A practical way to improve leadership in contact centres

W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne describe the extent of widespread employee disengagement in an article in the May edition of the 'Harvard Business Review.' They quote a study by Gallup (2013- 'State of the American Workplace') showing 50% of employees merely put their time in at work and 20% actually act in a counterproductive way; negatively influencing their colleagues or providing a poor level of customer service. Although the contact centre industry wasn't the subject of the study, who would doubt the findings would be worse if it was?

While the figures may seem high at first, it is the case that staff absence and turnover in contact centres are at high levels even when the economy is downbeat; backing up Gallup's findings. Figures of 10% absence and 30% plus attrition are still seen.

Gallup identify the main reason for widespread employee disengagement as ineffective leadership. 

From the surveys carried out as part of the study, Gallup come to an interestingly conclusion. They propose that it's the activities that leaders focus on and spend their time on, not their personal qualities or behavioural traits, that cause the problems.

Chan Kim and Mauborgne write that 'this difference in emphasis is important. It is markedly easier to change people's acts and activities than their values, qualities and behavioural traits. Of course...behavioural traits matter. But activities are something any person can change, given the right feedback and guidance.'

Here's a way we went about changing leadership activities and focus in a large contact centre. It follows a similar approach outlined by the authors in their 'Harvard Business Review' article:
  1. Staff were asked as part of a six monthly satisfaction survey which activities their team leaders should complete that are key to their personal motivation levels. They were also asked to rank the activities (communication, team meetings, coaching, working on development...).
  2. Staff and team leaders were then asked how team leaders actually spend their time (dealing with resource issues, customer complaints, internal meetings, producing reports...).
  3. The results were then drawn up - one graph showing what leaders should be doing day-to-day and one graph showing what they are doing. Around 50% of the leaders time was spent on activities that staff valued as contributing to their motivation levels.
  4. A team of 'champions' consisting of staff and team leaders then worked once a week to develop ideas to close the gaps on the graphs. Some of the ideas were implemented very quickly: such as cutting out reports that were time-consuming for team leaders to produce that provided little value. Other ideas required an increase in resource in another department; for example, dealing with daily resourcing issues - these were passed to another team. The cost of doing this was seen as a worthwhile investment given the time freed up for the frontline leader.
The approach required strong control and facilitation - but speedy progress was made towards achieving the ideal team leader activity profile.

Chan Lim and Mauborgne sum the approach up in a grid format:
  • Raise: What acts and activities leaders invest their time in that should be raised above their current level
  • Create: What acts and activities leaders invest their time in that they currently don't undertake
  • Eliminate: What acts and activities leaders invest their time in that should be eliminated
  • Reduce: What acts and activities leaders invest their time in that should be reduced below their current level.
Initiatives like this are worth considering. The costs of low motivation leading to staff absence and attrition are greatly underestimated; both financially and in terms of the impact on the 30% of employees identified by Gallup who are committed to doing a good job.


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