I’ve always known that I must listen more than I speak when coaching an agent. However, when I first became a team lead, I was always thinking about my response while the other person was speaking. The conversation running in my head kept me from actively listening to what the agent was saying, and I often missed out on what caused them to act the way they did.
What changed, you ask? Well, let me tell you a story to help you understand the importance of patience, observation and listening during a coaching session. I was coaching an agent who kept forgetting her passwords. She gave every excuse possible (e.g., I lost my password sheet; I changed the password, but forgot to write it down; etc.). In a coaching session, I asked the agent what she could do to remember her passwords, and she came up with solutions. She didn’t have a password issue for a few days, but then it started again.
During our next coaching session, I asked how her calls were going since the password issues had been keeping her off the phones for a while in the morning or after lunch. After observing her responses, I said, “It seems like these password issues keep you off the phones for a while. It sounds like a way to avoid taking calls?” She was shocked, but then said, “Yes.” I asked, “What are your struggles when taking calls?” She explained that she was struggling with two issues:
1. Her understanding of where to go in the system to obtain information to assist with a caller’s inquiry.
2. Confidence to reiterate to a caller the cause for denying a medical claim and the required steps to rectify the issue(s) and resubmit the claim for reprocessing.
We spent some time looking through the panels that would help her answer most caller inquiries regarding claim denial. I also printed out a few training materials that reinforced the steps we covered in our session. We formed a plan for her to spend two hours each day for the next four days with an experienced agent to identify additional resources and strengthen her confidence when a caller disagreed with a resolution.
After that, she never had another day where she forgot her passwords or was locked out from a system due to entering the incorrect password.
Tips for More Effective Coaching Sessions
The following are a few tips that can help you to deliver more effective coaching sessions for your agents:
- Preparation—the more you know about the agent’s behavior the better, such as when the behavior happens, what follows the behavior, and any documented information to support the issue(s).
- Scheduling—hold conversations with the agent off the call center floor and be respectful of the agent’s breaks and lunch.
- Listen and observe—talk less and listen more. When it’s a behavior that an agent isn’t aware of, there may be some resistance. For instance, I was coaching an agent who always placed himself in the Not Ready state seven to 10 minutes before his shift ended. This is where supporting information from the phone logs helped. The agent took a few moments to let this information sink in and vented his frustrations. I let him take his time, as after this stage passes, most agents are ready to work on solutions.
- It’s not about you. Sometimes it’s challenging to separate your ego from the situation, such as when someone criticizes a policy or decision. These are opportunities to practice empathy and ask questions, such as: “Could you please help me understand what you mean when you say…?”
- Constructive feedback—helps the agent learn what behavior(s) needs to be changed to meet performance expectations. It’s good to present objective feedback.
- Explore options. It’s a good practice to allow agents to propose suggestions to improve their behavior. I will usually offer a recommendation to get the process started and then encourage additional input from the agent. When agents come up with the solutions to improve their performance, it increases their acceptance and buy-in for change.
- Summarize. I like to summarize what the agent and I discussed. Most often, I put this in an email to document why the agent was off the floor, but it also reinforces to the agent what we discussed.
- Offer additional assistance. I close every coaching session with, “Is there is anything else I can help you with today?” I always ask this at the end to ensure that we’ve covered everything we can during this coaching session.
- Follow up—this may be in the form of scheduling another session or merely asking the agent how we will determine their progress. It’s always good to have metrics to assess progress but don’t rely entirely on them. I recall a conversation with an agent about reducing their average hold time to meet the call center’s 30-second standard. During a coaching session, we came up with a few suggestions to improve their hold-time performance. We also agreed upon a time frame for a noticeable reduction in their hold time, and the tool we would use to track changes. After two weeks, I noticed that the agent’s average hold time went up by 10 seconds, but later identified that the agent was using the incorrect phone process for interpreter calls, which caused the agent’s phone to go on hold while the agent was speaking to a caller. The issue was rectified, and the agent’s average hold time went from 50 seconds to 20 seconds for four consecutive months.
Trust Is Essential
An essential part of coaching is developing trust with individual agents. It allows agents to open up to the issue(s), be more accepting of the feedback, and follow through with suggestions to modify their behavior.
The time you invest in delivering more effective coaching sessions will help your agents improve their ability to deal with problems and cope with the unexpected.