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Coaching a Struggling Team

As a community, we talked a lot about coaching late last year. How does it differ from quality monitoring? Who should be doing it, and how? When is it better to coach and empower and trust (vs. when to script and create protocols and manage your team to compliance)?

Looking forward to the year ahead, and beyond, these questions come secondary to one difficult but unavoidable question: should a machine be doing our agents’ work?

Peer coaching

Let’s Get the Machine Conversation Out of the Way

That “should” is tricky, because the answer will vary depending on your priorities.

For instance, it may be ‘yes’ from a cost perspective, as, despite the upfront time and money required, building and maintaining an automated response system will cost less time and money in the long run than continuing to hire, train, retain, and replace staff. But it may be ‘no’ from a customer experience and professional development perspective, as there will always be an element of human interaction required, and without your team getting lots of practice in simpler situations, they won’t be equipped to handle more complicated and/or delicate interactions capably and professionally.

Cost and professional development aren’t the only considerations, though. The agent vs. automation decision needs could be informed by a number of priorities, from customer preference (when do they want to self-serve vs. when do they want to be served?) to volume (should the default be a trained professional but during seasonal peaks, automation is used to triage?) to continuous improvement (if the virtual assistant is equipped with machine learning capabilities, does that help you engage customers on other channels? Or is it more valuable to have manually-developed but translate-able best practices?), to name just a few.

If the answer is ultimately yes, a machine should be doing this job, then you don’t need to worry about coaching. Build out the help documentation necessary and start looking into vendors for a virtual assistant or chatbot that can best approximate the experience you are trying to provide for your customers and prospects.

If the answer is ultimately no, this job should be done primarily or exclusively by humans, then it’s relevant to continue with our initial questions about scripts vs. guidelines and peer coaching vs. manager coaching.

Scripts vs. Guidelines

OK, you’ve determined that a machine should not be doing this job.

That means that the processes you design and maintain and continuously improve upon needs to be not only developed with humans in mind, but adapted with an awareness of the nuances of your particular team(s) and the customers they serve.

This aligns with much of what ICMI community members offer as advice to one another. Our community tends to focus on empowering agents rather than on managing to scripts, which makes sense. If you are looking to nurture and retain excellent customer service employees, you need to treat them like valuable resources and not robots executing scripts.

That said, one of the most frustrating things about managing a struggling team is that when your investment in staff does pay off, those resources often don’t stick around, and another company benefits from your hard work with that employee. It can be tempting to set expectations at what the budget ceiling seems to be, as cultivating talent that you can no longer afford is Greek mythology-level torture. But you have to resist that temptation and suffer through that torture. Managers burn out just like agents do, and if you let yourself become the kind of boss who operates under an expectation ceiling, you’ve stunted your career growth potential.

But this isn’t just about you or your team. Unless the candidates you are hiring are ill-suited to customer service roles, or your training is woefully inadequate, your customers would probably prefer live human interaction to a human-facilitated FAQ form. From the customer perspective, guidelines seem preferable to scripting, as well.

But, let’s not kid ourselves: assessing the effectiveness of guidelines is messier and more time-consuming than A/B testing scripts. It’s more time-consuming for agents to have a real conversation than to select a pre-written, mostly relevant message. And if we’re serious about empowering agents, that means offering ongoing coaching, not merely set-it-and-forget-it guidelines.

Where is the time for all of this supposed to come from?

Manager Coaching vs. Peer Coaching

Being a leader means understanding your team’s goals and inspiring the rest of the team to contribute their best towards achieving those goals. This is not a one-person job!

Culture and morale is a huge part of customer service management for this very reason. How can your team, collectively, create and maintain the environment most conducive to their own success?

At the end of December, the #ICMIchat community shared some great tips about doing this well. Coaches (including peer coaches) need to bank positive emotional deposits to earn the right to give constructive input that will be heard and responded to in earnest. Additionally, the right questions can equip an agent to develop their own internal coach. You can find a summary of these tips in this 2-minute video.

But what if you don’t trust any of your agents to serve effectively as peer coaches?

You need to fix that problem. The team under your direct, constant supervision will never perform as well as the team that is equipped to help itself out.

Even setting team performance aside for a moment, for your own sanity, to avoid burning out, start training someone to take some of this burden off of you. Start building the capacity with just one agent, if you don’t feel comfortable doing this for your whole team at the same time.

If you are not planning to replace your agents with machines, you need to start helping them to develop into effective peer coaches- for their sakes, for your own sake, and for your customers’ sakes!