Coaching Practices and Tools for Today’s Environment

By Dick Bucci

Agent coaching remains the most important responsibility of contact center supervisors. Blanket approaches are no longer effective in today’s world of growing complexity and heightened demands for customer satisfaction and revenue generation. Approaching the coaching process as a highly targeted activity shifts the focus to addressing the highly specific requirements of individual agents. The targeted approach means examining the outliers in the quality monitoring process rather than norms and then using modern and affordable tools like speech analytics to hone in the precise determinants of customer delight and performance efficiency.

A Changing Coaching Environment: While other contact center management processes have evolved, coaching methods and technology have lagged behind. Several trends are now converging to drive progressive contact center executives to reexamine coaching practices and support technology. These include:

  • The advent of customer experience management
  • The changing role of the contact center
  • Growing product and service complexity
  • Multichannel communications
  • The agent as king or queen

Impact on the Contact Center: Contact center management deals with these key trends as well as a multitude of sometimes-conflicting missions in many ways, including:

  • Knowledge management: This includes investment in or development of knowledge management, featuring messaging systems, sophisticated e-learning tools, or Web-based “knowledge bases.” While they are helpful in explaining “what” and “how,” these tools fail to explain “why” to agents who rely upon the communications skills of a supervisor.
  • Agent training: Proper training ensures proficiency in multiple topics and channels. If agents cannot learn new skills or supervisors lack the skills themselves to impart this knowledge, then new employees with these skills have to be hired.
  • Call blending: With the demands of generating revenue, centers are training service-centric agents to make revenue-generating outbound calls to existing customers during periods of slow inbound traffic. Successful call blending requires advanced workforce management software to optimize agent efficiency without adding to the stress level.
  • More coaching: The scope of an agent’s role is expanding as the need for problem resolution increases, but more coaching does not automatically mean better
  • New metrics: As the responsibilities of call centers evolve to more closely align with corporate goals and strategies, progressive call centers work to define and construct metrics that are relevant to the goals and capabilities of individual contact centers.
  • Greater customer engagement: Customer-centricity is all about making memorable customer experiences a focal point for the enterprise, and management looks to the contact center to lead the charge for stronger customer relationships.

Where Coaching Fits In: Coaching is the linchpin between strategy and execution. A coach is the person who answers difficult questions when the agent is stumped or provides encouragement when he or she may be a little down after a difficult interaction. The coach is also the one individual most specifically charged with the development of agents. As studies show, the direct supervisor has a strong impact on agent satisfaction. In 2005, Manpower Corporation commissioned the SQM Group to conduct a study of 212 contact centers and customers that contacted these centers:

  • For every 1 percent improvement increase in employee satisfaction, there is a 2 percent improvement increase in customer satisfaction
  • The top five attributes that drive employee satisfaction in contact centers are (1) feeling appreciated for the work they do, (2) not working in a stressful environment, (3) being valued and respected, (4) advancement opportunities, and (5) effective utilization of the employee’s skills and talents.
  • While 41 percent were very satisfied with the management style of their contact centers, only 24 percent were very satisfied with the coaching they received.

Obstacles to More Effective Coaching: Learning their role is a special challenge for new coaches, but there are other obstacles that limit the effectiveness of coaching:

  • Insufficient time; supervisors have too many other responsibilities
  • Coaching is reactive; it looks to the past, not the future
  • Current methods assure continuation of the status quo
  • Metrics for gauging coaching effectiveness are lacking
  • Few tools exist; technology has not kept pace with demands

Football and Targeted Coaching: Consider a football game, where one of the teams has the best talent but is coached by an enthusiastic, inexperienced young coach who focuses on motivational speeches and excitedly implores his team to “hit harder,” “run faster,” and “believe in themselves.”  The other team has good but not exceptional talent. They have strung together ten consecutive winning seasons, however, because their veteran coach dissects every aspect of the game, takes into account individual players’ strengths and weaknesses, and outlines specific, detailed steps for each of his key players. The young coach has football knowledge but no prior training as a coach. He does what he thinks coaches do: motivate the team. The veteran also motivates his team, but he concentrates more on the details of a winning game plan.

Understanding Targeted Coaching: The concept of targeted coaching focuses on the specific skills and knowledge gaps of specific agents. Coaching is intended to address the skill and knowledge gaps identified in the monitoring and evaluation process. But the crux of the issue is that the process relies on choosing “typical” calls and looking at past interactions. This approach ignores two important realities: First, the interactions sampled can never be truly indicative of actual agent performance because of the small sample size, and second, the contact center is a highly dynamic environment. Agents are in the “eye of the storm.”  When the company makes strategic or tactical changes – opening new locations, raising fees, undertaking major promotions, or laying off employees – the contact center is the first point of defense. Events such as these are usually known in advance. Targeted coaching would enable supervisors to alert agents and prepare them with the proper responses. In this sense, coaching is proactive, not reactive.

Technology for Targeted Coaching: Today, contact center management is being asked to do more with the same – or even less – people. A robot coach has yet to be invented, so you will have to rely on solutions available today. The essential applications are quality monitoring, speech analytics, and e-learning. None of these are new, but the problem is that most vendors have designed and priced their software for the traditional model of coaching, not targeted coaching. The contact center then has to find “work-arounds” to apply legacy software to the new vision for coaching. The software needs to function harmoniously for the specific purpose of strengthening the coaching effort. It’s all about making it easy for supervisors.

Dick Bucci is principal of Pelorus Associates, where he specializes in contact center technologies.

[From Connection Magazine May 2011]

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