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Contact Center Coaching Catastrophes: #ICMIchat Rundown

Women coaching 

Our vibrant community of contact center professionals convened on March 3, 2020 to discuss one of a leader's most important roles: coaching. Our experienced practitioners shared many fabulous ideas for coaching agents to achieve their fullest potential.

Join us for #ICMIchat again next Tuesday at 1 p.m. Eastern, 10 a.m. Pacific on Twitter.

Endearing Leadership

I kicked off this week's chat with an icebreaker question about our participants' fondest memories of good bosses. Here's what they had to say about the special leaders who've touched their lives:

Jeremy Watkin started us out strong by saying, "The best leaders help me see the way forward when my vision is foggy. I would be honored and humbled to be that person for someone else!"

Kyle added, "The ability to drive potential without being explicit. Allowing my employees to find their best version, organically."

Trust and empowerment were also key themes among our contact center leaders. Leslie O' Flahavan shared, "The best boss I ever had trusted my work and enjoyed me. That was a great feeling!"

Carrie Bennett tells us that "my best boss asked my opinion and truly listened to my ideas (and wasn't afraid to say 'no' when necessary). I so very much miss working for her."

Eric P. Rhodes said, "The best leader I ever had spent 2 hours with me on day one giving me the lay of the land, his direction, and left us with this message: 'Know that I have 100% implicit trust in you today. The only way to lose that trust is to not to deliver on your work.'"

Lauren Volpe said of how she felt with her best boss: "Feeling empowered to always do the right thing for our #customer and knowing if I made a mistake she'd back me up!"

Jason Curtis said "the boss I currently have is great. Gives me space to do what I need to do but is there if I need support. Honest, direct."

Sheri Kendall mixed it up a little, stating that a great boss delivers "accountability with a splash of kindness and trust."

Empathy and understanding are always important to Jenny Dempsey, who gave a shoutout to one of our own: "Best manager I've ever had @jtwatkin. His empathy and harmony are traits that I try to emulate when in difficult situations."

Danny Rehbein noted that humor is an admirable quality, too: "In my opinion, a good sense of humor - a quality I admire - is part of having excellent communication skills. I don't mean acting like a jokester, but rather the ability to inject the occasional witty statement, just enough to keep things sizzling."

Coaching Defined

I asked our contact center and customer experience leaders to share what coaching meant to them. Many said that it starts by assessing the current state.

Eric told us, "Performance coaching is to first assess and/or understand the ability of the team or persons you are coaching. Then put them in positions to succeed while giving them opportunities to up-level along the way."

Troy White adds, "Performance coaching is helping someone be the best person they can be, even when the person themselves doesn't see it."

Jeremy commented that "it's helping the person you're coaching see YOUR vision for THEIR very best and walking alongside them to help them achieve it."

Sheri emphasized the intentionality of coaching by saying, "Performance Coaching is an intentional coaching conversation with the goal of development and action planning of another. This process is only effective if trust has been built and compassion is present."

Danny highlights that coaching is facilitation, not a direction: "#PerformanceCoaching is facilitating the conversation, encouraging to explore, equipping to succeed, enabling to learn, and empowering to try. It is 𝙉𝙊𝙏 telling, controlling or judging. Coaching ≠ Managing"

Does Coaching Have a Bad Name?

One contact center leader shared with me his displeasure for the word coaching because sometimes it's a euphemism for discipline or correction. I wanted to see what the rest of the community thought about this common term.

Sheri shared a personal story about how this word is not always what we intend it to be: "I met with a new agent last week that told me his stomach turned when he heard the word 'coaching'. Previous employers used that term when they intended to write somebody up - no development offered."

Jason Curtis has also seen what the dark side of coaching can do to agent morale: "I do think there are people who say they coach but what they really do is give orders and call it coaching. Just like retention is often referred to as customer service. When reps come to me from another company, they often are floored at what used to call coaching."

Danny was also concerned about misappropriations of the term: "Coaching can only be effective if the employee can trust that the conversation is a 'safe zone'. Performance management for example, must not ever be labeled as 'coaching,' or all trust in the process will be diminished, and with it, its effectiveness."

Leslie agreed that sometimes coaching sessions aren't as advertised: "The word 'coaching' can be a euphemism for 'fault-finding' and 'blaming.' Those actions are never effective, unless the 'coach' is trying to PREVENT the individual's growth and success."

Coached to Tears

It's important to learn from our own experiences, so I asked our contact center cohort if they'd ever received bad coaching from a supervisor. Regrettably, it sounds like many have. In fact, there was more than one report of tears.

Leslie shared, "YES, I've had a bad coaching experience. It was 29 years ago & I still remember it because I WAS CRYING IN MY MANAGER'S OFFICE! My loss of control and dignity made me feel furious. I got upset because she could only explain what I'd done wrong, not how to improve."

Sheri was able to find the silver lining in her bad coaching session, but she recovered, determined to come back stronger than ever: "The worst coaching session of my life was in May 2018. I allowed myself to cry for an hour, reviewed the ‘feedback’, and then began the steps to change my life. That conversation was the catalyst for profound change and it was unnecessarily brutal."

On the lighter side, Lauren reports that not all tears are from bad coaching, "I was getting the coaching and was pregnant and burst into tears even though it wasn't a bad session. Then my manager started crying. Weird and awkward! Then she told me she was pregnant, too!"

Eric offered his first experiences being coached: "Yes! Well, first the person coaching me never did an assessment or had an understanding of what my current skills and future goals were. So the ‘coaching sessions’ became a blame session that was less about me and more about the managers inability to lead."

Coached To Win

While there are bad coaching sessions and coaches in need of training, it can still be a powerful tool to help employees develop to their fullest potential.

Jeremy explains that the support from coaching helps him to try new things: "For me, it's that push that gives me enough confidence to tackle something I've never done before. Sometimes it's advice from the coach but often it's just that vote of confidence."

Danny provided this handy list of coaching tips: Conversations with “all great coaches I've encountered…left me... a) having discovered something I hadn't been aware of b) knowing precisely what to work on c) feeling confident in my ability to do so."

Jason also underscored the importance of data and agreed goals: "When a coaching is good there is good communication. Data has been analyzed. The session is a two-way conversation with mutually agreed upon goals for the next term (weekly, monthly). There is buy-in from both parties and we see growth in the next session."

Coaching Might Improve Retention

Like many activities involving our agents, coaching might be the make-or-break factor that determines whether employees stay or leave the company. Danny kicked off this question by saying, "The biggest driver of #EmployeeEngagement is making your team members understand how their individual contributions are an integral part of something bigger, something meaningful; a larger, compelling vision. Coaching has the power to do that on a daily basis."

Leslie jokes that even average coaching might be better than bad coaching, "We've discussed how damaging many ‘coaching’ experiences can be, so effective coaching might be so rare that it could hugely influence employee engagement and retention, as in '’I stayed at that job because the coaching didn't hurt!'"

Eric adds that, "Good coaching adds to the feeling being in the thick of it together. It can also lend to a culture where people intuitively learn to lift each other up and look for the good in each other. Or more succinctly: 'A rising tide lifts all ships.'"

What Makes Coaching Work

I wanted to know what makes coaching effective, and our participants did not disappoint. Here's a list of Danny's tips: "1.) Clearing the path for managers/team leads 2.) Protected time off-queue/away from regular tasks for coaches 3.) A comprehensive 'Coach the Coach' training program, designed to help the transition to manager-as-coach."

Leslie shared a list of her own to guide successful coaches: "A successful coaching program is frequent, predictable, specific, mutual, and focused on growth. It's employee-centered. It is NOT driven by a scorecard. It provides opportunities for peer support. It's non-competitive."

Zach noted the importance of training for coaches, too: "So many times we promote people into coaching roles and we never teach them how to coach or deal with difficult conversations."

Roy offered his perspective, "Having coaches who understand the team and the objectives and who can speak from a place of empathy. It's not about ‘driving' the team; it's about eliciting the best performance."

Jason keeps it short and sweet: "In no particular order. Consistency. Trust. Buy in. Honesty. Understanding."

Resistant Employees

Not everyone is on board to be coached, perhaps due to some of the experiences we discussed earlier. I wanted to know how a supervisor or leader might approach employees with these hesitations.

Dave reiterated the importance of listening: "Try to find out why. Have they had bad coaching experiences in the past? Am I not giving them what they need? Are they in a period where they're executing well and don't need much coaching? Ask open-ended questions and listen."

Danny provided some good alternatives: "Be transparent about your intentions and what the coaching is supposed to accomplish. Understand where the resistance stems from and own your part of the problem. Be patient, don't force it, but stand your ground. Invite another coach to meet with the team member."

Zach recommended seeking out the causes of resistance: "The root cause can be darn near anything: Stuff outside work, poor coaching experience in the past, business immaturity, fear, lack of fear, etc. Best thing to do is seek out understanding and not take it personally."

Top Advice for New Coaches

I wanted to wrap things up with a pay-it-forward question. Here's what our crew had to say to new coaches about the practice:

Danny: "To be successful at both, you must understand the difference between managing and coaching, when each applies, and how to switch hats. When well-intended coaching conversations turn into management moments, both parties leave frustrated & nothing gets accomplished."

Troy: "Do not take it personal. Not everyone is coachable. I coach little league baseball and I focus my energy on the kids that are COACHABLE."

Zach: "You're in service to the people you coach, and they're not a means to an end. You will learn as much coaching as you will being coached."

Jeremy: "Coaching ≠ Talking. Coaching = Listening + Talking"

Eric: "It's not about you. PERIOD."



Next: People and Skills For Your Team (March 10, 2020)

Join Roy Atkinson (@RoyAtkinson) Tuesday, March 10, at 1 p.m. Eastern, 10 a.m. Pacific, to discuss the talents and skills your team needs to be successful. Here’s a preview of next week’s questions:

  •  Q1: Which is more important: a) A new hire fits your team or b) A new hire brings something additional to your team? Why?
  • Q2: Can previous experience be a negative attribute in a candidate for your team?
  • Q3: What is the number 1 skill or attribute to look for in a candidate right now?
  • Q4: Is the location of your contact center a plus or a minus in the current employment environment?
  • Q5: Which skills were previously important that are no longer relevant in your contact center?
  • Q6: How soon do you expect your agents to be proficient enough to work on their own?
  • Q7: How do you match your skills training with your organization’s planning? For example, if your org is working on a knowledge initiative, how and when do you train your agents for that?
  • Q8: How do you decide if and when it is time for someone to move on when their skills are no longer valuable to the organization?