“That looks crazy!” I thought, watching a TV performer spin a plate on top of a pole. Then he added a spinning plate to a second pole, and then another spinning plate to a third pole. Suddenly, he raced back to the first pole, whose spinning plate had slowed down and begun to wobble. He moved up and down his line of plates, giving each one an added spin whenever they slowed down and threatened to crash to the floor.
Being a contact center manager is a lot like that performer. You handle multiple tasks while trying to ensure nothing wobbles and crashes. Those tasks are more difficult now with the COVID-19 pandemic driving higher contact volumes: while trying to help agents perform better and be more engaged at work.
Here are seven tips that may help:
1. Balance coaching and employee engagement
Coaching sessions should not only be about improving performance. They should also improve your relationship with each agent.
This is especially true if you have a hybrid or fully remote team. Think about it this way: casual office interactions - around the lunchroom or while waiting for an elevator – provides relationship building opportunities with onsite agents. However, working from home reduces opportunities for casual interactions. That makes every Zoom call or Slack chat with your remote agents precious.
So take time during coaching sessions to ask how your agent is doing. Find out how they feel about their role, the company, and its direction. Make “small talk” and ask how their family is doing, how their classes are going (if they are students), or if they need anything to support them in their role. Build relationships and engagement with your agents.
It is also crucial to empower agents to contact you or their teammates when they need help. Make communication a two-way street. For example, have an open chat channel where agents post questions or ask for advice from you or their colleagues. Give them your work number and schedule. So they know when and how to contact you. You can also work in pairs with another manager or team leader. That way you can be backups for each other’s teams to contact. Let agents know they are supported.
2. Do not focus solely on KPIs
Do NOT spend your entire coaching session talking about key performance indicators (KPIs). Statistics are merely indicators of a bigger issue.
A classic example of focusing on KPIs—instead of behaviors—is criticizing an agent’s average handle time (AHT): without discussing the skills needed for improvement. Lacking guidance, agents will pick any method to shorten calls and get customers off the phone.
Instead, discuss behaviors that create the issue, how to fix them, and which lead to more efficient calls. For example, show an agent how to ask better diagnostic questions and supply readily understandable customer answers. That will help your agent reduce AHT and improve customer satisfaction. After discussing behaviors, have agents practice these skills in role plays. So they are ready to use it to help customers.
3. Reward agents for positive behavior
There is an old adage, “What gets rewarded, gets repeated.” How do you reward agents for positive performance?
In a sales-focused contact center, agents can be motivated through commissions and sales contests. On the other hand, I also have clients with unionized contact centers. They are not allowed to offer commissions or cash incentives. Instead, they link sales performance to shift bid preferences. The more you sell, the more likely you are to get a desired shift. Of course, sales figures are easy to track and reward.
But what about customer service? You can reward agents for positive quality assurance scores with the scorecard heavily weighted towards customer service skills. You can also reward them for positive scores on post-call customer satisfaction (CSAT) surveys. Prizes can be gift cards, pizza, or other merchandise. These prizes supply a fun incentive and build energy.
4. Recognition can be a powerful motivator
Share positive success stories at team meetings. Ask agents to describe how they helped a customer through a difficult situation.
In addition, let agents share best practices. So, if one of your agents is an expert about certain products or processes, give them time during a team meeting or huddle to give advice on that topic. That has two benefits: it recognizes their ability, and it increases the knowledge level of the entire team.
Another idea is to have a departmental newsletter. You can recognize agents for passing a course or certification. You can also allow agents to share best practices in an article and later add it to your knowledge base. In the newsletter, you can also share non-business news such as birthdays, anniversaries, and team building events to increase employee engagement.
5. Treat and share positive customer feedback
If a customer gives a compliment about one of your agents or the whole team, pass it along. It is a gift! Read that positive comment during a team meeting or huddle. Or share it via a newsletter or display it on an onsite poster board.
Agents need to hear about happy customers. They need to know they are making a difference. And it will help brighten their day. Remember, an agent’s day is spent solving customer problems. So, even if just 10% of your customer base is calling each year, that is 100% of your agents’ calls.
In addition, thank the customer for making the effort to send in a positive comment. A simple “Thank you for letting us know how <Agent Name> helped you” proves your company cares about customer feedback. Remember, customers who take the time to write positive feedback are more likely to be repeat customers and give referrals.
6. Be careful of excessive noise levels
Some contact centers are bringing everyone back to the office. However, excessive noise around the office can be a problem. People got used to a quieter environment while working from home.
Now the office may seem too loud, distracting them from listening to their customers. Remember the contact center sales floor in the movie, The Wolf of Wall Street? Dozens of people crammed into a room, shouting—not talking—to their customers over the phone.
Noise can be a good thing, reflecting energy and enthusiasm. Some of my clients’ contact centers thrive off sales floor energy.On the other hand, agents cannot hear customers if it gets too noisy.
Here are some ideas to help:
- If agents are using single ear headsets, they could use ear plugs for their uncovered ears to help block unwanted noise
- Set up a “quiet area” where agents who are working offline (i.e., email replies, admin tasks) can focus on their work
- As a longer-term solution, there are noise-cancelling headsets available that reduce ambient noise. A less expensive solution is double ear headsets
- Another physical solution is to install higher baffles between desks, along with sound-absorbing wall panels and ceiling tiles. Reducing office noise levels can help agents hear—and help—their customers more effectively
Noise can also be a problem while working from home. I have had neighbors mowing their lawns, loud trucks passing by my house, and even a bad thunderstorm: that all cause noise issues. One solution is to get a noise-cancelling headset. Another is to change the position of your desk or table so that you face away from the sound sources.
7. Offer schedule flexibility if possible, and wanted
A positive of working from home is the potential for split shifts to accommodate an agent’s lifestyle. For instance, if an agent is also a part-time student, they could work from 12 noon to 4pm, do a one-hour online university class, eat an early dinner, and finish their shift from 6pm to 10 pm.
While split shifts result in increased complexity for your workforce management team, they also offer employee flexibility. Some contact centers are even offering “micro-shifts” where agents log in for one hour, take three hours off to pick up their kids at school and make dinner, followed by finishing their shift after the kids go to bed. This scheduling flexibility can help your contact center recruit and retain employees who cannot do a continuous four- or eight-hour shift per day.
However, balancing agent and phone/chat coverage needs can be a challenge. Here are two important considerations.
First, check with your HR department to ensure split shifts and micro-shifts conform with local labor laws and union contracts.
Second, shift flexibility is meant to help agents balance family and school needs. This can increase employee engagement. It should never be used to force agents to work “weird” combinations of hours, such as one hour at 8am, a second hour at noon, a third hour at 5pm, and another at 2am. After all, the whole point of shift flexibility is to make agents happier and give them more control over their work hours. When done correctly, it can be a major perk for employees.
Remember the TV performer spinning multiple plates at once? Coaching, employee engagement, rewards and recognition, scheduling, and even office noise levels are examples of the “plates” contact center managers need to keep spinning.
Pay attention to the ones that start to slow down and wobble. So, you can give them an extra spin to keep them from crashing.