How can contact centre managers drive agent engagement?

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Why are line managers so crucial to employee engagement - and how can they drive up engagement?

Managing a contact centre is tougher than it’s ever been – and it’s not about to get any easier either. Over the last three to five years, there have been big shifts in consumer behaviour as customers’ expectations continue to rise and their tolerance of poor service continues to fall.

According to management consultancy Accenture’s annual Global Customer Pulse survey, a huge 59% of customers are more informed than they were five years ago, while nearly two-thirds switched supplier due to poor customer service in at least one industry. Not only are customers more demanding though, but contact centre agents also have more to get to grips with. For instance, the technology they use to do the job is changing constantly.

There is also a huge amount of product convergence going on - for example, while broadband providers used to just sell one product, they now offer three or four as part of a package. But the fact that workers have more to learn and understand simply adds to the pressure in an already pressurised environment.

To make the situation even more tricky for managers, many contact centres these days also have three generations – some even from the same family – working within their four walls, all with different expectations, motivations and levels of ability. As Luke Mills, a managing director at Accenture Consulting, points out: “It’s a very tough job. Being an inspiring leader each day is difficult and it’s not getting any easier.”

But it is an important one because, according to yet more Accenture research, top performers create six positive customer experiences to every negative one. This compares with the lowest performers, who generate four negative experiences to three positive ones. The issue, says Theresa Wishart, managing director of contact centre provider ESP Group’s Journeycall, is that “an engaged person will look to succeed in the environment they work in. If there’s a sense of ownership, everyone wants the organisation to succeed and so, by default, it will”.

So the value in having an engaged workforce in customer service terms is high and is definitely something to be actively cultivated. Here we look at how you can go about doing just that and why you as a line manager are so crucial to getting it right:

1. Why are line managers key to employee engagement?

It’s impossible to overestimate the importance of managers in employee engagement terms – as the old HR adage goes: “People leave managers, not companies.”

A report released earlier this year by market researchers Gallup entitled ‘State of the American Manager: Analytics and Advice for Leaders’ also backs up this statement. It revealed that managers account for at least 70% of the variance in employee engagement scores across different business units within the same organisation.

Jane Sunley, chief executive of specialist engagement consultancy, PurpleCubed, explains the rationale: “Managers are massively key to engagement – the manager is the company to the people working under them and they’ve got a real job on to keep people motivated. HR can facilitate and put the right things in place, but only managers can make the difference.”

Managers are massively key to engagement – the manager is the company to the people working under them and they’ve got a real job on to keep people motivated.

It’s something worth bearing in mind when, according to Accenture Consulting’s Mills, each contact centre agent “has between 40 and 50 opportunities each day to create a good customer experience”.

2. What are they most common characteristics of motivational managers?

There are a number of key characteristics that the best managers tend to display. These are:

  • Showing credibility – You need to demonstrate that you can speak confidently and knowledgeably about the work being undertaken and that you understand the roles being performed by your staff. In fact, in the best performing operations, managers routinely sit with their teams, listen to calls and even take them themselves to keep their skills up to date. They also always make themselves available in order to provide their workers with help, explanations and coaching where required.
  • Demonstrating good communication – It’s vital that you are able to share the values and objectives of the business with employees in a meaningful way that brings them to life. But you also need to clarify how each worker fits into this picture and why their contribution is both valued and valuable. Otherwise people can end up just feeling like a cog in a wheel. Also be clear about what is expected of them and what they need to do to do a good job without micro-managing anyone or breathing down their necks.
  • Being firm but fair – Be prepared to give both negative and positive feedback in a polite and respectful way, but always remember to give credit where it’s due - the value of recognising good performance and giving praise cannot be underestimated. Should people make a mistake, on the other hand, it is important not to browbeat them or undertake a witch-hunt. A much more positive approach is to explore the issue, listen and work out together how it could be avoided in future.

3. How important is it that line managers are engaged themselves?

It is just as important for line managers to be motivated and engaged as their employees, not least because their attitude will rub off.

As a result, it is incumbent on senior leaders to ensure that the right development, training, skills and tools are in place to help them do their job effectively – even at a time when everyone is trying to do more for less. To do so boils down to seeing the bigger, long-term picture rather than cutting corners for short-term gain.

Simply promoting people and then leaving them to their own devices after a couple of days is unlikely to have positive repercussions. Starting them off with a small team and providing adequate support while they develop their skills, on the other hand, will free them up to spend as much time as possible with their staff and save them from constantly having to fire-fight.

Moreover, simply bashing managers over the head with numerical targets is unlikely to generate anything but fear and negative pressure, which tends to be passed down the line. Reframing the argument to say that ‘nothing is as important as being with your team and making them happy’, however, is likely to generate much more positive results – and not just in engagement terms.

4. How can line managers best enable employee engagement?

The secret to employee engagement for any manager is to really value and put your workers first.

As Accenture Consulting’s Mills puts it: “The question that managers need to ask themselves is ‘how do I make the working experience better for my advisors?’ And if they can answer that, they’ll go a long way to creating a positive culture.”

Possible answers here range from providing decent renumeration and a pleasant physical working environment to supporting health and wellbeing and ensuring positive incentive schemes are in place.

Managers tend to think they have all the answers, but really they’re there to facilitate getting the best answer from the people doing the job.

But other important ‘softer’ ones also include giving employees a voice and encouraging them to feel as if they are part of a team working towards a common goal. To facilitate this means developing a mutually honest relationship in order to garner feedback that can be acted on to ensure continual business improvement.

One possible means of getting there is, like Journeycall, to set up an employee engagement association, which includes staff and management representatives. Meeting monthly, the association discusses current business activities, policies and procedures in order to contribute to decision-making – an activity that promotes engagement simply by making people feel involved.

Another potential approach though is to invite teams to go off somewhere without their manager to work out where things are going wrong or where there is room for improvement, before feeding back.

As Purple Cubed’s Sunley says: “Managers tend to think they have all the answers, but really they’re there to facilitate getting the best answer from the people doing the job. So it’s about listening and consulting rather than feeding them things – and being courteous enough to explain why if their ideas aren’t taken on board.”

5. What are the most common employee engagement pitfalls and what can be done about them?

One of the most common managerial mistakes is simply not recruiting the right people, perhaps through desperation. But hiring staff who don’t fit into the culture, can’t do the job or don’t want to do their best can have serious repercussions. As Purple Cubed’s Sunley points out: “At best, they’ll be asleep in the corner, but at worst, they could be sabotaging the business.”

Another issue is not listening to employees and failing to treat them as adults. As an alternative approach, Sunley recommends allowing workers to set their own goals and targets, and even their own rotas.

“Organisations say it would be chaos, but I say give it a go for a few months,” she says. “People are adults and if you give them more freedom over the way they work, you might be surprised by the results.”

Mothers, for example, have time management, leadership and budgeting skills from working at home “so why not let them use them in the office?” Sunley adds.

The final but biggest pitfall though is simply not taking employee engagement seriously, but simply paying lip service to it instead. Because as Journeycall’s Wishart concludes: “Staff are the jewel in the crown of your organisation and, if you don’t look after them, you’re not looking after the health of the business.”

About Cath Everett


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