Off Center
 
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I'm not one to criticize or judge, except perhaps when I'm around other people. However, I feel I must voice (or, more accurately, write) my opinions regarding some common problems that plague the contact center industry.

Following are what I have found to be among the most common stupid things contact centers do, along with some suggestions to help avoid such idiocy.


Borrowing another contact center’s Service Level or Response Time objective. In choosing a Service Level and/or Response Time objective for their center, many managers simply use the same objective that is in place at centers deemed "best in class." What these managers fail to realize is that their particular customers may very well be bigger pains in the butt than those of best-in-class centers, making them more likely to complain and become irritable if their call isn't answered immediately.

Take for example a manager who, after reading an article about an award-winning pharmaceutical company's contact center with an 80/30 Service Level objective in place, implemented the same goal at his center. What he failed to realize was that 94 percent of the pharmaceutical center's customers were using a leading anti-depressant, and thus thoroughly enjoyed humming along to the centers' on-hold music for as long as possible. Our guy, on the other hand, managed a helpdesk for novice voodoo practitioners, where it wasn't at all uncommon for callers who were forced to wait even just 10 seconds for a connection to start sticking needles in little dolls wearing headsets.

The key point to take away from this ridiculous example is that I am very prone to run-on sentences. Another important point is that, whenever deciding on performance objectives, it's essential to choose the best objectives for YOUR contact center, and to ignore those of respectable ones.

 
Failing to incorporate customer feedback into coaching. One problem with relying solely on your own QA staff or supervisors to provide monitoring feedback to agents is that your agents don't like your QA Staff or your supervisors. Many of your agents would rather have their gums scraped or read a technology vendor’s whitepaper than take your supervisors' advice. That's why the best contact centers have started incorporating direct customer feedback (taken from post-contact surveys) into monitoring scores and coaching efforts. True, most agents don't like your customers either, but are more willing to accept their input because customers never have coffee breath and rarely if ever order your agents to go home and change out of their cut-off Rage Against the Machine tee-shirt on Casual Fridays.

Research has revealed several key benefits of implementing a direct customer feedback initiative. One study, for example, found that contact centers with such initiatives in place have up to 25% higher customer satisfaction rates, up to 15% higher agent retention rates, and up to 1% fewer incidents of QA staff and supervisors being gang-tackled by staff.


Waiting for bleeding-edge technology to become boring. I'm not saying that all contact centers should take big risks on unproven customer contact tools. I'm merely suggesting that those that don't are totally chicken. Now you may argue that investing in unproven solutions is not an intelligent, well thought-out business move. That's fine, but if you are interested only in things intelligent and well thought-out, then you have no business reading my blog.

Show me an award-winning contact center, and I'll show you a manager who has dared to make some dangerous moves with regard to customer contact solutions. Granted, occasionally such deployments fail at these leading centers, but persistent and progressive managers do not let such events stop them. Instead these managers continue to think about the next advanced technology to revolutionize their center and, once their request to leave the mental health facility is granted, eagerly begin meeting with vendors seeking beta-testers.


Treating agents like employees. If you treat agents like employees, they are going to act like employees, and few organizations can recover from such damage.

A recent study by a leading consulting firm revealed that employees are one of the biggest threats to a corporation's health and prosperity, second only to the CEO. Absenteeism, poor work performance and stapler-theft were among the many harmful acts found to be carried out more by employees than any other living entity.

On the other hand, the report found that such undesirable behavior is almost never associated with grandmothers, infants or lemurs. That's why, as I've been saying for years, contact center managers would be wise to stop spending so much time micromanaging and monitoring agents, and start spending more time providing them with rose-scented perfume, colorful rattles and pictures of Madagascar.


For those who find it insulting that I’ve used the term “Stupidity” in the title of this blog post, don’t be dumb. I was just trying to shake things up a bit and bring about some positive change.

For those of you who actually stuck around and kept reading, feel free to share what YOU feel is a common stupid thing in our industry. And please don’t say “Greg Levin”. I may be a highly judgmental and critical jerk, but I do have feelings. Moron.



 
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The best managers realize a contact center cannot succeed without skilled, motivated and mostly sober agents manning the phones (and other contact channels). These managers work hard to develop and sustain hiring programs that ensure the front line is forever staffed with service stars who stick around for longer than the first pay period.

But I’m not here to talk about hiring success. When it comes to agent recruiting, assessment and selection, success is much less common than failure... and it's more fun to talk about the latter.

With that in mind, following are 15 signs your contact center’s hiring practices need work:

15) A common question among new-hires is whether their work schedule will interfere with their dog fighting competitions.

14) Your contact center recently underwent renovations to expand the exit interview room.

13) Candidates typically celebrate a job offer by firing off a few rounds of ammunition out back.

12) While playing hide-and-seek in your contact center, your eight year-old kid secretly answered several customer calls – and outperformed all your agents.

11) You’ve implemented a work-at-home agent program because most of your job candidates are under house arrest.  

10) Your average agent tenure is measured in minutes.

9) Your two most critical selection criteria when assessing agent candidates are “has a pulse” and “wears clothes.”

8) Your most effective recruiting method is begging.

7) Your best agent is your IVR system.

6) The final stage of your agent selection process involves a coin toss.

5) The top candidate from your last recruitment effort applied from federal prison.

4) You promoted the aforementioned candidate to supervisor his first week on the job.

3) Your most valuable applicant assessment tool is a drug-sniffing dog.

2) You hired the aforementioned dog as a team lead.

And the number one sign your contact center’s hiring practices need work is…

1) While reading each item on this list, you thought to yourself, “It’s funny because it’s true.”


For those of you looking for (slightly) more serious and insightful resources on agent recruiting and hiring, check out the following links to previous blog posts:

Active Agent Recruiting: Take Hiring by the Horns
Separate the Reps from the Replicas: Improving Your Pre-Hire Assessment Process
The First Key to Agent Retention? Your Hiring Program


There’s also an entire chapter dedicated to the topic of recruiting & hiring in my Full Contact book.





 
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.