ICMI is part of the Informa Tech Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them. Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.


Inside Outsourced: Training Day

This week’s episode begins with Todd telling Tonya and Charlie about how hard his team works. Charlie warns him about burning them out, and offers to trade some of his agents for Todd’s to shake things up. We then see Charlie take out some trading cards with his agents’ faces on them, since he can’t remember any of their names. Yeah, don’t think he’s the best person to take management advice from.

Tonya, on the other hand, offers a more meaningful solution. She says how she takes her agents out to go bowling every couple of months to boost morale. Todd really likes that idea and decides to take his agents on a team-building retreat.

Inside the call center, we see Asha unloading one of her calls on Madhuri, since she just got a call from her fiancé. Madhuri is pretty upset about this, since she was about to go on break. But any tension is soon dissolved as Todd announces the big getaway he has planned for everyone. He explains the point of a retreat – doing some team-building exercises, getting motivated and just having fun. Of course, Rajiv has to point out that, typical of Todd, it’s just an excuse to get out of work.

While the gang is on the way to the retreat, their train breaks down. With no sign of it starting up anytime soon, Todd decides to have everyone do the training exercises right on the train. The first exercise he has them do is called the human knot, involving everyone going in a circle, grabbing someone else’s hands, and then trying to untangle themselves. The team struggles with this, partly because they’re on a crowded train, but also because of Rajiv’s refusal to cooperate.

Frustrated, Asha lets go, causing the rest of the group to give up. After this debacle, the team starts unloading all of their pent up frustrations with their co-workers. One agent is accused of leaving fish curry in the office fridge, Madhuri is called out for leaving passive-aggressive signs around the office, and Gupta is demonized for bragging each time he makes a sale. Asha steps in to calm everyone down, but the agents all turn on her and say how she dumps her work on everyone else to talk to her fiancé.

With Todd unsure of how to patch things up, Rajiv steps up and actually offers him some advice. He explains to Todd that if the agents have a common enemy, they’ll forget about their squabbles with each other. So, after the train starts up again, Todd says he has a new team-building exercise; this one is about trust. He tells the agents to put their wallets in his backpack, because he’s going to buy everyone dinner at the next stop. After everyone gets off the train, Todd stays on and tells the agents that their final exercise is to work together as a team to get home without any money.

Well, the agents end up as stowaways on top of the train. They have all bonded over their disgust with Todd, and they have even forgiven Asha for making them cover for her. On top of that, they realize they’ll be safer on top of the train if they all hold hands and form a human knot, just like they did earlier on the train. So, even though they never got to the retreat, they ended up learning to work together and getting past their petty squabbles. Mission accomplished!

With all this focus on training, who better to get more insight from than ICMI’s panel of training experts: Linda Riggs, Allyson Rollins and Rose Polchin.

Q. While being ostracized by her fellow agents may be punishment enough, Asha clearly wasn’t doing her job. What advice would you give for handling/disciplining an agent who repeatedly dumps their work on others?

Linda: While this is, of course, a comedy show and it’s funny to watch, in most contact centers, Asha’s behavior is grounds for immediate dismissal. Normally, that’s made very clear in orientation. However, there are cases where it’s difficult to prove that an agent is actually avoiding calls, emails and other types of work. Or, there could be a situation where a normally outstanding agent is beginning to show signs of burn-out. A supervisor’s job is to ensure his/her agents are in compliance with company rules and guidelines and to make the agents accountable but also to help improve morale and job satisfaction.

One of the ways to do this is through consistent one-on-one interactions with your agents. Ensure that both the supervisor and agent come prepared to each one-on-one session, not only to discuss quality contacts but also to discuss areas for personal and performance improvement. In cases where blatant issues like call avoidance or passing work on to others are taking place, it’s time to reach out to your HR department and begin a performance improvement plan or dismissal.

Rose: The first step is to confirm that there is in fact a performance concern. The next step is to ensure that you have set clear performance expectations and are consistently communicating and reinforcing them. Then, it would be time to speak directly with the individual involved (in a private place) and, during that meeting, revisit those performance expectations. The goal is to keep the focus on behaviors and not on the person.

And in the context of expectations, the “WHY” behind the “WHAT” is a critical component of that discussion. A two-way dialogue is always best, and during that conversation, we can discuss the answers to questions like: Why we have this expectation that you are available for the customer and take personal calls on your breaks and lunch? What happens when we aren’t available for the customer? What impact does that have on your team members? And what is in it for that person to follow the procedure? And, of course, we need to get agreement on next steps and then follow up and reinforce.  (For more advice on coaching, check out ICMI's upcoming Contact Center Coaching course.)

Q. Do you think team-building exercises are helpful for call center agents? What types of activities would you recommend?

Linda: They most definitely can be. But, remembering that adults need to know why they are being asked to do something and how it’s relevant to their jobs, it’s important to explain ahead of time what the goal or objective of the exercise will be. It’s also important to utilize exercises that can be both fun and instructive. In ‘Outsourced’, Todd has the luxury of taking all of his agents off the phone and going out somewhere. That’s not the usual case for a contact center. Normally, 30 minutes is about all a supervisor gets for a team meeting; and in that meeting, they have to use every minute wisely. Usually, updates and messages from the company or the contact center executives are passed along, kudos for individual/collective performance, issues within the team, etc… must be addressed in the team meeting environment. So, there’s not a lot of time to do a team-building exercise.

That being said, it’s certainly not impossible. For example, to demonstrate “The Power of One” we talk about in our Essential Skills and Knowledge for Effective Contact Center Management class ( also in “Call Center Management on Fast Forward”), a supervisor could utilize the tools at hand in the conference room. Have each agent stand around the conference room table and have the team pick up the table. The table now represents the call volume at any given time. Begin taking agents away from the table for all the various reasons agents get off the phone: training, bio-breaks, personal calls, faxing, etc… the call load becomes heavier as other agents are now expected to have to carry the load for their teammates. The exercise takes less than five minutes, but has proven to be a very powerful way to show how important each member of the team is to the success of the whole.

Allyson: Team building is definitely necessary, as they all will need to support one another throughout any given day. I would recommend any activity outside the office that creates unity. Perhaps a scavenger hunt with prizes for the winning team: something that will leave the employees talking for weeks.

Rose: I think team building is great for any team. That said, I believe part of this challenge Todd faced had to do with selecting activities that were appropriate for his team. While I know there are many books and articles that outline various team-building exercises, I would like to suggest some guidelines you should consider as you select and facilitate a team-building exercise.

Consider the overall objective of the team-building exercise. It is helpful to figure out where the team is in the team development process. I’d like to share a great model by Bruce Tuckman, which involves four stages: Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing.

  • Forming: When the team is new and/or has a new team member, an exercise like ”Get to know you Bingo,” where everyone gets a Bingo card and tries to find someone who likes to run or any other hobby.
  • Storming: Even though everyone knows each other enough, there may be confusion as to who does what. An exercise that demonstrates the need for collaboration and trust building would be critical.
  • Norming: When everyone knows the other team members and what they do, you can reinforce these roles and guidelines with an exercise that focuses on celebration of successes.
  • Performing: Asking the team what activity they’d like to engage in and/or one that challenges the team in new ways would be effective.

When facilitating the team building activity be sure to make it safe (physically and emotionally), make sure the purpose is clear and the activity is relevant and make sure that feedback is heard and valued. The final component is to ensure that a debriefing is done and that everyone has a chance to discuss what they learned from the exercise.

Q. Rajiv told Todd that the agents would come together as a group if they had a common enemy. While this strategy actually ended up working, do you have any tips for building group cohesion that don’t involve turning people against you?

Linda: It’s vitally important that the team understands how a contact center operates. It is a very unique environment. If the agents don’t understand the metrics, they won’t understand why the things they can control (quality and adherence) are so important. It’s also important for them to understand that each individual is a crucial component of the team.

Allyson: Trust and respect are big factors for cohesion; if they do not exist, then there will be problems. Every employee wants to be recognized. Even if it is for something small, they want to be treated fairly. If an individual feels they are being recognized and treated fairly, then trust and respect will build.