Training Call Center Frontline Leaders for Customer Service

There are hundreds of thousands of us working in supervisory and management positions in contact centers… and the truth is, most just sort of “landed” in the job. Few opportunities exist to get call center management training from a university or other educational institution, so our critical frontline leadership staff consists of those who came to these roles from all sorts of backgrounds and circumstances. That puts the responsibility for great training clearly in the hands of our individual centers. So how are we doing?

The answer is a mixed bag. In meeting with clients and talking to contact center executives, managers and supervisors, the approach to frontline leadership training seems to fall into three camps:

  1. Those with comprehensive, well-designed plans that are applied to everyone as soon as they are identified as having the potential for one of these assignments.
  2. Those with comprehensive, well-designed plans that have challenges getting staff into the training sessions due to resource or time constraints.
  3. Those with loose, informal plans that are able to offer up training on a rare and inconsistent basis—if at all.

While that first camp clearly exists, it is unfortunately more of an exception than a rule. The majority of those working in these critical leadership roles are tasked with optimizing individual rep performance, yet are expected to do so without benefit of a strong educational foundation. That’s a recipe for disaster, but it doesn’t need to be that way. While a comprehensive training program is the ultimate goal, frontline leadership skills can be greatly enhanced in any contact center with an introductory approach that offers content in three areas—the basics, metrics and technology.

The Basics

At your next supervisory meeting, ask everyone in attendance if they have heard of Erlang C. For those who say yes, ask what it is. If many there are unable to say something along the lines of, “It’s the statistical calculation used in workforce management to determine staffing, and it helps to explain the queuing process,” then training on the basics of contact center management needs to be on the top of the organizational to-do list. (For a list of more questions that get to the heart of contact center foundational principles, see this Five-Question Quiz).

One of the more common responses to the Erlang C question is that it is something that WFM staff needs to know, but those on the floor really don’t have to understand it. Nothing could be further from the truth. Erlang C not only explains why some really odd things happen in contact centers (“55 calls in queue?!? But… the queue was empty three minutes ago!”), it also provides the critical “why” behind many of those “unique” management practices we employ (like, say, scheduling every single activity down to the minute).

Coaches with a strong understanding of contact center foundations are able to provide context and reasoning during coaching sessions, which, in turn, generates the all-important buy-in from the agent. Those without the foundation struggle to understand why their well-intentioned performance improvement suggestions seem too often to fall on deaf ears.

The Numbers

Question No. 2 for your next supervisor’s meeting is this: “Who here can provide the actual mathematical calculation for (fill in the blank with some key metric like quality monitoring score, average handle time, customer satisfaction score, etc.)?”

Frontline leaders often know what the key metrics are and what happens if the objectives are not met, but surprisingly few can recite the calculations. That may seem like a boring detail, but it puts them at a disadvantage when evaluating priorities and the impact of positive changes. Yes, the agent who is falling 4% short of the quality monitoring objective needs to know the shortfall and needs some suggestions for performance improvement. But what happens if he starts being more careful with his post-call documentation, as suggested? Will that be enough to meet the objective? What if there are other performance objectives that such a move might jeopardize, like an after-call work maximum?

Great supervisors understand these details. One of the reasons why their team members so often meet objectives is because they are getting such clear feedback during coaching sessions. They not only get the what and the why, but they get the how much. It is that last piece of information that helps to solidify the coaching and makes it far easier to prioritize improvement recommendations.

The Technology

I know, you have an IT department that takes care of technology. And when you need to make strategic decisions regarding technology purchases, the IT department meets with contact center executives and hammers out a strategy that optimizes the investment. That’s good planning… but execution happens on the call center floor. Are the tools being used in the manner expected when purchased? Do those on the floor even understand all the different features of the systems they have?

Walking around the floor and observing daily management practices can be an eye-opening experience. Look over there, and you see a supervisor counseling a rep because she is not on the phone, unaware that she is scheduled off the phone to complete case work. That information is available via a supervisory display, but the supervisor rarely signs into the WFM system to see the real-time adherence information. In the meeting room down the hall, a supervisor is struggling to help a service rep learn how to spot a sales opportunity. Why not dial up the quality monitoring system and search the library for examples of these calls? The reason, unfortunately, is that many call centers don’t know they can file monitored calls by type and/or tag, and even when they do, many of the supervisors are not aware of this capability. When supervisors do not get training regarding technology features, these situations happen constantly throughout the day.

Training Strengthens the Link Between Vision and Performance

Our frontline leaders are the conduit between our vision-producing executives and the agents who deliver on this vision to thousands of customers a year. Leadership training that is provided only “when time permits” is a sure way to weaken this link. We all know that our environment is complex, challenging and difficult to master. The time and effort made to help educate our frontline leaders is often the best investment you can make.