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.

The contact center industry has historically been plagued by high employee turnover. Particularly problematic (and expensive) is early agent attrition – new-hires quitting soon after the contact center has spent ample time and resources recruiting, assessing, training and greasing them up to fit inside their cubicle.

While some early attrition can be attributed to poor candidate selection, often rookie reps exit because they get rushed through orientation and initial training then thrown to the customer wolves. Or, in some cases, they receive plenty of coddling and coaching during orientation/training, and then wonder where all the love suddenly went once they’ve earned their headset.  

To help ease rookie agents into the challenging and dynamic customer care environment without the use of mood-altering drugs, many top contact centers have implemented an “extended on-boarding” initiative. Such initiatives spread the transitional phase out over several weeks or months to help foster a strong sense of preparedness and belonging among new staff, resulting in higher levels of engagement and fewer incidents of them vanishing into thin air.

Following are several key components of a successful “Extended On-Boarding” initiative:

“Transition” training. After their trainees complete a couple weeks (or more) of classroom training, many contact centers send them to a special phone bay (or “nesting area”) to take basic calls while being closely monitored and carefully coached by a supervisor (or multiple supervisors, if the training class is particularly large). After a week or so in the bay, trainees may head back to the classroom to enhance their skills and to learn how to ignore the urge to punch customers. Following another stint in the nesting area taking live calls, successful trainees are moved to the official phone floor while their less successful peers are moved to a mental institution.

“Transition” training, as it has come to be called, not only helps to shorten learning curves by providing plenty of practical experience, it works wonders in raising comfort levels among new hires, who love the extra care and attention they get before getting torn to shreds on a daily basis by customers with much more complex problems. 

Peer mentoring. Effective agent on-boarding doesn’t end with initial training. Top contact centers continue to show new-hires the love after “graduation” by pairing them up with an experienced agent trained to assist and inspire. Having a peer nearby to help rookies through tough calls, peak periods and panic attacks is a surefire way to fend against early attrition and help new-hires thrive in what can be an overwhelmingly fast-paced environment.

In addition to raising the retention and performance levels of new hires, peer mentoring has the added benefit of enhancing engagement among the center’s frontline veterans (which can be infectious), who enjoy sharing their knowledge, taking on more of a leadership role, and having somebody to fetch their coffee in the morning.

Social events. Even with peer mentoring in place, feelings of isolation and alienation are common among agents, who must spend most of their time tucked inside a cubicle handling (or waiting to handle) customer contacts. Smart contact centers recognize this, and thus organize frequent events and gatherings aimed at strengthening relationships, elevating morale, and getting agents drunk so that they'll accept weekend shifts. Examples of such practical social activities include team luncheons, bowling outings and barbeques. During these events, managers and supervisors should introduce and encourage interaction with the center’s newer team members, and inform the newer members if they have any food stuck in their teeth.

Specialized satisfaction surveys for new(ish) employees. Just because this isn’t a common practice doesn’t mean it’s not a good one. Administering an “on-boarding satisfaction” survey to agents after 60 or 90 days on the job enables the contact center to gauge the level of engagement among newbies and act quickly on feedback to help prevent early attrition and aggravated assault on supervisors. Agents’ input and suggestions also help the center to improve the overall on-boarding process to ensure high levels of retention and low rates of murder among the next group of new-hires that roll through.

Many managers say that the very act of soliciting such feedback from new-hires helps to increase morale and retention, as it shows them that the organization truly values their opinion and is committed to improving hiring, training, brainwashing and other processes aimed at setting them up for success.

Sending a new agent straight onto the phones following just a couple weeks of classroom training is the equivalent of sending an aspiring boxer to fight Mike Tyson following just a couple weeks with a punching bag.

In both cases, the rookie is going to get knocked out, and their ear chewed off.

Nevertheless, many call centers continue to throw their new-hires into the customer contact ring well before the reps are ready to do battle – then act surprised that their average rep mortality rate is less than two months. These centers have fooled themselves into thinking that a week or two of lectures, role-plays and e-learning exercises is enough to prepare new agents for the unique demands and challenges that come with the frontline territory.

In contrast, most world-class call centers I’ve worked with have built a “transition training” component into their new-hire training program, thus enabling rookie reps to ease into a life of chaos and panic on the phones rather than diving straight into things.

What Is “Transition Training”?

Transition training entails having trainees handle basic calls in a controlled environment after they have woken up from classroom and other types of didactic training. In some centers, new-hires may enter the transition training bay after one week in the classroom; in other centers, they may not enter the bay until after they’ve completed two or three weeks of classroom instruction. Once agents enter the bay, they are routed a small number of calls that – based on the number dialed and/or the IVR menu option selected – should be relatively easy to handle.

Smart call centers ensure that there are plenty of supervisors or team leads on hand in the transition training bay in case a call turns out to be complex or a trainee turns out to be terrified. Where a typical agent-to-supervisor ratio on the official phone floor of a call center is 15:1 or 20:1, the agent-to-supervisor ratio in an effective transition training bay should be in the 3:1 to 5:1 range. Many small call centers that don’t have the luxury of a large number of supervisory staff to assist trainees often turn to their top agents to lend a hand in the transition training bay. Such an approach is great for building peer camaraderie, and for helping experienced agents learn to be bossy.

In most call centers, trainees return to the classroom following the first transition training period (which may last anywhere from a few days to a few weeks). This enables them to close performance gaps uncovered while in action, and to learn new skills and information that will allow them handle more complex call types – which they will get to do during the second transition training period. By the time they complete the second period of hands-on practice, most agents will be ready to graduate to the official phone floor or, if they have shown a particularly high level of talent, to be stolen from the call center by Sales or Marketing.   

It’s a Win-Win-W… It’s a LOT of Wins

With a carefully implemented transition training program in place, everybody wins: New agents’ gain more confidence and lose fewer lunches; veteran agents (who assist in the training bay) enjoy a vast sense of empowerment and superiority; and the call center as a whole saves a ton of money by reducing early turnover and the number of body bags needed on the phone floor.

If your call center uses a transition training component as part of its new-hire training process (or if you’ve ever helped implement such an initiative), feel free to share some of your experiences in the comment box below. If your call center does NOT do transition training, feel free to share some photos of your trainees crying their first day on the phones.

You can’t be a good contact center coach if you habitually tell the truth and speak your mind. As infuriating as it can be to witness agents repeatedly making blatant mistakes when serving customers, that aggravation must be converted into something positive, polite and constructive when it comes time to provide feedback.

Gone are the days when you could just hit an agent with your shoe or send a mild electric shock through their headset whenever they provided sub-par service. That is so 2007. These days if you want to foster continuous agent improvement and engagement, you have to keep your shoes on and provide a nurturing environment where praise flows freely and where friendly pointers – rather than sharp pokes – are provided regularly to help close performance gaps.

Some of you have already mastered the art of controlling your temper and your tongue during coaching via the use of relaxation exercises and prescription tranquilizers. Many others, however, still haven’t quite gotten the hang of how to express yourself to bonehead agents in ways that won’t get you fired or arrested.

I’m here to help. Below are some acceptable translations for what you really feel like saying to staff during coaching sessions.

What you feel like saying: “Your customer service skills make me want to learn how to box. Three callers this week have requested that we remove your larynx. Unfortunately, that would limit you to handling only email and chat, which isn’t really an option either since you don’t know how to spell or use punctuation.” 

Acceptable translation: “I see some areas where we could make you an even stronger rep. This will be good for you and for our customers. There might be a real opportunity for you to join our e-support team – we just need to focus on improving the order in which you place your letters and your breaks when typing responses.” 

What you feel like saying: “You are a horrible person.I’ve seen more tenderness and care demonstrated by lions eating a baby gazelle. Next time a customer calls crying, don’t complain that their sobbing is really bumming you out. Your job is to ease their concerns and let them know you understand how they must feel, NOT to ask them if they have any scotch nearby or to suggest they call back after your shift has ended.”      

Acceptable translation: “You could be among our top performers if you worked on your empathy skills just a little. Try to imagine that each caller is your mother or, if you happen to hate your mother, a frightened orphan. You have the power not only to solve sad and angry callers’ issues, but also to bring them comfort and make their day – even more than alcohol can.”

What you feel like saying: “You couldn’t sell a spray-tan to Paris Hilton. That last customer was practically asking to be up-sold, but you evidently are allergic to revenue. I think you may have a real future as a toll-booth operator, as you have a natural talent for sitting on your butt and idly watching customers pass by.”    

Acceptable translation: “You get high marks for friendliness and courtesy on the phones; now we just need to get you more comfortable with uncovering customer needs and helping our contact center be less poor. Effective selling is actually a part of customer service, as you are providing solutions that make the customer’s life easier. In doing so, you earn a little extra money and reduce the chances of suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning in a metal and glass box one day on some freeway.”  

What you feel like saying: “You are the rudest, most pretentious and self-centered employee I have ever had the misfortune of supervising.”

Acceptable translation: “Have you ever considered becoming VP of Marketing?”

Please let me know how helpful this blog post was, on a scale of 10 to 10.

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.

I often hear call center managers boast about how extensive their new-hire and continuous training is, but then when I ask them how they formally measure the effectiveness of each method and module delivered, they look at me like I’m drunk or crazy. Often I am both, but that doesn’t make my question any less appropriate or important.   

Developing and delivering training is only half the battle. Call centers need to regularly track training’s impact and success. Doing so not only ensures continuous performance improvement and maximizes the organization’s training investment, it gives call center managers tangible training data they can present at industry events and in publications to make their industry peers feel vastly inferior. And isn’t that the real reason why most of you got into this business in the first place?

Accurately tracking new-hire training effectiveness is not as easy as it sounds, which is why I merely write about top call centers rather than manage one myself. However, in my time snooping around the industry, interviewing experts and analyzing training success, I have seen a host of organizations that do a spot-on job of measuring the impact that training has on immediate and long-term agent performance.

Here are several ways they go about it:

Written training tests. Top call centers develop written tests on training material and administer them… 
  • Before actual training is provided – to measure base-level proficiency prior to training.
  •  Just after training is provided – to measure training comprehension and initial skill/knowledge absorption.
  • Weeks or even months after the training has been provided – to measure the impact of daily headset shocks and customer insults on long-term memory.

On-the-job training assessments. These are focused performance evaluations designed to measure the application of specific skills and knowledge that agents totally ignored during training. As with written tests, many call centers first conduct such assessments (via role-play or simulation exercises) prior to delivering training to gauge skill level before instruction. Soon after training has been delivered, the real on-the-job assessments are carried out – sometimes via role-play/simulations, but usually while agents are panicking on actual calls.

Specific assessments are also conducted periodically well after training has been completed – not just to gauge how well agents have retained and are applying the skills/knowledge in question, but also because many supervisors are sadistic and like to see even their most experienced agents tremble.

Agent feedback. Measuring training success isn’t all about post-training tests and assessment scores. How agents themselves feel about the training received is critical, too – or at least you should make them think that. Soliciting agent feedback after training can shed ample light on why certain elements of training fail while others fail worse.

The best call centers ask agents about: Which training programs and delivery methods they found most impactful and engaging; which programs/methods they found superfluous; and which ones made them throw up a little in their own mouth. Agent input is captured and tracked to help spot common trends in training effectiveness and common problems that detract from agent development – mostly the latter. 

Customer feedback. Customers’ comments on post-call satisfaction surveys, along with their furious rants captured on call recordings, can also be helpful in highlighting training successes and shortcomings.

Sharp managers pay close attention to customer input in areas for which agents have recently received training. For example, if an agent who has just completed a special module on courteousness/professionalism receives numerous comments from customers about how rude and abrupt the agent was on the call, the manager/supervisor then knows that the training was highly ineffective. However, it could also simply be that the agent in question is a sociopath, in which case he or she should be moved into the IT department immediately.