By Brian Burke & Francis Hawthorne
Ask any manager, regardless of industry, what his or her primary goal is every day, and you will likely hear a variation of “I want my team members to perform to the best of their abilities.” This objective may be even more pervasive among contact center managers who recognize that their customer service representatives and agents are the primary representatives of their company. Their performance is foundational to your success.
Yet, with so many variables impacting the performance of contact center services—from infrastructure and technology to training and culture—a manager’s focus is constantly being pulled in multiple, often competing directions.
Still, there remain two critical management functions contact center leaders can adopt in their efforts to improve job competency and performance: team member feedback and coaching. Here, we review the principles of coaching and feedback and apply them to the contact center environment, providing practical, actionable advice for engaging in coaching and delivering feedback in a manner that positively and decisively impacts performance.
A Review of Feedback + Coaching
Merriam Webster defines feedback as the transmission of evaluative or corrective information about an action, event or process to the original or controlling source. As defined, the concept of feedback implies a simple communication process whereby a manager conveys information to his or her staff members about a process or event. What the definition fails to account for, however, is the two-way nature of the transmission.
Impactful feedback is more than just the communication of information. It involves a meaningful dialogue and requires the manager to have an open mind, becoming receptive to feedback from the other party. In the contact center, particularly, management must recognize that one-way communication about any action, event or process will damage—not build or sustain—the trust it takes for their team members to openly receive and act on feedback given to them.
Coaching, on the other hand, is defined as the effort to train intensively as by instruction or demonstration. The act of coaching, unlike traditional training, requires an ongoing effort and a vested interest in the performance of those being coached. Coaches may utilize feedback as one tool through which to foster ongoing learning and development, but their efforts extend much further. They show. They teach. They reward. And they follow up.
Together, the definitions clarify how the concepts of feedback and coaching intertwine to become critical in providing contact center agents the information and encouragement they need to perform up to and beyond the standards set forth for them.
What Situations Call for Coaching and Feedback?
Both coaching and feedback should permeate a manager’s day-to-day activities. There are very few situations or tasks that do not support the incorporation of coaching or feedback as a means for team member development.
When corrective action is needed
When agents make mistakes, seldom are they intentional. In fact, most errors in the contact center are the result of incomplete information or gaps in training, which should be considered when providing corrective feedback. When mistakes are made, delivering feedback and coaching for: (a) how they could have been avoided; and (b) how they may be corrected in the future, is critical to developing and enhancing job competency among agents.
To recognize and reward
Coaching and feedback should not be reserved for times when things go wrong. On the contrary, providing positive feedback when agents perform well is equally important. Feedback in the form of recognition builds loyalty, enhances team member morale, and increases the likelihood that the positive behavior or action will be replicated in the future, both by the agent being coached as well as his or her colleagues.
During change and transition
Change can be difficult and may prompt resistance from team members, particularly among those who have a long tenure with the contact center. Providing regular feedback in times of transition and change, such as the introduction of a new technology, helps employees make sense of their work and their work environment. The feedback dialogue provides a forum for employees to convey their concerns and reservations so they can reset and refocus on their responsibilities.
To reinforce desired behavior
Formal and informal recognition and appreciation from management for positive job performance will reinforce desired behaviors and help ensure they are repeated and sustained. Reinforcement through positive feedback is especially important when recognizing a team member’s efforts above and beyond what is expected. Contact center management should deliver recognition feedback routinely, but not so often that it dilutes the effect of the positive feedback.
When Should Coaching and Feedback Be Delivered?
Many experts call for corrective feedback and coaching to be delivered at the end of the day, when employees then have more time to process the feedback away from the work environment. As a general rule, however, feedback is most effective when delivered immediately and in an ongoing fashion.
Deliver feedback immediately
Evaluative and corrective feedback has the greatest impact on future behavior when delivered immediately, but no longer than 24 hours following an event. Delaying a feedback session any longer not only permits undesirable behaviors to be repeated in the interim, but for those contact center agents who wear multiple hats or provide services across multiple clients, they may not recall specific situations, making the feedback feel punitive.
Make feedback and coaching a habit
Meaningful coaching in the contact center takes time, and with so many competing priorities, it can easily fall to the wayside. However, the utility of feedback and coaching depends on its routine delivery. When employees are accustomed to receiving feedback and engaging in coaching sessions regularly, they build a capacity for receiving feedback with an open mind, instead of spending the coaching session wondering “why now?” Eventually, feedback and coaching will become a natural part of the employees’ day to day interactions with leadership.
Follow-up on feedback
Like any act of communication, feedback and coaching—positive and corrective, formal and informal—require management follow-up and follow-through to maintain their effectiveness. Employees who receive feedback and coaching but whose performance and progress are never evaluated will learn that the feedback itself holds very little significance and, eventually, will build a resistance to it. Managers and team members should jointly determine an action plan toward the objectives defined in the coaching, and leadership should set a time and date for follow-up before the session ends.
Where Should Feedback and Coaching occur?
Different situations call for different venues for conducting coaching and feedback. Contact center managers must consider what venue and communication vehicle is most appropriate for the situation, and plan accordingly.
As a rule, corrective feedback sessions should be done in private to avoid singling out or causing embarrassment to a team member. When scheduling private feedback sessions, be mindful of the time of day and location of the meetings, so staff members do not have to explain them to their co-workers. An exception may be made, however, when a group of employees requires corrective coaching on a similar topic or issue, in which case, a public team meeting may suffice.
Conversely, feedback and coaching related to positive performance, behavioral reinforcement, and change initiatives can be delivered publicly. Public coaching and praise may incentivize other employees to adopt desired behaviors. Further, providing public feedback or coaching related to company transitions or change efforts enables team members to discuss their thoughts and concerns openly with their co-workers, promoting a higher level of understanding and acceptance than would occur in one-on-one meetings.
Contact center managers have several communications channels at their disposal—phone, email and company intranet to name a few. And with competing priorities and responsibilities, it may seem convenient—necessary even—to deliver critical or performance feedback to a team member via email. But, coaching and feedback is almost always more effective when conducted in-person, where a meaningful dialogue can occur. Feedback delivered via written communication should be limited whenever possible, but may be used sparingly to check in or follow up with team members.
How Can Feedback and Coaching Be Done in a Meaningful Way?
The act of providing feedback and coaching contact center agents is only as effective as the manner in which it is delivered. Managers who make coaching a priority will find that their sessions produce greater results when they are evidence-based, sincere, and tailored to both the individual and the situation.
Develop Situational Awareness
Great contact center leaders are aware of the challenges their team members face—both personally and professionally—and take those into consideration when delivering feedback. For example, if an agent is experiencing a difficult time in his or her personal life or is being challenged by a new project, acknowledge and account for that in any feedback or coaching sessions. Likewise, be sure to check any preconceived notions or opinions of team members at the door so they do not influence feedback, which will be counterproductive.
Be present during coaching
Successful coaching requires managers to be fully present and devoid of distractions, including cell phones, computers and other managers. Before conducting feedback or coaching, choose a quiet location, put away computers and cell phones, and inform other members of management that coaching is underway so as to minimize interruptions and enable a singular focus on the team member.
Managers should approach coaching sessions with a sincere intention to help their team members improve and to provide the support needed to maximize performance. It is nearly impossible to fake sincerity, so managers must recognize whether they are capable of entering into coaching objectively and sincerely or if the coaching should be delegated another supervisor.
It is the manager’s responsibility to make a strong case for why their feedback is important, which starts with addressing specific behavior, not an individual’s character. Feedback is more substantive and meaningful when managers are specific, providing detail and evidence to support their observations. Blanket statements such as, “I’ve noticed you always…” are incomplete and will reduce the effectiveness of coaching.
Separate the positive from the negative
For years, the prevailing feedback model was known as the “Oreo method,” where managers provided a piece of positive feedback, followed by the (real) negative feedback, and ended on another piece of positive feedback. This method is outdated and insincere. Managers should approach coaching respectfully and candidly, delivering feedback without diluting their message, with the assumption that their team members will be receptive.
Coaching + Feedback = Everyone Wins
In the past decade, numerous studies have made a direct connection between the effectiveness of workplace coaching and team member productivity and loyalty. Coaching and feedback enable managers to align organizational and employee goals and, when done thoughtfully, can have a measurable impact on employee effectiveness and performance.
In the contact center, where agents are a representation of the company to its clients and are largely responsible for customer satisfaction, there is a clear business case for prioritizing—and allocating time and resources toward—coaching team members and providing them the feedback they need to perform to the best of their ability every day. In the end, everyone wins, which is what a good coach wants.