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5 Ways the Role of Supervisor is Changing

Some predicted the decline of supervisors in today’s contact centers ... but is that what’s really happening?

A long time ago in contact center years—January of this year, I believe—I ran across a blog post from an industry consultant who predicted we’d see flatter contact center organizations in the months and years ahead. I’m 100% supportive of and applaud the author’s encouragement to eliminate unnecessary layers and create better collaboration across functional departments. But one of the supporting predictions is that front line managers (supervisors) would become less important in well-run contact centers, and that their numbers would, proportionally, decline in the years ahead.

What are you seeing? Would you agree?

Rewind the clock a decade or more, and it was even easier to find executives and industry pundits predicting much the same. The usual rationale, couched in discussions of flattened hierarchies and team-oriented structures, was that because agents and teams were becoming more empowered, the need for supervisors would decline. 

We’re just not seeing that happen. Studies from ICMI and others confirm there are more supervisors today (proportionally and in real numbers) than ever. With today’s developments—emerging channels, the proliferation of social and mobile, the competitive importance of customer relationships, and the wide range of generations our customers represent, to name a few—supervisors have become increasingly important to the contact center’s success. But there’s a big footnote: The role of supervisor today is much more about development, communication, coordination than any industrial-era vestiges of command and control.

Currently, it’s typical to find ratios between 8 and 12 agents per supervisor. That’s down from the 12 to 20 range of the past. There are, of course, significant differences by vertical and type of service; e.g., technical support centers may have as few as four or five support agents per supervisor while reservations centers and catalog companies tend to be higher than the average. But anyway you slice it, the role of supervisor is as important and prevalent as ever.  (See pie chart, assembled by ICMI Associate Laura Grimes, reflecting the typical breakdown of supervisor time in a well-functioning contact center.)

Call Center Supervisor Time 

Typical Breakdown of Supervisor Time in Well-Functioning Contact Center. Source: ICMI Research.

So, why were the predictions largely wrong, even as some of the rationale, e.g., flatter organizations, and the growth of teams, has proven correct? Most contact center managers point to growing complexity and variety in the workload, along with greater emphasis on first call resolution. But there is another overarching factor at work: high-performance centers have significantly upgraded and expanded the responsibilities of supervisors. Five notable trends include:

1. Mentoring high-performing agents. Investing time in coaching and mentoring your organization’s most proficient agents may sound counterintuitive. But by doing so, you are inherently cultivating your next crop of supervisors and managers. The best-managed organizations get this, and don’t leave high performers without the development time they deserve.

2. Leveraging coaching into broader improvements. Monitoring and coaching remain the most time-consuming activities for many supervisors (some do both, some have QA groups that do the monitoring). But they are cautious against making improvements one agent at a time (the "personal trainer" approach), and instead spend relatively more time working with their peers in other areas to improve training, knowledge management, communication and procedures throughout the organization—the stuff that impacts everyone.

3. From enforcing to enabling adherence. There's a big difference between supervisor as traffic cop and supervisor as liaison who works with both the agent teams and those who do the planning and scheduling, to make sensible decisions and adjustments.

4. Participating in workload planning. When supervisors are, in turns, looped into forecasting, scheduling and other planning processes, they not only contribute their perspective, they also gain a better understanding of the factors that contribute to service level and quality. As a result, they more effectively supervise their teams.

5. Voice of the customer and strategy. As more contact centers capture and use customer and agent input to shape products, processes and services, supervisors are taking a more active role in organization-wide improvement efforts. This trend will continue as contact centers become increasingly important hubs of communication for internal and external customers.

These developments haven't left the managers that supervisors report to, with less to do! In forward-thinking organizations, these positions are also assuming more strategic importance—e.g., in strategy, building customer relationship-oriented processes, collaborating with colleagues across the organization and developing up and coming leaders. 

In my view, these are exciting developments! They reflect the growing complexity of contact centers and their elevated impact on their organizations’ success.

Please drop me a note with your stories, comments, feedback… I’d love to hear from you.

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