Keep Your Frontline All-Stars Productive

I have a confession to make. I made a huge mistake. It happened 12 years ago, when I managed the call center training function at a national telecom company. I spent 80 percent of my time coaching the lowest performing 20 percent of my team!

At the time, I just wanted to get my low performers up to an “acceptable” achievement level. However, by focusing most of my time on the bottom 20 percent of my team, I didn’t have enough time left to help the top 20 percent to make an even greater contribution to our company’s success.

I often see managers making the same mistake. The following are the five most common oversights when coaching highperforming agents.

Mistak e #1: Not being able to identify yo ur All-Stars

One of the first questions I ask when I am hired to train a call center is, “Can you name your top-performing call center agents?” I am shocked by the number of companies that are not able to identify their most valuable employees. So how do you know who your best performers are, and how do you rate them? Do you rank agents by their average call quality scores, average handle time, schedule adherence, sales results or post-call customer survey satisfaction scores? Or do you use a combination of factors?

Regardless of the measurements used, you need some method of identifying the members of your call center all-stars. These are the agents you want to groom for promotion to team manager, trainer or help desk, whom you want to reward with developmental opportunities, and whom you absolutely want to retain, once the recession ends and the competition for top performers heats up again.

Mistak e #2: Taking yo ur All-Stars for granted

“Good old reliable Angela” is a great example of this. I worked with Angela at a call center in the mid-1990s. She had excellent schedule adherence, wonderful performance metrics and top call quality scores. She was dedicated and enthusiastic. A perfect all-star agent in any call center. She also had leadership skills, and she wanted to become a team manager.

Unfortunately, Angela was never groomed for a management role. Why? Angela’s manager was thrilled with her performance and took her for granted. Since Angela was steady and required minimal supervision, she also received minimal coaching. Within that coaching vacuum, she became discouraged. No matter how much she developed her skills or how many courses she took or how much she improved herself, she was still viewed as “good old reliable Angela,” dedicated to being on the phone lines forever.

Frustrated but ambitious, she began to look for opportunities elsewhere. Being a top performer, she was quickly hired by another telecom firm, and we lost a great agent and a potentially great team manager.

Don’t assume that your most reliable and dependable performers don’t need attention and recognition for their efforts. Even in a recession, there is always a strong demand for top performers. If you don’t take care of your best people, some other employer will.

Mistak e #3: Not knowing what motivat es yo ur All-Stars

While Angela wanted a promotion, “Steady Cathy” just wanted to do an excellent job as an agent. She was another top performer, but her motivation was different. Cathy loved helping callers. However, she didn’t want a promotion or “enrichment” assignments or career pathing. She liked being an agent.

Ironically, Cathy was a former call center manager. She knew all about the long hours, countless reports and budgeting responsibilities of that position. Now that she had a family, she liked being able to take her last call of the day and leave on time. At this stage of her life, job satisfaction and stability mattered more than promotional opportunities.

Think about the motivational differences between Angela and Cathy. While Angela would have been motivated by promotional opportunities, Cathy just wanted a steady job while she focused on her own personal priorities. Both types of motivation are equally fine within a call center. You need the “high fliers” who want to move into leadership roles; you also need people who like being online and will perform well forever.

In my coaching workshops, I encourage managers to find out what motivates each of their agents. The following questions can help to start such a discussion:

These questions focus on the long-term picture. They are an example of “strategic” coaching, which helps to groom your best people for success, versus “tactical” coaching, which solves a short-term problem.

Mistak e #4: Not coaching yo ur All-Stars

Despite their ability to perform well, your all-stars still require constant coaching if they are to remain top performers. Mike Vance, the former Dean of the University of Disneyland, developed the “conscious competence” model to illustrate the stages of learning. Applied within a call center context, his model shows the lifecycle of a typical agent:

  1. Unconscious Incompetent. Agents in newhire training are still “incompetent” because they have not yet been trained to answer the phone. This incompetence is “unconscious” because the trainees are unaware of the skills that they need.
  2. Conscious Incompetent. Once agents graduate from new-hire training and take their first calls, they become consciously aware of how much more they need to learn.
  3. Conscious Competent. Once agents have been online for a few months, they reach the stage where they are good at their job, and conscious of the techniques they use to handle client calls.
  4. Unconscious Competence. Here is the stage where veteran agents start to slip. After several months or years on the job, agents can go on auto-pilot. They are no longer consciously aware of the fundamentals, so bad habits begin to develop. This is the stage where coaching can help a veteran top performer stay sharp.
  5. To keep veteran agents from slumping, they need to be made consciously aware of their strengths through coaching so that they continue to perform at an all-star level.

Mistak e #5: No career path for ambitious All-Stars

Most centers have a well-defined performance management path for poor performers, up to and including dismissal. But how many have a well-defined career path for their highperformers? As we saw with Angela, you may lose your best people if you do not have a career progression system in place.

Let’s take the case of Tony, another topperformer. “I want YOUR job,” Tony said during new-hire training. Although he had not yet taken a call, he knew that he wanted to become a trainer. Six months after going online, Tony achieved his goal — but not in our center. Since the center did not have a career path in place for top performers, he moved to the sales department. It was a huge loss for us because Tony had become an excellent trainer.

Every center needs a career path to help ambitious top performers develop into team managers, quality assurance coaches, trainers and help desk personnel. Agents can be rotated through the inbound, outbound, retention and help desk queues to keep them fresh and give them a solid background in the call center. Grooming a pool of potential team managers makes it easy for you to promote from within. It will keep morale up and show that top performance gets rewarded.

I certainly learned my lesson 12 years ago. After spending my first year as a manager coaching poor performers, I invested most of the following year into grooming my top performers for future success. I’m proud to say that Karen, one of the best people on my team, really blossomed after receiving more responsibility and a chance to contribute. Her career progressed from being a trainer, to a team manager, to sales manager — and now she is the call center senior manager. Karen always had the skills and ambition, she just needed the right career path and the opportunity to grow.

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