The call centre sector is as vulnerable to the credit bubble bursting as any other business and we are already hearing stories of cut-backs and close-downs. The worry is rising and yet managers and team leaders still need to ensure that teams deliver. So how do we do this?
Step one: Be hyper-vigilant to ‘morale murdering’
A typical management reaction within a business under pressure is to say nothing and just keep going. All too often management assume that talking will cause more worry. On the contrary – talking reduces concern. People who are concerned but have little information will tend to make it up. And the story is always worse than reality. The author remembers working with a call centre in the last downturn when a team member stated that ‘everybody knew there were to be 200 redundancies’. The reality was that there were only 120 people employed in the call centre!
As well as negative rumours, people tend to withdraw. They go into a ‘sit and see’ mode waiting for the axe to fall and letting things slip as they wait. Along with such behaviour the team leader may find that team members get into negative huddles and begin to bring each other down.
Team leaders facing such behaviours need to address them quickly and set up a plan of action designed to focus and motivate their teams.
Step two: Communicate like never before
Worried people crave information. Team leaders need to set up clear and consistent communication lines. This can be through weekly team meetings or even daily briefings if matters are moving fast. Communications need to cover as much as possible about the state of the market, any management decisions, targets and the need to keep focused. In addition, communications need to cover the rumours which are going around the business. If they are not addressed they will be believed.
It is also important to be very honest. Obviously there will be certain information which management wants to keep quiet. In this case say nothing rather than lie or deny. However, if there are tough decisions or redundancies it is far better to give team members the respect of honesty than to try and protect them and lose their trust. If you are asked about something you must not talk about then tell your team you cannot talk about it until management have made a decision or given the green light.
Step three: Be firm about focus
While it is understandable that people can feel helpless and hopeless when business is tough, it is essential that they do not give up trying. Team leaders often need to be very firm with their teams and explain that giving up becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Less activity means less business means less chance of getting through.
It may well be that normal activity is reduced. In such cases team leaders need to refocus their team onto other tasks. It is important that such activities are productive rather than just time fillers. Examples of downturn tasks the author has set up in call centres include:
- Process redesign while there is time to test new approaches
- In-team training where experienced team members coach and train other team members
- Writing process manuals to assist training when the upturn arrives
- Eliminating administrative backlogs
- Creating training programmes
- Marketing brainstorming
- Organising team socials
Busy people have less time to worry. In addition, the fact that they are doing something constructive and productive will raise morale.
Sometimes, team leaders need to take a very firm line and explain to team members that sitting around and complaining about the economy is not a sensible strategy. Busy, productive people simply fare better in the face of tough decisions about headcount.
Step four: Keep quiet about your own concerns
Do not think that team leaders and managers are exempt from worry. Any economic threat is as real to you as to the members of your team. However, the absolute rule of management is to stay true to the management role and put on a positive face. The minute you share your personal concerns with team members you will bring them down. The likelihood of raising morale after that is slim. This does not mean that you deny the concerns of the team – but you cannot endorse those fears by voicing them yourself.
Instead team leaders need to focus on what can be done, what targets still need to be met, how team members make the most of quiet times and on keeping up morale. If you need to offload your concerns make sure this is with other team leaders and managers only and that those concerns are kept at that level.
Step five: Keep management in the picture
There can be no doubt that the senior management team will be under pressure in a downturn. They need to maintain targets, profitability and efficiency while facing the reality of an economy where money is simply less abundant. They will be in endless meetings and all too often will start to lose contact with the call centre floor. While this is understandable, it also means that they are making decisions which may be devoid of understanding of the impact on the call centre. In addition, it means that they will not be aware of the inevitable rumours and can innocently say the wrong thing.
Team leaders and managers need to be the finger on the pulse of the call centre and keep senior management in the picture. This does not mean knocking on the director’s door with every little thing said in the team. It does mean that team leaders need to keep in contact and discuss what they are picking up and then identify issues and rumours which they think senior management need to know. Having done this, team leaders and managers need to create a solution rather than just dump the problem on an overstretched senior manager. They then need to ensure that the message and the solutions are passed up to the right person and a decision on action sought quickly.
Step six: Remember that a downturn leads to an upturn
This may be a tough ask at the moment. The Bank of England is sending out ever more gloomy messages and the dreaded ‘R’ word is beginning to be used as a prediction rather than a possibility. However, we all have to remember that every downturn turns around. People survive. Call centres survive and usually are more efficient at the end of it. In those darker moments it is worth remembering and telling your team that everybody is in the same boat. Sticking together, staying positive and supporting colleagues is a shared responsibility at every level of the call centre.
Gwenllian Williams is a director of deWinton-Williams Business Consulting. deWinton-Williams helps businesses achieve potential through people and consults on the full range of HR solutions including strategic competency frameworks, selection, development and change. You can contact deWinton-Williams on 0207 372 4997 or www.dewinton-williams.com