One of the many incidents that inspired me to start my own company took place when I directed training inside a large telecom company.
One day, the regional call center director of our company, I’ll refer to him as “Dave”, called me into his office. “Jack,” he said, “there’s a problem with the new hire training.”
His declaration surprised me. We had recently reengineered our call center training program for new hires using an integrated method I developed and still refer to as Chunk Training. Despite the rather unimaginative name, the Chunk Training method had been fueling a wonderfully effective onboarding program. New front-line agents were learning the material well and demonstrating a solid command of the skills at a rapid rate. Supervisors on the call center floor were reporting back that their agents were more prepared to take calls now than at any time in the past. Call quality scores and individual agent customer satisfaction scores were trending higher.
“Okay, what’s the problem?” I asked Dave.
I remember Dave’s response like I had heard it just yesterday: “Jack, it looks like our turnover rate during the first six weeks has increased, and we [note the use of the royal “we”] have determined that our new agents are having too much fun during the training. You are setting their expectations too high. What I mean is that when the agents hit the floor, they expect too much, and the call center supervisors just can’t deliver at that level. So we want you to go back to the prior new hire training method where expectations are lower and the agents don’t have as much fun during their training.”
This sounded completely ridiculous to me, and I started to laugh. I thought to myself Dave surely must be joking … but he wasn’t. He was dead serious.
After regaining my composure, I suggested an alternative solution: “Why don’t we put the supervisors through a new training program and improve their skills so they have the ability to meet the new agent expectations and to coach the new hires with the new skills?”
He reflected on this for a moment, looking at me silently, then curtly answered: “No. Go back to the old method of training and take the fun out.”
I remember walking away from this exchange convinced the company had little hope of success if people with the power and authority to support real change, like Dave, were making decisions like this one.
Not long after this confrontation, I had the opportunity to chat with the company’s chief marketing officer. I asked him for his honest assessment of the call center’s overall performance in terms of supporting his team’s marketing efforts. His opinion was that the call center struggled to fully unlock the value of the marketing department’s ideas and offerings. In essence, an otherwise fantastic marketing plan had to be “dumbed down” for the call center when it came to execution on the front line.
When I started hearing the leaders of our organization talk like this, I wondered about the day-to-day experiences of our front-line agents. What changes were they seeing and feeling? What could training do to help this organization boost its performance and outcomes with customers?
So I started listening … really listening … to our agents. Dozens of them. And here’s what they were telling me:
“Jack, I feel chained to my desk and forced to read scripts that don’t come anywhere close to really addressing the customers’ questions and frustrations. But if I don’t follow the scripts, I will get low call quality scores, and then I’ll get fired. They measure my AHT, ASA, ATT, ACW, schedule adherence, call compliance, auxiliary time. I even have to ask permission to go to the restroom!”
The verses varied, but the agents’ song was the same across the board.
I knew there was a better way, and I knew what needed to be done. But I needed leadership’s permission to implement it inside our organization. Unfortunately, that was just not going to happen at this company.
Not surprisingly, this company’s Net Promoter Score at the time was in negative territory, approximately -25, and a Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing was on its way.
The extent to which a call center is ultimately successful is driven primarily by the actions and behaviors of those with leadership and management responsibility and authority. This means much more than constant monitoring of and managing service levels, average handle time and other key performance indicators.
Call center leaders need to determine the culture and targeted outcomes of the call center. Leaders must also know how to set expectations for outcomes and behaviors in a realistic, reachable manner and know how to hold managers and supervisors respectfully accountable for meeting goals and objectives. And call center leaders need to have high-level familiarity with and be supportive of any call center performance initiatives, and they need to demonstrate leadership presence – the front-line is watching!