards & recognition programs with proven approaches like: a Wall of Fame that pays tribute to consistent high performers; opportunities to serve on important committees or task forces; nominations for external industry awards for agents; fun happy hours where agents get to socialize and receive public praise for their concerted effort; and inspired events and contests during Customer Service Week and National Kiss Your Agents on the Mouth Day.     


6) You're handing the wrong people a headset. Maybe you are actually doing all the positive things I’ve suggested thus far, and are STILL struggling with low agent engagement and retention. Well, then you may want to take a close look at your recruiting and hiring practices. Regardless of how well you train, empower and reward staff, if you are attracting and selecting sociopaths and others who aren’t cut out for contact center work or your company culture, you’ll never foster the level of agent commitment or performance that’s required to become as good a customer care organization as your customers demand and deserve.   


A slightly different version of this post originally appeared on the “Productivity Plus” blog put out by the very good people at Intradiem.

 
I dedicated an entire post to the topic of peer mentoring in contact centers a while back, but there’s one thing I didn’t address then that I’d like to address now: The importance of incorporating home agents into the peer mentoring mix.

With so many organizations embracing the home agent model in recent years, a good portion of some centers' best agents no longer work onsite. And while these agents invariably thrive at home, they are no longer available to help their peers do the same back at the brick and mortar facility.

At least that’s the assumption. I’m here to say that home agents not only can serve as peer mentors, they absolutely should.

Just because these talented team members have traded in their business casual attire for pajamas doesn’t mean they’ve traded in their expertise and insight – or their appetite for empowerment. Case study after case study shows that experienced agents fully embrace the opportunity to serve as mentors, to share their vast knowledge and skills and expand their job role.

Sending top agents home without their mentoring hats zaps the contact center of much of its employee development strength. It’s like eliminating part of the training team.  

So how does a center go about utilizing home agents as peer mentors? The same way the center keeps home agents in the loop and up to date. Email, chat, video and phone are invaluable communication and training tools in centers with remote staff; those tools can be just as invaluable when used to foster mentoring relationships. Sure, it’s always nice for new-hires and seasoned staff to work side-by-side, but physical presence isn’t nearly as important as real-time communication when it comes to mentoring. Protégés with pressing questions can initiate a quick chat session with their mentor. When in need of more in-depth coaching or assistance, chat (or phone) 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 email can come in handy for less urgent or in-depth matters.

As with traditional mentoring, contact centers need to establish certain scheduling and adherence policies to ensure their virtual mentoring initiatives don’t end up hindering service levels or quality. Since home agents serving as mentors are likely to be among the center’s star agents, it’s important not to have too many of them offline assisting their respective protégés, or to have any of them or their protégés offline when the center is being bombarded by customer contacts. Centers can solve (or at least minimize) such issues by having a solid workforce management process in place, and by instilling a “keep your eyes on the queue” mentality among mentors and protégés whenever they are working offline.

And finally, it’s important to realize not every home agent – regardless of experience and skill on the phones – is cut out to be a mentor. Some, in fact, love working at home for the simple reason that it allows them to never have to interact with another human being (other than customers) again. As a general rule, it’s not a good idea to force sociopaths to assist new-hires. When choosing virtual mentors, be sure to select those who are as gregarious and patient as they are experienced, and stay away from those who snarl whenever approached or who look like Jeffrey Dahmer.  


What are YOUR thoughts on virtual peer mentoring? Have any of you tried it? If so, how well did/does it work for your center?




 
Sometimes the best coaching in the contact center comes from folks who don’t even work there.

As experienced and proficient as your supervisors and team leads might be at providing feedback on how agents can improve, it’s your customers’ direct comments that often have the biggest impact on agent development.

This is not to suggest that agents don’t require and value feedback from their superiors as well as from experienced peers, but there’s something about hearing things straight from the customer’s mouth that causes agents to really stand up and take notice. (Just make sure they don’t stand up for too long – they might end up out of adherence.) Having your supervisor tell you that you need to work on your empathy doesn’t hit you quite the same way as reading “The agent I spoke to had all the charm of a morgue attendant” on a survey completed by a customer you recently interacted with. Where agents may occasionally feel a supervisor’s or QA specialist’s take on their performance is subjective and unfair, there’s no arguing with the “voice of the customer”.

Some contact centers have modeled their entire quality program around the “customer as coach” concept. The North Texas Tollway Authority (NTTA) is one such center. The NTTA uses a VOC/performance management tool that enables the contact center to efficiently capture agent-specific customer feedback across all contact channels. Supervisors then share this feedback with agents to identify behaviors and skills that need improvement as well as those worthy of positive recognition. The center’s agents can access the system themselves whenever they want to view direct customer feedback on recently handled contacts. As much as 50% of the feedback received by agents following a monitoring session and during annual reviews comes directly from customers.

The NTTA’s agents wouldn’t have it any other way.

“Agents love the initiative,” says John Bannerman, Assistant Director of the NTTA’s Contact Center. “They get far more positive feedback from customers than a supervisor would have time to provide for their entire team on a daily basis. This provides encouragement and motivation for agents to continue doing things well, and makes them more willing to accept suggestions for improvement.”

Whether you share customer comments taken from post-contact surveys, emails/letters sent from customers, customer’s direct conversations with supervisors/managers (following an escalated call, etc.), or from gas station bathroom walls, those words can do a whole lot to engage (or wake up) agents and drive them to overcome challenging performance barriers.

Your customers are much more than just potential revenue sources lined up in a virtual queue; they are viable contact center coaches. It doesn’t matter if they know this or not – what matters is that you do.



 
If you are looking for a way to engage your agents and improve performance without having it interfere with your nap time, have I got the solution for you:

Peer mentoring.

It’s one of the most effective and affordable agent development tools around – one that empowers your best and most experienced agents while simultaneously keeping your newer agents from getting laughed at too much by the quality monitoring team.

Most contact centers that have implemented a peer mentoring initiative report shorter learning curves, increased performance, and lower turnover among new hires, as well as a strong sense of "I no longer hate my job" among experienced staff.   



 Agent-on-Agent Education

Peer mentoring typically involves pairing up a rookie rep (protégé or “mentee”) with a veteran one (mentor) for several weeks or months after the former completes their initial training. In some centers, the mentoring relationship begins during training, thus giving the protégé a dedicated shoulder to cry on even before getting screamed at by their first caller.

Protégés sit with their mentor and practice the tactics they have learned in training or on the show Outsourced and receive invaluable feedback and tips from their experienced colleague. In addition to gaining insight and skills from the most knowledgeable people in your contact center, new agents often form a strong bond with their mentor, which helps to cut down on early attrition and assaults on supervisors and schedulers.     

As already alluded to, it isn’t just the new agents (and the contact center) that benefit from mentoring; mentors themselves truly appreciate that management recognizes the value of their skills and knowledge. Mentors also enjoy the job diversity and time offline that mentoring provides, not to mention having somebody to fetch their coffee in the morning. 



The Mentoring Scheduling Conundrum

One of the biggest challenges involved in running a successful mentoring program is scheduling. Since mentors are typically among the center’s best agents (if you’re doing it right), it’s critical not to have too many of them working offline with their respective protégés, or to have any of them offline during peak volume periods.

This problem can often be solved by having a solid workforce management (forecasting/scheduling) process in place, and by instilling a “queue is king” mentality among mentors. Make sure they know to keep an eye on the queue whenever offline, and that it’s okay to knock over even elderly managers or visitors while sprinting back to their workstations whenever certain queue thresholds are reached.



Choosing the Right Mentors

When selecting who will serve as mentors, it’s important to note that the most talented and experienced agents don’t necessarily make the best teachers. For example, studies have shown that many of the highest caliber tech support reps carry knives and collect human teeth.

Contact centers with the most successful mentoring programs have a formal mentor selection process in place. These centers typically have candidates interview for the position, take behavioral tests, or even complete some form of certification program. Each candidate’s results are compared against an “ideal mentor” profile to ensure that those selected are skilled, dependable, personable, autonomous, and have never punched a colleague in the head.


I’d love to hear some of your experiences with peer mentoring, but only the positive ones that support my points. Otherwise, people will start to figure out that I really don’t know what I’m talking about.