If you have ever attempted to coach a contact center agent with 10-plus years of experience, then you already know that it is a very different scenario than coaching someone with two to three years of experience.
I use the words “attempted to coach” deliberately, given that tenured agents can be challenging to coach, particularly if you are less experienced, have had less time in the role, or are years their junior. Often, more experienced employees do not appreciate the leadership styles of a younger generation of team leads and coaches.
It would be misleading to suggest that an older, more experienced agent wouldn’t work well with a much younger, inexperienced coach – because we have seen it work well in many organizations. High-performing agents value and embrace feedback and support no matter where it originates. With the appropriate level of respect, two people of any age, background, and experience level can make it work.
Success comes from ensuring a culture of “coaching” – one in which the team lead or supervisor understands that their primary role is to support (and yes, even work for) the agent.
While there has been much talk about the Great Resignation, there are certain organizations where that is not the case.
Over the years, I have worked with several clients that never had a problem with attrition and given great benefits and above-average compensation. And having many customer service agents with tenure (some approaching 30-plus years) can come with its own set of issues.
...anyone doing the same job for years can become numbed by the monotony and sameness of the work.
In the past, after a few years, agents would progress in the organization to take on different roles in quality assurance (QA), training, operations, coaching, or management.
However, some contact center agents aren’t well-suited for people management roles or simply don’t want greater responsibility…so they sit in similar, parallel jobs for years. Given their experience, they may often be your most knowledgeable agents, but they can also be your most challenging, difficult, and demanding employees, making them extremely difficult to coach.
The reality is that anyone doing the same job for years can become numbed by the monotony and sameness of the work.
While such individuals can often deliver a good customer service experience routinely, without thinking, they may lack some of the more nuanced skills. Like empathy and aligning communication styles that have helped lift Net Promoter Scores for many centers over the last several years. They may also be consistently good at applying policies/procedures but are sorely lacking in engaging customers.
Four Reasons Why Seasoned Agents Don’t Do What We Ask of Them
There are essentially four reasons why seasoned contact center agents don’t do what we ask them to.
1. They have forgotten
This is most likely the case, given the time most tenured agents have been out of a structured training environment.
2. They don’t know how
These agents may understand theoretically, but when it comes to demonstrating the skill with a live customer, they don’t know how to apply the knowledge. And they may be embarrassed or otherwise reluctant to put up their hands and ask for help.
3. It conflicts with something else they have been asked to do
This is quite common among customer service agents who have been employed with the same company in the same role for a number of years.
It can be challenging to remember what the policy, procedure, or “standard of the moment” might be, and as a result, the agent may revert to what they are most familiar with. If your center has high turnover among its Team Leads, Supervisors, or Coaches, different styles and approaches can also come into conflict.
4. They don’t want to
This is also quite common among tenured customer service agents. With years of experience, they may disagree with the approach suggested by the coach and feel they know better.
You may hear: “I’ve been doing it this way for years, and it works for me.” And in some cases, that may be true!
But in other situations, these agents may simply not respect the coaches and disregard or begrudgingly brush off what is requested. It may be embarrassing for them to take direction from someone significantly younger and less experienced than themselves (whether actual or perceived).
It is relatively easy to address an agent not knowing, forgetting, or being in conflict (1-3 above). But when it comes to not wanting to, that is where the challenge begins!
In dealing with employee engagement, we often come across individuals with a long work history who have simply stopped caring. There was most likely a time when they were fully engaged, but something happened to lose their interest and trust.
How We Think About “Success” Needs to Change
We have traditionally measured an individual’s success in business by their “upward mobility,” or how fast a person climbs the corporate ladder.
This idea doesn’t fit well within today’s corporate reality and can derail employee engagement. Many disgruntled customer service agents speak of patiently waiting for a promotion that simply isn’t materializing, primarily given that older managers are working longer.
This situation leaves tenured contact center agents feeling undervalued and disconnected. In many cases, the perception of “favoritism” can creep in as others fill the few available positions.
Why don’t these highly experienced and tenured customer service agents (who are not moving up in the organization and “hate” their jobs) simply go elsewhere?
Indeed, many do. However, in interviews, they have told us that they have invested too much time in the organization to leave and that starting over elsewhere would be difficult and equally uncertain.
It is simply easier to stay put and wait for the day when they can retire -- which does not provide the foundation for an engaged employee!
With self-service options reducing the number of customer service roles and the support required, we must make it okay to stay in the role of a front-line contact center agent for a long time. And with that comes the need for everyone to be open to regular, ongoing coaching – wherever it comes from.
And so, how do we encourage a customer service agent who has been working with us for several years to re-engage and be open to coaching?
The role of the Coach is not a “boss” but rather an “enabler” of top performance.
As mentioned earlier, the first step is to understand what the barrier is and address it. That may mean refresher training, new skill training, or clarity and rationalization for a new requirement. And it also means understanding the root cause for the agent “not wanting to.”
Five “Must Haves” When Coaching Tenured Contact Center Agents
Many customer service organizations have five generations working in their contact centers today. It is natural that tensions are mounting.
A tenured customer service agent may be reporting to a team leader who is decades younger. The resentment and lack of trust that can materialize from this dynamic limits collaboration, sparks emotional conflict, and lowers team performance.
However, best-in-class management teams see it as an opportunity to merge the seasoned experience of its older team members with the fresh perspective of its younger ones.
The role of the Coach is not a “boss” but rather an “enabler” of top performance. Coaches need to check their egos and acknowledge the expertise of those they coach.
2. Common Ground
The agent and the Coach may not share the same viewpoint or ideas about how to achieve something. However, it is possible to arrive at some common goals, e.g., doing well on the quality assessment, getting more positive customer surveys, handling more calls, reducing errors, or reducing stress.
If there is flexibility in how to achieve the goals, then allow the agent to design their own course of action. Bring together their ideas, provide positive feedback and let them know you appreciate their perspective.
If there is no flexibility, then explaining how the required behavior will enable the agent to achieve the desired outcome is vital. It needs to make sense and align with shared goals.
It is inevitable that different views and opinions will come to the forefront, and conflict may arise. That’s all right -- as long as you keep bringing the conversation back to the idea that it is all about helping the agent deliver a better experience.
3. A Change of Scenery
Nothing is more exciting to a tenured agent than the opportunity to do something different – even if for a short time.
When choosing someone for a special project, be careful not to fall back on stereotypes that will restrict a tenured agent from participating.
Such stereotypes may include what you do or do not know about them, what you believe they do or do not know, what they are or are not interested in, or how they may or may not be able to contribute.
These agents have been with your organization for a while, and there will be plenty of assumptions and perceptions to cloud your judgment.
4. An Opportunity to Share Their Expertise
There isn’t a single contact center organization that has too much coaching!
That’s why many top organizations have embraced formal mentoring programs where tenured customer service agents support new hires or other agents who may be struggling.
This is a great way to acknowledge and demonstrate appreciation for tenured agents’ skills, experience, and knowledge.
An hour or two off the phones once a week/month to support another up-and-coming customer service agent can make all the difference to a tenured agent, helping them to feel respected and valued.
Research shows that mentorship programs, however simple or complex, not only support agent development but also increase both individual involvement and collective motivation.
5. A Chance to Contribute to Change
Nothing frustrates a tenured customer service agent more than constant change. In fact, it frustrates everyone!
The easiest way to engage tenured agents in accepting change is to invite them to participate in defining what that “change” looks like -- Designing a new procedure? Developing new quality assurance criteria? Looking at a new furniture layout?
Whatever the “change” is, look for opportunities for your most seasoned agents to contribute their experience and ideas.
Worse case, they will spend a few unproductive hours off the phones (and thank you for it!) Best case, they will lend their considerable experience to improve things and become promoters of change throughout your organization.
Changing the Perception of Coaching
Most contact center managers and quality analysts have grown up in the organization, moving their way up from a front-line agent position.
Given this, they know what needs to be done and often feel that their role is to point out when an agent fails to do things correctly. They provide feedback by telling.
“The Leader as Coach” by Hernina Ibarra and Anne Scoular, describes the change needed in contact centers today:
“Rapid, constant, and disruptive change is now the norm, and what succeeded in the past is no longer a guide to what will succeed in the future. Twenty-first-century managers simply don’t (and can’t!) have all the right answers. To cope with this new reality, companies are moving away from traditional command-and-control practices and toward something very different: a model in which managers give support and guidance rather than instructions, and employees learn how to adapt to constantly changing environments in ways that unleash fresh energy, innovation, and commitment. The role of the manager, in short, is becoming that of a coach.”
By allowing agents to be guided to the correct answer, solution, or behavior, they have greater control over their ability to self-manage.
This approach doesn’t rely on the fact that the coach has the correct answer but rather that the coach and the agent will discover the answer together. I call this “Self-Directed Coaching,” which works well with agents with little or a lot of experience.
To be successful, we also need to address the perception that the Team Lead/Supervisor or QA Analyst is ‘superior’ to the front-line agent.
The best reality is one where everyone understands that they are working on behalf of the agent, helping them elevate their performance – just as we see coaches supporting athletes in the sporting world.
The Impact of Work-from-Home
Whether the agent is a seasoned professional or just out of new hire training, the dynamic of QA and Coaching changes when the agent works from home. Historically, most coaching in a contact center takes place “on the fly.” A quick recommendation for improvement as you walk by. A brief pat on the back for a problem well-handled.
These timely fly-by moments are vital to engaging agents and providing just-in-time feedback no matter the agents’ level of performance. For at-home agents, check-ins must be very deliberately added into a coach’s daily routine. Check-ins need to be timely and frequent -- but fast, like a well-timed chat message.
Pre-planned check-ins are also helpful, particularly if your contact center is tightly scheduled. The key to QA success is delivering feedback and coaching as soon as possible after the interaction. That is because the agent will remember the interaction and won’t be repeating bad habits.
Where you might have just dropped by their desk in the contact center, try scheduling a five or ten minute phone call. Review yesterday’s results and help agents identify what they will do differently today.
No one hopes to join an organization and be in the same role for years. Historically contact center growth has created an environment where there is lots of room for upward movement – however, that is quickly changing.
With fewer management and support roles, we must make it okay (even admirable) to be a successful front-line contact center agent for 10+ years.
We need to consciously celebrate our front-line agents, in equal measure to our coaches and team leads, in a meaningful way. Agents with tenure bring something special to the table – experience –that should be nurtured, shared, recognized, and applauded.