In this instalment of Call Centre Helper’s “What I’ve Learned” series, Dave Walshe outlines seven valuable lessons gained from 12 years of running contact centres.
I left Southampton University in 2008 with my History & Politics degree and absolutely no idea what I wanted to do with it. I had grand plans that I was going to travel the world and “find myself”.
If you had asked me then whether 14 years later I would be working in contact centres, I would have thought you were crazy. I got myself a contact centre job in customer service and sales helping people save on their energy bills (skills I am glad I still have today!), thinking it would be a good way of earning some money to fund my trip.
But, little did I know that within the first 3 months of starting that role, I knew that I had found what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
I loved the buzz of the contact centre floor. There was always someone different to talk to and learn from and there was always something going on.
I loved helping people. When you finished a call and the customer was delighted with how you had helped them, there was really no greater feeling.
I also joined a good company that was growing and I could see a future with and with managers that were happy to invest time in my development.
It was a great place for me to learn and start my career in running contact centres.
In all the years that have passed since, I have made mistakes, learned lessons (and continue to do so) and gone through lots of experiences.
So, I thought I would share some of the mistakes I have made, mistakes I am sure others have made also, and some of the lessons I have learned along the way being a contact centre leader.
Lesson 1 – Everyone in Your Team Is an Individual
The first lesson I learned, very quickly, when I first became a team leader was that everyone in your team is an individual.
I was always one of the top performers when on the phones in terms of sales conversion, customer satisfaction and quality. I was driven by the competition and wanting to be the best I could be.
So, when I became a team leader, it really took me a while to get my head around why everyone in my team could not think in the same way as me and act in the same way as I did.
Take the time to learn about your teams, understand them, genuinely show an interest and care about them.
Looking back now, it is so easy to understand.
People were from different backgrounds to me, at different stages of their life from me, were motivated differently than me and had different learning styles than me.
Of course, they would not always do things the way I would have done them if in their shoes; we were different! But 23-year-old me would still go home sometimes banging my head against a brick wall trying to understand what I was doing wrong.
After thinking I was making progress with someone, connecting with them and helping them improve and drive performance, I would try and copy and paste that formula with someone else, and of course not see the results I was hoping for.
After making these mistakes, I grew the understanding of the issue, realized the errors I was making and made sure I treated everyone as the individuals that they deserve to be.
My advice to all team leaders that I have managed since is to take the time to learn about your teams, understand them, genuinely show an interest and care about them. If you invest this time, you will always know what they need, how to motivate and engage them, and they will always feel comfortable to communicate with you when it is most needed.
Team leaders are a vital part of any organization. To find out more about what makes a great team leader, read our article: 9 Traits of High-Performing Team Leaders
Lesson 2 – “Train Your People Well Enough to Leave, Treat Them Well Enough They Want to Stay” (Richard Branson)
In my first company, quite early on we were bought out by another company. Inevitably there was nervousness around this in my teams. But in the first meeting we had with the new owner, a lot of our fears were alleviated.
The first thing he said was “I want you all to remember this job and this company as the best you ever worked for!” and he followed through on that promise.
They really looked after their staff. There were lots of material perks; free food, drinks, games rooms, unbelievable Christmas parties (not often you are all taken to Vegas for 3 nights, two years in a row!).
But this stuff did not make it the best company I ever worked for, it was the culture they put in place for their staff. They trusted you, they cared about you and, most importantly for me and my teams, they provided time for all levels of staff to be developed.
It was this philosophy that then became the cornerstones of teams that I would look to build going forward.
We all know that employee engagement and customer satisfaction are intrinsically linked, so it is of the utmost importance that we find the time to develop and help our teams grow.
How often have we seen it happen? Call volumes spike up and the first things to get left out are 1-2-1s or coaching sessions. I have been guilty of it myself.
I remember one occasion in particular that I had to cancel a 1-2-1 due to call volumes, and the agent who I had cancelled sent me a tongue-in-cheek email just saying, “Am I not important enough?!”
They said to me after that they were just joking, but it really sat with me as I immediately thought that they were right. The message I was sending out by cancelling was that their development, their time, was not important.
Maybe that feedback that was missed meant that they could not help the customer on their next call as effectively as they could have done.
After that I would always be loath to have to cancel a 1-2-1. I would rearrange if absolutely needed, but never cancel. I always wanted my teams to know that their development was the most important thing for me.
For tips and advice on how to conduct a skills audit and put together a coaching plan to improve staff quality, read our article: How to Conduct a Skills Audit and Coaching Plan
Lesson 3 – The Customer Is at the Heart of Everything We Do
I have seen this phrase, or words to similar effect, used lots of times over. But unfortunately, it is rare that this is actually always the case for organizations.
I have worked a number of roles and I can tell you that there have been a lot of times when my senior managers’ motivations were not guided by customer experience.
Motivations were more driven by cutting costs, driving revenues or increasing market share – all of which of course are relevant business aims.
But, what I have learned in my many years, is that if you are true to this phrase, and keep your thoughts aligned with delivering a world-class customer experience, the other aims you are looking to achieve will often happen naturally out of the back end of this.
Lesson 4 – Call Deflection Is Often Set Up to Fail
Let’s think about one of the phrases, and one of my biggest pet peeves, that we hear a lot in the contact centre world: “call deflection”.
I have had numerous leaders talk to me about the need to deflect calls out of the contact centre into self-service. We would hold meetings about how we would do this, but because the core aim was to deflect calls, it would often be set up to fail.
If you go into the same meeting but with your aims focused on customer outcomes rather than business ones, you are much more likely to achieve what you have set out to achieve.
However, with my battle scars on display, I now always go into these sessions and attempt to be the customer champion. If you go into the same meeting but with your aims focused on customer outcomes rather than business ones, you are much more likely to achieve what you have set out to achieve.
So instead of having an aim of wanting to deflect calls, if your aim is to develop a world-class chatbot to support customers instead, you can achieve your aims, but it will keep you honest in what you need to do to achieve it.
This is why I am really excited about the next chapter in my contact centre journey in consultancy. Being able to work with clients to help them shape their strategy with this at the heart of it to achieve their required outcomes and helping clients is something that I am loving doing. Still motivated by helping people 14 years on!
Read our article 23 Considerations to Make Before Implementing a New Digital Channel, to find out what key questions you should be asking before implementing a new channel.
Lesson 5 – The Importance of Self-Reflection and Humility
Perhaps the biggest lesson that I have learned across my career in the industry is the importance of self-reflection.
In the early stages of my career, I quite often felt I knew best and would wear my heart on my sleeve. If I felt something was wrong, I would quite openly challenge my senior leaders – “this strategy will not work”, “this is not the right thing to do”, “we should do this instead”.
This was always from a place of wanting to do the best for the business, our team and our customers.
And although I think challenge is important, understanding the right way to do this, and in the right spirit, was one of the key lessons I learned along my path.
I remember in a 1-2-1 at the time, one of my managers talking to me about perception and how important this was and asking me what I thought people thought when they thought about me.
In my head, I thought people would see me as someone who was capable, cared about the success of the teams and was passionate.
Lesson 6 – The Johari Window
So, I did an exercise called “the Johari Window” with my direct reports, my peers and my managers to understand what I thought I was putting out into the world vs. what others perceived.
Largely, the results were as I hoped and there were positive aspects of my style shining through.
However, I remember vividly being surprised when one of my senior managers described me as “negative”.
At first, I was upset that someone thought that of me. Discussing this with my manager at the time, he probed me on why I thought this person might have felt that way. Going through this exercise allowed me to reflect on my behaviour and how it can be perceived.
Now, I had 2 options, accept that was their perception and think that they were wrong, or actively change what I was doing to change that perception.
This really taught me a lot about myself, and ever since then I have done my best to reflect on my output and how things might be being perceived and openly asking people for feedback.
This empowered me to be a better version of myself and have more humility. Something that I always try to take with me and always continue to better myself.
Quite often humility is seen as a weakness (my younger self probably felt this way); however, I now take the completely opposite view.
Accepting that I might not always have the answers, understanding that I might not be the smartest person in the room and holding my hands up when I do something wrong and apologizing for it, made me a much stronger manager.
For some tactics that can help even the most sensitive of us to receive feedback positively, read our article: How to Receive Job Feedback… Without Becoming Defensive
Lesson 7 – Change Is Inevitable, so Embrace It
The last lesson I wanted to touch on is the importance of change management. Particularly in the contact centre industry, there seems to be constant change, primarily driven by digital transformation, so as leaders you have to be able to embrace change and evolve with it.
I have been through many periods of big changes in my work life, whether that has been takeovers, redundancies, implementing new technology or changes in our product offering. At the time, these all seem really daunting.
Your teams will inevitably be nervous about the changes, so will look to you as a leader for strength and guidance in these times.
It is your role to help people through the change curve, providing clear communication to them and help them to understand “the why” and listening to any feedback. Approach these times as open as you possibly can and understand, as mentioned before, that each individual is going to be impacted differently.
Read our article Communicating Change in Your Business for advice on how best to communicate change in the complex world of call centres.
Thanks to Dave Walshe, Senior Consultant at CGI LTD
For more great advice from industry experts, read our articles:
- What I’ve Learned From Running a Contact Centre – Think of an Agent as a Teacher
- What I’ve Learned From Running a Contact Centre – Know Your Stats
- The Customer Hierarchy of Needs
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