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From Frontline Customer Service to Leadership

When I (Jeremy) was first promoted from a front-line customer service position into leadership, I struggled mightily in a couple areas. The first was in the process of evaluating and coaching my team. Having been in their shoes, I evaluated them by comparing them to my own performance in that same role. This made for some ineffective and sometimes argumentative coaching sessions. The second area where I struggled was in communicating contact center performance to upper management. They wanted me to establish KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) and proactively manage to those and I was much more comfortable reacting to the circumstances that would arise through the course of supporting customers.

In a recent post, Jeff Toister of Toister Performance Solutions shared some compelling research from Zendesk indicating that mid-size companies with 500 to 5000 employees struggle more with customer service than smaller or larger companies. I had the opportunity to discuss this in a hangout with Jeff and share some theories as to why this might be.

In contact centers, the skills that the top representatives exhibit typically include a friendly demeanor with customers, the ability to react quickly to any problem and respond with solutions, and the capacity to process a maximum number of tasks in a reasonable amount of time. The folks that do this well typically are the ones who are eligible for leadership roles as they come available.

Our theory is that mid-size organizations struggle more with customers because many were smaller organizations that rapidly grew and had to quickly promote their top customer service performers into leadership positions. Without proper leadership experience and training, this can be a recipe for some growing pains.


We recently asked customer service professionals who made the jump from the front lines to a leadership role to name the top skill they wish they possessed prior to their promotion.  We were delighted to receive 80 responses, of which 68 (85%) were from our colleagues at FCR.

When asked What’s the number one skill you wish you had learned before you were promoted to a supervisor or manager position the results were fairly well distributed. There are three clear themes we’d like to highlight.

Leadership Research

Leadership Skills

At 28%, it’s clear that the most important skill for leaders in a contact center is the Ability to deal with difficult personalities. This speaks to both the responsibility of handling escalated customer issues and dealing with the variety of personalities represented in the people they supervise. The Ability to effectively manage and coach others at 11% and General leadership skills at 14% means that 53% of respondents crave more tools to lead, manage, and work with others effectively.

Contact Center Technology

Given the high dependency of contact centers on spreadsheets, it’s no surprise that the second highest individual category was Advanced Excel knowledge at 17%. Couple this with the 9% who wanted better Understanding of contact center technology and there’s a clear opportunity to train specific the technical skills required for leadership.

Business Acumen

Another aspect of a transition to leadership in the contact center is the need to be able to communicate effectively with clients and with colleagues in other areas of the business. 11% of respondents believed that a Better understanding of business and finance would help them in these interactions. In addition, 5% wanted a Better understanding of contact center terminology which really speaks to those conversations about KPIs that translate the performance of the contact center to business results.

Equipping Colleagues For Leadership

Now that we understand what some of the challenges are in moving people into leadership roles, here are three things we are doing at FCR to prepare our front line colleagues for leadership roles.

  • Create a coaching culture: We are focusing significant energy and resources on training our existing leadership to coach the right way. Our coaching with compassion model focuses leaders on being coachable themselves, listening deeply to the person they are coaching, and demonstrating a willingness to serve. When our leaders model this type of coaching in this way, we effectively change the culture of our leadership.
  • Build a leadership pipeline: We are identifying our potential leaders at FCR. In addition to producing great work, we look for colleagues possessing excellent communication skills, strong emotional intelligence, humility, and coachability. Once we identify those traits in an individual, we train them.
  • Focused Training: We are training our colleagues for leadership in a few different areas.
    • Exposure to business and technology: Our internal learning management system (LMS) and the thought leadership efforts of our blog and internal newsletter are designed to help future leaders understand key business competencies and important tools like spreadsheets and other contact center technologies.
    • Assign projects above current duties: Future leaders are given opportunities to run cultural events in our centers or complete an extra project to develop abilities in addition to their customer service responsibilities. This also affords them valuable experience building presentations and engaging with clients.
    • Leadership training: Our Leadership training program focuses on the importance of serving those we are leading so they can deliver better service to customers. They are given tools to better understand their colleagues and create a workplace that is motivating and work that is fulfilling.
    • Microlearning: Through tools like our LMS, Lynda.com, and our lending libraries in each of our contact centers, our leaders can learn at their own pace in bite-sized chunks.

While we focused on contact centers in our study, one of our colleagues rightly observed that the move from a task role to management spans a variety of industries. By committing to identifying colleagues who are not only top customer service performers but also have the passion and humility to freely share knowledge and best practices with those they lead, we are demonstrating an investment in the development and well-being of our colleagues.