Illustration by Nicolas Vicent

What defines best-in-class performance? ICMI recently announced the finalists for its Global Contact Center Awards Program. The winners in each of the 12 categories will be announced on May 5th at ICMI’s Contact Center Expo & Conference in Orlando, Fla.

We had a chance to speak with the two finalists in the Best Contact Center Manager category: Jill Houghland, senior operations manager at InterCall, and Jon Koelling, director of customer care at Intuit Inc. Following are brief glimpses into what makes these two professionals stand out in their field.

AWARD FINALIST: Jill Houghland, InterCall

Jill Houghland
Jill Houghland, Senior Operations Manager, InterCall

Making sure that your frontline team is equipped to provide the highest quality customer support is a continuous effort for any contact center leader. It becomes even more challenging when your center supports a wide array of technology—both proprietary products and as an authorized reseller for business partners like Adobe, Cisco and Microsoft.

That is just one of the challenges that Jill Houghland tackles on a daily basis as senior operations manager for InterCall, a subsidiary of West Corporation. InterCall is the world’s largest conference and collaborations service provider, offering telephony, messaging, conferencing and collaboration tools for businesses.

Houghland and her team work closely with the operations manager to monitor all contact center and help desk transactions to ensure that agents are providing customers with a top-quality support experience and up-to-date technical knowledge. They also continually review the quality assurance program and processes for compliance with COPC standards. Houghland oversees InterCall’s customer satisfaction program, which includes Csat surveying and translating customer feedback into training opportunities for the frontline staff. She is also responsible for ensuring that the technical content for the contact center and web services is maintained, up to date and is easily accessible for agents and customers.

Because of the wide array of products supported by center, Houghland and her team must be resourceful to identify and deliver relevant training to help agents meet customers’ needs. They work with internal product teams to outline basic training content for InterCall’s proprietary products, but then delve deeper to fully understand any questions that may arise for customers. “My team really digs in from a technical standpoint to figure out how these products work to be able to simplify them and deliver that knowledge to the agents who are taking calls,” Houghland explains.

“There are a lot of different facets that go into that. We’re listening to calls continuously to make sure that the training we’re providing to the agents is actually getting conveyed to customers,” she says. “We’re also continually reaching out to customers to make sure that they’re getting what they need from us. There are a lot of complexities because we have so many products to support.”

To help staff deliver a personalized support experience and improve their problem-solving skills, Houghland and her team provide agents with ongoing coaching on how to ask probing questions. “We don’t want customers to contact technical support and feel like they’re dealing with someone who’s been completely scripted,” she says. “It’s important for our agents to be good at asking probing questions. We conduct mock-call scenarios to teach them how to troubleshoot, as well as the right types of questions to ask.”

Houghland acts as an internal champion for frontline training and development. She works closely with senior executives and her peers in other departments to understand how strategic decisions, new product development and upgrades will impact the front line in terms of technical knowledge and training needs. She feels that an important part of her role is to continually communicate with all levels of the organization to ensure that the development needs of the agents are prioritized so that customers receive the most up-to-date information.

That same attention to organizationwide communication enabled Houghland to advocate for a global customer satisfaction program a few years ago. At the time, there was no initiative to align the process across functions. Houghland focused on pulling the different department heads together to agree on a process that has been highly effective. “Bringing that many people together globally is a challenge in itself,” she says. “I’m very proud that we now have a working process in place.”

In fact, the opportunity to work with her peers from other departments is an aspect of Houghland’s role that she not only excels at, but which she enjoys. She has also found it to be beneficial in her own growth as leader. “There are quite a few avenues that are related to this position, so I’m able to connect with people from many different departments internally,” she says. “Networking with colleagues in other areas who have some of the same challenges gives you the opportunity to tap into their experience and different viewpoints,” she says.

AWARD FINALIST: Jon Koelling, Intuit Inc.

Jon Koelling
Jon Koelling, Director of Customer Care, Intuit Inc.

Business and financial management software provider Intuit is well-known for its popular business and financial management solutions such as TurboTax, Quicken and QuickBooks. If you’re a business owner, you’re likely also familiar with Intuit Payroll, which offers basic to full-scale payroll services for small businesses.

The payroll customer care unit, led by Jon Koelling, handles inbound contacts via phone, chat and email for a wide array of topics—from how to navigate the system to how to understand payroll taxes and state regulations. Support calls can be complicated and lengthy, and customer care agents are encouraged to stay on the phone with customers as long as they need to deliver value and delight.

While frontline agents focus on delighting external customers, the support center’s management team strives to do the same for its valued customers. “Our agents are our customers,” Koelling says. “If they don’t feel delight in their job, then it will be difficult for them to deliver delight to our customers.”

Clear and meaningful communication is considered an essential activity. Frontline agents are kept up to date through traditional team meetings and email updates, as well as biweekly, preshift “jumpstart” meetings. The management team also holds a quarterly touchpoint meeting with agents to discuss the organization’s annual goals, progress toward those goals, and gather their feedback about what’s working and what’s not.

Koelling and his team also work hard to balance the needs of the various other internal stakeholders, such as senior leadership, marketing and product development, by ensuring that they’re kept apprised of key support issues, as well as customer feedback and suggestions. For instance, the team provides a weekly dashboard to internal stakeholders that outlines the top 10 customer support issues so that they can help to improve and deliver a better customer experience.

To ensure customers are fully delighted by their experience with Intuit, Koelling’s team monitors the key touchpoints along the customer journey—the most critical of which is the interaction with customer care. To ensure that Intuit’s customer delight vision is translated into the experience with customer care staff, the management team focuses on several key areas:

Hire people who are a good fit for the culture. “We want to bring in people who are going to help perpetuate the culture that we’ve created here,” Koelling says. “We use agents in the interview process because they should have a voice in who we bring into their team.”

Set clear expectations and goals. All new customer care agents, whether permanent or seasonal staff, learn about the company’s near-term and long-term business goals, the importance of delivering customer delight, and how it is measured during new-hire training. Each year, the management team reviews the long-term strategy and sets annual goals, priorities and measurements. “We share that with all the teams in meetings, and we post them on the walls so that they become second nature to everyone,” Koelling says.

Be consistent. “We have a durable strategy that looks out three to five years,” he explains. “Some of the priorities and measurements will change because our environment changes, but the overall strategy is pretty consistent. The agents see this common theme, and that we’re not trying to reinvent ourselves every single year. We’re just trying to continue to go from good to better.”

Read more about the finalists here.