The Call Center: Talk About Issues!

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Managing a call center poses some unavoidable challenges. The very nature of the business involves fielding complaints, solving complex problems, defusing situations, and calming the occasional crazy folks.

And the people calling in sometimes have issues, too!

Was that unkind, taking that easy shot at the agents in the trenches who field the calls? Maybe, but there's an element of truth there. Resolving all the confusion and irritation that callers can toss their way and somehow converting those callers into satisfied customers can take its toll on your agents. With a few insights and strategies, call center managers can keep agents from reaching the breaking point and unloading their problems in the workplace.

From practical experience—first as a call taker, then in succession as call center manager, regional manager, and national manager of more than 38 sites—I offer three key observations to help call centers attract and keep top talent.

1. People who possess the most talent for the job are some of the most difficult to manage. Two factors are at work here. First, your top performers have options. They'll leave. But the people who aren't good you're stuck with for life! (OK, maybe not for life—you can let them go, but they're less likely to choose to leave than your top performers are.) Second, it takes a certain type of person to excel at converting irked callers to satisfied customers. Agents offering the best customer support tend to be people pleasers with a range of emotions, which enables them to convey the empathy customers need to hear. This quick accessibility to a range of emotions—the same quality that makes your best agents compassionate and effective on the phone—might make them mercurial or erratic as employees. Navigate well around those emotions or you might lose your top performers.

Solutions: Spend time with your best people. The most productivity, the most money, the best customer service will be delivered by that small percentage of people who are great—not by the masses. You get much more mileage from good people getting better. Give top performers your time and attention, unleashing their talent and spreading it around the call center rather than trying to help low performers fight their way to the middle. Then keep that momentum going by letting new hires train with your best agents.

2. Burnout, more than any other factor, causes agents to leave a call center. Agents take lots of calls from people with interesting, so to speak, problems and issues. Sure, many callers have legitimate things going wrong; different products with different functions require support. But what all centers have in common is callers who can be a handful. Processing those calls can wear heavily on agents, contributing to burnout.

Solutions: Good leadership structure prevents burnout. Success here hinges on building great relationships, which means managers can't just monitor the floor with an eye toward mechanisms, methods, forecasting, and recording. They have to focus on people. They need to keep agents happy enough to continue delivering great customer service on the phone. That means your agents must feel listened to, because the culture the agents work in is the culture they convey to callers. Make it one in which they feel valued, so burnout is less likely.

3. To attract talented workers, make sure your current agents have positive experiences. Nothing attracts good workers to your call center more than an environment that is keeping the current call takers satisfied and content.

Solutions: All the aforementioned strategies apply, plus this little nugget: Current employees need a likable boss. As a manager, do you have a relationship with your agents? Do they feel encouraged and motivated by you? If not, you'll struggle to keep agents content, and the environment will suffer.

What's really important, what ties it all together, is the relationship that must exist between the call center manager and agents. Without it, agents have no outlet to express their concerns, so they're not likely to provide callers with a comfortable outlet, either. So now even your call takers need a call center to call into! Talk about issues.…

Garrison Wynn is the author of The Cow Bell Principle. He has been a contributor for the Washington Post and speaks on personal influence at conventions worldwide. Visit his Web site, www.Garrisonwynn.com.

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