Leadership Strategies for a High Performance Contact Center

What is a high performance contact center? High performance is generally accepted to mean performing at the top of a possible performance range. So a High performance contact center is one that meets or exceeds the performance parameters or metrics expected of it. In contact center operational parameters include quantitative: grade of services, AHT, ATT, ASA etc.; financial, sales units or revenues; and qualitative: First Call Resolution, Customer Satisfaction, Quality scores etc., measures.

So what steps can a leader in a contact center take and what actions should they complete to achieve high performance within their center?

In order to answer this question we must first understand the environment that any individual contact center operates within. Of course contact centers exist in every industry and vertical each of which has its’ own unique aspects and elements. But there are consistencies and constants which are universal and are present in each center regardless of the specific industry.

The first of these ‘universal truths’ is that all things are connected. We already know that that our center is connected to the broader organization. When Marketing creates offers, Sales sells a new client or when Distribution ships or doesn’t make a shipment the phones will ring. The Butterfly effect is alive and well in our center. When a butterfly flaps its wings in Marketing the effect is often more calls into the center. We know that when staff calls in sick, the Service Level may suffer. Any contact center is collection of thousands of moving parts that are connected in obvious and hidden ways. The clover diagram below illustrates the inter-connectedness we see in contact centers. [insert clover diagram]

The second ‘universal truth’ is that our contact centers are ‘always on’. A contact center is a live environment where we operate in the moment. A ringing phone must be answered. Many center managers spend their entire day ‘putting our fires’, this leave little time for fire prevention.

The third ‘universal truth’ is that our centers are staffed with people, many of whom don’t view a contact center as a career opportunity. A center is in fact a community or a village. Like most small communities they have the familiar characters, the village idiot, town drunk, busybody, the flirt and the gossip. Are centers are full of clichés, groups and loners all of whom have their own goals aspirations and agendas. People however are important to the success of any center. They account for 70% of any budget. People are the source of many problems faced by management but are also the source of most if not all of the solutions to those problems. The leadership challenge is to harness and align that diverse group of people to a common goal or goals.

Against this backdrop of the universal truths that form the basis for all centers we strive to build a center that can meet the defined goals and objectives. Ones that senior management team has established and that we establish for ourselves. Let’s examine some of the strategies that can help transform a center to a high performance environment.

Building & Understanding Teams:
In any center we will have a number of teams: teams of agents under a supervisor, an HR team, a workforce management team, a quality team etc. We will also have the management team within the center. The Management team often consists of Supervisors representing each discipline, as well as the Manager(s) and/or Directors.

Like all individuals each member of these teams has individual goals and aspirations. It is essential for a team to function effectively that the individuals identify as a member of a team rather than as an individual. This can be an extremely difficult task. Likely each of us has been on a team where one or more team members couldn’t or wouldn’t subjugate their personal agenda for that of the team. When this happens the team can become dysfunctional: not all members participate, the workload is not shared equally or fairly and the team can easily devolve to individuals striving against the teams’ own lack of direction and ineffectiveness.

It is of course the Team Leader who has the responsibility to build and set direction and to ensure the team works well together. In the language of business being a ‘team player’ is seen as a valuable attribute, but in reality you cannot manage a team unless you are a team builder. This is the first strategic point where great centers and companies can differentiate themselves from the average and the good ones.

So how to build effective teams? There are bookshelves full of books that have attempted to answer this question and certainly a number of their approaches can be successful. My favorite approach is one set out by Patrick Lencioni in his book “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team”.

Teamwork is one of the most prevalent ‘buzz words’ employed in business today. Everybody who reads the business press hears constantly about the need for teamwork. Virtually every author who has written a business or management book in the past fifteen years devotes significant ink to this topic.

But how do you ensure that your teams function effectively and achieve their goals? In my experience, ensuring that teams are effective is a far more challenging exercise than ‘buying in’ to teams and teamwork.

[insert 5 Dysfunctions of a Team pyramid]

The most effective way to ensure that your teams succeed is to examine the most common ‘traps’ or dysfunctions that often (or almost always) creep into the team managed process. According to Lencioni, there are five primary dysfunctions of a Team. At the bottom of the pyramid is the fundamental dysfunction that will sink a team even if they are doing everything else right, which is unlikely in the absence of trust.

To understand the interrelation of these dysfunctions lets look at the pyramid from the top down. In order to be attentive to results you must be able to hold to team members accountable. In order to hold team members accountable you must have their commitment. In order to gain their commitment, you must engender Productive Conflict. In order to achieve Productive Conflict, you must ensure that there is a high level of trust and vulnerability within the team.

Now when we look at Teams we must remember that no two teams are alike because no two people who are on any given teams are alike. Therefore it can be dangerous to generalize, however the 5 dysfunctions are, in my experience powerful indicators of the effectiveness that a team achieves. Let’s look at some of the dysfunctions in a little more detail.

In order to be successful in any relationship we must be open and honest. Furthermore we must trust those around us. A key aspect of trust is opening ourselves up, sharing our thoughts, opinions and experiences. Of course opening up in this manner may also make you vulnerable to attacks. It is specifically this vulnerability that allows us to trust other members of our team and them, to trust us. You need to know that it is safe. If we don’t trust those around us with our reputations then we cannot trust them with our opinions. In short we cannot have an open and honest dialogue, or make commitments, drive accountability or achieve the results we desire. The establishment of Trust is the first key step to building an effective and productive team. In many organizations that I have worked with there are numerous teams they are comprised of people who have worked together, often for many years, but they don’t really ‘know’ each other and their actions show me that they don’t trust each other very much. Now if I asked them if they trusted their other teammates, of course they would all say they did. But in their meetings there is a complete absence of healthy, productive ideological conflict. This healthy ideological conflict is probably the best indicator of trust level within a team. Good Trust = Good Conflict.

So how do you as the team leader engender trust? Well you can’t just write a memo declaring that starting tomorrow we will all trust each other…it just doesn’t work like that. What you may want to do is to walk your team through the 5 dysfunctions so that they can see the ‘connectivity’ of the dysfunctions. Then encourage them to open up with the group. It is decidedly easier to trust someone you know rather than someone who is a mystery.

A good device for doing this is to use a ‘Check In’ at the beginning of a meeting. At the start of the meeting each person goes to the whiteboard and tells their life story from when they left school. As their life improved they draw a line going up on the whiteboard, as they faced challenges in their life the line trends down. You have only 5 minutes to review your entire life to date. These ‘check ins’ are often entertaining and elicit laughter and positive feelings. More importantly perhaps, they provide a fuller and deeper understanding of the individuals participating in the ‘check in’ than any team member had prior to this exercise. I was told by one executive whose team was their senior management group, “that even though we have been together for more than 5 years, I have learned more about these folks in thirty minutes than I knew going into this meeting”.

Understanding your teammates and what drives them creates the openness that fosters vulnerability and Trust. Whether or not ‘check ins’ are for you the key is to get your team to be open and vulnerable to each other. Once you have achieved that then you can move forward knowing that you can now have healthy ideological conflict.

Now most people assume that conflict is something that should be avoided. Why? Conflict makes all of us uncomfortable. Everyone prefers to stay in their comfort zone.

But what is the alternative to Conflict in a business setting? In most organizations it is ‘false harmony’. I call it false because there only appears to be harmony. In fact there is generally none. People are afraid to state their thoughts and opinions, due to a lack of Trust. Now you need to push them into Conflict. Yes push them. Because human nature and the way most companies and center train their staff teaches us to avoid conflict.

We need healthy, ideological conflict. That is to say conflict about issues and not about personalities. For it is only with Conflict which is open, honest, sincere and involving everyone can any issue or decision be aired to allow all of the team members to Commit to the outcome. Without commitment to a course of action the team struggles and often fails. Further team members fail to commit fully if they did not participate in the debate. Without getting their ‘twocents’ on the table they feel left out of the decision making process and that lack of involvement absolves them from taking actions (being committed) to ensure success. It seems counter-intuitive but Conflict is good and essential. Conflict ensures Commitment, which in turn allows you to hold other members of the team Accountable for their individual actions in support of the goals of the team.

As this process takes hold the level of commitment and activity within the team grows. This is likened to someone who has ‘got religion’ because the team members ‘believe’. With the team committed, they are all held Accountable. This accountability allows the team leader to focus on the results being attained. The vast majority of teams never get to look at results since teams are so dysfunctional that they rarely make any decisions. Those decisions that were made were not committed to and were doomed to failure. The freedom to focus on Results allows the team to challenge their assumptions and fine-tune the process to gain the results they desire.

It takes time to break the bad team habits. When you accomplish this, teams meet and exceed their objective and enjoy the process a lot more.

Understanding and Optimizing your center:
High Performance centers can all be characterized as possessing an honest and specific understanding of the center and the performance level being achieved. If you do not understand the specific inter-relationships within your center you cannot engineer improvement. So how do you gain this understanding?

One of the best tools in my experience has been to complete a detailed assessment of your center. This assessment seeks to identify and disconnect each of the ‘thousand moving parts’ and identify the points of connection and contention.

The following diagram illustrates the Strategic Assessment Process

[insert Strategic Assessment chart]

This process is broken down into four elements: Discovery, Assessment, Recommendations and Implementation. Put another way the process first inventory’s what the center has; how the center presently employs that inventory; how can that be employed better meet the goals; then changing what is done to incorporate the better way to meet the goals.

As you go through this process you will likely find it helpful to list or bucket you findings under some consistent heading or categories. If you refer back to the clover diagram on page 1, you will see that we identified four categories: People, Process, Technology and Methodology. If you wish we are happy to send you a detailed checklist used in similar projects.

Once the information is gathered then it is possible to gain a good understanding of the state of the center, its’ function and capabilities. It is then possible to develop a ‘gap’ analysis by analyzing how the center is performing today and contrast the current performance with the performance required to meet the goals and objectives outlined in the Strategic Plan. This gap analysis forms the basis of recommendations or options for actions element.

The recommendation or options for actions component is a little more challenging for some center managers as it requires a comprehensive understanding of not only your center but also of the industry. For some organizations this is where they retain the services of a consultant to assist them with this part of the process. Regardless of who completes this stage you need to view the information available versus:

Is the technology used fully and productively employed?
Benchmarking – what are the competitors doing and is this relevant to the center?
What activities are we completing that are best practices?
Whether the activities are building or eroding customer satisfaction?
How well do our processes and procedures align with our stated goals and objectives?

Technology is a Tool
Some organizations and centers fall into the trap of believing that technology is the panacea for all of their ills. “If only we had (insert any sexy contact center technology you have ever heard of here) and we could solve problem this problem”. Technology is only a tool that helps us complete tasks we already know how to complete. No matter how good or sophisticated a technology might be it will not fix or correct underlying systemic problems. Before you invest in technology to automate or streamline a process or activity ensure that the underlying process/activity is sound. Good technology will not correct a dysfunctional process, it will simple allow you to be dysfunctional far more consistently.

A savvy leader knows that you must understand the challenges you hope to make easier by using a tool before you try to implement it. Imagine using the claw end of a hammer and to try to unscrew a bolt. Better understanding of challenges and problems often leads to solutions you hadn’t considered before you immersed yourself in the situation. In the end the solution may or may not require technology, but regardless you will have a far better understanding the process and inter-relationships that will impact on any solution deployed.

Future is Change
No center is ever stagnant, contact centers are always in flux. So if your contact center isn’t improving its performance level then it is likely eroding. As the leader of a high performance contact center you must be ever vigilant and watch for complacency setting it. You must keep pushing the boundaries. You must plan for succession within you center and even of yourself. Where is the center going to e in 1 year, 3 years 5 years? How will your staff, yourself and the center need to evolve to meet these changes?

Succinctly state the centers vision in terms that everyone can understand. It is through these sound bytes that people remember and judge their own actions and decisions to align with the goals and objectives set out in the plan. Therefore this becomes a process of “leadership by all”. Almost every decision from the most tactical to the most strategic is judged based on one benchmark that all have agreed to and with.

Don’t just build a plan and leave it to gather dust on the bookshelf. Keep the plan ‘fresh’ by using it regularly and referring to it in meetings and reviews. Do remember that a fresh plan also means adapting it where required to changing conditions, circumstances and results. Not to do so saps the life out of the plan and the staff starts wondering about the plans connection their real world.

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