Steve Shellabear, director of dancing lion training & consultancy, outlines how to make mentoring in the contact centre work.
What is mentoring?
Mentoring at its most simple is a relationship between a guide and a less experienced person. Mentoring can be given to a director, call centre manager, team leader or agent. In many contact centres, the most common beginnings of mentoring is the one-on-one, peer-directed ‘buddy system’ used when a new starter has completed agent induction training and is in the probationary period prior to being offered a full-time contract. A suitably experienced person is identified for the new starter to connect with. As well as being a subject-matter expert, the buddy is likely to be chosen for their patience and interpersonal skills. The management objective is to help the employee ‘settle in’ (avoiding staff attrition which is typical higher in the first 3 -6 months), avoid quality issues and improve performance. If it works, the relationship can endure as the employee progresses in their role.
How is mentoring different from coaching?
All contact centres have developed their own structures for coaching and mentoring, and these can be both formal and informal.
Practically, there is often an overlap between coaching and mentoring as some coaches have the ability to act as mentors and some mentors may coach. However, generally coaching is about learning or improving skills and know-how. Mentoring is about developing a relationship that involves giving advice on professional and personal levels. The mentor relationship can be goal focused and strategic, while coaching may be more concerned with immediate performance improvement and reinforcement of skills transfer. Career management may also be a longer-term mentor focus. A formal mentoring relationship may last for a defined period or continue for years. Once the mentee’s formal needs have been met, it may continue informally or as a friendship.
How are mentors selected?
The mentor will be selected because they have career or life experience valued by the mentee. They may be old or young. Many young agents have valuable experience. One of the questions to ask before appointment is: “Do they have the right experience, skills and attributes attributes to be a mentor?” If they are recruited from the agent community then they will need the skills and time to work with the mentee.
Making the time
Making the time can be a challenge. Unless it is planned for and prioritised, mentoring, like coaching, can often be cancelled at short notice. Last-minute postponements send a negative message to staff, so effective scheduling, through the workforce management system, is necessary to ensure mentoring activity goes ahead and does not impact negatively on service levels.
In some organisations, the mentor undertakes the role on an unpaid basis, in others, it is their full-time role. Whether paid or unpaid, a certain generosity of spirit is needed as well as the ability to listen and fully engage.
In a true mentor relationship the focus is determined by the mentee.
A mentor can unlock learning and inner attitudinal change through the use of questions, listening, empathy, sharing experiences and skilful interventions. These abilities can occur naturally or be developed a part of a formalised development programme.
When setting up a formal mentor system, potential mentors should be interviewed, complete profiling tests to ensure role compatibility, given tailored training, and accredited. The mentors ongoing training and development should also be planned for.
What skills do you look for in a mentor?
- Interest –what motivates them to become a mentor? Has the potential mentor identified areas of interest for themselves in being a mentor?
- Appropriate knowledge and skills – can they provide practical help based on having done a similar role? Can they provide guidance from their own experience?
- Available time – can they give the time required and still meet other commitments?
- Listening skills – are they able to listen with out interrupting?
- Empathy skills – can they put themselves in the position of the mentee and step back to provide an objective solution that takes account of all stakeholder interests?
- Patient and supportive – as the relationship is led by the mentee, are they able to support them to achieve their goals? Can they ask questions and let them reach their own conclusions without jumping in and imposing their views and suggestions?
What about reporting? How can management know it’s working?
Ideally, the mentee does not report directly to the mentor, providing a higher degree of trust and disclosure than the manager–subordinate relationship usually allows. Although the mentor may reference competencies within the performance management system, there is minimal feedback to the team leader or manager, as to report back directly would restrict the mentee’s ability to say things as they truly experience them. This does not mean the mentee can’t or won’t talk about the value they are receiving outside of the mentor sessions, but rather they have the safety of knowing they can speak in confidence without the fear of specific disclosures being revealed without their permission. As the mentor relationship is based on trust, any breach of confidence would severely undermine the working relationship. Similarly, it does not mean that there is an absence of communication between manager and mentor. The mentor may discuss progress towards organisational goals. The key is that all understand and respect the ethical guidelines.
Can you have both coaches and mentors?
Yes, but clarity of objectives, roles and responsibilities in designing and implementing the two support systems is vital. Both roles can usefully co-exist and achieve different outcomes, with the mentor focusing on elements impacting on job satisfaction and longer-term development, which may include attitudinal change and crossing job boundaries, and the coach fully supporting the team leader in ensuring that agent skills and behaviours are consistently demonstrated and the immediate service levels and KPIs achieved. A governance and support structure, managed by HR, should be set up that clearly defines parameters for leading and learning for coaches, mentors and line managers. Managers and team leaders, coaches and mentors should all be briefed and updated on working methods, benefits, challenges and overall progress.
How do you set up a mentoring structure?
If you are launching a mentoring programme you should provide the participants with a clear structure. The following steps will help:
- Define the mentoring objectives and ensure they are strategically aligned to the contact centre and the organisation.
- Establish goals, responsibilities and measurable outcomes.
- Design framework and support system for mentor programme.
- Design qualifying criteria for mentor and mentee.
- Identify potential candidates for both mentoring and mentee.
- Enrol and match mentors and mentees.
- Anticipate and recognise challenges.
- Plan strategies to overcome challenges.
- Facilitate communication between stakeholders.
- Provide expert support and training, as required.
What benefits can you expect from mentoring?
There are many organisational and individual benefits in establishing a mentoring programme.
For the contact centre these can include:
- Faster induction of new employees
- Higher profitability
- Increased productivity
- Lower staff turnover
- Easier succession planning
- Increased motivation
- Higher engagement and commitment to the business
- Improved communication.
For the mentor, these can be:
- Opportunity to share own experience
- Increased job satisfaction
- Develop stronger professional relationships
- Enhanced peer recognition
- Practice in using facilitation and interpersonal skills
- Increased personal satisfaction through helping the development of others.
For the mentee, these can be:
- A supportive relationship outside of their line manager or peers
- Impartial advice and encouragement
- Help with problem solving
- Increased individual performance
- Increased self-confidence
- Higher motivation
- More job satisfaction
- Professional development opportunities.
Whether formal or informal, mentoring is invaluable as a supportive management tool. Through giving staff time to reflect on how they work, establishing a network of enabling relationships and providing timely support, individual issues can be identified and resolved before they become management issues.
For more information on how to set up a contact centre mentoring or coaching programme, please contact: firstname.lastname@example.org or phone: 01908 644791.