Supervisors: The Critical Link

By Mark Selcow

It’s often said that call center agents don’t leave companies, they leave supervisors.  As the first line of coaching and quality, the primary channel for influencing agent behavior, and the backstop for angry customers, supervisors are the key to success. In order to increase supervisor effectiveness, contact centers understand it is important to tackle many of the common problems in the supervisor role, including:

  • Lack of managerial experience – it is often a supervisor’s first time managing
  • Excessive time spent on administrative tasks versus coaching
  • Inconsistent managerial processes across teams and centers
  • Inexperience using data in decision making; reliance on intuition

Performance Management and the Supervisor: One tested method for addressing supervisor role issues is performance management. Specifically, the right performance management initiative should be designed to help supervisors:

  • Interpret and apply data
  • Track agent performance
  • Save administrative time
  • Increase coaching focus and efficiency
  • Develop agents directly to augment supervisor activities

In addition to delivering data to supervisors, certain performance management software systems (as part of a broader performance management program) are able to deliver performance statistics across the entire organizational spectrum. This allows an agent to track his or her own performance, giving the supervisor the ability to reinforce messages versus having to be the sole source of feedback. As a result, coaching sessions are transformed into true development discussions by shifting the conversation from statistics to skills transfer.

The bottom line is that performance management helps supervisors manage by delivering insights, increasing the impact of agent-supervisor sessions, and automating administrative tasks, thus freeing up substantial time for coaching.

Making Performance Management Work: To achieve the greatest supervisor impact, performance management should be viewed as organization-wide (i.e., not just for agents). Software screens should differ by role, since metrics, goals, and the ability to interpret data differ depending on one’s level within the organization. Historical tracking of team assignments need to be accurate for the performance system to have value and impact. This ensures that everyone in the organization sees accurate data that is relevant to them, changing the conversation from “Is the data accurate?” to “What does the data mean?”

An effective performance management initiative should include supervisor specific elements, including:

  • Clear, consistent, and objective goals – personalized for every unit, site, or shift
  • Timely delivery of performance statistics
  • Historically accurate roll-up of data so time-based comparisons are correct

Therefore, the supporting technology in a performance management initiative must include:

  • Delivery of focused metrics to facilitate targeted coaching: To maximize system effectiveness, data must be personalized and targeted to the specific individual and role.

For example, supervisors need access to individualized, detailed information about each of their agents across time. Sales agents should have direct access to their bonus status and the logic, metrics and calculations underlying their compensation. Service representatives should be presented with the critical measures of quality and productivity that drive increased levels of customer satisfaction at predefined service levels.

Delivering highly personalized, focused metrics to supervisors and agents effectively transforms coaching sessions from status updates to real opportunities for skill transfer. No longer are discussions spent reviewing what level of performance an agent is achieving, but how to effectively improve performance.

  • Automated delivery of timely and accurate data to agents and supervisors: Key metrics should be updated and delivered daily to ensure that supervisors and agents can quickly identify and react to any fluctuations in performance. Updating metrics less frequently (such as on a weekly or bi-weekly basis) greatly reduces the ability for a supervisor or agent to react to a developing trend before performance is truly affected. Too frequent delivery of data can become a distraction as agents may spend excessive time in the system.
  • Automated managerial processes (such as coaching sessions and performance appraisals): It is common that each supervisor will use their own subjective measures of agent performance and leverage different coaching and development techniques. It is critical that operations eliminate excessive managerial variation and standardize supervisory activities. By automating, measuring, and then tracking managerial practices (such as coaching, performance appraisals, and recognition), the organization not only reduces a manager’s administrative time, but ensures that every agent receives fair, consistent, and focused development.
  • Intuitive tools built for the call center environment: Supervisor input should guide the selection and development of the underlying performance management tools.

If the organization selects too complex an interface, supervisors will likely not use the tool and continue to rely on either intuition or inaccurate information to make decisions. Even worse, an overly complex analysis tool could lead a supervisor to draw the wrong conclusion because they are unable to perform the correct analysis without extensive training or analyst assistance.

Too simple a system and the result is the same. Supervisors will likely abandon static dashboards or an incomplete application and once again rely on intuition or old manual processes ultimately drawing inaccurate conclusions.

  • Comparisons across teams, centers, and organizations to drive best practice sharing: More than 50% of supervisors believe they are above average performers. To gauge true performance, supervisors and agents should be presented with performance comparisons so that they can easily determine whether they are above or below acceptable levels of performance.

In addition to providing an individual’s own performance in comparison to others, it can be beneficial to publicly highlight or display the specific achievements of top performers. Agents and supervisors alike can then seek out a particular individual to learn what successful habits or skills they have developed to excel. If done correctly, openly displaying and sharing other’s performance can create the ideal culture of best practice sharing and healthy competition.

Without these capabilities, supervisors are often faced with incomplete and inaccurate data forcing them to manage by self-assembled spreadsheets – or worse, by intuition. Additionally, poor access to data often leads supervisors to focus their coaching time on bottom and top performers, ignoring one of the greatest opportunities – mid-level performers.

An Outsourcer Case Study: In order to increase supervisor effectiveness, an outsourcer automated the coaching process and measuring coaching frequency. Management was able to correlate individual agent and team performance with the number and regularity of coaching sessions. Supervisors were given incentives to complete a minimum number of coaching sessions per month and penalized if they fell below this threshold.

As supervisor logins to the performance management system were tracked, it was found that supervisors who logged in more often had the greatest improvement in their team’s performance. This outsourcer created a “login” metric which was then published on their management and supervisor dashboards. The economic effect of the performance management initiative was that this outsourcer was able to reduce costs by increasing their agent to supervisor ratio by 20%.

Conclusion: Performance management is complex and supervisors are often a critical overlooked link. By removing administrative tasks and automating managerial processes across the center, a performance management platform can help an organization achieve its operational objectives. Providing supervisors with the tools to manage more efficiently and objectively, agent satisfaction, and most importantly, effectiveness, can be increased significantly.

Mark Selcow is president and co-founder of Merced Systems; for more information, call 650-486-4000.

[From Connection Magazine April 2007]

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