Coaching as a Strategy

By Harold Goldberg

According to Datamonitor, there are 80,000 call centers in the United States. People responsible for a company’s relationship with its customers staff these call centers, yet for the most part these employees are generally not treated as a brand asset. Instead, call centers are often only seen as a drain on a company’s bottom line. This is partially due to the unproductive amount of time managers spend training and retraining employees in an effort to reduce average call time and other operational measures that shave costs. Call centers are seemingly stuck in an endless loop wherein staff feel unsuccessful and poorly rewarded, and who, before leaving the company after a short tenure, convey their low morale to customers by alienating them.

Yet a cultural transformation is taking place at leading call centers, led by companies such as ING Direct USA and Sprint, receiving commensurate high placement in customer satisfaction rankings. By reforming their criteria for success, these companies have been able to more sharply reduce costs, increase sales, reduce staff turnover, and build brand loyalty.

Coaching best practices, paired with powerful analytics, are an essential piece of this ideal scenario. By focusing on what call center employees need to be successful, these two companies have built cultures of behavioral and operational excellence. Sprint has experienced a dramatic rise in customer satisfaction and was recognized out of 800 companies across twelve industries as a J.D. Power 2011 Customer Service Champion. It was one of only forty companies to earn that distinction. Likewise, ING Direct USA has a reputation for unusual loyalty among its “happy savers” and other customers. Here are some lessons that can be drawn from these two companies’ experiences.

Understand the difference between training, managing, and coaching. Training tends to be group-oriented, in a classroom setting, conducted by professional trainers. In contrast, coaching is tailored to individual needs and focuses on specific goals measured against performance indicators. It relies on deeper engagement by the employee in self-managing their performance. Importantly, while managers are responsible for ensuring that proper coaching takes place, most are not equipped with the specialized skills required to be great coaches. At Sprint, the response has been the launch of the Master Coaches program, which helps managers and supervisors learn how to more effectively coach their employees.

Place the coaching function in the call center, not the human resources department. Make it the managers’ responsibility to promote its benefits so that employees see how coaching will make them more successful and empowered by delivering what they need: recognition, rewards, and career development. One advantage to having coaching close to the call center staff is that managers can adapt programs quickly as a response to data. In addition, make coaching goals and programs consistent across all call center locations.

Select a relatively small number of performance metrics and coach against those on an individual level. Often call center managers are drowning in metrics, to the point that none effectively stand out. By choosing a relatively small number of performance metrics that are based on desired short-term behaviors, the job of communicating performance goals is more manageable and coaching is more likely to be meaningful, actionable, and successful. “Before the change, our metrics used to be like the whack-a-mole game,” explained Lonnie Johnston, director of call center analytics at Sprint. “We’d pound one metric, then shift our attention to the next metric.” Sprint reduced the number of tracked performance metrics from more than eighty to less than twenty. The focus on a smaller number allows managers to identify areas where coaching can provide the greatest potential.

Manage employee performance with real-time data in a way that reveals the connections between actions taken and behavioral change. Without measurement, employees and managers have little direction and behavior is not affected. Rather than tie compensation to call volume, Sprint’s new performance model ties compensation to customer satisfaction. Analytics displayed through an easy-to-use and dynamic computer dashboard allows a manager to see the top and lowest performers and assign coaching depending on an employee’s strengths and weaknesses. At ING Direct USA, where an innovative coaching program resulted in a 30 percent increase in the call-to-sell ratio and an impressive first call resolution rate of 86 percent, 100 percent of calls are measured. Sprint has seen the performance differential between high and low performers decrease by 42 percent, meaning that its customers are more likely to receive a great experience from a high performing agent.

Give employees more control. With the dashboard, they are aware daily of what they own, how they are tracking, which coaching they can select to improve their performance, and how compensation is linked to specific behaviors and customer satisfaction results. At ING Direct USA, an employee development program prepares staff to “own the phone call” and take an entrepreneurial approach to their careers. In a recent survey by the online banker, 88 percent of customers said they would hire the sales associate they spoke with for their own start-up. As one employee put it, “I am my own small business.”

Coaching is one of several strategic steps a call center operation can adopt to achieve transformation. It is the most powerful one, however, for simultaneously improving performance and creating a culture of professional development in the call center. As these examples demonstrate, it is hard to argue with success.

Harold Goldberg is CMO with Merced Systems.

[From Connection Magazine October 2011]

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