We’ve all heard about those coaches who shout the odds while dictating to call centre agents exactly how they should behave on the phone. And we all know how ineffective they are. Here, Jonathan Wilson offers up ten recommendations to help you do just that.
Does coaching work? As a coach, I think that it does, but I also think we have to do more than just believe.
There have been many claims for the benefit of coaching, but a lot of the so-called ‘evidence’ wilts under the gentlest pressure. I’ve seen excellent coaching cultures where there is sustained high performance and morale. But I can’t be sure whether it’s the coaching itself that produces the results, or if it’s down to an enlightened management team, which believes in people’s development and so encourages coaching, which in turn produces results.
“It’s also possible managers who are sceptical about coaching have the wrong idea about what it is”
It’s possible that good organisational results allow time for coaching: that the results cause the coaching rather than the coaching causing the results. It’s also possible that managers who are sceptical about coaching have the wrong idea about what it is. I’ve seen examples of ‘coaching’ in some contact centres that don’t look at all like coaching to me, and I’m not surprised that people don’t see many benefits in those centres.
Ultimately, the best evidence I’ve seen for the benefit of coaching is the results that people feel they have achieved from it. But just what are the important things to get right for the coaching of contact centre agents to work well in the first place? Here are my top ten recommendations.
1) Skill and practice
Everyone can learn to coach and some people work hard to develop their underlying coaching talents, but few can coach well without thoughtful practice. The ability to coach doesn’t come automatically with a job role or management title.
It’s important to sustain focus on the needs of the person, their tasks and the process of coaching. This means that both coach and agent must focus and keep free from distractions throughout the session. Coaching is purposeful conversation and the coach is more responsible for keeping the focus on the agent’s purpose.
To free themselves from distraction, both coach and agent benefit from allocating sufficient time to prepare themselves and sufficient time in each coaching session. It also helps if the opportunity to implement the learning from the coaching follows the session quickly. If it doesn’t, much of its benefit risks being lost.
4) Raising awareness through questioning and listening
Good coaches ask questions that help agents explore their assumptions and understanding, and focus on results and how they’ll achieve them. Good coaching questions make agents structure their thinking in a useful way and show gaps in their logic.
The best coaches listen intently to understand their agent’s thinking and to spot inconsistencies or gaps, including gaps between the agent’s thinking and feeling. They know that the best decisions are logically rational, emotionally attractive and purposeful. They help agents to set ambitious, realistic goals and timelines for measuring progress.
In contact centres, it’s the agent, not the coach, who must make these plans so that ownership of them never leaves the agent. Yes: the coach should ask questions to help the agent decide if the goals are realistic and motivating. But ultimately they’ll do this to give the agent the awareness and confidence to succeed.
5) Helping agents discover what is expected of them
It should be the manager’s job to make ‘what is expected’ clear to people, but it’s surprisingly rare that people know what they’re really supposed to do. Many employees don’t have job descriptions that accurately reflect their tasks, if they have job descriptions at all. Even when they do, they often have performance measures and rewards that don’t align with those descriptions.
It’s often hard to infer expectations from the confusing signs that organisations and managers give. A good coach can help people discover what they need to know and do in order to succeed in a particular culture and in the bigger context. This will motivate and guide them to success.
6) Removing interference
There is a book by W Timothy Gallwey called “The Inner Game of Work”, which states that ‘performance is potential minus interference’. In it, Gallwey talks about mental interference: the self-criticism and anxiety that interfere to prevent people from top performance.
Contact centres add their own things that interfere, such as misunderstood and misapplied performance measures, incentives and unhelpful systems. When improving performance, the mantra ‘less is more’ applies. Many of the things that interfere aren’t meant as sabotage, but interference can be any form of uninvited help.
A good manager tries hard not to interfere. A good coach will help the agent sort through interference so they can focus on their best possible performance.
7) Giving and assessing feedback
Feedback is that part of output (what you do) that feeds back to the control system (you) that enables control of what you do next. It’s critical to success. Feedback is not necessarily criticism or complaint, although that is one part, sometimes, of proper feedback. Unfortunately, negative feedback has become the conventional meaning, which makes people fear to give or take feedback.
A good coach should give neutral feedback to agents. Doing this will help the agent interpret and internalise feedback and help them decide what they want to do about it. Such feedback is essential to maintain the agent’s awareness of their changing situation.
The bond between coach and agent must rest on absolute trust and confidentiality. A coach must focus entirely on their agent’s interests and development. This is the only way that agents can feel safe enough to open themselves to real learning.
9) Developing a coaching and learning culture
This is a leader’s main job and the most decisive driver of sustained success. It requires humility, patience and determination. It’s an exercise in delegation because the leader is not the best person to coach their own staff. In fact, the best coaches are often peers (see below).
10) Peer coaching
Peer coaching works because both the ‘official’ coach and agent peer understand deeply, and personally, the issues and pressure that other agents face. It works also at an organisational level because the learning between client and coach transfers to the organisation. It’s a powerful way to build communities and a culture of support and achievement.
Care does need to be taken in preparation, however, because peer coaching doesn’t work when peers haven’t learnt how to coach – when they unhelpfully give their advice, ‘demonstrate’ without insight, pass on their own faults or prejudices, or accept poor performance as ‘all that can be expected in the circumstances’.
Jonathan Wilson is an accredited executive coach, a member of the UK Association of Coaching, The European Council of Mentoring and Coaching, and the International Association of Coaching. He is an associate of Budd, where he specialises in leadership coaching and change management.
Tel: +44 7971 018921