Training & Development

Coaching Frontline Leaders

Beverley McClure
Beverley McClure
Tim Montgomery
Tim Montgomery

The ability to provide world-class contact center service is directly linked to employees with the right attitude, skills and motivation to deliver during every moment-of-truth interaction. Many companies have developed formal coaching programs targeted at arming frontline agents with the right information and processes to provide service that meets the customer and company requirements. While these programs can improve customer interactions, they often become more routine than effective, resulting in a task to be completed versus an activity that everyone looks forward to.

The short-lived success of most agent coaching programs generally can be blamed on the lack of investment in the frontline supervisors who provide the coaching. The reality is that everyone can use a coach, and in the challenging, labor-intensive call center environment, frontline supervisors need to have just as many, if not more, interactions to help them improve themselves and others.

During our visits with various contact centers, the word “coaching” is often used in conversations with management. However, it isn’t always clear what coaching actually means. The word “coach” is based on the French word “coche,” which describes a vehicle to transport people from one place to another. Within the context of training frontline supervisors, effective coaching brings to light obstacles that prevent managers from taking their employees to world-class service delivery standards on every customer interaction. It’s all about helping frontline supervisors to identify these barriers, finding creative ways to break through them, and then holding them accountable for doing so. In this respect, the leadership coach is in a partnership with the frontline supervisor/coachee and becomes a catalyst for improved results.

According to Vince Lombardi, the most successful football coach of all time, “Coaching fosters a winning attitude by engendering a ‘vision from the bottom up,’ motivating constructively and building accountability and resiliency within the team.”

Lombardi’s view of coaching is simple, straightforward and gets at the heart of the value of coaching supervisors. No matter what type of contact center environment you have, there is a team. It may be well defined, as with a small group handling a specific product, or it may be comprised of hundreds of individuals all answering a variety of questions. The reality of a pooled service environment is that the workload (customer inquiries) is shared among a group of people, a team. Because individual activities do and will impact everyone else on the team, it is important to get all of your supervisors on the same page. That starts with ensuring that they’re involved in the coaching program and are ready to help drive the vision from the bottom up.

Similar to coaching frontline staff, a supervisor coaching program must be approached with discipline and an appreciation for the value that it brings to your supervisors and company. As with frontline coaching, you must make the time to prepare for coaching, set aside time for regularly scheduled sessions, and track your supervisors’ progress toward their coaching goals — and, ultimately, to their team’s desired performance. Keep in mind that, when coaching supervisors, the main emphasis should not be on tracking personal performance — it is getting them to focus on actions to achieve goals that drive the team’s performance. Typically, there are two barriers to doing this: time and skill.

It Starts with an Investment Commitment

Whether you are an experienced coach looking for ways to improve supervisor development, or are in the beginning stages of establishing a formal program, be honest with yourself, your company and your supervisors with regard to the amount of time you’ll need to dedicate to coaching. If you have five direct supervisors reporting to you, and you’re spending less than five hours a week on one-on- ne coaching with your team, then you’re not investing the time needed to provide real returns for your organization. Remember that coaching time is in addition to the other time you spend with supervisors in staff meetings, etc.

We often hear contact center leaders say that they can’t dedicate five hours every week to coaching. Some of their excuses are very creative, but in many cases, the reason they can’t spend time coaching is simply because they haven’t become accustomed to doing so and probably don’t see the value of it. If Lombardi had not pledged his time to helping each one of his players improve their contribution to the team, he wouldn’t have been successful. When you’re not successful, you end up spending a lot more time explaining why you’re not successful, instead of spending it on the activity that makes you successful — growing your frontline leaders through coaching.

In the real-time contact center world, when the results aren’t there, we spend a lot of time trying to fix the metrics at the expense of spending time with our supervisors. Thus begins a cycle that is hard to break. Getting the buy-in from senior management for a coaching program, and the time that is needed, is no simple task. It starts within your own leadership team and getting your peers on board. Spend some time discussing different approaches to coaching, the benefits of spending more time with frontline supervisors, the potential return on the time investment, the impact on the enterprise’s bottom line, and the changes needed to make more time for coaching.

You’ll most likely find that just about every member of your leadership team could make time for coaching if they had fewer administrative activities. You’ll also find that, if these activities were “pooled” (similar to the what you do with the inbound contact center workload), tremendous efficiencies could be gained. Next, turn your attention to the other results, and document all of the wins for the company by moving the administrative tasks from leaders and providing them with time to develop their teams.

Don’t Assume Leaders Know How to Coach Leaders

From there, you’ll need to determine how to formally implement the program in your organization. Too often, programs are implemented without spending the time to train the coaches. You can’t assume that everyone on your staff has the natural ability to coach other leaders effectively. Even your most successful managers can use a “tune-up” from time to time. Since coaching is really a communication process that connects people to performance, two key areas of focus should be on the quality of the relationship between the leadership coach and the coachee, and the ability to guide and influence behaviors that drive performance.

Critical to the coaching relationship is establishing rapport. Since a relationship already exists between the leadership coach and the frontline supervisor, the nuances of an effective “coaching” relationship are:

  • Approachability and being fully present
  • Trust and a safe environment, recognizing that communication may involve personal risk
  • Openness in sharing thoughts, perceptions, and expectations in a way that demonstrates positive intentions behind the candor

Since the desired outcome of any coaching program is to drive performance, the emphasis should be on the skills that guide and influence behaviors that drive performance. Among the most critical are:

  • Reflective listening — for what is said, not said, meant to be said, implied or physically said.
  • Acknowledging and validating — letting coachees know that they have been heard and confirming that their thoughts, feelings, and perspectives are valid.
  • Probing, challenging, and reframing through powerful questioning — being curious by asking open-ended, thought-provoking questions to get coachees to look beyond the obvious and to find fresh perspectives to their thinking.
  • Squashing limiting beliefs — identifying and challenging beliefs and assumptions that negatively impact the leader’s ability to produce desired results.
  • Providing effective and balanced feedback — sharing candid observations and insights with empathy and respect and without judgment.
  • Promoting choice — guiding coachees through the identification of myriad choices in their attitudes and actions.
  • Forwarding action — placing the emphasis on solutions as opposed to problems, and facilitating the movement from where coachees are to where they would like to be.
  • Goal setting and accountability — translating desired action to goals, establishing commitment to goal achievement, and holding coachees accountable to commitments.

While these skills are particularly effective in the leadership coaching, there is also obvious applicability when coaching frontline agents. If the skills are modeled well by the supervisor’s coach, the supervisor will then transfer the knowledge and skills to his or her frontline team, resulting in improved service delivery to the customer.

11 Powerful “What” Coaching Questions

  • What are you trying to accomplish?
  • What’s working well?
  • What’s getting in the way?
  • What results have you achieved so far?
  • What’s your role in the problem/solution?
  • What choices do you have?
  • What is next thing you will do?
  • What’s your plan of attack?
  • What resources do you have at your disposal?
  • What did you do the last time you experienced this?
  • What support do you need from me?

Launching a Leadership Coaching Program

The real implementation starts with all leaders understanding that good coaching is about getting others to want to change the behaviors that are impeding success. A leadership coach doesn’t have to be a subject-matter expert in the specific job task — the focus is on the leadership behaviors, and not the task. Appreciating this distinction is key to successfully coaching leaders. Coaching leaders
is not about telling the individual how to do something; it’s about helping them to figure out for themselves the best way to improve performance. A good way to help your leadership coaches understand their role is to emphasize comparisons between traditional management and coaching, for instance:

  • A boss pushes, a coach supports.
  • A boss tells, a coach listens.
  • A boss knows the answer, a coach facilitates the answer.

Coaching is most effective when there is two-way buy-in to the communication process. This also holds true when developing a formal program. Getting the key people involved in the program’s development and execution will help to gain the internal buy-in and raise the education level of everyone involved.

There are several programs, training manuals and guides for implementing coaching programs on the market. Some are better than others, but most can be helpful in defining the foundation on which to build your program. Because effective leadership coaching in a contact center has a direct impact on the overall service provided, the implementation of a new leadership coaching program should be given the same attention and focus as a new technology implementation — if not more.

Lombardi’s view on coaching began with a simple principle — foster a winning attitude. Each of his players looked to him every day for the inspiration to maintain that attitude. No matter what type of program you develop, its success depends upon the coaches — how they carry themselves and the attitude that they project each and every day.

Everyone in a leadership role needs to understand that, even when you’re not directly interacting with your direct reports, you are coaching through your actions, attitudes and gestures. Your behavior determines how effective you’ll be when it comes time to provide the direct feedback that will inspire your teams. To be a good coach, you have to walk the talk: If everyone doesn’t buy into this concept, the best program in the world will fail because the “vision from the bottom up” will become blurred.

– Reprinted with permission from Contact Center Pipeline,

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