Mar 9, 2011

[Call Centers] Tips For First Time Leaders

In the call center world, everyone wants to get away from the phones. It's a basic fact of life - we all start in the industry thinking that we won't be agents forever and so our phone period is a finite, limited little creature. Last week I talked about the two main career paths one can take in order to move on up. Today I wanted to spend some time talking about leadership, something that is highly important in Operation and still relevant in Support as you get promoted to more important roles.

The call center industry in the Philippines is very young when compared to other countries. Anyone who can claim to have upwards of ten years of local call center working experience are either among the first agents to take calls when the call centers started setting up in earnest or is lying.

Flickr: miscellaneous chemistry - My Asshole Boss
My Asshole Boss
by Christine Bell / miscellaneous chemistry via Flickr.

But the exponential growth of call centers over the past 5-10 years has resulted in a lot of hasty promotions given the lack of experienced or qualified leaders in the market. While most companies have some sort of leadership training program in place, intervention isn't always timely and the number of untrained leaders out there still outnumbers the experienced ones. and these are the same people that we entrust to drive the company's core business each and every day.

While everyone recognizes the importance of leadership training, not everyone seriously invests in it. And by invest, I don't just mean whether or not the company has a dedicated leadership development team churning out classes and self-study training modules. I'm also referring to giving these people the necessary time to actually train and take these courses before they take on their new job. Instead, the industry largely relies on a lot of ad hoc mentoring programs where new leaders learn the ropes while on the job, thus taking the term "hitting the ground running" to a whole new level.

The consequences of inexperienced leaders handling a team of 12-20 agents right off the bat can be pretty dire including poor performance, increased attrition rates and potentially labor cases against the company should you go to the extreme.

Thus the point of this entry - an opportunity for me to discuss a few key leadership guidelines that might help first time leaders in the absence of training. Reading this post is no miracle pill (nor is training for that matter), but your willingness to change and improve yourself as a leader is a great step in the right direction.

First, more background information about myself to help assure you I'm not just some random blogger shooting from the hip. I've been handling people in a supervisory / managerial capacity since 2004 in both Operations and Support roles. More importantly, I've also been in Training for a good five years and that includes experience running leadership development training along with directly working with other supervisors to refine their skills. It's been an interesting learning experience for me as well given I started as a leader without the formal training I was referring to in my introduction.

So yes, I've been down in the trenches without a gun just like you and I've had my fair share of mistakes over the years. Experience is a harsh teacher, but then it can be pretty effective as well. Hopefully you'll get more development opportunities than I did those many years ago, thus putting you ahead of the curve instead of struggling to keep up.

Flickr: antitezo - work hard work together
work hard work together
by the future is unwritten / antitezo via Flickr.

Figure Out Your Main Leadership Principle
Call me a little idealistic given my first tip, but I seriously believe this is an important first step. You're going to have to make a lot of decisions that don't quite fit any pre-existing models in the course of your management career and it helps to have a guiding principle that you take to heart. For example, I always remind myself that People Are Important, which sounds like a no-brainer but it's really helped me out of a lot of problems. Your principle can be a saying, motto or quote that you find especially meaningful. But don't pick one at random - this has to be truly important to you. This marks the proverbial line in the sand that you won't cross, otherwise you know you're going the wrong way in your life. This principle will become the foundation for your integrity in the workplace as perceived by your peers and your subordinates, so choose wisely. When your internal moral compass starts to get confused, you need to be able to clear your mind, recite your principle in your head, and come to a decision that you can live with for the rest of your working life.

Flickr: mattscoggin - Ray Flash Test
Ray Flash Test
by mattscoggin via Flickr.

Develop Leadership Styles, Not A Single Type
In leadership training, there's always an exercise to help you identify the kind of leader that you are. A lot of people confuse this as setting in stone the kind of leader you are and thus that's how you behave all the time for now on. Your principles define who you are, but leadership styles and approaches can change based on the situation. People are annoyingly unique and complex individuals - you need to approach each in a manner that is appropriate to them or relevant to the nature of your encounter. For example, you can be very hands-off for a highly proficient and experienced agent but will need to be stern and uncompromising for someone with a history of slacking off or poor performance. Sometimes you need to be the open ear so the agent can vent their problems at home which are affecting their work performance. Sometimes you need to take a few steps back and avoid being overly friendly with your team. Understanding the importance of putting on different hats and changing how you respond to the needs of different individuals is crucial to your success.

Flickr: kingston99 - Motivation
by Peterjon Smith / kingston99 via Flickr.

People Motivate Themselves
When people indicate on their resumes that they are skilled at motivating people, it's always interesting to hear them try to support this with evidence during the interview. In the end, most will just tell me that "they motivate their agents to do better", as if using the verb is enough to explain. By experience, I find that people only motivate themselves and your role as a leader is to figure out what that motivation lever is. You can't force them to do anything - most people only do what they want to do. However if you take the time to know the person better, understand their personal goals, dreams and aspirations, then you'll find your lever. If you can answer the question, "Why is my agent working?" then you're on the right track. The trick becomes explaining to them how their performance directly impact those personal goals, whether it means not having enough money to send their siblings to school or saving up for that house that they've always been dreaming of.

ACJ Conference - "Crossings" - 3
by Dauvit Alexander / the justified sinner via Flickr.

Show Rather Than Tell
Most agents get promoted to higher roles based on their performance alone. The thinking behind that is that a person who is already excelling at the job will probably have good ideas to share with other agents to get them performing better too. However, they usually don't know how to explain their tips and tricks well or sometimes their methods just don't work for certain agents. Thus coaching degenerates into sad sessions where the team leader simply states "you need to bring your sales conversion up" or "you're below goal for your CSAT this month", as if stating the obvious is going to help them do better. People naturally want to better themselves, but you need to be able to show them how. If you can't think of a better way for an agent to handle a certain situation or call scenario, then you'll never gain their respect when you tell them to do better. Agents are always evaluating your effectiveness as a team leader or supervisor, and the only way to prove it is to show them how to do it right and better yet, show them how to do it right as well.

Flickr: assbach - 9: Lack of support keeps dragging
9: Lack of support keeps dragging
by assbach via Flickr.

Ask For Help; You Need to Grow, Too
Just because you got promoted means that you're king of the hill and that you no longer need help. In fact, you need more help than ever in your new role and you need to have people you can trust to give you that assistance. "Help" can mean anything ranging from someone to act as a sounding board for your ideas to a manager who sits down with you once a week to discuss your challenges and provide recommendations. Even better if this means formal training as well, but no amount of classroom time will replace one-on-one time with another manager who can provide practical, real-life examples appropriate to your job function. Just because you're a leader doesn't mean you don't need coaching and development. And if your company isn't providing you the support you feel you need, this either means that you should personally invest in your development by reading business books or attending seminars on your own or perhaps it's time to consider whether or not this is really the kind of company you want to work for.

I have a lot of other things I wanted to write about, but I think these are the core ideas that every new leader should work on when they first take on the role of supervisor. Remember, everyone wants to do well and your job is to figure out how to make them want to do the right thing without telling them to it directly. As much as the end goal is to empower everyone to make their own decisions, in the beginning you need to first equip them with the skill of understanding what is right in terms of the company's goals and metrics.

Should you have questions, comments or feedback on this entry, feel free to leave a comment below. Also, if you have other questions that you might want to ask as a call center professional feel free to let me know as well and I'll see what I can do in terms of writing a formal response as an entry in the future.

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