Next Steps in Contact Center Agent Coaching
Illustration by Jared Fanning
Challenges and Priorities Survey

Remember when “coaching” was represented by reports shoved in front of agents with lots of red circles accompanied by motivating messages like, “Good quality, but you need to get that adherence rate up to speed!”? If not, lucky you!

Today, most of our contact centers have well-defined performance metrics. This data is readily available, and time is set aside for supervisors to review performance, goals and improvement opportunities individually with each agent. Yes, we probably don’t spend as much time as we would like in coaching sessions. Yes, we probably should spend more time training supervisors on this critical activity than we do now. All valid points, yet the same could be said for just about any organization where coaching takes place. The bottom line is that contact centers have come a long way with regard to coaching.

And yet… it is starting to feel a bit stagnant. It is starting to feel a bit too much like a “check-off” activity. It is starting to feel a bit too disassociated from performance results. It is starting to feel a bit like that diet where you lose a quick 10 pounds, and even though you stay on track, the weight just will not come off any more. Does your coaching program feel that way? If so, maybe the time is right to step back, examine the foundation of the program, and commit to change.

Coaching in the Larger Sense

Coaching is a term largely borrowed from the world of sports. It is easy to see why it fits our environment so well. Sports coaches will pour over statistics in search of some insight into long-term improvements that can be made. A baseball coach might start by looking at a player’s batting average, and then break it down to success rates based on pitch locations—high, low, inside, outside, etc. So rather than having to say, “Your average is down; you need to improve it” (not very valuable), he or she can say, “Your biggest challenge is with pitches that are low and inside. Let’s spend some time working on techniques to improve that” (very valuable).

The similarities exist beyond practice sessions. Sporting events, like contact centers, happen in a real-time environment. The best coaches will spot some opportunity for improvement during a contest and immediately bring it to the player’s attention. The insight may have to do with the player (“You’re standing too far from the plate”), or with the competitor (“The pitcher can’t throw a strike with the curve ball, so lay off it”). Whatever the advice, it is delivered at the very moment that it can make the most impact—the so-called “teachable moment.”

So in the world of sports, an effective coach identifies the biggest opportunities and allocates his or her time accordingly. Why, then, in a contact center do we schedule a 30-minute coaching session with every agent every week (or every two weeks, or every month)? At any given time, in any organization, one person needs more guidance than another. Suzy knows the job better than anyone—she doesn’t need a coaching session, she instead deserves some form of recognition that she will appreciate. Kevin, on the other hand, would probably benefit from serious time off the phone listening to Suzy and getting some intensive call-handling guidance from the senior trainer. Treating Suzy and Kevin the same ignores reality, and encourages the check-off that diminishes coaching value.

Accountability

Sports may be the one area that rivals contact centers in the reliance on metrics, and in short order it will go fitbitting (if that is not yet a word it will be soon) right by us in terms of data quantity. Any athlete at any level has access to just about any number he or she may need to improve, and the same is true of contact center agents. Some of us have been a little slow at getting agents full access to all of it, but technology has broken down those barriers so effectively that any lingering problems will soon dissipate.

Yet with all this transparency, we still treat agent performance as something that only a supervisor can fix. Let’s try a different take on that, again following the direction of sports. Ultimately, a coach (in sports or in contact centers) needs to help others achieve peak performance. But first and foremost, responsibility for improvement rests with each individual. They have the objectives, they have their current results, they have the trends of past data. They have training videos, colleagues, supervisors, trainers, knowledge management systems and many other options for help. What if part of our expectations—for those who have not yet reached the top echelon of performance—are that they proactively make the improvements to get there? In other words, the agent is accountable for his or her performance, and the coach is there to monitor and support that effort.

A Small, Radical Change

I can almost hear it now. “Interesting idea, but we don’t have the vast amounts of time set aside for practice like professional athletes do.” Good point. Even if you cannot justify more time for performance improvement, the hours you have can be allocated differently. So here is the radical next step that can improve our coaching practices: First, have the agents identify what they want to improve and how they plan to do it. That might be a detailed course of self-improvement, or it may be a cry for help because they have no idea how to improve. Whatever the plan, responsibility for initiating improvement rests with the agent.

Next, give the supervisor the coaching hours to allocate across the team. If you provide 30 minutes twice a month for coaching, and there are 15 agents on the team, the supervisor gets 30 hours for performance-improvement activities for the month. Some agents may not get any time. Some may get some time for self-improvement, but no one-on-one coaching time. Others, like Kevin, may get a good chunk of the time. And yes, it will all be coordinated through the WFM team.

Once you make those changes, the coaches and agents will have full accountability for performance improvement. Yes, they will have to operate within the confines of the total amount of coaching time, but outside of that they will call the shots—just like their favorite sports team.

Steal an Effective Approach from Sports Coaches

Athletes are expected to take responsibility for performance and initiate improvement activities. Sports coaches are expected to be the experts at guiding individual effort for the good of the team. Let’s steal more than just the term “coaching” from the world of sports. Let’s shamelessly steal their approach to it as well. The agents and supervisors are closest to the work, so they deserve full accountability for results.