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Staff Retention Part 2- Are Your Supervisors Driving Turnover?

By Colin Taylor
In last month‟s issue we looked at agent attrition and turnover in your call or contact center and specifically the impacts on your costs, budget, morale and performance. In this issue we examine the impact that your „front-line‟ managers and supervisors play in helping you control and manage your turnover or conversely the damage that they can inflict upon the agents that can drive up your attrition or turnover.
Your front line supervisors, your team leaders are who your agents take direction from, gain motivation from and who they look to for guidance. These are the coaches that will help agents excel…or be the largest single source and focus for dissatisfaction. As in sports where a good coach can make average players excel and bad coach can take great talent and achieve mediocrity. So let‟s take a closer look at your team leaders and their role in improving your agent retention. First I will review the challenges with being promoted or hired into a supervisory role, and then revisit the critical importance of consistency in all activities. We will also provide guidance and advice on how to train your supervisors to interact more effectively with their staff and finally wrap up with a discussion of Leadership, Leadership styles and what has been proven to work well in contact centers.
The New Hire Paradigm
Where do your Team Leaders come from? In the majority of organizations Team Leaders are promoted from the ranks of agents. I will use the terms “Team Leader” and “Supervisor” interchangeably because what is a “Team Leader” in one center can be a Supervisor in another and vice a versa. Promoting from within your agent ranks is not always the best approach. There is little to support the idea of a good agent automatically being a good team leader. This is the mistake many organizations make in their sales management roles…they often promote their best sales reps to sales management, often with disappointing results. The job descriptions for agent and Supervisors will, or should show different skill sets and attributes, so why do we assume that if you are good at interacting with customers that you will good at leading a team of people who do so?
The answer is part that we often have blinders on, we only see those around us in the center, we know that it is much easier to move someone internally than to look outside. We also know who the stars are in the center, of course this is based on the role they are in …agents and not the role we are considering them for: leaders. But unless we acknowledge that this is a different role with different skill/competency requirements, we are blind to our average agents who may in fact possess a significantly better „fit‟ to the new role skills/comps and have a much greater chance for success. Skills and competencies are not just for agents, but should be developed for every role in your center- Supervisor, Analyst, Quality Assurance, scheduler etc. Some specific skills we may seek for a Supervisor which we did not seek for our agents could include: mentoring, coaching, gregarious, extroverted, mathematical competency, superior interpersonal skills, superior empathy, patience, understanding and listening skills to name a few.
I have heard that call centers operate as ancient sailing ships…your agents are either the galley salves rowing to a beat of the drum maintained by the Supervisor or they are Viking oarsman, rowing to the best of their ability steered and guided by their Supervisor. Which would you prefer your center was, A galley or a Viking longboat?

Once you have developed the list of skills and competencies desired you need to develop ways and means of testing for these competencies and proficiencies. An unproven claim of skills, competencies or proficiencies proves little to anyone. With these tools (skills and comps and assessments) you are now equipped to select you new Supervisor objectively.
As we cited earlier less than 20% of organizations provide any training to their Supervisors. But it gets worse; in most centers the Supervisor then also gets burdened with paperwork. When do they find time to do their job? Without training people in any position will „wing it‟ and guess how to do their job. This is not a good plan. Hope is not a Strategy!
So what training does a Supervisor require? Well if you have selected them from your agent ranks they should already be proficient and at least competent, regarding the company, your products, services, and the call center and agent roles and should be familiar with the process, policies and procedures. In this case there is usually two glaring holes in their skill sets; 1- understanding the role of a supervisor- which is best defined as the person responsible to “get out the production” and 2- they have no experience or training in dealing with subordinates…they have always been the subordinate. We don‟t want the new Supervisor to parrot the experiences they have had in this role, because it may not be positive. Fortunately both of these gaps can be fairly easily addressed. Many community colleges offer a „Supervision 101‟course. This is a generic course for new Supervisors that focuses on the role of a supervisor, motivation, the hierarchy of needs etc.
Consistency Is Key
Consistency is critically important. If a leader is seen or perceived to be inconsistent in their decision making, their charges will quickly lose respect for the leader and discontent will grow. Over time discontent can evolve into insubordination and even open hostility. So how can we make our Team Leaders more consistent? Certainly there are no shortage of books on leadership and courses and workshops that they could take. Arguably the most important step we as operators and managers of a center can take is to provide our team leaders with an operational management structure that makes it easy for them to operate under and which supports consistency and objectivity. As managers we can support all of managerial staff not just the new Supervisors by establishing objective measures of success such as CSAT by Team, FCR by Team, Average Sale per Team Agent per hour all of these measures allow for comparison between teams and therefore between their leaders.
For every action or decision a Team Leader is considering making they need to ask themselves: why? What evidence supports this course of action? If the answer includes “I think” of “I feel” this is likely evidence of subjective decision making, this is dangerous because these are likely emotionally based decisions. Far superior to emotional or „gut‟ based decisions are those based on evidence or objective „proof‟. I would feel much more comfortable with a Team Leader answering the why questions as “because this agent has completed special projects before and on the most recent achieved 95% of the desired goal”. Objective decisions are defendable and they drive consistency in decision making which is essential for a leader to have the respect of their subordinates.
Ask Don’t Tell
You can get far better results asking about a decision rather than telling someone how, what they did was wrong. This is a tenant of management, but is often forgotten by managers and especially true when dealing with new or inexperienced supervisors. Try to understand the thought process employed. Don‟t focus on the „bad‟ decision…if it was a bad decision everyone already knows this. Instead try to get to the motivation and thinking that caused them to think this might be a good idea. It is not the decision in and of itself that is dangerous, what is dangerous is not addressing the thinking, logic or missing knowledge that led to the decision. This can do serious damage if left unchecked. The objective here is not to dwell on what a bad or stupid decision it was, rather to provide guidance on how to make better decisions in the future. I have had a sign in my office for many years to remind me of this important learning process. The sign reads, “Always Make New Mistakes”.
While there are good decisions and bad decisions, of special concern is where a decision is required and none is made. Either through delay, passing off to someone else or just avoiding the whole mess. These are sins of omission rather than sins of commission. Bad decisions at least show initiative. Avoidance or lack of decisions shows that either the responsibility is misplaced or the levels of authority are not clear.
A Leader Versus A Tyrant
It is said the best possible form of government is that of a benevolent dictator. But in the west the vast majority would prefer a leader to a dictator, benevolent or not. Perhaps this is a reflection of the democratic governments in place there. In business we do not get a choice as to who runs or governs us, business is not a democracy; it is actually far closer to a dictatorship. We need to keep this in mind when we appoint or hire Supervisors or other leadership roles within our contact center. Anyone in management and this can include supervisors can speak with the authority of the company behind them. Some Managers and Supervisors enjoy the power and can leave their staff wondering about decisions that have just been announced. One of our recurring themes as we look to reduce attrition, keep and engage staff is the need for transparency. While a Supervisor or leader doesn`t need to explain their decisions to their subordinates, they should be able to, and unless there is a compelling reason not to share the rationale and decision making process with them, I would suggest that they do so. An individual who understands the reasoning and thinking behind a decision is far less likely to take objection, than someone who feels a unilateral decision was somehow arrived at.
A Leader
In my experience one of the best guidance for being an effective manager is found in the quote below.
“To lead people, walk beside them … As for the best leaders, the people do not notice their existence. The next best, the people honor and praise. The next, the people fear; and the next, the people hate … When the best leader’s work is done the people say, ‘We did it ourselves!”— Lao-Tsu
The best leaders let others lead and stand in the background surfacing periodically when a shift or course correction is required. These are the type of leaders you need your frontline supervisors and team leaders to be for they and the center to be effective.

2 thoughts on “Staff Retention Part 2- Are Your Supervisors Driving Turnover?

  1. merie says:

    by any chance, do you know a book regarding attrition rate in the call center industry? pls recommend one. thank you.

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