Dave Appleby, our resident tech, shares his insight on how to get yourself promoted.
I know what you’re all thinking. Who let the tame tech geek write an article about the real world?
Well, I’m afraid I’ve a dirty little secret I’ve been trying to hide for years. I actually started out as an agent on the phones, spoke to customers, dealt with problems and faced most of the issues all the people still on the front line see. It’s one of those things as a tech you don’t normally want to admit. People start to expect you to be polite, understanding, empathic and all sorts of other nasty things like that.
So, given that little revelation, how does one get promoted in the contact centre environment? Especially in today’s uncertain business environment?
As a starting point, there’s really no substitute for:
- Knowing your job
- Knowing the business
- Taking advantage of unexpected opportunities
- Being in the right place at the right time.
But, there are really not any short cuts; it’s going to require work…
My start came via an outsourcer and an agency. In that case the relationship between my first two points above was slightly more esoteric. Whilst I used to be a chef I started out with the outsourcer working on the roll-out of a home shopping service. That meant I was employed more for my food knowledge than technical literacy. I remember the first time I used a headset thinking I’d never get used to it. However, over a short period of time I got to know the systems and a period acting up to senior gave me a crash course in team reporting. Off the back of that I started learning…
Starting from scratch with learning how the systems worked and interacted, how the reporting structures were designed and how we communicated data to the client led me on to developing integrated reporting for the team. From there I expanded into setting up new contracts and then into advanced Business Intelligence tools (Cognos, Crystal Business Objects etc…). Along with delving into the depths of the telephony structures and resourcing, this led to where I am now.
It may sound trite to say you can never have too much knowledge, but in our case it’s the literal truth. I tend to specialise in business efficiency, whether that be from the scheduling point of view or process management. It’s not LEAN, 6Sigma or Kaizan, rather it’s everyday common sense, agent empowerment and using the data you have efficiently. So in order to use this, to get into a position where you can use this, what do you do?
Taking the points above in order.
1. Learn all you can about your current role. In addition to the day-to-day operations how does it work? What figures do you and later your manager report on? How do the staff appraisal and quality control systems work? Look at your current role, can you think of anything simple to improve it? How is this role similar to others in the business? Where are the commonalities and where does it differ? Which leads on to point two…
2. Know the business. I’m going to assume that if you’re looking to get promoted you’ve a fairly detailed knowledge of your team and what they do and more importantly how they do it (i.e. paid attention to point (1) above). Next step is where do they fit into the operation as a whole? For an outsourcer it’s a case of which other contracts do they have? Where else in the country/world are they? What do they do? and, more importantly, what can you do for them? If your company offers ‘job shadowing’ or team visits take them. Always look for secondment opportunities, especially where there is a chance to ‘act-up’ into a more senior role.
In these last few years we have seen the rise (and in some cases fall) of online social networking. We here at Call Centre Helper have ourselves a group on LinkedIn. What you need to do is the same; there is no substitute for getting out there and talking to people. There are various specialist organisations (e.g. Professional Planning Forum) around whose raison d’etre is a specific area of contact centre operations, and these, along with Expo in Birmingham (normally around September) are great opportunities to meet others in the industry. Various publications such as this one, Call Centre Focus (CCF) and web forums like Call Centre Voice (in which I must declare an interest as I help run it) all add to the circle of people you know. After a while this leads to a circle of knowledge – you may not know how to do something, but you’ll know who to ask. The same also applies in reverse. You have skills or knowledge that others can call on.
Know the external business. The fact that you are reading this means you’ve already made a start. What do your competitors do? If an outsourcer, which contracts do they have? How many sites, etc? If a similar business, how does their approach to the customer differ from yours? At the same time, listen when you’re calling your bank, travel, insurance or energy company. What have they done that you can learn from? What was good about the call? What was bad? What can you take and suggest for your team or company?
3. Take advantage of unexpected opportunities. This always seems to imply adversity for some reason, but needn’t always be so. My first introduction to resourcing came from a Monday morning phone call consisting of, and I distinctly remember to this day, the fateful line… “The client has a planned two million mail drop scheduled for late next week, what do we need to be able to handle it?”. This led to a crash course, literally, in resource planning, Erlang-B & C, SLA allowances, Threshold and Service level trade-off, Conversion rates and Call volume planning. All of which have become the core of what I do now. Of course, the other things you learn from this are how to cope with sleep deprivation and a deep and abiding loathing of Mailsort 3.
4. My last point. Being in the right place at the right time is an intangible. You cannot plan for it, cannot work toward it, all you can do is get yourself in to the position where you’re the first person thought of when a particularly awkward job comes up. I’d like to tell you how you get to that point, but it’s one of those things that just happens. The downside of this is you also seem to get more than your fair share of the fire-fighting and the junk that everyone else has managed to avoid.
A few months ago I wrote a piece published here called, “What did you want to be when you grew up?” The main focus of the article was that most of us are here by accident, that our career paths were not geared toward the contact centre environment and in a lot of cases our initial skill sets are not either. What we all do is adapt our existing learning into new forms and apply that to our new roles.
There’s no trick to promotion (blackmail excluded), however, what you can do, with a little work, is engineer your skills to best meet those required by the company and at the same time use the company to supply any skills you feel you are lacking. As a personal aside, the two courses I have found invaluable are Time Management and Listening/Influencing Skills. The one nice thing I have found in this industry is that if you are prepared to make the effort people will acknowledge the work you are doing. If you are trying to learn, more often than not you can count on the company to support you. As a rule of thumb, take any training offered, although I personally would probably draw the line at a 3-day residential course on ‘The History of Romanian Basket Weaving’, unless of course it was a free bar. There are now NVQs and other qualifications up to and including MBA level in Contact Centre Management and other related topics including Planning and Resource Management in addition to the existing plethora of HR, Accountancy and Business Management courses available. Related skills training in computer skills, again, are always worth doing.
So, to briefly summarise.
I said above that there’s no short cut to getting promoted but the skills you learn along the way will always be of value. Take the rough with the smooth, be visible but not to the point you’re the scapegoat for all the rubbish that comes in. Use the learning opportunities where they emerge and work towards creating more wherever possible.
Dave Appleby has been working as a planner, forecaster and analyst in the contact centre industry for the last 11 years, having been a chef in a previous life. Starting off working on the phones for the launch of a Grocery Home Shopping service, he has worked for a variety of in-house and outsource operations including Disneyland Paris, Seeboard, GIftaid, GM Finance and the Daily Telegraph. A keen diver (both instructor and cave diver), Dave is currently a senior analyst for a large UK insurance company.