Call centers grow in response to a multitude of inputs: increasing call volumes, new points of interaction (chat, for example), burdensome regulatory requirements, etc. Usually, the growth we experience from year to year is measurable; and as managers, we have ample time (debatable) to plan accordingly.
However, it also is becoming increasingly common to experience larger growth events—supporting an entirely new line of business, the acquisition or merger of companies, to name a couple—which drastically affect a call center’s day-to-day operations. With these types of events, time typically is not on our side. Therefore, it is important to have a plan to handle them in a way that will allow your teams to not only cope with the change, but to thrive.
Keep Your Eye on the POST
With larger growth events, I recommend focusing on the POST. For those of you who are not basketball fans, the “post” is the area near the baseline close to the basket where scoring points typically has a higher percentage than shooting from beyond the three-point line.
My POST stands for People, Objectives, Systems and Training. Let’s talk about how each of these areas ultimately gets touched during a larger growth event, and why you want to keep your eye on them.
It may seem silly to remind yourself that it is important to think about people during a growth event. But there is a reason why there are thousands of books out there on managing people through change.
While we all intuitively know that people are at the heart of call centers (and business in general), in our rush to tackle the next big problem or big event, we often gloss over the impact it will have on our teams. Don’t do that! People adjust to change at different paces, and most of us have seen what one laggard with a bad attitude can do to a team’s morale.
So how do we slow down and ensure that we’re spending adequate time thinking about the impact that a significant growth event will have on our team? First, look at your team communication plan. Don’t have one? Try again. You should have a plan to communicate to your team at specific points and intervals. Create a calendar and post it someplace visible—we can build awareness through transparent communications. Maintain lists of “what we know” and “what we don’t know.” If you run into a question from your team that you don’t have an answer to, you simply put it on the don’t know list.
Second, use team-building exercises and interactions to grow acceptance. This is where you give the change laggards (you know who they are, right?) a role in leading the exercise. For instance, “Jim, I really would like for you to be the team leader next week on our team exercise. Can you walk them through this?” (as you hand the team exercise plans to Jim). This will help you to create forward momentum by minimizing the possibility of a secret dissenter in your midst.
Finally, when working with your team, make sure that you define their future roles (i.e., what will change, what will not, etc.), make public any new role opportunities, and celebrate any victories along the way.
Call centers have objectives coming out of their pores (e.g., average call time, speed to answer, occupancy, etc.). When preparing for a growth event, it’s important to set clear goals for what you want to accomplish and when. There are two approaches that I have found to be useful.
The first is to concentrate on only one or two objectives out of the gate and under a short, manageable timeframe. For example, during the first week post-event, the team will focus only on occupancy. Then layer in expanding objectives as you move forward. For instance, week two after the event, the team will continue to keep an eye on occupancy, but now we also will emphasize speed to answer. This not only helps to focus your team, it sends the message that we cannot control everything—we cannot control the unknown, only manage against its fury.
Second, provide flexibility to those tasked with meeting these goals. Often, as project tasks for a growth event get going, a reliance on a proven method or approach reduces the ability of managers and teammates to feel as if they can both manage and execute “on the fly,” so to speak. While project rigor is important, it is equally important not to overly constrain commonsense decisions on your team to the point that it saps overall enthusiasm for the effort—thus negatively affecting outcomes.
So how do you balance objectives, project management and in-the-moment decision making? A lot of it depends on the people you’re working with. Are you, as a group, all on the same page? Have you done a good job communicating the timeline and objectives? If you have, take a step back and ask for a simple explanation of the decision-making thought process. If it is sound, forge ahead—but if you think it is necessary to provide some course-corrective action, do so in the form of a coach. Focused goals with specific timelines, coupled with flexibility on how to execute, will bring out the best of your teams.
Preparing for a growth event should entail a review of existing systems that are used to support day-to-day operations. This is often the time when we uncover the warts we should probably have found a while back, or presents yet another opportunity to proclaim loudly, “I need more budget!” Get that out of your system, everyone expects you to continue to execute the daily miracles with the duct tape you were given during the last budget cycle.
Budget jokes aside, a system review affords many opportunities. This is a great time to:
- Align your objectives and the resources at your disposal while ensuring that executive management is aware of the tradeoffs.
- Co-review your dashboard and management reports to define the existing “normal,” and use that information to project forward what the “new normal” might resemble.
- Bring in your vendor and talk about your needs. Do you have a partner at the table or simply someone selling you something?
- In your system review and buildout of your future state, make sure that you have a realistic conversation around system capabilities. Will your “new normal” be achievable with your existing systems and people based on your stated objectives? How do your internal partners, vendor(s) and management teams feel about your chances for success?
If there is anything other than answering the phones and running reports that call centers do relentlessly, training has to top the list. So why is training so important during the preparation of a growth event? At its heart, training is about helping people cope with change by getting them comfortable with a new responsibility. Think back to when you were learning to drive. You didn’t simply take a test, get handed a license, and drive off into the sunset. You likely spent some time in an abandoned parking lot practicing with your parent’s old minivan. That may have been coupled with a driver’s education course, and ultimately, some tentative below-speed-limit driving on the highway. This process probably took weeks, but once you were “unleashed on the world” (my parents’ words, not mine), you felt ready.
Preparing a call center for a growth event takes the same level of planning and training to get your team ready. We usually understand the number and types of calls we handle on a daily basis, so during a growth event, we can realistically assume that we expect to handle more of the same types of calls as today in addition to some new, unexpected volume/questions.
Prepare for the expected, instead of trying to think through every possible scenario. Review and refresh your quick-reference guides and FAQs. Polish your scripts and conduct a team review. I don’t recommend getting too deep into the “potential” weeds because, at the end of the day, your agents can only digest and retain so much in preparation.
Stay Focused and Execute the Plays
Julius Erving, aka Dr. J (basketball player for the non-fans), once said: “Being a professional is doing the things you love to do on the days you don’t feel like doing them.” Preparing for a growth event and managing through one will present you with plenty of days when you might wish you were doing something else.
As a fellow professional, I will commiserate with you for a moment. I’ve been there; we all have. But remember to keep your focus on the POST—People, Objectives, Systems and Training. In time, you’ll be back to doing the things you love and managing a humming, efficient call center, which is almost as enjoyable as seeing those end-of-month reports with the latest results of your success!