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Ideas At Work: An Excerpt

By Bob Furniss, Touchpoint Associates; and Scott O. Thomas, Tamer Partners Corp.


Bob Furniss and Scott Thomas share chapters from their new book 'Ideas at Work,' providing perspectives on improving the frontlines of call centers. Having both started as online agents who made their way through various levels of management, they offer solutions to real problems based on real experience.

Over the past several years, contact centers have become the customer interaction hub for most companies. In order to handle the influx of calls, e-mails and chats, calls centers now have some of the most advanced technology in the world. Customer relationship management (CRM) systems track customers from their first click on the Web to their latest sales or problem resolution. The systems can not only tell the agent who is calling, but what that customer's lifetime value is to the company. Yet, throughout all of this change, one thing has remained the same ' the people in the call centers are still the most important asset of the company.

Companies from Maine to California have realized that contact center agents can not only fix problems but can build relationships with customers ' which can actually make their brand even stronger. If this is true, then companies must continue to find ways to improve agent loyalty, which inevitably will lead to higher customer loyalty. In the book 'Ideas At Work,' we offer simple yet effective ways to manage people in the challenging environment of turnover and change. Having both started as agents before working our way through the management ranks, we set out to create a book that offers ideas that can be implemented at the frontlines of the contact center.

This article pulls together three chapters from the book, all of which have a single focus on improving the relationship between the front-line managers and agents.

Just Walking Around
How long has it been since you scheduled time to actually walk the floor of your contact center? You may have walked through the center on the way to your last meeting or when you needed to ask a question about the schedule. But how long has it been since you scheduled an hour or more to just be in the center, to answer questions, say 'hi' to agents or just be visible as a manager, director or executive?

Making a commitment to spend a dedicated amount of time on the floor with the employees is a wonderful idea. Walking through the center looking for opportunities to make positive comments and/or receive input and feedback allows you to see everything that's going on and allows you to listen directly to the employees. Permitting all employees to have direct access to the boss frequently generates high levels of spontaneous, creative synergy.

In the Shakespeare play Henry V, King Henry goes out among his men on the eve of the battle to see if they are prepared and willing to fight. When you visit the contact center floor, talk with agents and ask sincere questions. You will quickly learn if they are prepared to talk to customers, and you'll hear what your customers are saying. You will also have the opportunity to gauge the mood and morale of the team.

As part of a research project, we asked agents in a call center what they wanted most from their managers. The overwhelming answer was, 'More time.'

If you manage a center with many supervisors, try this idea: go to the local sporting goods store and purchase a pedometer for each of your supervisors. You know ' that little device that counts your steps and tells you how far you've walked. Now, talk with your supervisors about the importance of spending time on the contact center floor. Challenge them to 'walk a mile' with their people. At the end of the day, have them check in with their mileage for the day.

Let's go back to Shakespeare. In the play, King Henry returned to his tent knowing his men were ready to fight and setting his own mind in the proper frame to lead them into battle. By encouraging supervisors to 'walk among the troops,' you will prepare them to be better leaders.

What Are You Doing About Your Queue?
One statement heard often in contact centers is, 'How many calls do we have in queue?' We place value and importance on each call and do not want to lose or abandon any of them. Whenever you ask this question in your center, we challenge you to ask yourself another important question: 'Is there anything else I have on hold in my life that I don't want to lose?' Don't get us wrong: Managing wait times in the contact center is important. Businesses rely on servicing and selling to customers, and if they are abandoned, an opportunity is missed. There should definitely be a sense of urgency in the contact center. But for now, let's use this concept of abandonment as an illustration for other areas of your job or even your life.

First, if you are managing a contact center, you will have people reporting to you, either directly or indirectly. These employees have their own queues for you. They are the queues for spending time with you in feedback sessions, one-on-one sessions or just casual conversation. Now think about the last time you analyzed their hold times. Do you know how many of them were abandoned because of extremely long wait times? For the same reasons we don't want our customers to hang up, we want to keep this from happening to our employees. We believe there is a direct correlation between employee retention/satisfaction and customer retention/satisfaction.

In a conversation with an executive at a client's office, we talked about the need to reach people. Clayton Howe, the director of Toll Programs and Service at North Texas Toll Authority explained, 'If you aren't taking care of a customer, you better be taking care of those who take care of the customers.' This type of culture became so important in this organization that all employees ' from agents to executives ' were trained and certified in effective coaching. The return on this training was that people actively sought out and delivered timely and relevant feedback to each other, regardless of what level or position of power. Clayton went on to say, 'As a believer of the inverted org chart, with the customer on top as the highest priority and the people that touch the customer as the next priority and so on, my only purpose is to take care of those who take care of my top priority. Managers must model the sense of urgency in serving that they wish for the customers. Even the most motivated and engaged employee will lose faith if he or she does not feel valued and appreciated.'

What a great way to outline priorities. Think about the things that drive us crazy when they happen to a customer. Now, contrast that with the things we often do or say to our employees. Would we ever tell customers we are 'too busy' to help them? Ask them to stay later than we originally planned and then forget to thank them? Yet, these breakdowns with our agents are often observed and processed by our frontline team members.

Most organizations have two customer service training sessions for their employees. The first one is usually in a classroom and typically occurs during a new employee's first week. This course will cover all of the critical components of service: empathy, tone, problem solving, etc. Upon graduation, the employee enters into his or her second training session. It is not in a classroom, but instead occurs in the daily interactions with the employee's manager. This is not necessarily a bad thing unless the manager interaction lacks all of these same key ingredients: empathy, tone, problem solving, etc. This is why it's so important to manage your employee queues. To do so, let's think about how we handle call queues in the contact center. We use software or spreadsheets, pen and paper or even a calculator to forecast calls and schedule agents. Forecasting is also a great first step in improving your employee queues. Take a look at your required number of observations: when reviews take place and how many people need a one-on-one session in any given month. When you have all of the data, look at your calendar and begin scheduling time with each of your employees.

Another great way to gather data is to survey your employees. Ask them how accessible you are. Let them know you strive to handle their concerns in the same way they handle your customers' concerns. Ask them for suggestions on how to improve their wait times. Find out how many 'contact channels' you have and look at the queues in each of them. Do your employees tend to e-mail, call, leave a note or walk over to your office most often? Have you let them know the best ways to contact you, depending on the nature of their needs?

The next thing to do is expand this concept to the rest of your business:

' How are your other queues?
' Do you have other internal customers to deal with? Other departments?
' Are their 'hold times' satisfactory?
' Do you thank them for holding?
' Most important, what are your personal queues?

Team Meetings ' PROOF Your Performance!
Team meetings in a contact center are the most important communications tool available. If you hear your agents saying that no one ever tells them anything, then you may want to find out how effective their team meetings really are.

We were surprised when we recently attended a series of team meetings in a client's contact center. The supervisor's team meetings were less than effective because the supervisors had not really prepared. Holding an informal meeting in which agents are encouraged to participate is great, but the supervisor or manager still needs to have a plan for what the meeting is supposed to accomplish.

The best way to prepare for meetings is by creating a detailed agenda. The meeting should be interactive and allow agents to ask questions and confirm direction. At the same time, the meetings should be structured and not just a time to sit around and talk. The meeting is a great time for the supervisor to lead the team through effective communication. It is also important to recognize success!

Here is an outline that has proven to be effective in contact centers across America. Use the acronym PROOF to plan for your next meeting.

' Policies. Discuss changes and new procedures. Tell more than just the 'what.' Also tell them 'why' and the impact that the change will have on the customer.

' Recognition. Recognize achievement both as a group and individually (quality scores, commendation letters, etc.). Make this fun and find a way over time to include everyone.

' Operations. Discuss metrics and how they relate to the company, to the group and to the agents. We are constantly surprised at how many agents really do not understand what the numbers mean ' to them, to the center and to the company.

' Outlook. Discuss what is planned for the next month. Discuss how the plans relate to them (special programs, special schedules, etc.).

' Feedback. Encourage questions from agents. Ask for feedback on items discussed and on any newly implemented ideas. Use this time to really listen to their concerns. If you don't know the answer, make sure you find out and cover it in the next meeting.

Although the concepts may be simple, these ideas will help your managers create a better relationship with your frontline employees.


Bob Furniss, President of Touchpoint Associates, (news - alerts) works with organizations that want to increase productivity and profits by bringing out the best in their people.

Scott O. Thomas is a Senior Partner with Tamer Partners Corporation, (news - alerts) which works with clients to design strategies and implement effective solutions in sales and service organizations.

'Ideas At Work' can be purchased at www.touchpointassociates.com (news - alerts).

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