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Contact Center Lessons from Basketball

Basketball on courtNo matter what business you're in, you can learn a lot about leadership and people development from great sports coaches.

When you hear great basketball coaches (and players) talk about the game, you'll find they often talk less about results and more about effort and execution. That’s because they understand that while a good outcome can sometimes result from a bad process, good processes far more often result in good outcomes. You can get lucky on a bad shot, but if you always take good shots, you don't need to rely on luck.

“When you win, sometimes it overshadows a poor performance” – Mike Krzyzewski

Easily, the biggest mistake made by people in their first supervisory role is placing too much focus on the numbers (like wins and losses) and ignoring the drivers of those numbers - behaviors. Sports, much like contact centers, have so many metrics that measure success that we can forget that the stats are mostly a reflection of the effort and execution.

Let's start the year off by taking wisdom from some of the greats of basketball and applying it to contact centers:

Goal Setting

“I’m a firm believer in goal setting. Step by step. I can’t see any other way of accomplishing anything.” – Michael Jordan

Speaking of stats, you should regularly set goals with agents by identifying a few KPIs that can improve. As you agree on a goal for each KPI, the important part is to explore how they will achieve this. What behavior will they need to start, stop, or improve to create the desired outcome? Keep it simple - if you are setting goals for 3 KPIs, focus on no more than 3 behaviors.

Skill Building

"Our emphasis is on execution, not winning." – Pat Summitt

Skill building is an extension of training. When you've identified someone who doesn't know how to execute a particular skill (or doesn't know how to execute as expected), you need to teach them and give them an opportunity to practice. During these sessions, while you focus on the skill, be sure to tie the skill performance to a KPI. When agents have goals, showing them how executing a skill proficiently can help them achieve their goals will increase both buy-in and commitment.

Setting Expectations

"You can't meet expectations you don't have." – Sue Bird

You know what you expect, but does your team know what you expect? Do they know when or how often they’re supposed to use these skills you’ve worked on developing? You don't have a team full of mind readers, so you need to clearly communicate your expectations to your team. Once you've communicated with them, be sure to gain commitment to meeting them. You've already set goals, so keep your expectations focused on behaviors.

ProTip - document conversations about your expectations so you can easily determine if you've set them with a particular person in the past or not. A follow up email recapping the expectations might be sufficient.

Quality Reviews

“Coaches can talk and talk and talk about something, but if you get it on tape and show it to them, it is so much more effective” – Larry Bird

Showing and practicing are one thing, but reviewing actual performance is an entirely different way for agents to reflect on how they are implementing their skills in a live environment. It also removes the "this isn't real" aspect of role-playing because you can reflect on an actual interaction. It's also possible to "go to the tape" of other teammates who can demonstrate proper execution of a particular skill.

Follow Up

“I will very rarely judge how we play from a good or poor standpoint on whether or not the ball goes in the hole. Obviously it makes it hard to win when you don’t make shots, but we need to keep shooting it.” – Bill Self

A lack of success can very quickly lead to not wanting to make further attempts, whether it's shooting the ball or trying to overcome an objection on a potential sale. But good coaches remind their team to keep taking shots even when they're not falling in because that's the only way to score. This is also a time they can quickly iron out any flaws in execution on the fly. Just like a shooter might be releasing too late or not get their feet set, an agent might be late trying to overcome an objection or not be positioning it quite right for maximum effectiveness.


“Praise behavior that you want repeated” – Dean Smith

Far too often, contact center coaches focus on mistakes and opportunities rather than on praising and reinforcing what works. Another common mistake is putting all your praise into the achievement of goals (KPI success) rather than the repeatable behaviors that led to that success. Great culture and great performance start with consistently recognizing the things you want your team to continue executing that will lead to success!


“There are only two options regarding commitment…you’re either in or you’re out. There’s no such thing as life in-between” – Pat Riley

Expectations are only useful if people are doing what they can to meet them. If you're skilling someone up, following up so they keep priorities top of mind and celebrating success, you won't often have to have difficult conversations. But sometimes, you must remind people of their commitments so they don’t end up on the bench.