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Finding the Time to Let Call Center Leaders Lead

I was on a plane last week, sitting next to the senior vice president of HR for a major fast food chain. I asked her what the most important job was in her company – the one that everyone needed to support, the one to which all the profits are tied. Her answer? The store manager. Their company had formally identified that the store manager position was the key to profitable growth.

Have you identified the most important role or position in your center? Based on the thousands of centers I have observed, the most important job in the call center would appear to be the Team Leader or Supervisor, or whatever you call your frontline leader. Just do the math: Each rep probably speaks with 10,000 to 20,000 customers per year. Multiply that by the ratio of rep to supervisor (say 1:15), and each supervisor influences, through their staff, 150,000 to 300,000 customers or contacts per year!

This is why contact center management, HR and senior leadership should do everything possible to build strong frontline leaders. Often, the best reps are promoted into first line supervision, without the prerequisite abilities or training to do the job. Besides being a good rep, what other qualities are required to be a great frontline leader? How about superior judgment and organizational skills? With experts estimating that at least 50% of people are in the wrong job for their interests and skills, it is no wonder that many of our frontline leaders are not prepared to lead. The solution to this dilemma is either (a) use predictive hiring assessment tools to ascertain the potential of a rep to be a supervisor, or (b) develop a Management Understudy Program, so the potential leader can demonstrate their leadership and organizational skills.

So, if the supervisor or team leader is the most important position in the contact center, then what is their most important task? The task that must come before all else? Most world-class contact centers that I have toured and managed have their frontline supervisors coaching at 70-80% of their role. What do we mean by “coaching?” Coaching includes monitoring performance, analyzing performance trends, performing root cause analysis, and leading two-way feedback conversations and developmental conversations with the reps. The rest of the time (20-30% of the time they are at work) is dedicated to meetings, process work, and administrative work including email.

In my former practice as a performance consultant and a time management workshop leader, I have found that most underperforming contact centers are allowing their frontline leaders to spend between two and four hours a day on email and a couple of hours a day in meetings. The average center manager of these underperforming centers estimates that their supervisors are left with only 5-25% of their time for coaching. These managers and directors are in my workshops to find out how to deliver better sales, service or first call resolution, but the real crux of their problem is how their frontline supervisors spend their time.

A few brilliant managers in my workshops – the ones with already very high sales and customer satisfaction scores – know that coaching at 70% of the role, generally equates to a 2.3-2.5% shrinkage for forecasting.

Common Obstacles to Coaching in the Contact Center
So, if there is a “one-to-one” correlation between the amount of time devoted to coaching and the volume of sales—and to a slightly lesser degree, improved customer satisfaction—then why isn’t there more coaching going on? In many organizations, obstacles to coaching include:

Special project or individual contributor work gets more recognition and promotions than brilliant coaching. Something we can fix!
Supervisors are in the wrong job – and don’t like coaching. Something we can fix!
Supervisors are doing busy work you don’t know about – and, if you did, you would eliminate this non-value work. Again, we can fix!
Supervisors are rescuing the failure of another person or department – like an implementation manager. The supervisor often likes being a hero, or heroics are rewarded. We need to fix this because poor performance is being hidden and the reps are the real losers here.
Supervisors have not been taught to decline meetings for which they are not adding value or those that are not properly conducted. Teach supervisors how to decline a meeting nicely and simply ask for minutes.
Email overload. The average supervisor I have interviewed spends between two and four hours a day on email. As leaders, it is our job to get them out of “email hell.”

With respect to the last bullet point, there are a number of good email books on the market, including Never Do eMail First Thing in the Morning and the U.K. bestseller, Send.

When I return to contact centers, even one or two years following one of my Time Management Workshops, supervisors will come up to me and tell me their number is 44 or 48. That is not a sleep number bed rating; it is the number of minutes in which the supervisor is now able to accomplish their daily email. Down from 120 minutes or more before the workshop!

The secret? Usually 60-70% of all emails come from within the department. And fully 40% of the emails you receive are in response to ones you sent! This comes as a surprise to many contact center managers, who would have sworn that it was that darn marketing department or someone outside their world who was sending all those emails.

Tips for Taming Email
Below are my top five tips (out of 20) for controlling the amount of time spent on email:

1. Turn off the email pop-up window and sound effects. Often, new supervisors want to be “the first to know something.”
2. Do email in “bulk,” two or three increments a day. Do not allow email messages for emergencies. That should warrant a phone call, instant message or in person meeting.
3. Decide whether an email is the appropriate medium.
a. If you get an email with: “re:re:re:” then just pick up the phone; email is not the right medium.
b. If the message is emotional, confidential or could be misconstrued, don’t use the email medium.
4. Send better, clearer and more concise emails yourself. Often we now delegate through email, so make sure that everyone knows who is to do what, by when and for what purpose. If you receive a lot of back and forth email to your original communiqué, then you may not be delegating or communicating very well through this medium.
5. Keep it short. Most emails should be no longer than one or two short paragraphs. In fact, many emails can be written in the subject line, and finished by an “EOM” or “end of message.” This way, you save the recipient from even having to open the email.

Once your staff is well on their way to spending no more than one hour a day on email, make sure that they reinvest this time in coaching. The ROI should be fantastic.

If you know your “email number,” share it with me (along with your title) at [email protected]. I will then let our readership know the collective average email number for every level in contact centers in an upcoming article. Mine is 51!

Mary Murcott is the president and CEO of Novo1, American Contact Centers. [email protected]