The Contact Centre Podcast: Series 3 Episode 6
In this episode, Jacqui Turner, the Founder of Turner Corner Learning Solutions, discusses how we can better support team leaders in the contact centre in order to improve advisor performance.
In our conversation, we also talk about the dangers of micromanaging, building positive working relationships and preparing leaders to have those difficult conversations with their teams.
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Podcast Time Stamps
07:09 – Servant Leadership
14:23 – Lead by Example
18:08 – Developing Great Working Relationships
22:07 – Preparing for Difficult Conversations
29:09 – Sharing Best Practices
33:38 – Improving Team Leader Skillset
Here is a Transcript to the Podcast
Charlie Mitchell: Something I believe is that team leaders are often a product of a contact centre’s culture, yet in many contact centres that’s a very adherence-based culture, so team leaders start to micromanage. Do you believe the impact micromanagement has on teams is underappreciated, especially in the call centre environment?
Jacqui Turner: Yes, in terms of my experience of working in contact centres for nearly 30 years, I’ve definitely worked for some micromanagers, and I’m sure many of the listeners will have as well. Micromanagers are really about having control and telling rather than asking. They don’t tend to encourage people, other people’s ideas, and there’s been a lot of research to show that employees who are motivated and they are engaged and their ideas and opinions are valued feel much happier in the workplace. And that happiness turns into a consistency of better performance. They deliver higher productivity and qualities of service. And companies that have really moved away from micromanagement do also see a lower employee turnover.
And there’s been a lot of talk about millennials and generation Z, et cetera, so there’s an abundance of research out there which shows around 76% of millennials – and they are generally people born early 80s until the mid 90s-early 2000s – say that they would leave a job if they didn’t feel appreciated. And the Institute of Customer Service, which produces reports every six months which show levels of customer satisfaction across a variety of sectors, their July 2019 report showed that UK customer satisfaction has dropped for the fourth consecutive time, which is obviously very worrying. And they’re also able to show that companies who achieve a high level of customer satisfaction – their scores are between 9 and 10 – their customers … 94% of their customers stated that they’re likely to recommend companies that are scoring in that 9 or 10 brackets compared with only 54% of customers who said they would recommend a company who scored their customer satisfaction between 8 and 8.9.
One of the key recommendations from the Institute of Customer Service is that a key ingredient of a service-focused culture is where there’s a clear recognition of employee engagement and development being the core business assets. I think with all that research, it really does tell us that there’s never been a more important time for team leaders and managers to be able to get the best out of their advisors. And I strongly believe that that doesn’t really blend with the micromanagement approach.
Charlie: Yeah. I think there’s lots of great research there. And the reason why I led into this question is because I know that we’ve before talked about a principle called servant leadership. Could you just explain a little bit about what this means and the relevance it has in the contact centre?
Jacqui: Before I go into servant leadership, I just want to talk a little bit about the work of Simon Sinek and how his philosophy on leadership does blend very well with servant leadership. I’m a huge fan of Simon Sinek’s work and I love his simplistic way of defining who a leader is. And that simplistic way is basically saying it’s somebody that has followers. Of course, the definition of followers is they have a choice over who they choose as their leader. In contact centres, employees don’t necessarily have that choice, but it’s an interesting question, I think, for all leaders to ask themselves: what if they did have that choice? It’s a question I often ask team leaders and managers in my courses. If your team had a choice of a leader, how confident would you be that they would choose you?
And usually the room goes very silent at that point where they do a little bit of quiet reflection and a bit of soul searching. And I’d really love our listeners to ask themselves this very question if they’re in the leadership role right now. And his philosophy around why some teams pull together and others don’t is where leaders care about the people rather than the numbers. And that links nicely in with servant leadership.
Servant leadership … There’s lots of leadership styles out there and I’m sure many of the listeners will have come across many of them. But servant leadership is becoming more popular and relevant to the millennial age group that I mentioned earlier, which is starting to make up around 50% of contact centre employees. And servant leadership, which – the phrase was coined by Robert Greenleaf back in 1970 – so it’s a style of leadership that’s been around for a long period of time but it’s becoming more relevant. Servant leadership is very much about being people-centred, which is what Simon Sinek often talks about, rather than be numbers or process-driven.
A servant leader and servant leadership is really a mindset. It’s a belief that as a leader you are the first among equals, so you’re no better than anybody else, you’re not above anybody else. You see the people that you lead as peers to teach them and to help them and to nurture and help them to grow as individuals. But also, to learn from them. Regardless of whether you’re a CEO of a business or whether you’re a team leader, it’s about understanding the benefits of learning from the knowledge and experience of others so that you work together rather than work from an aspect of having power and authority over the people that you lead.
Servant leaders are not micromanagers. I would describe them more as facilitators.
Charlie: Yeah. I think there’s so many great points there. It’s almost like inverting the typical pyramid of contact centre leadership where you have your advisors then above that you have the leaders and then you have the manager. It’s almost flipping that around, so I think that’s a very interesting concept there. But how does servant leadership impact overall trust and what’s the potential impact of this on the contact centre?
Jacqui: Again, there’s been much research around servant leadership. And in terms of raising employee standards, I’m a big believer that behaviour breeds behaviour. So when leaders serve their people, they care about their people, they celebrate successes, they engage with them and they listen, then their team are likely to emulate that behaviour in the way that they serve each other and they serve their customers. And you mentioned trust there, Charlie. Trust is such a big part of building strong working relationships. And servant leadership is about trusting the people that you’re leading; that you trust them to make decisions and to do the right thing for their colleagues and their customers.
You have to be able to have that element of trust in the people that you’re leading, but in trusting, your trust is also an end result of servant leadership because people then feel inspired by their manager’s competence, their character and, fundamentally, the trust that their leader has in them, in their capabilities. And I came across something called The Trust Equation a few years ago, which was developed by Charles Green. And you can get more information about The Trust Equation on TrustedAdvisor.com. The equation talks about four key factors of why we trust some people and we don’t trust others. Those four key factors are reliability, credibility – quite an unusual word to describe the next one – it’s called intimacy, but I will explain what that means in terms of the workplace shortly, and self-orientation.
Reliability … Just common sense says to us that we are more likely to trust people that we can count and rely on. In the workplace, for example, if you’re a team leader or manager who cancels one-to-one meetings and coaching sessions with your team on a regular basis, then that would have a negative impact in terms of how they feel they can rely on you to be there for them as individuals.
Credibility, the second aspect – and I think this is an interesting one, particularly, I think, the more experienced you are as a leader. A pivotal part of a leader’s role is to support the development of their team. And I would say fundamentally that in my experience that does happen within contact centres. But it’s also important to lead by example. Just thinking about when was the last time that you took the opportunity to develop your level of confidence and your level of skills in order to increase your level of credibility? I guess what I’m saying is do your team see you on a regular basis practising what you preach in terms of looking for those opportunities to keep evolving as a leader and developing, as I say, that credibility?
The intimacy part is really about how well you know your people – your team members and your advisors and how well they know you. But how comfortable do they feel sharing information with you? And when they share important information, and that could be work-related, it could be information based on their personal life that may be having an impact on them, that they feel confident that that information is going to be held in the strictest of confidence. But also that they feel that you are going to take the time to truly listen and empathize with them.
And the last part of trust is self-orientation. This is one that has one of the biggest impacts in terms of whether we are seen as trustworthy or not. And this is really about when you get up each day and you go into work, who are you doing this for? Is it fundamentally about your own needs and your own career progression? Or does your team really feel that you are supporting and serving them and their needs as individuals?
Those four key elements … the first three – reliability, credibility, intimacy – we all want to increase those levels. But we want to have a low level of self-orientation. And I think it’s an important question, too, that we all need to ask ourselves from time—
Charlie: Yeah absolutely. I think there’s so many great points there, Jacqui. I think one that particularly stuck out for me was when was the last time that you looked to improve your credibility to your team? I think that’s very interesting; something that I never really thought about before. But with all this in mind, what kind of messages should we be passing on to our team leaders?
Jacqui: For me, the first one is lead by example because there’s no point in talking the talk and telling your team leaders what they should be doing if they are not seeing you displaying that same behaviour. Going back to what I was saying earlier about behaviour breeds behaviour. I think as a leader, if you’re an operational manager or a call centre manager or above, is that you’re demonstrating that you’re never too experienced to adapt and evolve yourself. You’re creating an environment where people feel that they have the opportunities to become the best version of themselves. Letting them see you demonstrating a belief that working together can achieve a better outcome. Treating your employees as colleagues and peers, as equals, by serving them rather than being seen as the person with all the power and authority to make decisions.
Another key aspect, I think, to send, to message your team leaders is stop and pause. Call centres are renowned for being very fast-paced, very busy, can be very stressful as well, as to say, based on my own experiences. But it’s very easy, I think, for leaders to get caught up in the day-to-day firefighting et cetera and not take enough time to just stop and pause. Because it’s only when we stop and listen and observe that we can truly get a sense of what people are actually saying to us and also what they’re not saying, and observing what’s going on in our team. Really being observant to pick up when perhaps somebody in the team is struggling and needs our support. Stopping and pausing, for me, within a fast-paced environment, I think is crucial.
Trust your team leaders and your advisors to make decisions and do the right thing for customers. And I think it’s important to look at your centre’s processes. Do they actually prevent people from having a level of autonomy and doing the right thing for the customers? And I think, going back to what we said about servant leaders, it’s about filling people up in terms of their knowledge and in terms of the praise and recognition.
I came across recently a story where the CEO of Campbell’s Soup apparently wrote over 30,000 praise and acknowledgment letters to their employees. And each of those letters was personal praise, not just what you often say in businesses; people saying thank you, which is great but not taking the time to be specific with that praise and recognition. And what the CEO did, he gave everybody this personal letter which was highlighting what he knew about them and in terms of what he was thanking them for. I think we can all take a leaf out of that book in terms of just spending a bit more time, I think, when we do give praise and recognition to people; that we really are specific with that praise rather than just the thank you.
Charlie: Yeah. So much great advice there, Jacqui. There’s so much I could pick up on, but I want to go back to one of the points that you made earlier that you talked about, intimacy, in spite of the funny name that comes with it. And it’s such an important point, as you say. And what advice would you give to team leaders for creating strong relationships with their advisors to create that intimacy, so to say?
Jacqui: I think that for me to start with explaining, really, what motivates people in the workplace. And we all want to feel valued and needed, and we all want to feel engaged within the day-to-day of our business. And we all have chemical incentives, as I call them, that reward us with positive feelings when we act in ways that would earn us trust and loyalty of other people. Creating an environment … As a leader, creating an environment where these positive feelings and these positive chemicals are produced is just understanding what we need to do in order to ensure that that happens.
Let’s mention a few of those chemicals I’m referring to. Serotonin, for example, is a chemical produced when we have a feeling of pride; when we know others like us and they appreciate what we do. Oxytocin is another positive chemical that gets produced when we have strong feelings of friendship and trust and when we perform tasks of generosity and for others. It’s also the chemical that enables us to empathize. So, empathizing with our colleagues, empathizing with our customers. But there’s a chemical that will reduce those levels of serotonin and oxytocin, which is cortisol. Cortisol is produced when we feel anxious, we’re vulnerable, we don’t feel appreciated. And if we have high levels of cortisol, then we find it difficult to empathize with others. So, we would find it difficult to empathize with our colleagues. We’d find it difficult to empathize with our customers. So, it would have a negative impact on the service that we deliver and it will have an impact on our level of motivation.
Simon Sinek refers to this in his book Leaders Eat Last as the circle of safety. The circle of safety is about building strong relationships and that level of intimacy that I was talking about earlier, and some of the ways in which this can be achieved. The first thing I want to start with is having everyday in-the-moment conversations. I think in many centres we appreciate that the research now tells us we need to move away from the annual performance review, the six-month performance review, even the monthly performance review, and actually to start having everyday engaging conversations with our team. And I witnessed this being introduced within the Tesco engagement centre and I saw the fantastic results that it achieved in terms of increasing employee engagement levels and an increase in customer satisfaction.
Those everyday conversations, they’re short conversations. They are checking in with your team to just understand how they’re feeling. They’re praise and recognition in the moment without them waiting to do it two or three days later. Giving developmental feedback in the moment, that’s your constructive criticism as some people call it. I like to call it developmental feedback. And just recognizing when somebody needs some support. Going back to what I said earlier about pausing, stopping, listening and observing and picking up on the signs somebody perhaps is feeling a little overwhelmed with their workload and would appreciate some support. Those everyday, short, in-the-moment conversations.
Charlie: Lots of great stuff again, there, Jacqui. But I just want to pick up on that point that you made around developmental feedback, especially when that happens to be negative feedback. How should we be equipping team leaders to have difficult conversations like these, as well as other difficult conversations around lateness and things like that?
Jacqui: I think the first thing is to communicate with your team leader population to find out, firstly, what they consider to be difficult conversations because every team leader will have different strengths and different skills, and what’s a difficult conversation for one team leader may be very straightforward for another. I think communication, firstly, to ensure that you understand the development needs of your team leader population. It’s also a great opportunity in terms of difficult conversations to build the confidence levels of your team leader population. It’s another great opportunity to be that servant leader that I talked about earlier.
Isn’t it better for a team leader to practise a difficult conversation with their headline manager rather than going straight into the real thing? Providing opportunities for your team leaders – yes, receive the training, which I will talk about shortly, but also giving them that confidence boost as well to give them their opportunity, as I say, to practise having those difficult conversations with them and getting constructive feedback to build their level of confidence I think would absolutely help.
Charlie: Just one thing that came off the back of that for me. I was thinking of other specific examples of those difficult conversations that we need to have in the contact centre, and one that came to my mind was confronting maybe an advisor who’s continually late. How would you advise a team leader go about that situation?
Jacqui: Firstly, I think we’ve got to make sure that our team leaders are fully trained on HR policies, the centre’s standards when it comes to attendance and punctuality, lateness, et cetera. And I think another important training that all team leaders should have is conscious and unconscious bias training. And the reason for this is we all have biases which are based on our education, could be based on our life experiences, could be based on our friends, our family, the experiences that we’ve had in life. We all have them. I think we all have to acknowledge that that is the case; that is part of us being human beings. But it’s also important for team leaders to understand the impact a conscious or an unconscious bias could have on the difficult conversation around the example you talked about in terms of lateness.
For example, you could have a team leader who has a strong belief and value in terms of punctuality. This is something that I share. I absolutely hate being late. I’m far harder on myself than I am on others. I would mention that. But it’s something that is very deep-rooted in me. I’m the person that would much rather be half an hour early for a meeting than be five or 10 minutes late. If you had a team leader that was very similar to me in that respect, it’s very easy for them to have a negative bias to a team member who has been late on several occasions because they may be thinking, look, that is clearly not important to that person. It’s important to me. I can manage to be here on time every day. Why can’t that person do the same? It could be very easy to jump to an assumption of a prejudgement about that individual in terms of their reasons for being late.
In order to make sure that we are treating people fairly and that we are taking the time to understand the causes of the situation, so we’re not trying to treat the symptoms but we’re actually getting to the root causes, that team leaders are fully trained on what conscious and unconscious bias is and how to ensure that they don’t allow those biases to impact conversations. For example, making sure that they fully understand company policies and processes and they are adhering to those is one way of making sure that we are treating people fairly.
The coaching that I talked about earlier is also a key skill because coaching is very much about asking questions rather than going in with the assumptions and telling people what we think are their reasons or what we think that they should do to improve. Ensuring that team leaders are trained in coaching skills, I think, is absolutely fundamental with any type of difficult conversation. It’s fine for a team leader to outline the outcome and the expectations that they have for that individual that has been late on several occasions, but it’s not acceptable to make a prejudgement or make an assumption or tell them what they think the solution is.
I think in terms of the lateness, making sure that team leaders are following company policies and they know what those are, and they’re not prejudging individuals, is important. And another key aspect is not putting it off because it’s a difficult conversation to have because if you’re putting something off it becomes 10 times harder anyway when you do have that conversation. But also, you need to consider as a team leader what message you’re sending to other team members because one thing I have learned within contact centres is people do watch what other people do and what they think they’re getting away with. So, I think it’s important to make sure you do have the conversation, you ask questions in order to find out the root causes, and that you are able to work together, work with that person, to then develop an action plan that’s going to work for the individual.
So, recognizing what support they may need but also outlining as well what the expectations are and any potential consequences of not fulfilling those expectations. And also, if necessary, being aware of the disciplinary process as well for team leaders. But I think the important thing is to make sure that conversations are taking place, we aren’t prejudging people, we are asking questions, we’re giving people the opportunity to help us understand their situation and developing an action plan that works for both parties.
Charlie: I think there’s so much great advice there, Jacqui. This not only applies to the situation that I gave, lateness, either. That could be applied to different scenarios such as confronting continuous absenteeism, for another example. So yeah, lots of good stuff in there. But I just want to quickly move on now to the importance of team leaders sharing their ideas with one another. Should we be giving team leaders the space to share best practices from one team to another?
Jacqui: Absolutely. Most of us will be aware that only around 10% of our development comes from attending training courses. It does feel a bit uncomfortable for me to say that when I’m a freelance trainer, but I absolutely know that that is the case. It’s what happens after the training that’s important. And it’s fundamental that team leaders, advisors receive ongoing coaching support in order to embed their skills. But 70% of the development of team leaders is on-the-job experiences, is learning. That learning can fundamentally come from each other, from their peers. It goes back to what I was saying earlier that team leaders have varying levels of experience, strengths, development areas. And in a contact centre, there’s going to be a very good mix of those experiences and skills at hand.
Giving team leaders the opportunity to share best practice with each other helps to improve communication across the centre, which is usually one of the key challenges that most contact centres face. It’s certainly what people tell me in the training room that what can always be improved in the contact centre is communication. But giving people the opportunity to talk to each other across departments, to share experiences, increases the level of communication and trust between each other. It helps team leaders to understand each other’s roles better because that’s something, again, that I find is quite typical, particularly if it’s a large contact centre, that a leader in one department may not necessarily know the role of another team leader in another department. They may not necessarily understand the impact that their role has on that other team leader.
So, I think as many opportunities to share best practice, talk to each other, give each other feedback, ask for feedback and just communicating and sharing those best practices, I think, is vital for any team leader to develop their skills and their level of confidence. It also ensures that there’s a reduction in any recurring mistakes because they’re communicating with each other regularly. And I’ve seen this work very well in a coaching context within some centres that I worked in where groups of team leaders came together from different departments to discuss – confidentially and not sharing individuals’ names – but just discussing the coaching that was happening within their teams and sharing ideas and best practices with each other in terms of what some of the challenges were and being able to hear ideas from other team leaders, perhaps, who have had to deal with similar challenges through coaching. And I’ve certainly seen the benefit of that in terms of that sharing best practice with each other because it developed the skills of the team leaders that were taking part in these groups and network groups. But also, it built their confidence as well.
In terms of creating a coaching culture, which I’m absolutely passionate about within contact centres, it was a really positive step in the right direction. I think it also helps to nurture natural mentoring of each other as well. People actually start to become mentors across the centre and sharing their strengths and their development areas with each other, I think, is an important aspect.
Charlie: Yeah. I think that’s … Again, there’s lots and lots of great advice there, Jacqui. It brings me back to when I was at the Domestic & General contact centre recently and all of them came together for 10 minutes each day just to tell them what they did yesterday, what they found successful and what they were going to do in the afternoon. It’s just simple little things like that can be so great at just spreading best practices across the call centre and just improving everyone’s performance. As you said, there’s lots of great stuff to go on. But I think, just to finish it up, let’s say if you could give our listeners a few quick takeaways from our conversation, what would you suggest?
Jacqui: I think the key things are it’s sometimes – and I say this quite a lot, actually – it’s the little things that can usually make a big impact on others. Those little things, I think, as I say, are stopping and pausing, taking more time out of your day to really listen to people. And when your team come to approach you, stop what you’re doing. I’ve seen far too often people typing away on their keyboards, nodding their head occasionally to appear to be listening but they’re not attentively listening. Really stopping and pausing and listening to people, I think, is fundamental.
Ensuring that you find time to have your one-to-ones and your coaching conversations. And that, I think, can be achieved … I’ve seen this achieved very well in centres where they ring-fenced coaching and one-to-one meetings so regardless of what was going on in the centre during that week or during that day, the message that they were sending to their employees was spending time with our people is still the most fundamental part of what we’re about and what we’re trying to achieve. For me, it’s about finding time to spend with your people. Have those everyday, in-the-moment conversations and stop and listen to what people are saying to you. Rather than just hearing it, you are truly listening.
Charlie: Yeah, I think that’s a really nice point to end on, as well. Just one final thing, though, that I probably should ask you, Jacqui, is where can our listeners find you if they want to access even more of your great content? Maybe on social media or something like that.
Jacqui: You can regularly find me on LinkedIn, whether that’s writing articles or posts or videos. I also have my own YouTube channel, on which you can actually find leadership challenges. Every week I post a new video which encourages leaders to focus on a particular task that week that will make a positive impact on them and their team. You can find those on the channel called The Learning Solutions YouTube Channel. And also, you can download guides and other resources on my website as well: TurnACorner.co.uk. And ‘turn a corner’ is all one word because people often think it’s not.
Charlie: Great stuff. And there’s a couple of articles that you’ve written on Call Centre Helper as well, so I will just give those a little shout out, too.
Jacqui: Thank you very much.
Charlie: That’s all for this episode. Thank you to Jacqui Turner for joining us today.