If you were to sit in on a typical training session in most customer contact centers, you’d see the trainer standing in the front of the room lecturing. You’d see a certain amount of drill at computer terminals, and you might see some role-playing in which the participants try out what has been taught by the trainer and give each other feedback. And you may see the trainer hand out a quiz now and then to verify understanding.
What you won’t be able to see is how much learning is actually taking place. That’s where coaching comes in.
THE LIMITS OF TRAINING
Classroom training is still the most effective way to impart new concepts, skills, and information. But even the best-designed training program by itself is never enough. Trainees who don’t completely absorb what is presented or who have difficulty replicating the desired results can get lost in the classroom shuffle — especially if the training doesn’t accommodate varying learning styles.
If the trainer is insufficiently skilled or if what takes place in the training room is not in synch with the reality of the contact center floor, the results will be unsatisfactory when the trainees return to operations. In the classroom most people can develop familiarity with the content and learn what’s expected of them on the job. But in many cases they don’t really figure out exactly what to do until they’re in an operational workstation using the real systems applications and talking to customers live.
THE COACHING ROLE AND ROUTINE
Coaching bridges the gaps that training leaves; it is the most effective tool for confirming learning, getting reps up to speed regarding acceptable call content and style, and keeping them there. Coaching is intended to correct or improve individual performance and should be delivered one on one. It’s brief, often done of the moment and on the fly. The best coaching is relationship-based and consists of ongoing observation, feedback, and follow-up.
Coaching and counseling are two different things. Coaching focuses on improving or correcting work-specific, demonstrable skills. Counseling is needed if a personal problem exists, such as poor attendance, rudeness to peers, or not working up to potential, and it helps get the employee back on the right track by explaining what is not working and the consequences of continued nonperformance or inappropriate behavior. The coach may need to switch to counseling or may have to involve a counselor if the employee proves resistant to coaching.
A MODEL COACH
It’s surprising how many coaches fall into the trap of trying to figure out an employee’s motive or trying to correct attitude when they should be attending to observable behavior — what the rep said and did in the call. The coach must be able to talk to the rep with exacting detail about what happened. Generalized criticism such as “In that last call, you really sounded kind of rude” or “That’s not the way we like our employees to talk to customers” is worse than useless. Most reps will be duly distressed but won’t have a clue about what to change. It’s much better to specify, “I was uncomfortable when you said to Mrs. Jones, ‘It’s not our fault the package came later than you wanted, because you didn’t ask for express shipping.’ It almost sounded as if you were blaming her for being an incompetent customer.”
Recognizing what behaviors the rep must change is just the beginning; the next step is analytical. The coach has to identify the specific differences between current behavior and desired behavior, and then make sure the rep can comprehend the difference and perform the action or behavior correctly.
The coach should expect to model the correct behavior: “Next time, you could pause, take a breath, and try something like, ‘Mrs. Jones, I’m sorry that the package didn’t arrive when you expected it. Let’s see what we can do to get it right out to you.’” Coaches who explain the informational content of a correct response but don’t model how the response should be delivered are much less effective. Instead of giving clear, actionable direction they’re still relying on the rep to figure out the best way to integrate procedural requirements, customer service language, and personal tone and style.
The coach should underscore the value of changing to the correct behavior (customer satisfaction, rep pride) as well as the long-term implications of continuing the unsatisfactory behavior. A coaching session isn’t complete without getting the rep’s explicit commitment to practice and use the new behavior. Otherwise, the rep may agree but then go right back to the old way of speaking as soon as the coach has left the scene.
FINDING THE COACH
The best person to deliver coaching knows both the job and the employee. In most operations, this is the direct supervisor with responsibility for performance. Coaching ability is one of the most critical keys to supervisory job effectiveness. In addition to understanding job requirements, the supervisor has control of the employee’s time. Physical proximity for observation, intervention, and follow-through is also necessary.
Strong coaches usually have personal expertise in the subject at hand; there’s little or no time to look things up or consult other authorities during a coaching interaction. So the coach should be completely conversant with good phone technique to identify any call behaviors that need improvement as well as to suggest effective alternatives.
The effective coach is concrete and specific in making explanations and presenting requirements. He exhibits patience, makes neutral, nonaccusatory statements, and is generally persuasive and engaging; he listens carefully and acknowledges the employee’s concerns.
Coaching can take place no matter how lean your operation. Virtually no materials are necessary; delivery expense is limited to the off-phone time necessary to conduct the coaching session. Coaching can improve merely adequate skills and provide on-the-spot motivational attention. It demonstrates the coach’s interest in, knowledge of, and concern for the performer as an individual. And in addition to improving performance quality, every coaching session is a chance to strengthen the relationship between the employee and the supervisor — ultimately strengthening the organization.
Liz Kislik is a telemarketing and customer service consultant based in Valley Stream, NY.