Coaching agents is arguably the most critical responsibility for frontline contact center management. Effective coaching is known to foster agent engagement, reinforce and expand critical skillsets, boost productivity and deliver higher performance for the individual, operation and company. It is also an important element for strengthening the all-important agent-supervisor relationship—a key to retaining top-performing talent in a competitive job market.
Not everyone is cut out to be a successful coach. The majority of frontline coaches that I’ve spoken with over the years have come up through the ranks with no background or training in specific techniques. But I’ve noticed that there is one trait that sets great coaches apart: They are passionate about learning and for helping others to develop, to succeed and to fulfill their professional goals and dreams. When leaders display genuine enthusiasm for their team’s growth, it can be infectious, inspiring others toward continuous improvement.
There has been a lot of excellent coaching advice shared in Contact Center Pipeline over the years. Let’s review a few proven techniques for delivering effective coaching for your company’s most valued asset.
Use the Right Development Approach
Are you using your one-on-one sessions for training instead of coaching? Training and coaching are not mutually exclusive, says Benjamin Gertz, director of Learning and Development at A.W. Companies. They have different attributes, so make sure that you’re using the right tool for your purpose. Training is conducted in a group setting, is formalized, provides new knowledge and skills, and is learning- and practice-focused. Coaching, on the other hand, is conducted in a one-on-one setting, is usually informal, is used to improve existing knowledge and skills, and is development-focused.
Empower Agents to Self-evaluate Their Performance
Allowing agents to evaluate their own calls ensures their full participation in the coaching session. As Mike Aoki, president of customer service and call center training firm Reflective Keynotes, points out, “Agents often are harder on themselves than any coach. They also spot challenges you might miss. As a bonus, coaching becomes more collaborative since agents are bringing their own challenges to light.”
Don’t Neglect Your Top Performers
It is tempting to devote most of your coaching time and efforts to those who need it the most—agents who are struggling and/or performing below the rest of the team. Keep in mind, though, that your superstar veterans also desire the opportunity to improve their skills and expertise, and many would welcome the chance to advance in their profession.
It’s Not Your Job to Have All the Answers
It is natural to want to be a limitless source of knowledge for your agents so that you can provide the best guidance for their continued growth. But let’s face it, in today’s ever-evolving business environment, change is frequent and rapid.
It’s OK not to have all the answers, says BuildASign.com’s Adriana Thompson, ICMI’s 2018 Contact Center Supervisor of the Year. But, “you can’t just say, ‘I don’t know,’ and walk away,” she adds. “I may not know what the answer is right then, but I’ll respond honestly and then say, ‘Let’s figure it out together.’ That shows your human side. You’re never going to be perfect or know all the answers, but as long as you’re humble enough to realize that, you’ll be a successful leader.”
Schedule Coaching Sessions
Even though the majority of supervisors and managers agree on the value of coaching, it often gets placed on the back burner when things get busy. Block out the time on your calendar to make sure that coaching sessions take place. Having a scheduled time to meet lets agents know that coaching is a priority, according to Etech Global Services CEO Matthew Rocco. In addition, “whether an employee has the top score or is struggling with some issues, they need regular meetings to discuss their behaviors,” he says. “Having a designated time to meet with a supervisor eliminates the feeling that a low-scoring agent is being singled out, and also allows a top achiever to receive the praise they deserve.”
Busy Season? Try Shorter, More Frequent Sessions
One way to make sure that learning takes place even when your time is limited is to break up your coaching meetings into shorter, more frequent sessions, says Aoki. “Rather than a single 90-minute session each month, conduct two 30-minute sessions,” he explains. “Only focus on one or two key skills. If you need to cover several skills, coach the most important one first. Then book a follow-up session a week or two later to introduce another skill.”
Create a Safe Environment to Fail
Agents will make mistakes. It’s the coach’s job to turn failures into learning opportunities. “Whenever possible, allow your employees to take risks and test new ideas in a safe environment,” advises Alan Fine, founder and president of InsideOut Development. “Did they come up with a solution? This type of empowerment builds trust between employees and managers, and self-confidence in your employees that is imperative to success.”
Remember to GROW
If you have been coaching for a while, you have probably heard of the GROW model, originally developed by coaching experts Alan Fine, John Whitmore and Graham Alexander in the late-1980s. It’s an ideal approach that you can use to frame your coaching conversations—and it’s easy to remember:
- GOALS: What do you want to achieve?
- REALITY: What is happening right now?
- OPTIONS: What do you need to reach your goal? What obstacles are in your way?
- WAY FORWARD: What steps will you take to reach your goal?
Clarify the “Why” for Agents
Do agents understand how their efforts affect individual, team and business outcomes? It’s the coach’s job to make this impact more visible, says Service Agility’s Jay Minnucci. For instance, it may not be apparent to agents why they have to follow procedures completely when placing a caller on hold. “Spend some time with them to go over customer satisfaction survey results so they can see the impact that poor hold techniques have on overall customer satisfaction,” he explains. “These efforts provide agents with the visibility needed to trust the practices set forth by leadership.”
Similarly, linking your brand to contact center activities can be particularly powerful for quality monitoring and coaching, says Kathleen Peterson, founder and chief vision officer of PowerHouse Consulting. “Framing feedback within brand parameters takes the coach’s ‘opinion’ and bolsters it with clarity,” she says. “It becomes clarity when supervisors are able to pose questions like, ‘How does what I observed support our customer experience?’” Of course, the groundwork must be laid beforehand, she notes, by defining what the branded experience looks like and the specific behaviors to achieve that vision.
Guide, Don’t Tell
Simply telling agents what to do to improve their performance is not an effective approach for lasting behavioral change. Coaching must be a back-and-forth dialogue between the supervisor and agent to come up with a solution. If an agent is not receptive to the way their coach presents a solution, or they don’t find it to be relevant based on their own experience or knowledge, they’re not likely to adopt it. Keep in mind that the goal is to collaborate upon a solution that the agent understands and believes in because they actively participated in coming up with it.
Be Present and Focused
Most agents value one-on-one time with their supervisor so give them your undivided attention during your coaching sessions.
“Successful coaching requires managers to be fully present and devoid of distractions,” says Brian Burke, Vice President of Operations for Epiq. “Before conducting feedback or coaching, choose a quiet location, put away cellphones and computers, and inform other members of management that coaching is underway so as to minimize interruptions and enable a singular focus on the team member.”
Take a Positive Approach
There are plenty of bad coaches in the business world who regularly demoralize their teams by only looking for mistakes and behaviors to criticize. In these types of coaching situations, agents are put on the defensive and, understandably, become resistant to advice or guidance. “That is the cost of making agents defend past actions,” says Reflective Keynote’s Aoki. “It breeds distrust and creates an adversarial relationship.”
Instead, he suggests focusing the discussion on how to do better on the next call. “The key to doing this is to use the future tense,” Aoki explains. “Start your advice with the phrases, ‘Next time…,’ ‘On your next call…’ or “In the future…’ followed by your idea.” Use positive language when providing guidance, such as “try this” (e.g., “Next time, try offering our gold package.”) rather than using negative phrases (e.g., “Next time, don’t offer the bronze package.”).
As always, recognize and celebrate your team member’s achievements. In addition to reaching a goal, It’s important to acknowledge an agent’s progress toward a goal. For example, let’s say that you set a call-resolution goal of 90% for an agent who is currently hitting 80%. Recognizing key checkpoints along the way (e.g., 83%, 85%, 87%) will motivate the agent to keep driving toward the final goal.
Public recognition of a job well done is one of the most powerful ways to build employee loyalty, says Epiq’s Burke. But, he points out, “it must be organic and consistent to be effective. Aim to recognize at least three to five people every day for their positive contributions, and make public recognition a part of all town halls and team meetings.”