By Jim Rembach

Sink or swim!

That’s been the most common experience for contact centre supervisors when it comes to their skill development.

59% of frontline supervisors come from the agent ranks according to an International Customer Management Institute (ICMI) report, Agent Apathy: The Root Cause of Poor Customer Service1. Yet the skills to lead the front lines, like coaching and managing people are very different from being on the front lines.

When I was promoted to supervisor my experience was like so many others. My training consisted of learning about policies, procedures and legal issues to keep my company out of trouble. When it came to being a leader I was given a book, The One Minute Manager and the instruction to teach my people everything I knew. And I was told that would certainly be my pathway to success.

But I quickly realized that leading agents in a contact centre was not that simple. I needed much more than a book to experience success. And as I go around to different industry events I talk with many current and former supervisors and we share the same sink or swim experiences.

High-performing supervisors essential

Sink or swim is not viable. Having high-performing contact centre supervisors is no longer an optional extra for organizations. Consider these points from The Centre for Workplace Leadership at the University of Melbourne (Australia):

  • Front line managers are no longer the limbs of an organization but the entire muscular-skeletal system;
  • Front line leadership, when aggregated to the company level, is just as important as senior leadership; and
  • As economic volatility increases, front line leadership capability can have a greater impact on business outcomes than senior leadership.

Therefore, every business needs a supervisor success path to follow based on the competencies of high performers.

The supervisor coaching gap

According to the Customer Contact Week Digital CCW Winter Executive Report: Contact Center Priorities for 2018 coaching is the number one priority in contact centres. In many circles the thought of coaching is about supervisors coaching agents2.

But when it comes to supervisors most of them go uncoached. They either do not have someone who can coach them or their coaching resources are time-constrained with their own job responsibilities. Yet how can you expect the uncoached to coach?

Not surprisingly this leads to several troubling consequences as noted in a Development Dimensions International (DDI) report, Be Better Than Average: A study on the state of frontline leadership:

  • Only 18% of organizations feel they have a supply of capable employees to fill front line leadership roles;
  • More than 50% of newly promoted supervisors fail;
  • Only 33% of employees say they feel their supervisors are effective; and
  • 80% of employees leave because of the relationships with their immediate supervisors3.

Think about this. If there’s not an ample supply of employees to fill supervisor roles and most supervisors are ineffective and agents leave because of their relationships with their supervisors, this vicious cycle tells us very clearly that the lack of (or ineffective) supervisor skill development is the root cause of this problem.

There’s no guessing the solution needed here. High-performing supervisors develop future supervisors. The best leaders develop more (and better) leaders and retain more people.

Supervisors failure is preventable

This supervisor development quality issue is totally preventable. Instead of sink or swim give supervisors a learning journey framework and pathway to success.

To capture improvements and greater performance quality in supervisor skill development requires two things. First, a continuous, experiential and holistic competency-based skill development approach. Second, the use of tools such as virtual classrooms, micro-learning, videos, blogs, boot camps, podcasts, coaching and professional communities of practice.

For organizations that have been able to leverage this approach they are seeing big returns. And the aforementioned DDI research show when organizations develop their front-line leaders adhering to the success path and learning journey framework, development quality increases by more than 90% versus just 9%.

Having a plan and pathway to skill development versus just receiving a book, movie or more than just a piece of knowledge should be the common practice. Let’s face it, their success is crucial to your success.

The six core competencies

Our research has found that high-performing supervisors need to develop and grow their skills in six core competencies:

  1. Staff development.
  2. Customer service and sales.
  3. Results orientation.
  4. Building collaborative relationships.
  5. Communication and change management.
  6. Business acumen.

These core competencies need to be taught, practiced, coached and validated. Merely teaching them in a classroom does not transfer to job performance.

Creating the supervisor success blueprint

To develop high-performing supervisors and capture 90% or greater of high-level quality skill development, develop a plan i.e. blueprint with multiple methods of learning:

  • Training on the six core competencies. Validate knowledge and understanding and break learning into phases of mastery;
  • Micro-learning. On-demand or just-in-time courses that reinforce and provide greater insight into the six core competencies;
  • Quick tips. On-demand or just-in-time access to information that targets key learning opportunities and real-world scenarios faced by supervisors;
  • Questions and answers. Provide a way for supervisors to quickly get answers to questions about supervisor-type issues. This is not a company help desk about technical issues but a front-line leadership resource;
  • Boot camps. Also known as challenge courses they give supervisors ways to learn and practice new success behaviours in short periods of time;
  • Industry insights. Supervisors are pressed to be more innovative and creative. For this to occur they need exposure to the outside of the organization; and
  • Communities of practice. Organizations that leverage a community of practice for peers in specific skilled jobs report a massive acceleration in skill development.

Constructing a “Supervisor Success Path” focusing on the six core competencies using various learning methods in a framework is how you develop a high-performing front-line supervisor team that actually prevents problems from happening. It is also how you get a coordinated team that engages employees and customers and squashes turnover problems.

In conclusion your contact centre supervisors are one of the most important parts of your company’s infrastructure, as they’re responsible for the success of your customer interactions, for the performance of your customer experience efforts and for the overall effectiveness of
your agents.

Don’t let them drown.

Jim Rembach is a former contact centre supervisor and is president of Call Center Coach where it helps front line leaders to rapidly build their skills in the six core competencies of successful contact centre supervisors in less than 90-days. www.callcentercoach.com, jim@callcentercoach.com.

1 ICMI, “Agent Apathy: The Root Cause of Poor Customer Service, “report, April 30, 2015.

2 Customer Contact Week Digital, “CCW Winter Executive Report: Contact Center Priorities for 2018”, report.

3 Bruce Watt, Mark Busine, Samantha York, Development Dimensions International, “Be Better Than Average: A study on the state of frontline leadership”, report, 2013.

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