As we know, the role of the team leader is crucial to the effective development and retention of talented front-line agents. Whilst the remit of the ‘leader’ role will vary depending upon the size of the organisation, there are some consistent elements common to most team leader roles. Carolyn Blunt tells us more.These include:
- Resource planning (people/shift planning, call-flow management)
- People and performance management (recruitment, inductions, appraisals, one-to-ones, coaching, training and development, disciplinary hearings, etc. )
- Data and call analysis to achieve optimum performance of the team through informed coaching, identifying development needs, quality monitoring, affirming and adjusting agent behaviour (prolonged wrap time, understanding high abandonment rates, etc.) and working with the call centre manager to continually improve the call flow and processes of the contact centre operation
- Working with the contact centre manager to implement changes, new technologies and to gain maximum benefit of systems and databases
- Working with data and other parts of the organisation to meet the objectives of the organisation in relation to contact centre operations (service level agreements, customer service or sales targets, etc.)
- Resolving escalated issues and queries and working to minimise the occurrence of issues again where possible
- Conducting team meetings and ‘huddles’ to share information from top down and to boost team morale
- Managing the health and safety of the team.
The effective development of the team leader is therefore also essential and is usually the responsibility of the contact centre manager. Team leaders are often ‘grown’ organically from the front line; however, the best agent or advisor does not automatically make the most talented team leader.
From the above, we can see that the skill set required for effective team leadership includes the ability to give feedback and manage poor performance. This is not always easy to do when the new team manager has previously been a peer of the group he/she has now been tasked to manage. Our consultancy work has shown us that effective support and development is necessary to enable this ‘step up’ to be made, and ideally a new leader should lead a team that was not the one they were in as an agent.
An ideal in-house development path for a contact centre leader is to work as an agent to gain knowledge of the organisation’s customers and services. Although absence of this experience is not prohibitive, it does provide an excellent foundation for future decision-making skills, fosters the respect of new agents (as they know their leader can do, and has done, their job) and shows the organisation’s commitment to promoting from within, which is excellent as a motivational incentive for all aspiring employees (providing unsuccessful applicants are adequately supported).
Following on from experience as a front-line agent, it can be useful for an aspiring leader to develop into the role of the contact centre coach. The skills of a coach need to be job excellence but also listening, questioning, supporting and encouraging. The coach can be extremely helpful when advisors have an issue on a call – they can flag for a coach to assist and put the call on hold whilst they seek clarification or a resource. Talented coaches can be helpful in integrating new starters into the team and for listening to calls and giving feedback to agents. Whilst the coach should never replace the team leader in all of these activities, they can fundamentally lift some of the man-management workload from the team leader.
There are some fundamental points to consider when delivering any effective employee development, and these should work in sequence:
- Performance management processes should be in place and training needs should be suitably established (by identifying gaps in skills matrices or by analysing performance against job description/person specification).
- Development activity should be undertaken regularly and effectively either by in-house or external programmes.
- Opportunities to move around the organisation (not just limited to the contact centre) should be made available to employees. Equitable development and selection procedures need to be in place.
- External recruitment activity should only be required when talent is not available internally.
- Internal talent needs to be identified successfully before strategies to develop and retain such talent will work effectively.
Once the organisation is clear on the role of the team leader and the progression path from the front line, the next stage is to design the leadership development opportunities. For organisations where in-house training department resource is available it will usually be their remit to design and offer leadership development opportunities for current team leaders and ideally also for aspiring team leaders. Depending on the availability of their resources, they may do this themselves or with assistance from consultancies such as ours. For smaller organisations it may not be possible to develop a long-term leadership programme, and so modules of training may be the only realistic solution, coupled with support to transfer learning back to the job and ongoing coaching from the contact centre manager.
Training modules may be delivered in house by consultancies, if small groups of team leaders can be released together, or alternatively external training modules can be sourced. The numbers of team leaders to be trained will determine which of these methods is the most cost effective; in both cases the quality of the solution should be closely researched.
Advantages of hosting the training in-house include the bonding of the peer group, sharing of knowledge, challenges and solutions, consistency of training experience (messages, time of training, i.e. not months between opportunities for individual team leaders to attend) and bespoke design to meet the exact needs in smaller groups, allowing greater trainer attention, interaction and ‘clinic’-style solutions to specific issues. Advantages of external training can include the opportunity to network with team leaders from other contact centre organisations (if specialist solutions can be sourced) and a fast way to train team leaders in the fundamentals of leadership best practice.
In addition to development in the practical elements of the role that will be specific to the organisation, the following soft skills are three of the most popular requests from organisations looking to develop the competencies of their team leaders:
- Authentic leadership skills – the ability to delegate, affirm and adjust performance, manage agents’ ‘psychological contract’ and ‘difficult’ people, work with human resource professionals to manage any agent sickness absence and persistent poor performance. Be able to motivate and inspire agents through an effective and consistent leadership style and make communications with the team effective for cascading information and generating ideas.
- Effective leadership skills – time and self management, planning and organisation, leading change, managing conflict, personal effectiveness, setting and meeting goals, targets and timescales, influencing and negotiation skills.
- Professional leaders – communication skills, customer service excellence, coaching and training best practice methodologies, running effective meetings, making excellent presentations, networking, working across teams and departments, connection with the wider organisations and the vision, mission and purpose and the role of the contact centre in the achievement of deliverables.
In all cases, any leadership development needs to be delivered in an interactive way, utilising principles of accelerated learning and learning style theory. In order for any learning to be effectively transferred to the job it should be followed up with effective coaching, support and opportunities to practise. In the case of the team leader, this is usually best done by the contact centre manager, training professionals and with good peer group support.
Carolyn Blunt is a contact centre training expert with Real Results Training, a contact centre consultancy providing people development solutions.