Automation brings opportunities for developing the human workforce.
Many of this industry’s most successful leaders started out on the phones… and yet, many call centers still suffer from a reputation for being a dead-end job.
True, most centers operate within a flat organizational structure, which means limited management positions and high competition for promotions. But let’s face it, call centers have not been known to invest a lot in leadership development. Often, promotions are used to reward top-performing agents, who are then thrust into a new role without sufficient training and support to succeed in that position. Those that thrive are usually the ones who take the initiative to educate themselves.
We conducted a contact center training poll in 2015 which revealed that 59% of team leads and 54% of supervisors feel that they do not receive enough training. That was echoed in the Frontline Supervisor Survey conducted earlier this year by Pipeline and Service Agility, which found that only 11% of centers provided more than a week of leadership training. Most respondents (41%) said that their companies provided no training at all on leadership skills and 12% provided a half-day or less.
Learning & Development Practices Need to Evolve
In call centers, employee fears regarding automation replacing agents with robots are often misplaced. Yet there is a growing realization that the digital revolution has exposed a considerable gap between employees’ learning needs and current learning and development methods, according to Joanna Bloor, a self-professed “startup junkie” who has helped to grow several well-known internet companies, including Citysearch, Cars.com, OpenTable and Pandora. Bloor is founder of The Amplify Lab, a corporate team-building and career development firm.
“So much of the approach today is based on a supply chain methodology in which humans were part of the machinery,” she says. “That has worked well for many years, but we’re heading to a place where robots, AI and all of these other technologies are going to be the supply chain. This entry of new technology into the workforce will be as dramatic and painful as the shift that took place during the Industrial Revolution. It’s going to require a different approach to constantly educate your people and to allow them to experiment and to fail.”
Fail. That’s a word that makes many executives uncomfortable, but failure is a necessary part of learning and innovation. Failing teaches people to think creatively, recognize their mistakes and leverage what they learned into a successful solution.
So how can you allow agents to fail in a call center environment? “One of the most effective learning approaches is to push problem-solving opportunities to your people,” Bloor says. “Provide your team with the problem that needs to be solved, give them a few limitations to work within, such as time and budget, and then tell them to come up with a solution to the problem.”
This approach calls for a bit of trust and patience on the leader’s part since the team will likely come back with some ideas that you may not agree with, she adds. But the experience will benefit both frontline employees and management. “Not only will employees learn to work better as a team but they will begin to understand more about the business and some of the complexities of the management level that they haven’t had the opportunity to experience before,” Bloor says. “Also, the people who show leadership potential are going to rise to the top. You will be able to identify who your best individual contributors are and your top people leaders. They almost self-select in those types of scenarios.”
She adds that pushing problem-solving to the front line will help to show them the vital role that they have within the company and that their contributions are valued at a strategic level.
Empower People to Own Their Path
Millennials desire a personalized approach to learning and development. As Bloor points out, “a question that I hear often is, ‘Why isn’t it customized for me?’ If you’re going to have a culture of education, you can’t take a one-size-fits-all approach.”
Here’s an approach that she took while leading a team of millennials: Every employee received X amount of dollars to spend on training and development. As a leader, her role was to offer advice or guidance on which programs might help people depending on their particular career interests, but each person was responsible for owning their own path.
“It’s shifting from a top-down to a bottom-up approach,” she says. “When the power to make decisions is in the individual’s hands, then the individual will get results. When the individual gets results, then the company wins.”
The New Age of Mentoring
Mentorship is enjoying a resurgence in popularity, thanks largely to millennials and social networking. Mentoring is actually an age-old development concept with references reaching back as far as Ancient Greece and Homer’s Odyssey. As a learning technique, it has lasted the test of time due primarily to its effectiveness.
Millennials, in particular, value having a mentor to help them expand their leadership skills. Deloitte’s 2016 survey of millennials shows that having a mentor impacts more than just employee development; it also increases loyalty and retention. The research found that employees intending to stay with their organization for more than five years are twice as likely to have a mentor (68%) than not (32%).
When you consider the traditional mentoring partnership, most people think of a long-term relationship in which a high-level manager brings along his or her protégé over the course of years. It’s a relationship that requires commitment on both sides, and one which would seem impractical to apply in a call center with dozens or hundreds of agents.
Or is it? One company that is breaking the mentoring mold is Ten Thousand Coffees. The peer-to-peer networking platform takes its name from a concept introduced by Malcolm Gladwell in his book, Outliers.
According to Gladwell, it takes 10,000 hours to master a skill. Ten Thousand Coffees has applied that premise to a modern take on the mentoring relationship. The goal, says CEO Dave Wilkin, is to help leaders to have conversations with their up-and-coming talent through coffee chats. “We have connected hundreds of thousands of people for coffee chats,” he says. “We also work with companies to run their internal mentoring programs so that every employee gets matched and connected for a coffee chat with colleagues who they can learn from.”
Here’s how it works: The platform leverages a company’s employee directory along with input from the employees. The AI engine can then match and introduce individuals via email to start the conversation. “We have hundreds of configurations to choose from to ensure that employees are meeting with people in an intelligent and effective way,” Wilkin says. Employees can be matched with colleagues in other functions or at different levels in the organization. Companies can create reverse mentoring opportunities, as well, to allow staff and management to build diverse relationships across levels, he says. “Junior employees get to know what senior managers are working on, but then it also helps senior managers to build relationships with emerging talent,” he explains.
The platform also provides mentors and mentees with tips, icebreakers and recommendations to help drive the conversation toward an outcome. After the coffee chat, participants are asked to give feedback on how it went and about additional development goals to ensure increasingly intelligent future matches.
Focus on the Conversation
Today’s workforce places a high priority on learning and development. Witness the popularity of professional networking platforms like Linkedin. “If organizations don’t offer mentoring and networking to their employees internally, employees are going to use external platforms to network—most likely with your competitors,” Wilkin points out. “It’s through everyday conversations that people learn and share. It’s essential to have those types of collisions internally, but it’s equally important to provide the cultural change that engages and retains people.”
It is also vital to have frequent discussions with employees about the value that they bring to their roles, function and organization, says Bloor. “When you automate someone’s job, their whole reason for being is reduced so it is critical to have language and conversation around why they matter.”