The Skinny on “Amputated” Coaching

You may already know where your coaching gaps are in the contact center. If you don’t, there’s a good chance they are either between performance feedback and educating or between educating and modeling, since these are the most commonly recognized gaps in contact centers. We call these gaps stage-one and stage-two amputations.

Stage-one amputation: Many contact centers produce reports and give agents feedback on their performance. But because it takes so long to produce the reports and manage the contact center on a daily basis, there’s not much time to do anything but show the agent his statistics and say, “Here ya go.” That’s what happens in the amputation between feedback and educating. Feedback is fine, but agents may not be getting the help they need to improve performance.

Stage-two amputation: The amputation between educating and modeling is best described by the “find a lesson, copy a lesson, distribute a lesson” syndrome. These are the contact centers that give feedback and do a lot of educating but not much beyond that. The agents are doing tons of bookwork but are not getting the chance to translate all their knowledge into skill. Knowledge doesn’t become skill simply because it resides in a person’s head for a certain period of time. Your reps have to get it out of their head, see it modeled, have the opportunity to practice in a nonthreatening environment, and then apply it to the real world.

Repairing amputations
Supervisors struggling with full-spectrum coaching skills contribute to both stage-one and stage-two amputations. Generally, contact centers experience stage one because there is no time to coach. Some contact centers are stuck at stage two because they don’t understand full-spectrum coaching.

Your initial first aid is to define the skills required to accomplish the tasks of a coach. Remember, the tasks in full-spectrum coaching include communicating clear expectations, giving feedback, designing performance interventions, and implementing interventions.

Next, figure out how to teach these skills so that coaches aren’t afraid of them. People sometimes create mental blocks about skills they think might be difficult. For example, some coaches are convinced they’ll never learn how to “diagnose” the skill and knowledge needs of an agent. Other coaches see motivation as this nebulous, unattainable, time-consuming monster. To overcome these blocks, try distracting the coaches. Help them forget that they are mastering a “scary” skill.

Here are a few examples of how to teach scary skills. They have proven to be extremely effective — and fun!

Educating: Get all the ingredients and utensils together to make a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich. Keep everything in its container (bread in plastic bag, all the lids on, etc.). Have someone volunteer to instruct you how to make the sandwich. No one in the room can help the volunteer during the first session. The hardest part of this exercise is for you not to assume anything. When the volunteer says, “Take a piece of bread,” don’t assume you know how to open the plastic bag. At that point you can take the bag at both ends and pull vigorously until the bag pops open and the bread flies all over the room, or you can say, “I don’t know how to do that.” Keep going until the sandwich is made. Discuss with the group how it felt (to give the instructions and to observe someone giving instructions without being able to influence). Next round you can have the group assist the volunteer. Talk about when and how team instruction works. Talk about how many times we, as coaches, assume our people know how to do things because we think the skills are easy (and they’re not!).

Observing: Ask the group members to pick a partner. Ask all to face their partners and observe them for 30 seconds. At the end of the 30 seconds ask them, “How many people can tell me what you smelled during those 30 seconds?” Or “What noises did you hear during those 30 seconds?” This is a lesson in selective observation. Discuss with the coaches how this relates to what they observe about their agents. What “instructions” are keeping them from “seeing” or “hearing” important things about their agents?

Problem solving: Collect brainteasers. There are a ton of brainteasers you can buy commercially. Read one to group members and have them try to solve it. Talk about whatever they want. Let the conversation go wherever they take it. Once the first teaser is solved, hand out a worksheet that walks the group through problem-solving steps (without calling it that). Then read another brainteaser. Work through the questions on the worksheet. Talk about assumptions. Clarify words. Define what you know for sure and what are guesses. Write down what other information you would like to have and where you might be able to find it. After several brainteasers you’ll find the group walking through problem solving with ease.

Kathryn E. Jackson is president of Ocean City, NJ-based contact center consultancy Response Design Corporation