Use ‘Needs-Focused’ Leadership to Improve Your Call Center

Looking to improve your call center’s leadership? Try “needs-focused leadership,” which is all about having your managers assume different roles in order to give your agents what they need to grow and improve in their jobs.

Call center managers are much more effective leaders when they’re able to match each agent’s developmental level. But to do this, they must understand the different leadership roles required to meet the needs of the employee. And they must develop skill sets within each of those roles to properly address each need.

What follows are seven “needs-focused” leadership roles that you can put in place — and the skills needed to make them work effectively:

The purpose of sponsoring is to promote a star achiever throughout the entire corporation. When an employee is a star achiever, it usually means he or she can make a special contribution to the company. The leader promotes this outstanding skill by sponsoring.

The emphasis of sponsoring is the long-term development of the employee and his or her contribution to the company. Sponsoring has a future focus and is a time of polishing and fine-tuning already strong skills.

The outcome of sponsoring is greater experience for the employee and perhaps promotion. Leaders who sponsor must be skilled at getting rid of bureaucracy, dismantling barriers to performance, developing good relationships, letting go of control, treating people like adults, listening, communicating, giving feedback and motivating.

Educating, of course, means to impart knowledge. A leader educates in three different scenarios: when goals, roles or business conditions change; when new responsibilities require new skills; or when a newcomer needs orientation. The leader’s tone is always positive and supportive. The teacher constantly emphasizes the need to learn and apply new knowledge. The outcome of educating is that the employee acquires new information, increases his or her confidence and receives a broadened perspective on the company.

Coaching helps the employee acquire skills. After the employee has sufficient knowledge to begin practicing the skills required by the task, the leader will coach to make simple, brief performance corrections. The coach is always encouraging, enthusiastic, prepared, and able to explain the change required. The employee becomes more confident, increases in skill and demonstrates better performance after coaching.

The coach has an eye for recognizing real-life “learning laboratories.” The coach is able to express genuine appreciation, treat people like adults, listen, communicate, give plenty of feedback and continually motivate the members of his or her team.

Providing support helps the employee gain confidence. Some employees lack confidence even after they have mastered all the required skills and knowledge. When this happens, the leader enters the support role. In this role, the leader is encouraging, supportive and motivational. The leader helps the employee take the calculated risks necessary to gain confidence. He or she focuses on the effort made by the employee, not on the result of the effort.

When a leader supports an employee, he or she enhances the worker’s confidence and they perform better. Leaders who support must be good listeners and communicators. They must be able to set up limited risks for the employees, give constant positive feedback and continually motivate the employees to keep trying.

With counseling you can identify the cause of a performance gap and determine corrective action. There may be times when performance is lacking, even though the employee has mastered all the skills and knowledge required by the job. The leader will assume the counseling role to respond to these setbacks and disappointments and speed recovery.

The counselor will always focus on problem solving. He or she will be positive, supportive and encouraging. He or she will readily engage in a two-way discussion about the performance gap. The desired results of counseling are an enhanced sense of ownership and accountability on the part of the employee, a renewed commitment and a turnaround in the employee’s performance.

Confronting is necessary to further define the cause of a chronic performance gap, the actions required to correct it, the time frame for the actions and possible options if not corrected. Sometimes an employee may seem unable to meet expectations despite education, coaching and counseling. When performance problems persist and an individual is failing in his or her current role, then the leader must confront the issues.

Leaders must confront using a positive, supportive and firm tone. There is a clear focus on the behalf of the leader that a decision about the employee’s future must be made and there is a clear definition of the time frame for that decision.

There are several possible outcomes of confronting: The employee may turn their performance around. Or, the employee may be reassigned and given the chance to succeed in another position. The current job might be restructured, eliminating certain responsibilities or expectations. Or, the employee may be dismissed from the company. The ability to discuss sensitive issues without over-emotionalizing them is the primary skill of a leader who confronts well.

A task-specific training model
Needs-focused leadership is not only a person-specific model, but it is also a task-specific model. For example, let’s say Sue is a veteran sales agent. Her sales performance is outstanding. Your role with her has been to sponsor her since she has clearly mastered the skills and knowledge required by her sales job. But she was just assigned a project to analyze a new piece of sales automation software. In this scenario, while she is working as a sales agent, you retain your sponsor role. When she works on this new project, you may need to adopt a new role of educator, coach or counselor, depending on her needs as she progresses through the project. Therefore, as a needs-focused leader you may be adopting multiple roles even with the same person.

Required skills
Managers adopting the needs-focused leadership model must have the required support skills to lead effectively. These are represented by: treating employees as adults, motivating, listening, communicating, assessment, problem solving and giving feedback. These are “support skills” because you use these skills (in varying intensity) for each and every role.

In many instances these roles will overlap, meaning that the manager will also need to be adept at wearing multiple leadership role “hats.” Furthermore, these roles are not necessarily rolled out neatly in the above order: A manager might have to use the “support” role first for one employee, while the “coach” role might be needed first for another employee.

The important thing is, once you have mastered these support skills you will have the required foundation in place to become an expert in each of the needs-focused leadership roles.

Next week we’ll cover the seven basic questions a call center manager should ask an agent in order to determine which leadership roles should be applied.

Kathryn E. Jackson, Ph.D, is president of Ocean City, N.J.-based contact center consultancy Response Design Corp.

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