Coffee Talk with Mark Brody

FROM THE MARCH 2018 ISSUE

Coffee Talk in the Contact Center
Illustration by Stephanie Scott
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I’m sure many of you, like me, are fans of “Saturday Night Live” or “SNL.” One of my favorites was Mike Myers as the character Linda Richman in the Coffee Talk skits. “Oy! I’m getting a little verklempt!”

I titled this article Coffee Talk, because—humor aside—the best intelligence you can gather about how people feel about their job, the department or their organization is probably happening right now around the coffee machine. If you really want to know and understand what is happening with your employees, if you want to take the temperature of your team, it’s time for the Coffee Talk.

The truth of Coffee Talk is that relationships between people require thoughtful one-on-one interactions… AND time. It doesn’t happen from a distance. Oy! I’m getting a little verklempt! Let’s move on. I’ll give you a topic. Employee engagement: It’s neither about diamonds nor marriage… discuss.

Employee Engagement: The Competitive Edge

Employee engagement is all the rage these days. Companies are looking for creative ways to keep their best employees. In a June 2017 article on the Site Selection Group website, King White ranked the top 25 metropolitan areas with the greatest number of contact center employees. The top five in this report were Atlanta, Dallas, Phoenix, Tampa and Houston.

In this article, White showed how contact centers in these and other cities are facing stiff competition from other entry-level employers that pay similar wages, like restaurants. Workplace culture is becoming one of the major battlegrounds for talent. On Susan Mack’s You Earned It website, Mack points out some important engagement statistics from a Cicero Group study. In it, 53% of employees said their work relationships would improve with more recognition. Mack also cited a Glassdoor survey which indicated that 81% of employees felt motivated when they were shown appreciation from their manager. Clearly, leaders must learn what employees need and what motivates them in order to keep them. Where to start?

Don’t Wait for an Invitation

Leaders should not expect employees to come to them. Even if you’re a friendly and outgoing person, your title and authority will intimidate many employees. Go to your break rooms, coffee pots and gathering spots, and interact with your employees. Strike up conversations and find out what’s happening in their worlds and what’s important to them.

In a former role as a Director of Operations, I created and developed a new division where our culture was all about employee engagement. This was the only division in the organization with a zero turnover rate for three consecutive years; other employees wanted to join our team.

We hired a new team member from within the organization. She was quiet and very diligent about getting her work done accurately, on time, and with a high level of quality. After a few weeks, during an informal discussion about how things were going, I could tell that she wanted to say something but was unsure of how I would take it. I encouraged her to share any thoughts or ideas, and I assured her that on our team there were no bad ideas.

Her idea was valuable and implementable. My response was, “Love it! Let’s share it with the team!” She was floored. Not only did her peers support the idea, but she got full credit when the idea was implemented to great success.

You never know where the next great idea, cost-saving initiative or process improvement will come. If you don’t have a culture built on trust and communication, you’ll miss a lot of opportunities to improve your business, and even more to engage your employees and build loyalty.

Oy! Telling that story got me a little verklempt again. I’ll give you a new topic. Celebrating successes: It’s neither about bar mitzvahs nor losing 30 pounds… discuss.

Celebrate Success

We enthusiastically celebrated our employee and her great idea before and after implementation. But, why is it so important to celebrate success?

Celebrating successes can mend fences and improve collaboration among crossfunctional teams. It’s especially powerful for those employees who may not typically be recognized for their efforts.

In my former organization, our Agile Development team created and supported the technology platforms used by all operational teams. As is common in IT, members of this team faced a lot of griping and complaining about bugs and issues in the system. They were rarely recognized for their efforts. Frustration was high on all sides.

To bring people together, a Product Owner in my division helped facilitate a series of cross-team discussions. As the operations and development teams talked and listened to each other, they began to understand the pain points and frustrations each group was dealing with. This was a huge breakthrough. It immediately led to more productive requirements discussions. Developers and business analysts were invited to work side-by-side with my frontline staff to better understand the user experience and the “why” behind leadership’s requests. Over time, the teams became more social, having pot lucks lunches and showing appreciation for each other’s work. Thanks to a flawless release, my operational team received industry recognition for having a top product.

Ice-cream-social

To celebrate this success, the Product Owner and I put on aprons and catered an Ice Cream Social for the frontline and development teams. This was a small gesture, but it served to show my team that I appreciate them. It also showed the development team that their hard work was noticed and valued. Everyone involved saw how their individual contributions—no matter how large or small—resulted in recognition for the collective us.

Celebrating success does not have to be just about your direct team. Take the time to recognize and celebrate those individuals and teams that support you and yours. After all, it takes a village to make your organization successful.

Celebrating success is team-building, motivating, meaningful and just plain fun. It’s part of a healthy work culture that makes employee engagement a high priority. Small, low-cost culture changes have a big impact on engagement. In a 2014 article on the “hppy” website, author Paula Clapon suggested 25 ideas for employee engagement:

  1. Assign company values
  2. Have teams create their own set of values
  3. Encourage personal projects
  4. Assign a buddy/mentor for every newcomer
  5. Have themed office days
  6. Have team photos
  7. Play the Happiness-At-Work card game
  8. Encourage charity
  9. Encourage volunteering
  10. Raise salaries
  11. Remind people your company’s mission and values
  12. Recognize and encourage innovation
  13. Celebrate achievements
  14. Celebrate people
  15. Give and receive feedback
  16. Try some unusual employee engagement ideas
  17. Show respect
  18. Empower your employees
  19. Encourage learning
  20. Get social
  21. Make sure that people have all the resources they need
  22. Ask the people who really know employee engagement
  23. Get answers from your employees as well
  24. Build long-term engagement
  25. Try and try again

Oy! Again with the verklempt. I’ll give you one last topic. Remember where you came from: It’s neither about Ancestry.com nor where you parked at the mall… discuss.

Remember Where You Came From

Many of us in contact center leadership roles started our careers on the phones, knocking on doors, or being that frontline voice/face for the companies we worked for. How did we get to where we are today? Most likely, we had someone who encouraged us to step out of our comfort zone to get us to that next level.

Early in my career, as a new college graduate, I had a manager, J.H. One memorable day, he pulled me aside and encouraged me to apply for a supervisory position in the company, rather than looking externally. I am thankful that I listened to him, as it was the pivotal first step in my leadership journey.

Throughout my career, I learned to listen and learn from others, and not just upper management. I learned a great deal from peers and direct reports who saw a 360-degree coaching opportunity and reached out to me. One of my direct reports—someone who has since gone off to become a manager and achieve great things—once gave me some important advice. She told me that people would never remember the things you did, but they would always remember how you made them feel. She said she always wanted people to smile when they thought of her.

Employees work harder and have more respect for leaders who understand what it’s like to do their job. Do you remember your first cold call or incoming complaint? Have you ever had a day when personal issues threatened to derail your professional life? If roles were switched, could you meet the performance expectations you have for your employees? Set high standards, but never forget where you came from.

The contact center industry is exciting and fulfilling, or most of us wouldn’t have spent so many years on this journey. My journey has been close to 28 years long, and I continue to learn something new every day. That is just one of the benefits of being in customer service, debt collections, sales or any other kind of contact center. If you’re doing it right, you’re going to have some Oy moments and feel a little verklempt from time to time. Get out there and have those Coffee Talks as often as you can. Get to know your people. Find out their likes and dislikes. Tell them about yourself. Share your journey and learn from their journey, with honesty and sincerity.

A team is never just one person. As Chicago Bulls coach Phil Jackson once said, “The strength of the team is each individual member. The strength of each member is the team.” Teamwork—it’s like buttah.

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