Support for Your Customer Service Frontline Contact Center Leaders
Illustration by Jorgen Bovolden

You send your frontline leaders to all the requisite classes as dictated by the corporate office. You get them through the seven-part online series for developing supervisory skills. They get access to a number of different digital journals. You even assign a mentor. And while you can name a few superstars, the majority of your frontline leaders are sort of… underwhelming. Yes, they are good people, and they’re trustworthy and dependable. They can keep a fire going, but there is little chance they will provide the spark needed to blaze a new path—or ignite a mediocre team.

Any frontline leadership job is challenging, but those in the contact center are at the top of the difficulty chart (the box below shows how this affects leadership choices). Helping these individuals reach rockstar status is not easy, but consider the payoff: Our agents each handle hundreds of contacts a month, and anywhere from eight to 16 of them are generally reporting to one frontline leader. With an impact that ultimately affects tens of thousands of callers each year, a respected, high-functioning frontline leader is an invaluable asset.

The Challenge of a Contact Center

Nothing makes a training program better and more effective than making the right hire in the first place. Good communication and leadership skills are a must for any frontline leader, but there are a few other qualities that are a good fit for contact center supervisors:

  1. Tech Friendly. Contact centers employ some of the most advanced technology available today. To thrive in this environment, it helps to be comfortable with new and ever-changing applications.
  2. Punctual. It may sound boring, but contact centers are highly structured, with every activity scheduled. Frontline leaders who are never on time have no credibility when coaching agents on adherence.
  3. Phone Ready. Agents always give the highest marks to frontline leaders who are ready to jump on and handle calls, whether by taking over a difficult one or signing on for a few calls when the queue gets heavy.

Building Out a Training Program

Most of the contact center executives I speak with are not fully satisfied with their frontline leadership training programs, and they’re often in the process of tweaking them. Generally, the approach is to revise (and, hopefully, improve) what is currently in place: change courseware providers, improve internal classes, etc. Often, though, a better approach is to expand what is available. A greater diversity of tools helps to build a stronger foundation and provides the option to customize an approach based on individual strengths and opportunities.

Certainly, you can expand via external training options. A basic Internet search turns up many online and video-based programs for supervisory coaching and leadership skills. Many of these are well done, and any frontline leadership curriculum should include these topics.

Yet, while this can be an effective way to impart tips and techniques regarding communication and coaching, an external program cannot possibly deliver foundational knowledge specific to your organization. That can only be done through internal programs that build a deeper understanding of the contact center and the organization it serves. Without this knowledge, your frontline leaders enter into their responsibilities with a toolbox that is only half full. Before long, they’ll encounter a situation that requires a screwdriver, and they’ll have only a hammer to get the job done.

Internal Opportunities

Intradepartmental rotations are not common in our industry, but where they exist, the feedback is nearly always positive. Within most of our centers, there are specialists focused on training, quality assurance, workforce management, content development and potentially a few other specialties. They all contribute to the success of the organization, but often our frontline leaders know very little about what these teams do. When supervisors have an opportunity to work these assignments, they have a greater understanding of the entire organization and how frontline teams need to balance the objectives of these different disciplines to succeed. Where these rotations are not practical, allowing them to at least spend a few days in each area may be enough to expand their view of the operation.

The same is true of interdepartmental knowledge. Frontline leaders who better understand the areas that work with the contact center—IT, marketing, finance, etc.—can communicate more effectively with agents regarding the “why” behind many policies and practices. More thoughtful and useful communication helps to build trust, understanding and respect with the agents. Building departmental visitations into a training program is one other way to expand the supervisor’s foundational knowledge base and give them the opportunity to be more effective.

Math for People People

Supervisors normally rise through the ranks from an agent position, and it is their soft skills that get them there. Before long, though, they are faced with the barrage of data that accompanies the position. A lack of understanding of the metrics causes more poor coaching sessions than any other problem, so the best supervisory development programs must address the numbers.

Fortunately, your frontline leaders normally do not have to perform any complex calculations. They have to understand them and explain them, though, so the training should be focused more on the concepts than the formulae. Certainly, this type of training should include your specific key performance indicators. Beyond that, though, it helps when leaders understand a few foundational mathematical concepts that are often in play in a contact center (see the table below).

Addressing the Numbers: Train Supervisors on the Concepts Rather Than Formulae

Term Concept and Application
Weighted Average Some things are more important than others, and that’s where attention belongs. Understanding the concept of a weighted average helps supervisors prioritize their time to focus on the more important issues.
Sample Size Confidence Any measure of performance is based on a certain number of transactions. When only a few transactions are measured, the value of the data is limited. Supervisors should always understand how many transactions performance data is based on before using it in coaching sessions.
Standard Deviation Averages are easy to understand, but can be misleading. Standard deviation helps to provide more clarity on performance data. Focusing on this helps to improve consistency, which is exceptionally important in contact centers that rely on forecasts and schedules to meet customer time expectations.
Queuing Dynamics Queuing is part of life in a contact center, and understanding some of the basics will help supervisors recognize the difference between an expected queue that will quickly dissipate and one that will linger for hours.

It is unnecessary, and counterproductive, to spend time training supervisors on how to perform calculations, such as sample size and weighted averages. What they need to fully understand, though, is the concept and how it affects the performance of their agents. The right kind of training for frontline leaders may provide the calculations, but it will focus on the application of the concept.

A Worthwhile Payback for the Training Investment

Frontline leaders occupy a critical spot in our organizations. They handle more two-way feedback than any other position, and we rely on them to lead their teams in a way that optimizes performance results. External training programs can help with skill-building, but the best-run organizations supplement this with a healthy dose of internal programs that improve the content of supervisor-to-agent communication. The training investment should be a substantial one and, when done right, the payback will more than justify it.

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