As part of our Contact Centre Manifesto series, our panel of training experts explain how to train your Team Leaders to best support your agents.
Team Leaders have the power to make or break the morale of their team, yet they are rarely given the training and support they need to do a great job.
Here are some common reasons why Team Leaders underperform:
They are promoted too soon – High staff turnover rates can result in agents being promoted into a Team Leader role for no other reason than to fill a vacancy. They are usually then left to “get on with the job” with little training and support.
They end up playing “first line support” – Instead of spending their time on the floor coaching agents, Team Leaders can end up becoming “first line support” – wasting their days fixing IT issues, acting as a substitute for a knowledge base, and reminding agents of important updates.
They spend too much time answering emails – Some Team Leaders believe that their core job is to answer emails from upper management. This can distract them from spending proper time on the contact centre floor.
They are neglected in terms of formal management – “In my experience the Team Managers are the most neglected in terms of formal management development and also are the ones who often hold the key to unlocking the performance of the advisors on the phones.” – Kath
They are more concerned with being friends with their team – “I struggle with Team Leaders wanting to be friends rather than leaders.” – Annahita
They are sandwiched between upper management and their team – “A Team Leader’s role is one the hardest jobs in any organisation, as they are sandwiched between management and their team. On the one hand, they follow policies and do paperwork for the managers; on the other hand, they try hard to get most KPIs from their team.” – Taj
What can we do about this?
Step One: Decide what you want your Team Leaders to be capable of doing
In this section, Martin Hill-Wilson at Brainfood Consulting explains why you need to decide what you want your Team Leaders to be capable of doing before writing your training programme.
What do you want to provide as training for your Team Leaders? This will depend on what you want them to be capable of doing.
You need to clarify what being a Team Leader means in your organisation in order to understand personal development needs.
That’s a broad spectrum these days. The two ends of the spectrum are:
- Being part of a command control structure focused on maintaining conformance in a KPI-driven performance culture
- Acting as an advisor coach and customer journey improvement facilitator in service cultures that have joined the dots between customer and employee engagement
Most service organisations are wriggling free of the former and edging their way towards a customer-experience-centred approach.
Focus your training decisions around the future of the contact centre industry
We can expect significant failure to adapt and a growing recognition that both advisor and Team Leader profiles are going to be rewritten as contact centres adapt to the expectations for agile service delivery.
“My 3–5-year view is that the number of people will have significantly reduced, as Intelligent Assistance in the context of greater mobile engagement gains traction and live assistance becomes more of a tier-three support service,” said Martin Hill-Wilson.
If you add this forecast to the existing ideas around the Team Leader as a Coach, the competencies required become clearer.
Create a Team Leader Development Strategy
Once you have established a firm idea of what being a Team Leader means in your organisation, you should create a Team Leader Development Strategy.
This will act as a reference point to ensure consistency across the contact centre.
Here are 14 key items that should be on your Team Leader Development Strategy:
- Understanding the brand’s customer experience ambitions and the contact centre’s responsibilities
- In-depth insight into what matters to customers in all major customer journeys that the contact centre supports
- Understanding security, compliance and fiduciary responsibilities
- Knowing how the organisation measures success and their role in that achievement
- Practical understanding of what motivates people to perform
- The value and habit of personal development goals
- Developing interpersonal communication skills
- The art and techniques of coaching
- Knowing how to develop a team and its role in supporting individual service excellence
- How to establish and support a self-managing performance culture
- Managing team and individual performance
- How to support under-performance
- How to develop a ‘voice of the team’ and ensure it is heard and acted on
- A day/week/month in the life of a coaching-orientated Team Leader
Step Two: Explain the challenges that come with being a Team Leader so they have a chance to mentally prepare
In this section, Nick Drake-Knight at Continue & Begin Ltd explains why you need to tell Team Leaders about the challenges that come with the role.
Team leadership is a tricky business
Teams can be an odd collective. Members come with personal skills and attributes, as well as specific individual needs and behavioural characteristics which don’t always fit perfectly with the achievement of organisational goals.
Blending task delivery with effective people leadership is a testing skill, even for the most accomplished and experienced Team Leader.
Newly promoted Team Leaders may find their role rather more challenging than they first thought. Team leadership requires dexterity and flexibility in communication as much as it does technical planning and execution.
Investment in their team will be both challenging and rewarding
You need to explain to your Team Leaders that investment in people, in all its forms, will be the single most challenging (and potentially rewarding) activity they will face in their role.
They must learn that team members can be catalysts at the heart of operations, driving the business forward with innovative thinking, commitment and skills.
But they should also be aware that these same team members can be challenging and volatile, as much as dedicated and reliable, caring and supportive, hard-working or lazy, focused or scatty, supportive or disruptive, detailed or big-picture aware, goal-driven, inspired and… just about everything else in between!
Step Three: Teach a structured approach to overcoming these challenges
In this section, Nick Drake-Knight at Continue & Begin Ltd explains why you also need to train Team Leaders on how to overcome these challenges.
Team members need to understand what is expected of them
The challenge is that, although people are not machines, they do have numerous ‘settings’ which can be affected by how the team is structured, managed and led.
“What all team members have in common is a fundamental need to understand what is expected of them, referred to as ‘Task Clarity’,” said Nick Drake-Knight. “This may seem obvious, and yet too many organisations I have helped over the years have ‘Fuzzy Leadership’; that is, Team Leaders are unclear with their team members on what represents excellence of performance and how they communicate this.”
Using the NDK Performance Model
One way to help resolve this is to apply the NDK Performance Model.
Here’s the model:
Level 1 – Explicit standards
Outstanding call centre Team Leaders have an explicit set of performance standards spelling out exactly what is expected of team members.
This approach applies irrespective of the industry sector or customer context. People need to know what is expected of them if they are to work to a given standard.
Explicit standards in teams usually come in 5 categories:
- Environment – expectations regarding maintenance of physical surroundings within which a call centre agent operates, including how resources are to be used
- Process – compliance with the procedures, practices and flow of activities required to achieve success
- Knowledge – expectations regarding an agent’s underpinning knowledge and understanding of a product or service
- Behaviour – expectations of personal communication, verbal and non-verbal, which contribute to effective outcomes for the customer, for the individual team player and for the whole team
- Values – where a set of organisational and call centre team values, or cultural expectations, are in place.
Level 2 – Consistency
Top-performing call centre Team Leaders strive for consistency of excellence across the team, not just in key individuals.
Effective training can help with this, especially when it is competence based and aligned with the explicit standards prescribed by the business and honed by the team leader.
But here’s the rub: consistency is of limited value if it’s temporary.
World-class Team Leaders know that performance excellence must be delivered day in and day out, long after the latest training initiative has been launched.
In some organisations, training is like throwing wet mud against the wall: most of the mud slides off the wall immediately.
Level 3 – Sustainability
In fact, call centre agent training is a complete waste of energy and resources unless it is made sustainable.
Key to sustainability is the development of a coaching philosophy and leadership behaviours that allow Team Leaders to keep the plates spinning long after an agent’s training event has passed.
Sustainability through individual and team coaching keeps the momentum up and turns the training into habitual behaviours!
Step Four: Clarify how you expect your Team Leaders to spend their time
In this section, Carolyn Blunt at Real Results Training explains why it is important that you clarify how you expect your Team Leaders to spend their time.
You should also explain how you expect your Team Leaders to manage their different tasks to help ensure that every aspect of the role receives equal attention across the week.
Team Leaders should divide their time equally between people, task and process
Every manager has elements of their role that they like and elements that they like less (or even hate!).
Ask your Team Leaders to think about these three words:
If someone has a preference for ‘people’, they will be concerned with ‘helping’ others and would hate to be seen as ‘cold’ or ‘unfeeling’.
They will empathise and be considerate but can become totally immersed in people issues, leaving the other parts of the triangle (task and process) neglected.
If someone has a preference for ‘task’ they will be focused on achieving results, have a strong sense of urgency and be assertive.
However, others can see them as competitive, controlling and blunt. They might be so focused on getting things done that the people and process elements can be overlooked.
Those with a preference for ‘process’ need to get things right. They are focused on correctness, order, and logic and have a strong sense of fairness and personal integrity.
However, they would rather be right than popular! If they are too task focused, they can be seen as unemotional, detailed and cautious.
They will go out of their way to minimise risk and conduct lengthy analysis if needed – even if the task and people elements are suffering.
Effective Team Leaders need to focus on people, task and process activities in equal measure.
If your Team Leaders are too focused on their natural preference, ask them what they could be neglecting to help them find a positive, day-to-day balance.
Team Leaders should put their personal preferences aside
Team Leaders need to be aware of whether or not members of their team are rewarded for meeting their own personal preferences and focus.
This misunderstanding can be at the root of the perception of a ‘difficult performer’, since we all like people who are similar to ourselves – life is just easier that way.
Where people are led by a manager of a different preference, there must be a level of flexibility on the manager’s part to meet the needs of the individual.
Failure to value people in the way they like to be appreciated can lead to higher levels of staff turnover.
Often managers fall into the trap of recruiting a team of ‘clones’, which can mean everyone gets along well, but serious ‘gaps’ in the skills matrix occur.
Invest time in developing self-awareness
Investing time in developing self-awareness and wider skills in non-preferred areas for Team Leaders and their team may stop the continuous cycle of recruiting and replacing people (or sorting out squabbles).
Team Leaders should ask themselves “How might my team’s performance be different if I changed my focus?”
Step Five: Team Leaders need to be taught how to manage a team of self-sufficient agents
In this section, Carolyn Blunt at Real Results Training explains why Team Leaders must know how to manage self-sufficient agents.
All Team Leaders should be taught the skills they need to develop and manage a self-sufficient team of agents.
This approach will help them to make the most of their working day, instead of being sucked into “babysitting” and fixing minor issues.
Here are a few things to keep in mind:
Team Leaders shouldn’t indulge agents in their silly quibbles
Many Team Leaders spend their days feeling like a glorified babysitter, ticking very little off their strategic to-do list.
A good Team Leader will command such respect that agents wouldn’t dream of taking the same silly little quibbles and gripes to them over and over. They wouldn’t allow that.
…Instead they should ask questions to help agents resolve their own problems
A good way to encourage this positive relationship is for Team Leaders to ask questions and make agents recognise that they had the answer within themselves or knew where to go to get it.
This should hopefully mean that they think twice before approaching their Team Leader with lazy questions again.
If a Team Leader is being nice and helpful, it sends out the message that it is ok for agents to bring issues and squabbles to them – when really they should be capable of resolving it amongst themselves.
Team Leaders need to stop bending over backwards for their team
Some Team Leaders, often in their eagerness to please their own manager, take some of the mantras of leadership (such as being genuinely interested, listening and approachable) too far and allow their team to steal precious time and take advantage if they are that way inclined.
Being the best Team Leader isn’t about bending over backwards every minute of the day. They’ll soon feel like they are being pulled in a million different directions. People will take advantage of them and their boss will be disappointed when they don’t get through the other work they need to do.
Here are some solutions:
- Be firm but fair with everyone
They don’t need to show power or control. In fact, they want to think about how every action they do demonstrates that they put the organisation and the team before themselves, but not at the expense of getting the job done.
- Be open and honest
If the answer to a request or idea is no, then a good Team Leader will explain why.
If they have to do some digging to get to the real ‘why’ then they should do it. Their team will still like to know that they tried for them and they’ll appreciate knowing some facts and figures.
- Show respect for themselves and everyone else
A Team Leader’s values and how they behave are watched by everyone around them.
If they abuse themselves by not getting enough sleep, being unhealthy or by being negative, then this is really demoralising for their team.
Why would they want to aspire to follow in their Team Leader’s footsteps? They’ll think “Being a manager in this place is clearly not worth it”, and may even feel sorry for them. Carrying that sympathy is only taking an agent’s energy away from the customers that they need to serve on the phones.
So once they have their own head and heart in order, Team Leaders need to think about their ability to raise the performance of their team.
A great Team Leader can unlock 20% extra discretionary effort in their team
According to research, everyone has about 20% extra discretionary effort within them.
Whether a team chooses to give it or not on a daily basis depends a lot on what the Team Leader does.
Step Six: Explain the value of constructive feedback and teach Team Leaders how to give it (fairly) to their agents
In this section, Carolyn Blunt at Real Results Training explains why Team Leaders need to know how to deliver constructive feedback.
Team Leaders should understand the value of constructive feedback and be trained to give it in a way that is both fair and motivating.
Positive feedback should be specific, public and genuine
Effective Team Leaders give feedback – both positive and adjusting – so that agents know the standards required.
Positive feedback should be specific, public and genuine.
Everyone likes to feel they are doing a good job, so Team Leaders shouldn’t hold back – praise is the easiest and most cost-effective solution to an immediate feel-good factor for agents.
Team Leaders should praise a member of their team every day
Team Leaders should look for something to praise a member of their team for every day and rotate the team member receiving the praise fairly.
They may have to go looking for things to praise, but it is a good habit to get into.
Asking internal customers for feedback, earwigging into conversations, and asking for ideas, opinions or volunteers all create opportunities for praise.
A lack of corrective feedback could lead to widespread disgruntlement
Team Leaders also need to understand that corrective feedback is just as important as giving praise when it comes to inspiring and motivating a team of agents.
If a Team Leader fails to address a team member who cruises below average, star performers will pick up the slack, but slowly and surely they become (quite rightly) disgruntled at having to do so.
Other team members start to think “if they can get away with it, so will I” and a culture permeates where it is okay to have longer lunches, arrive a little later, leave a little earlier, spend hours on social networking websites and make long personal phone calls.
All of these erode productivity, as well as the team, department and organisational performance.
Avoiding difficult conversations could see smaller problems escalate
If Team Leaders dislike giving ‘criticism’, they should try to think of it as ‘adjusting feedback’ – and also consider the consequences for their team’s performance if they don’t have those difficult conversations.
For example, the team member has drifted slightly off course and the Team Leader needs to adjust them back on track.
Giving this feedback immediately will mean they have not deviated too far from the norm. Wait a while, and the Team Leader will have a much bigger problem on their hands.
Step Seven: Offer a continued programme of support to your Team Leaders
In this section, Simon Thatcher at The Personal Improvement Coach explains why Team Leaders need to be supported with a continued programme of support to ensure success.
Training Team Leaders isn’t a “sheep-dipping” exercise that can be done once a year. For the best outcomes for everyone involved, you need to offer a continuing programme of structure and support.
Ensure you have a clear measurement for success
Just like any other training that you might carry out, you have to ensure a method to check how effective the training has been.
This can sometimes be challenging as you are unlikely to be able to measure success through tests and role plays. For example, how would you measure that an individual has developed their empathy?
In these situations, consider observational feedback or 360 feedback from peers.
Talk to your Team Leaders and their line managers to uncover real skills gaps
It is common for Team Leaders to enter a training session and ask “So why am I here?” – so you also need to ask the question “Who wants and needs the training?”
Start by carrying out a training needs analysis – and ask the delegates which skills they want to develop. They can choose from a pre-set list if you want.
This should be followed up by their line manager completing the same analysis and answering the question based on their observations of the Team Leader.
You then compare the responses to determine which areas you then specifically invest your time and money in.
Note: If you do find Team Leaders telling you they don’t need any additional support, then don’t force them into training.
Offer a variety of training options
You need to deliver your training agenda in an imaginative way – with a mix of learning approaches of which classroom learning is just one.
Whether this is a structured buddy system, e-learning or flipped learning (focusing on active learning strategies), it’s important to understand that what works for one person may not work for another.
Allow time for soft skills to be practised and properly embedded
One of the biggest issues facing Team Leader training is that soft skills are not developed overnight. They take time to embed and require practice and a culture that allows delegates to make mistakes and learn from them.
In an ideal world, you would want to develop and implement these skills before individuals take on the role of Team Leader.
A well-designed and well-supported soft skills programme is often the key that lets managers become true leaders.
“Higher up” management teams need to lead by example
Expectations of Team Leaders in regard to the training agenda and style of leadership need to be actively supported and demonstrated by whoever manages them.
Team Leaders need positive role models too!
Here are some additional thoughts from our readers:
Don’t force Team Leaders into cookie-cutter models of behaviour
Give Team Leaders the freedom to choose, act, and learn.
Forcing team leaders into cookie-cutter models of behaviour stagnates growth and destroys the spirit of entrepreneurship critical to being a successful leader.
With thanks to Dave Salisbury
Team Leaders need to be inspired themselves before leading their teams
In my experience, Team Leaders need to be motivated and inspired themselves before you can even start to expect them to lead their teams.
Empowerment is key to engagement.
With thanks to Karen Ashby
Explain and share the decision-making process
Forget about top-down management and get them involved.
Explain and share the decision-making process. Allow them to care for their team members.
With thanks to Vincent Van Calck
Managers should nurture confidence in their Team Leaders
Team Leaders should be encouraged to bring out the best within themselves, to have confidence in their abilities.
All of that requires that their managers develop a coaching culture.
With thanks to Clare Luckman
Teach Team Leaders how to build great teams AND have difficult conversations
Help them understand their strengths and how they can use them every day to build a team.
Focus on how to build great teams, delegating, how to celebrate success and have difficult conversations.
With thanks to Jo Hale
Empower Team Leaders to make decisions and provide constructive feedback
Empowerment is the key!
The reason why many Team Leaders don’t operate at their optimum is usually because there is not enough support to empower them to make decisions and provide constructive, documented feedback.
With thanks to Deneshan Chetty
Team Leaders should be free to express themselves
If management allows Team Leaders who have strong people skills to express themselves as if it were their own business, they will be successful.
With thanks to Justin Primus
Continuous training is key to success
Continuously train them.
Education is ongoing in our evolutionary industry.
With thanks to Aschwyn Samuel
Team Leaders need communication skills and structured training to succeed
Being a successful call centre Team Leader requires communication skills, empathy and compassion.
Combine that with a structured approach to team leadership, add in a spoonful of tenacity and assertion, and new and established Team Leaders will see standards and team performance delivered consistently well, over a sustained period.
This article forms part of The Contact Centre Manifesto series
Additional resources for Team Leaders
Here are some articles Team Leaders and aspiring Team Leaders may also find useful:
- How to Structure a Quality Coaching Session
- 5 Effective Training Exercises for Your Contact Centre
- 10 Tips for Preparing Agents for Team Leadership
- How Do I… Make Time for Agent Training?
- How to Coach Agents for Attitude
- Top Tips for Training and Induction
Take advice from some of the best trainers in the industry
This article has been co-written by some of the best trainers currently working in the contact centre industry:
- Nick Drake-Knight at Continue & Begin Ltd
- Martin Hill-Wilson at Brainfood Consulting
- Simon Thatcher at The Personal Improvement Coach
- Carolyn Blunt at Real Results Training
What have you tried in your contact centre to make your Team Leaders the best that they can be?
Click on the ‘leave a comment’ box below.