Will You Be Thanking Your Agents Tomorrow?

As I write this southwestern Ontario media (radio primarily), which like all media everywhere makes consistent effort to keep us addicted to its manufactured mental-adrenaline, is whipping up a frenzy that tomorrow there will the Armageddon of snowstorms. I guess I will have to wait a see how accurate their prediction is, but I have a strong feeling life will go on with a much longer morning commute being the only resulting pain point. Having grown up I Montreal my definition of a “don’t you dare go outside” snowstorm differs from my fellow Torontonians, but I digress.

Tomorrow you can expect there will be snow on the ground and (a) a good percentage of your agents / staff will not come in, (b) a good percentage of your agents / staff will arrive late and (c) a number of your agents / staff will get up much earlier than normal, make it in on time and then take on the extra workload created by the absences / lateness.

My question to you is; what do you plan to do tomorrow to say “Thank you” to those agents / staff who went the extra mile to come in? I’m not talking of a simple verbal “Thanks” or buying the cliché pizza. I’m talking about true, heartfelt recognition! One-on-one recognition.

Leaders, who actually acknowledge their staff, especially when they go “the extra mile”, are few and far between. If you are leading a call center in southwestern Ontario tomorrow is your chance to show those agents / staff who went the extra mile for you how much you appreciate their effort. Recognition for effort is the best motivator there is!

Should the media have made a correct weather prediction then what do you plan to do tomorrow for those agents who went the extra-mile for you (share some best practices)?

You Are Allowed to be Creative With Side-by-side Coaching

Of all the coaching methods available at your disposal (i.e. silent monitoring then giving feedback, going over a respective agent’s customer satisfaction survey, 1:1 weekly meetings to discuss prior week’s KPI to identify / discuss areas for improvement, remedial training, etc.) for me nothing beats the numerous positive impact of side-by-side coaching. Being actually out on the floor sitting with my agents, interacting and being part of the buzz that gets me excited!

If you hold stock, as I do, in the adage Image is everything, then you will understand how side-by-side coaching is an excellent way to establish credibility with your agents, which should be a top priority for anyone in a leadership role, as well as demonstrate you have a vested interest in their success.  If your leadership team or trainer(s) are tasked with coaching your agents I strongly suggest you (a) have them doing a good chunk of their coaching side-by-side to establish their credibility and (b) you schedule no less than 6 hours a week of non-negotiable uninterrupted time to be on the floor conducting side-by-side coaching.

I know what you are thinking; besides the cliché “Side-by-side coaching makes (or will) my agents uncomfortable.”, to which I would I would argue your agents are not uncomfortable with side-by-side coaching they are uncomfortable with you, your managers, trainers (an issue you need to address and I will discuss in a future blog… note to myself to do so), double jacking into a call and providing feedback at the end is boring!

Every task, if looked at from a different angle, can be performed more creatively. Because the task is now “fun” in most instances you will achieve better results. Here are a few suggestions how to creatively approach side-by-side coaching and make it something your agents look forward to:

  • Have your agents send you, their manager / trainer, an e-mail stating what they would like to be coached on. This could be a particular skill, application, product knowledge, etc. Then whoever is doing the coaching can prepare for what is to be coached on. Watch how the agent’s body language changes now they feel they are much more in control since they have chosen the topic they will be coached on. This is an excellent way to get agent buy-in.
  • Tap into the expertise of senior agents by having them do some side-by-sides. Forward them an e-mail from the above-mentioned suggestion, “cc”ing the agent who sent it, and asking them to schedule a time to sit with the agent and coach them on what they would be like to coached on. Be sure to mention to the senior agent the reason for you asking them is because of their expertise in the area the agent would like to be coached on. This is a win-win; the senior agent receives much needed recognition of their skills, as well as a break from taking calls, and the agent getting coached sees that acquiring skills in your call center gets recognized. As the side-by-side takes place be sure to stop by and inquire how the session is progressing and praise the senior agent for helping out.
  • Have top performers list best practices they have adopted which they feel have led them to becoming a top performer. Consolidate these best practices into one master list that is handed out to new hires during training. This will prime them for what they can expect to be coached on during side-by-side session and the reason for being coached on these best practices. In this ever changing world we find ourselves living in make sure you update the master list at least every 6 months to keep best practices relevant.
  • You take calls and have the agent coach you. This is my favorite! Admit it, you saw this one coming and have been avoiding it because you take yourself too seriously. Your agent’s will actually see you doing their job, what will they think? Richard Bach, author of Jonathan Livingston Seagull and Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah, said, “We master what we teach.” The best way for agents to learn is to have them teach someone else, so why not have them teach you? Going back to establishing your credibility, this exercise will go a long way in doing so and will keep you grounded to your agent’s daily reality.
  • Conduct side-by-sides without the Y-jacking. It makes sense to focus on the work being performed and not the call. Most call center inefficiencies are a result of processes, policies, work around of poorly designed applications, disorganization of information, counter-productive work habits, etc. I think of side-by-sides as being a self-discovery opportunity when I can actually see how an agent performs their job. If I had a nickel for every time I witnessed inefficiencies being caused by the organization I would be a… As you follow the agent through their work process ask for feedback on what they think of what they are doing. You will be surprised at what you hear. They will ask you questions as to “Why?”, they will point out pain points and frustrations, they will show you how they circumvent the obstacles you have created. This is a golden opportunity to add to your credibility; acknowledge to the agent loud enough so several of their peers overhear you that you now understand the issue (obstacle) and will definitely have it removed… then actually do it! If removing an obstacle will take time then keep everyone informed as to your progress in doing so. A call center manager who actually is constantly looking for ways to make their agent’s job easier is rare and therefore will have the respect of everyone throughout their call center.

These are just a few suggestions, I am sure you can come up with more, thus please use the comment section to share your side-by-side best practices.

Become a Call Center Manager that “WOWs”!

There is a line, actually more of a chasm, between managing a call center to “get by” and managing a call center to its the fullest potential and beyond… creating a call center agents are lining up to become a part of. It all starts with the call center manager, the person everyone in the call center looks towards for structure, guidance, mentoring, leadership, knowledge and above all “pointing the way”.

I define leadership as: Inspiring others to follow you.

Whatever your years are in call center management you should constantly be striving to become a call center manager that WOWs; by which I mean your persona inspires. If you are inspiring others then you are doing exactly what a leader should be doing.

As with most aspects dealing with human psychology, inspiring others is not easy. Being able to do so will change your life forever, which I will admit can be for the better or for the worse. What it takes is courage.  Envision what your career would be like if you inspired others.

To begin your journey towards becoming a call center that WOWs seriously consider the following:

  • Listen. Actually listening to somebody is the single most important “people rule” you can master. Listen to what your agents have to say… REALLY LISTEN! Each of us have dreams, fears, hopes and thoughts. Listening to them will be the greatest gift you can give. If you can do that (listen) you will be loved.
  • Have principles that guide and define you. “Being a nice person.” and “Being honest.” Does not quite cut it. Your principles should stand for something beyond that, something in the line of “Freedom, Beauty, Truth and Love”. Above all, regardless what your principles are, or as I like to refer to as your “personal politics”, never compromise them! What you have decided will define you should be sacred and never be for sale.
  • Read Call Center Management on Fast Forward: Succeeding in the New Era of Customer Relationships by Brad Cleveland. Sure there are numerous books on call center management out there… take my word Brad is the real deal! Brad’s book, considered by many as the bible for call center management, won an Amazon.com best-selling award and is used in universities and corporate training programs around the world.  Back in June 2011 I had the pleasure of sitting in on one of Brad’s lectures at an ICMI conference I was attending in New Orleans. He’s forgotten more about call center management than most of us will ever know.  While I’m on the subject of books, you should consider keeping close at hand, and referring to often, Call Centers For Dummies by Real Bergevin and Bottom-Line Call Center Management: Creating a Culture of Accountability and Excellent Customer Service by David L. Butler. These books will keep you focused on the core principles of call center management (There’s another idea to flesh out for a future blog.) when you inevitably deviate to follow the latest flavor of the month some management expert spewed out to the masses.
  • Have fun. We gravitate to those people around us who are having fun. Enjoying your freedom, a freedom each of had but few actually take advantage of, to do what you love is not only attractive (in many instances, envious) it is an example for others that doing what you love is the foundation, note I did not write “key”, to success.
  • Love, laugh and live as hard as you can.
  • Don’t be afraid of swimming against the tide. Above all, do not hate the people who frown upon your actions. Last night my wife and I watched Heathers, the classic late 80’s teen-angst-dark-comedy you may be familiar with. Several times throughout the movie Christian Slater’s character, Jason “J.D.” Dean, states” “The extreme always seems to make an impression. “ As a rule I don’t obtain my life coaching from Hollywood, but J.D.’s words does resonate truth when it come to what captures our attention. The irony that a Hollywood screenwriter, in this case Daniel Waters, wrote a quote on the benefits of extreme behavior is not lost on me.
  • Gamble when you cannot afford to lose. This may seem like terrible advice, but you’ll never be as creative, as fast, as brave than when losing is not an option. Speaking from more experiences than I care to recall the ultimate high is being cornered and coming out a better person than you were before. Putting it all on the line; especially because of a belief and overcoming the odds strengthens you on many levels and earns respect.
  • Seek that which you believe cannot have. If you want to stretch yourself… really stretch yourself… then go after something you believe you cannot have. Put everything you have into achieving what you want regardless of the possibilities of achieving. Break your heart; that’s how we grow. As children we did this on a daily basis because we did not know better. Then there was the cheerleader in high school. Until we flipped the switch to adulthood we broke our hearts on a regular basis. When was the last time you broke your heart?
  • When you lose it all you will learn that you did not need it in the first place. I mention this not to be philosophical, but to point out that to pursue numbers 7 and 8 above, which obviously require some level of gambling on your part, you are not gambling nearly as much as others want you to believe you are.The late George Carlin wisely observed, “Have you ever noticed that their stuff is shit and your shit is stuff?” It all just stuff, which can always be replaced.
  • Don’t be afraid. Nothing worth remembering has ever come from being afraid. If you get fired from your job, well, you probably did not like it anyway. If your girlfriend / wife leaves you, there is still plenty of fish in the sea. If you get shot in the leg, well, you are still alive. Being afraid paralyzes you from moving forward. To be the best you can be you need to be in constant forward motion.
  • Feel it, rather than think about it. A thousand people may fall in love with your dream; none will love you for your reason.
  • Don’t listen to the “negative people”. They will never try to understand you and they certainly won’t be having as much fun either, thus why they are “negative people”.
  • Try everything. At least once, mostly twice. This means forgetting prejudice, shutting you mouth, opening your mind and actually doing things. If you have already talked about buying starting an outbound calling campaign to accounts which have been inactive for over a year then doing it! Yes, your managers will be uncomfortable and most of your agents will give push back, but the end rewards to be gained far outweigh the short-term turmoil you will cause by pushing your call center outside its comfort-zone. Never ate sushi, never been to a Broadway musical, never driven at 200km/h… you get the picture. Write a list and start checking it off!
  • Stay thirsty. In his June 2005 Stanford University commencement speech Steve Jobs summed up his words with “Stay hungry. Stay Foolish.” No matter what you achieve, how great your life seems to be, or how tired you become, there’s always a new adventure waiting around the corner.

One Thing

In the movie City Slickers there’s a scene where Jack Palance and Billy Crystal, while riding horses, discuss the meaning of life. Jack boils it all down to just “one thing” Figure out what your “one thing” is and simply focus on that. Simple… not easy, but simple.

So what is the “one thing” your call center stands for? What is it’s one core purpose? If I were to meet you in an elevator, going up 20 stories thus giving you approximately 45 seconds, and asked you to tell me what your call center does what would you tell me? Does your leadership team and agents know what is their call center’s “one thing”?

16 Suggestions For Long-Term Agent Motivation

Efficient call center management revolves around creating an environment that motivates your agents and leadership team on a long-term basis.

The cliché pizza lunch or the box of donuts place strategically next to the coffee machine has a short shelf life when it comes to an agent’s motivational health. Applying band-aid solutions, while at time necessary, resembles a hamster running in their exercise wheel. Revisiting issues caused by low agent motivation, whether it’s high turnover rate, low productivity, absenteeism, etc.… becomes part of your daily routine distracting you from the bigger picture. Motivating your agents for the long-term is a wise investment of your time that will inevitably free up time for you and your leadership team to focus on developing your agents to their fullest potential.

Here are 16 suggestions I believe are catalyst for creating long-term agent motivation:

  1. Develop a “servant leader” attitude. Be there for your people rather than have them there for you. Adopt this attitude and you will far ahead of the vast majority of call center managers when it comes to having a call center populated by agents who are engaged in their work, which is why I’ve listed this first.
  2. Create a clear vision. Identify your organization’s mission and goals, and make sure all your agents understand the rationale behind them and how they contribute to achieving them. This should be part of your on-boarding of new agents (day one). Your company’s mission statement should be clearly posted in your call center for all your agents to see.
  3. Clearly communicate your call center’s objective. Solicit input from your agents on what they can do to achieve them. During the interview process is the time to discuss the reason for your call center’s existence and its objectives.
  4. Compliment each of your direct reports on a weekly basis. Walk your call center and openly give your direct reports recognition for results, achievements and their effort. Praise in front of peers not only motivates, it informs those agents who overhear your praise what you value.
  5. Make agent development and retention a primary objective for yourself and your leadership team. Build into your leadership team bonus structure a portion that rewards for retention and agent development.
  6. Ask agents for advice where they have expertise.
  7. Involve everyone at all levels in the goal setting and planning processes. If your leadership team / agents are responsible for the results they should have a say on how they would like to achieve them.
  8. Let your agents know what is expected of them. This should have been clearly outlined in the job posting, the agent’s job description and discussed at length during the initial interview. Do everything you can to make them successful.
  9. Treat everyone with dignity and respect. There’s a lot of wisdom in the adage, “Treat others how you wish to be treated.
  10. Stand behind your managers, supervisors, and agents and back their decisions. Your team knowing you have their back will be reciprocated many times over as they will willingly go the extra-mile for you.
  11. Show the courage to let your staff learn from their mistakes. Unless your call center deals with life and death allowing mistakes (learning opportunities) results in a workplace that has quite a few degrees of less stress.
  12. Take the time to listen carefully to other people’s interests, opinions, concerns and goals. We all want to be heard, be that manager who listens and empathizes.
  13. Regularly meet individually with your direct reports. Help them clarify their personal goals and values; and assist them in identifying the skills they need to achieve their goals.
  14. Find ways to enrich the scope of responsibility your agents have. By increasing their authority / span of control you are showing trust in their abilities. An add benefit of allowing your agents to make decisions on their own without having to seek a manager’s approval is it frees up your time, as well your leadership team’s, to coach and mentor, which is where the greatest productivity gain is t be realized.
  15. Have a built in incentive program. An incentive program that rewards behavior and individual results is a must. I’m not talking about the “one of” incentives where the agents who books the most appointments gets an hour for lunch, I’m talking about an incentive program that is tied into the agent’s compensation (paid out monthly) and is outlined during the initial interview. A well designed incentive program rewards for individual effort / results. Knowing our efforts will be rewarded speaks to the core of motivational psychology.
  16. Encourage everyone to expand his or her comfort zone. Feeling uncomfortable makes you feel alive. In most cases as the person is traveling their learning curve they are expanding their skill-set and therefore value. Eventually the “uncomfortable” become “comfortable” and growth has taken place. Give recognition to that person’s growth and they’ll want to continue growing. Growth opportunity is the highest motivator I know of.

What suggestions do you have for achieving long-term agent motivation in your call center? What has worked for you?

The Common Denominator of Success, by Albert E. N. Gray

In 1940 Albert E. N. Gray gave a speech at the annual National Association of Life Underwriters convention taking place in Philadelphia. His speech is a must read for anyone who wants to understand the key (secret) to success (Understanding and then implementing… well that’s a different story. This is what differentiates those who are successful from those who are not.). In summary Mr. Gray points out successful people form habits (self-commitments) to do those things non-successful people won’t do. Chances are the areas of your life where you are not successful has more to do with what you are not doing as oppose to what you are doing.

Gray’s advice, actually more of a well thought out theory based on his experience and observations, does not only apply to those selling life insurance, but in all areas of life. As someone overseeing a call center what are you avoid doing (i.e. call monitoring, appraisals, disciplinary actions, giving recognition)? If you were make it a habit to do the things you are avoiding would you be more successful? As you turn my question over in your head take a few minutes to read The Common Denominator of Success, by Albert Gray (http://tiny.cc/0b9pa).

Please let me know what you think.