Customer insights and futures BT
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Contact centre collaboration: Moving from hierarchy to “wirerarchy”

3rd Aug 2016
Customer insights and futures BT
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Collaboration is a team sport. A collaboration of one would be a rather lonely and pointless exercise. At its best, collaboration is when people with different abilities blend their skills to make something that is worth more than the sum of its parts.

Sports teams typically understand the importance of collaboration and communication in achieving a shared common purpose. It would be very difficult to play hockey, football or rugby if every individual was out for themselves.

In the contact centre it may sometimes seem that we are passing the ball to a player who might be playing on a different field, in a different country and who may also be unaware of our location. We have no real idea if the goal is scored at the end of the day. No real idea of the impact that the contact centre made.

It’s clear-cut in sport, but business goals are often hidden behind layers of complexity so it’s easy to lose sight of the whole to which we are contributing and where we fit.

The social glue

Collaboration should be considered just as important in the contact centre as it is on the sports pitch. Goals should be driven by the customer – and much resource has been devoted into how organisations can best collaborate with customers. Less has been devoted to the collaboration dynamic amongst advisors and others down the service supply chain.

In fact, while we’ve encouraged advisors to talk to the customer over a multitude of channels, we’ve often actively discouraged them from communicating with each other. It is often looked upon as a complete waste of time. I can recall having conversations about deploying internal chat in contact centres only to get push back from people saying that they couldn’t possibly do that because their advisors might - gasp - talk to each other.

We are social creatures and that social “glue” between employees is vital to motivation, morale and employee engagement. It is dismissed at your peril, as one supermarket once found out. It decided that productivity amongst night shift shelf stackers would be greatly improved if they banned them from talking to each other. They did this – and everyone quit. Far from boosting productivity, it obliterated work ethic. This organisation underestimated the value of the social glue that is generated when people connect and collaborate with each other.

It is actually “good to talk”

In the contact centre space, MIT Professor Sandy Pentland has found that encouraging advisors to talk to each other can improve productivity. Rather than the usual practice of taking one person off on a break at a time, he suggested taking an entire team out so they could socialise with each other. This might look unproductive but, once advisors were back at their desks, they were more productive (as measured by call handling time). This resulted in savings estimated at $15 million a year.

The problem is that it is easy to dismiss “talking to each other” as a bad thing, despite evidence to the contrary. Contact centres, in particular, are becoming the hub of collaboration activity as they co-ordinate a complex spaghetti of back-end processes with customers, other departments and, in many cases, other organisations.

In the contact centre space, MIT Professor Sandy Pentland has found that encouraging advisors to talk to each other can improve productivity.

However, taking everyone out for a coffee break together in a complex supply chain is probably impossible. We exist in a world of weak ties. Trends towards partnering, shared services, outsourcing and offshoring means that our teams aren’t co-located. We are often passing the ball to people that we don’t know and expecting collaboration to happen by magic. When people are strangers, have spent little or no time with each other, and have very little in common beyond their ability to connect, they are unlikely to trust each other. It is also easier to blame people that we don’t know when the ball is dropped.

This is not an IT problem – technology can zip information around the world at the click of a button. The snag is that it relies on people being willing to share it in the first place. Collaboration doesn’t tend to work very well in a traditional, siloed, top-down, control-oriented hierarchy. These factors tend to work against a collective feeling of purpose.

From hierarchy to “wirerarchy”

Embedded in this collaboration conundrum lies a challenge between old power structures and new ones. In the old world, leadership was about “seeing” that people were working – contact centres were constructed so that leaders could survey their troops. This evolved into the perfect Panopticon – where people are monitored and observed, so they are constantly accountable. Leadership in this model is very much about command and control.

In our SuperAgent 2020 research, 47% of the contact centre professionals surveyed thought that a contact centre will be just that - a “centre” - in the future. Partially this is because the infrastructure investment already exists, but mostly it’s because managers find it harder to manage people they can’t see.

Options such as home working or hubworking are perfectly viable ways of getting talent without being tied to geography. However, the slow growth in home working in the UK’s contact centre industry is a good example of how culture can hold us back. Technologically, it is entirely possible to have advisors working from home or from anywhere between home and the office – BT’s first home working trials were in 1992!

47% of the contact centre professionals surveyed thought that a contact centre will be just that - a “centre” - in the future.

The one question I get asked again and again is “how do I know people are working?” Firstly, this question stems from a command and control mindset. Secondly, if you want to command and control, remote advisors generate the same MIS stats as people in the physical centre and can be monitored in exactly the same way. The only thing that is different is that these advisors need to connect with their managers and colleagues over collaboration tools rather than face-to-face.

The collaboration conundrum that holds us back is that leaders aren’t necessarily taught how to manage people they don’t see on a daily basis. It requires managers to move from command and control to leadership that is far more about connection, collaboration and articulation of a common sense of purpose. This requires leaders to trust people upfront (on credit, if you like), build a common language and brand, establish reliability and competency, be open and recognise diversity. They need to become what MIT calls ‘charismatic connectors’ – the people in the organisation who “know people” and connect customers, advisors and experts together to solve complex issues.

Guardians of the customer experience

This fits well with the fact that 62% of contact centre managers in our SuperAgent 2020 research believed that they were going to become the “guardians of the customer experience” by 2020.

This role implies that the contact centre will become far more strategic as they troubleshoot customer experience issues with the rest of the organisation. However, it does mean that collaboration becomes a very central part of the contact centre manager’s job as they collaborate with their advisors and the rest of the organisation. Help may be required to do this.

62% of contact centre managers believe that they were going to become the “guardians of the customer experience” by 2020.

Not only do they need access to tools that will help them to collaborate – from chat to video, social networks to the phone – but they also need the right skills. Research from London Business School suggests that only one in four of us are naturally good at managing our networks up and down the organisation. The good news is that it is a skill that can be taught.

So, just like the winning teams on the sports pitch, the contact centre is well-placed to become the central hub to co-ordinate play. Players need to learn the skill of passing the ball with confidence, knowing the goal will be scored. Ultimately, the team who solves the collaboration conundrum is likely to be the ultimate winner for the customer.

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