Advice to a Call Centre Manager

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Managing a communications or service centre can be exacting, especially for newly appointed managers. In this article the authors conduct a question and answer session to look at the problems facing such a manager who is coming to terms with the rigours of the job and they suggest actions to become more efficient and effective.

I feel pulled from pillar to post. How can I break free so that I give my best to the customer?

First of all, recognise how tough the Service Manager's task is. The modern Service Manager is sometimes caught in a 'Bermuda Triangle' of attempting to fulfil the business strategy, operate its systems and keep in touch with internal and external customers. You have to reconcile all three and sometimes it feels as if you fall between all three. You may be sandwiched between the customer's needs and sometimes resistant or unco-operative internal departments who may see customers' priorities as remote and low down on their list of priorities.

So a good Service Manager works to balance competing demands?

Yes, but the problem lies in trying to reconcile the almost irreconcilable of a very long list, for example the constant need to keep costs down, yet at the same time have sufficient people available to deal with communications at all times. To be 'hands on' and have a lot of detail at your fingertips, yet keep a strategic overview. To meet your own targets, yet also take a collegiate, company-wide perspective. To manage today, yet take account of tomorrow. To go for quality and speed. To measure rigorously the communications, process - calls answered, time to respond - yet to take account of the intangibles of relationships. I could go on.

Let me pick one of those. How can I manage the strategic with the tactical?

You are probably experiencing a high workload coupled with pressure from your customers, team, management, colleagues - an even yourself - but don't occupy every minute busily fighting fires. Make time to stand back and look at trends; for example, if the number of complaints is rising, it may well indicate issues, which would benefit from a closer look. Make time to assess where you are now and where you want to be. Keep the customer in mind at all times; it's hard to do that under a mountain of paper and e-mails!

With all this work, how can I keep a company-wide perspective?

Too many service managers become isolated from their colleagues in the rest of the company. At all costs keep in touch and know the business. There's no simple way to do this - regular cross-company communication is essential, formal and informal. You should consider swapping roles for a few days with colleagues in support functions as a good way of building understanding on both sides. Also working together on common customer focus issues can help build mutual understanding.

I'm surrounded by data on service standards. What should I measure as a priority?

Remember the maxim 'what gets measured gets done'. But also don't be seduced into believing that what you've measured is all there is to customer experience. In service businesses, measurement of customer communications (lost or engaged and time taken) is important. But it can all get very inward looking and you can measure internal preconceptions and still fail to address the real customer issues. The crucial question to ask all service managers about measurement is:

'Will this measure make a difference to the customer'?

If the answer is no or you are unsure then think again on the usefulness of this data. Some organisations are now using a Balanced Scorecard to keep a sense of perspective over a broad spread of key measures without getting bogged down in excessive or irrelevant detail.

Does experience suggest there is a successful management style in service operations? I feel under pressure to conform to being tough.

Many customers and employees are witnessing the death of hierarchical, slow-moving organisations and with it an authoritarian style of management. In its place is a more facilitative style, which brings the best out in others. In turn the customer is more likely to deal with a more confident person who is able to make effective decisions.

However, it's hard to go against the prevailing organisational style of management, and expectations are difficult to change. Nevertheless, you could be a role model for a staff and customer friendly style. At first staff are often nervous at taking more responsibility. To get your team behind this approach, try encouraging more involvement from team members and allow their knowledge to come through. Accept mistakes will be made at first and continue to be supportive. Don't micro manage and take every decision yourself. In time this will free you up to take a more thoughtful, longer-term perspective.


How do I recruit the best people?

The best service organisations pay a lot of attention to recruitment and selection. These organisations frequently use methods in addition to interviews to provide more comprehensive data on a candidate. For example, carefully set up a realistic role-play of customer situations; this can tell you a lot about behaviour in front of the customer. Be clear on the competencies you are recruiting against. Common core capabilities for communication and analytical skills.

I want to make changes but I'm encountering resistance.

During change some resistance is almost universal. It's how you deal with it which counts, and don't expect overnight miracles. Most reforms take time to bed in and the initial phase will often be met with some opposition, at its mildest there will be questions that escalates in magnitude through to overt hostility.

When facing obstruction, step back and review what is causing it. Think about the style of your organisation and the way you conduct business - are you challenging the culture, 'the way we do things round here'? I suggest you explore the unwritten rules and codes of the organisation and work your changes around those.

Consider also whether you have the important people on your side, not just managers. Sometimes there can be powerful interests which are threatened, and you need to get these on your side, or at least to minimise their power to affect your plans.

For example, as if you were a stranger, stand back and take a look at the office layout, how you answer the phone, how you deal with emails, the controls people operate under. Notice which people have real power. This will give you some useful clues to analyse the gap between where your organisation is now and where it needs to be in the future. Importantly, these observations will help you to firm up your plans in making realistic changes and provide a basis to talk over your plans with others.

You may also want to seek advice on the skills you are adopting. Many managers 'drop their guard' with internal colleagues and behave in ways which would be unacceptable to external customers.

The high cost of training is hitting my budget. Far too many of my staff become trained and move on quickly after 12 months or so. Is it worth training people?

Investment in development is a must. The individual will be better able to solve customer issues and you cannot afford lack of skill when it comes to customer contact. You should thoroughly explore the reasons behind the high level of staff turnover, which is common in communication centres but not universal. Learn from the best service centres: you can do a lot to increase job satisfaction and make the most of the contribution your staff can make. Interview existing staff and those who leave; don't get defensive if you hear criticisms and be prepared to act on the results.

How do I balance available capacity against demand? At slack times I sometimes have too many staff and at peak times, not enough. This leads to inefficiency and my staff grumble about the effects on them and the customers.

The answer often lies in encouraging staff flexibility through staggered hours and part-time working and better planning of your staff rosters. Start by analysing your quiet and busy periods - is there a pattern to them, are there foreseeable trends in what appear to be sudden surges in demand? For example, marketing launch a new brochure or an article on your company's product appears in a newspaper and this leads to more calls. This analysis could help to remedy staff de-motivation in quiet times and possible stress at times of overload, which is prevalent if there is regular under and overloading. This feast and famine approach can lead to mistakes, absenteeism and a reluctance to take on additional work. Tackling capacity management issues strategically to make productive use of your staff has substantial implications for the company and the service it provides.

How should I deal with those hopefully few times when things go wrong for the customer? I find staff reluctant to follow-up a call if they know it's a complaint.

Of course slip-ups are best avoided, but they do occur and for the sake of your company's reputation you want employees to handle complaints as opportunities to learn. Unfortunately, no one relishes handling potentially unpleasant situations or getting into trouble and this may lead to avoidance and failure to record complaints. Vigilance and creating a supportive, not a blame culture will lead to greater openness to identify potential problems and to handling complaints skilfully. Staff will feel more confident if they are trained beforehand should a situation go wrong. Sound advice is to:

- Hear the customer out
- Apologise for the situation
- Deal promptly with a complaint or problem
- Follow-up to make sure it has been dealt with to the satisfaction of the customer.

Importantly, learn from complaints don't just log them and forget them, which is a widespread management error.

A lot of my staff seem stressed out or burnt out.

This is all too noticeable in busy service environments such as yours and can lead to damaging consequences from mistakes to ill health. In the short-term a number of remedies are useful, such as helping people to recognise the signs of stress in themselves and their colleagues and pulling back before the effects become harmful. Other methods are learning to relax. We have come across work place stress busters such as having a shoulder massage, taking time out as a team to do aerobic exercises or a stand-up where the team does a 'Mexican wave' or deliberately encouraging a laugh to relieve tension. It may surprise you to realise the implications that stress has got bigger organisational causes which may need to be tackled. Longer-term you need to assess what is causing the stress and aim to prevent it or at least reduce it, by for example:

- Planning workload and work patterns better
- Increase staffing, particularly at peaks
- Investigate systems and processes to make them more efficient
- Increase staff product knowledge

Remaining customer focused is a lot harder than I expected

It is easy for a manager to start to feel customers are trouble and to get out of touch with customer needs. Regularly speak to customers first hand. Because you're dealing with a high volume of customer issues you can be lulled into assuming you understand customers and what keeps them loyal. You may risk missing changes in customer needs if you make too many presumptions without regular contact.

Are there any redeeming features?

Yes plenty. Customer contact, people we meet get a real buzz from their work, which is at the heart of the business. Gone are the days of service as a backwater - it is now key to business success. The communications centre manager has a bright future ahead, though a busy one!

Steve Macaulay and Sarah Cook.

Steve is a Management Development Consultant at Cranfield School of Management.
Sarah is Director of customer care specialists, The Stairway Consultancy Ltd.  Sarah can be contacted on 01628 526535.

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