Off Center
 
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?




 
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.