Coaching Your Call Center Agents
Illustration by Victor Akio

I knew I was in trouble! I was driving down the highway with my lovely wife, Jana, when we spotted a traffic jam up ahead. I suggested we stay on the highway, since it was the most direct route to our destination, and slowdowns like this usually clear up within a few miles. However, my wife suggested we take the off-ramp ahead and travel on the side roads, which would be a slow but steady drive.

Since I was the one driving, I decided to stay on the highway. But, the traffic jam did not clear up after a few miles. Instead, our half-hour drive took over one hour. I knew I made a mistake. But, I was not ready to admit that.

When my wife said, “Why didn’t you take the off-ramp back there?” I gave a typical husband’s response: “Because I thought the highway was the best option. It usually clears up after that off-ramp. I thought it was the fastest way there!” I love my wife and she was right. However, my ego meant I could not agree with her without looking bad. So, I defended my stupidity.

I learned an important lesson that day. If you make someone defend stupidity… they will! Their ego will demand that they defend themselves. Their pride will force them to justify silly choices or simple mistakes. How would you react if you were backed into a corner and forced to defend your past actions?

What Does This Have to Do with Coaching Contact Center Agents?

Imagine one of your frontline managers is conducting a coaching session. The agent has just completed a reasonably good call. Then the coach says, “You shouldn’t have said…” Immediately, the agent gets defensive. The agent’s ego takes control and he tries to justify his action… even if he knows it was wrong.

Why does asking about the past create such defensiveness? The simple reason is… we cannot change the past. We cannot go back and fix things. All we can do is try to justify our actions.

If Only There Was a Time Machine!

In the classic British science fiction TV series, “Doctor Who,” the hero has a time machine. He can travel back in time to fix mistakes. I have always thought that was a great idea! I wish I had a time machine so I could go back in time and change my poor decisions. When someone says, “You shouldn’t have said…,” I could use my time machine to make things right.

However, there is no such thing as a time machine. So telling an agent, “You shouldn’t have said…” does not change what the agent said to the customer. It merely forces the agent to defend his or her actions.

What Is the Cost of Making Agents Defend Their Past Actions?

How would you feel if you had to justify your past behavior? Would you get upset? Would you dislike the person criticizing you? Would you reject their other advice, even if it was good? That is the cost of making agents defend past actions. It destroys the coaching relationship. It breeds distrust since agents think their coach is only looking for things to criticize. It creates an adversarial relationship where the agent is always on the defensive.

It does not have to be that way. Instead, focus on making things better in the future. By focusing on how your agents can do better on their next call, they are less likely to be defensive and more willing to accept your guidance. The key to doing this is to use the future tense. Start your advice with the phrase, “Next time…”, “On your next call…” or “In the future…” followed by your idea. For example, “In the future, try asking your customer what they need for the upcoming season.”

Also, state your idea in the positive sense. For example, “Next time, try offering our gold package…” rather than, “Next time, don’t offer the bronze package.” “Try offering the gold package” tells them exactly what to do. In comparison, “Don’t offer the bronze package” leaves some doubt as to which other packages to offer. So, be as specific as possible with your suggestions. That will make it easier for your agent to know exactly what to do on their next call.

But Don’t I Have to Tell My Agents What They Did Wrong?

I cannot tell you the number of times I have heard that during my coaching workshops. Managers feel they need “evidence” of wrongdoing in order to persuade someone to change their behavior.

They are partially correct: If their agent’s behavior is illegal or a violation of company policies, then documenting past violations is an important part of performance management. In many states, you need to document such occurrences. You may also need to document examples if you have someone on a performance improvement plan, in case you later need to justify their dismissal.

However, if an agent is simply taking a bit longer than average to input an address change or hesitating a little before asking for the sale, forcing them to defend the past is a very ineffective coaching method. You wind up spending too much time listening to them justify their actions, rather than focusing on a future solution to the problem.

I made that mistake during a side-by-side coaching session. After the call was completed, I asked the agent, “Why didn’ t you use the job aid?” They replied, “The job aid is terrible. The wording is all wrong. I have my own way of saying things. It just didn’t work this time because the customer wasn’t listening. But, I meant to help them. I wanted to fix their problem, but they wouldn’t listen to me!” After that, it took another 10 minutes to get the agent to relax enough to be open to a suggestion for the future. I should have just saved time and emotional energy by giving my suggestion for the future, without passing judgment on the past.

But, Don’t I STILL Have to Tell Them What They Did Wrong?

In a word, “No.” Think about it this way. Imagine you walk up to a fork in the road. You decide to take the path to the left. Once on that path, you run into a dead end. Now imagine your coach says, “The next time you see that fork in the road, try going right.” Could you do that? Could you take the path to the right in the future? Of course you can. It is easy to follow advice for the future and feel good about your coach’s help. Your performance improves as a result.

Now imagine if your coach said, “What were you thinking? Why did you go left? You should not have done that!” How would you react? If you’re like most people, you would waste time and emotional energy defending your decision. You might even feel opposed to taking the right path because you are upset.
Would you want to talk to a coach like that again? Would you trust them to help your career? Probably not. That is the cost of telling people what they did wrong. It just makes them defensive.

So When Can I Talk About the Past?

There is one situation where mentioning the past improves performance. That is when you catch your agent doing something right and want them to continue doing it in the future. For example, you hear your agent ask a great problem-solving question. So, during your coaching session, you mention it as a specific example of a great problem-solving question. People love being recognized for doing good work. They feel rewarded by the attention and what gets rewarded gets repeated.

This also builds trust, since you are giving your agent credit for their strengths. That will make them realize you genuinely want to help them improve their job performance and career. That, in turn, increases their openness to future coaching sessions and advice.

Praise the Past, Focus on the Future

If you catch your agents doing something good in the past, praise them for it. But, bringing up the past when they have not performed well only makes them defensive. If your intention is to coach someone to get better at their job, use future-focused coaching to move them toward improved performance. Do not make them defend stupidity!

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