Editor’s Note: Melissa Kovacevic (company website: www.mkcallcenterimprovement.com) is a coach with 27 years of consulting experience working with contact centers and frontline retail teams to help them improve process, procedures, strategy, and skills. She designs and presents customized training programs that help management, supervisors, and agents refocus on the customer as the central character in the support environment. Her role is a complex blend of teacher, diplomat, cheerleader, and psychologist.
The philosophy of exceptional customer service has been receiving renewed attention, and Melissa’s strategies and process working with all the members of an organization illustrate the way companies are aiming at a world-class customer experience. This recent interview with Melissa lets readers glimpse the issues facing contact centers.
What is the gating factor for a customer care consultant? Why would an organization bring in a coach?
Companies may recognize that they have talented people and also some who have not “gotten it,” or who can’t make the transition from book knowledge to applying that knowledge on the job. They may recognize a need for one-on-one training with any or all of the agents, or just with the supervisor. Some are seeing a decline in customer satisfaction or are having complaints from agents about how a supervisor is coaching them.
What kinds of things get in the way of a call center’s success?
One common practice is that management sets metrics for coaching to be done by the supervisors. It might be to monitor (listen in) to a certain number of calls a month, or fill out a skill rating form. Sometimes this is complicated by complex scoring, etc.
So, as a result, supervisors can spend most of their time trying to meet these metrics—thinking only in terms of those demands, and it’s a rush to the finish every month, rather than really seeing these tasks as an integral part of their everyday job. Coaching by the supervisor shouldn’t be performed to a checklist but rather to results.
This goes back to the maxim: “You get the behavior you reward.” If your reward to the supervisor is about meeting the numbers, that’s what they’ll give you. If you reward for quality improvement, forward motion, you will see a different path to meet the goals.
How exactly does the process play out as you conduct coaching?
The supervisor might single out agents who are responsive to coaching, with good attitudes. Then I ask for a few more challenging agents. The supervisor and I listen to the agent’s calls together and discuss how they handle skills such as empathy, asking appropriate questions, being proactive and other skills related to the customer’s experience on the call.
First, they observe me conducting an interactive coaching session and later, I will observe the supervisor conducting one. I teach supervisors how to uncover why those skills are lacking or are continuing issues for the agent and then how to be interactive with coaching activities related to those skills. I might suggest that the supervisor role play, and/or conduct side-by-side calls. Then we get back together to follow up and take a temperature check. It’s very much in the “teach a man to fish” philosophy. They learn by observing, doing themselves, and see the changes that occur.
How does management identify where to concentrate a coach’s expertise?
Often they want someone from the outside to assess and coach not only the supervisors, but also underperforming agents, including new hires or long-time agents with skills issues.
New hires sometimes need a training boost that a supervisor is unsure how to provide. Or the supervisor may realize that they were a bad hire but just continues to coach instead of realizing they are going nowhere.
And burnouts — well sometimes I work with agents who have been in the same phone position for 15 years. And they get stagnant, and the sad part is that the managers let them stay that way because they’re “legacy” agents who have been inherited during a merger or acquisition or from a previous manager . It sometimes becomes about keeping the legacy employee happy with the detriment to the customer. That type of agent may feel entitled to their job and forget that the customer needs to be the focus of their efforts. I help management look at these agents and decide if they are willing and able to improve or not.
How does burnout manifest itself?
Increased sick days, frequent absences, and “gaming the system”—finding ways to avoid working during times when they are permitted extra time to update records or other administrative duties. These techniques are all trackable by studying an employee’s availability at the desk and attendance.
But the biggest thing about this category of agent is that it seems more difficult for them to accept change and coaching. There’s an additional need to get them to change their attitude, and sometimes that is not possible. With these folks, it’s not about skills alone, it’s about a complete change of heart.
You really can’t train or coach attitude. You can train someone on people skills, what I call ‘soft skills’, but you can’t coach attitude. If a person is unwilling to change, that’s the hardest thing.
How long do you try to retrain someone in this state of mind?
If you coach the right way—and I mean interactive, helpful coaching—for 3 sessions, during a 4-8 weeks period to implement the ideas, you’ll be seeing an accurate picture of what that agent is able to do. We are not looking for perfection in a short window but if there is no improvement, management needs to move to the next step of disciplinary action.
Let’s talk about the role of management in this story.
Sometimes managers are hired for their bottom line skills and have no interpersonal skills. They have great operational skills. Or you can get the opposite—people who don’t have any operational skills but are excellent at the warm fuzzy stuff.
Organizations should look to promote not only based on seniority, but for skillset application. Do they know how to coach, motivate, and inspire a group of people? Ideally, you’ve got to end up with a blend of both operational and soft skills. As with the Agent coaching, sometimes you can teach people skills. Other people never get it.
Surprisingly, some managers don’t see the need for praise and support as part of their job. But it’s critically important to publicize good behavior all through the hierarchy. Some managers resist this. I’ll tell them, “You need to recognize the supervisor. They need praise and recognition. You need to pay attention to finding their strengths and tell them publicly how they are succeeding, or surprise them with something special.”
How important do you think it is to involve the C-suite in this process?
I think it’s very important. Top management understands the pain, but they’re not involved in the day to-day management. They may need to know that a supervisor or manager is in over their head—maybe they don’t have the education they need, or they’re just overwhelmed. At the mid level of management, people really need a supportive mentor. People who are promoted without that grounding influence may flounder.
Some of ideas I bring to coaching go back to my early career. I was lucky enough to have a mentor who taught me things that he had learned about motivation. I was taught on the job. Other people didn’t have the same time schedule as I did and didn’t have the benefit of that kind of mentoring. I owe a lot of my success to that lucky happenstance.
In what ways does coaching at this level change companies?
One thing, in a call center, sometimes there aren’t enough levels of duties and skills to inspire and encourage employees. For instance, I encourage my clients to let agents grow in different directions.
This isn’t that difficult to do, either. You can create skill combinations. Maybe people begin on the phone, graduate to phone and emails. Then they go to a combination of phone, chat, and emails, and so on. This creates a sort of job progression with opportunities for growth and promotion. I’ve seen companies create unofficial teams of employees responsible for outreach such as survey creation and ambassadorial roles.
You know, I just read something about this! Dr. Nicola J. Millard, Customer Experience Futurologist, has written a white paper titled, “Clouds, Crowds, and Customers: Doing Business as Unusual.” In the paper, Millard suggests that companies should match customers up with the most appropriate person within the organization—a kind of networked expertise. This idea is a lot like Assistly’s Whole Company Support doctrine. We think all customer care solutions and CRM tools should enable this kind of relationship building.
Absolutely. Another way to keep support agents vibrant in a call center environment is to assign opportunities to do something completely different in customer service—man the front desk, work the drive-through. Some contact centers are located in a retail branch location and that opens this opportunity for agents. This has the added benefit that supervisors see how people can handle themselves “under fire” when you have to work with people in person and balance the cash drawer at the same time.
At Assistly, we always say that it’s hard to have happy customers if your support agents are unhappy.
The best companies take a humanistic approach. They understand that they can’t let all the employees just do what they want, but they want to let them know that their focus is on both the customer and the employees. They make the employee aware that as long as it doesn’t compromise customer experience, they’ll work to make things easier and enjoyable for the team. An agent who is motivated and recognized for efforts—who is enjoying a customer-facing role—will definitely be a wonderful ambassador for a company.