The Moving Sidewalk of Executive Leadership

Kathleen Peterson Rants & Raves by Kathleen Peterson

Few would dispute the importance of leadership when it comes to managing Contact Center operations. After all, a business unit with so much contact, so many people, and so many systems absolutely requires the best the enterprise has to offer! Then why is it that so many Contact Centers are led by those who appear to be on a moving sidewalk of executive leadership?

A Contact Center manager recently shared with us that he has had NINE different executives presiding over his Center in the past five years. How can anyone be expected to be an effective manager with that kind of disruption? (In case you are wondering, the operation is in disastrous shape.)

We can all agree that the Contact Center world has changed in many ways. But there is no bigger change than the amount of visibility the Contact Center enjoys as a result of the Customer Experience promise. It is a promise designed at the executive level and expected to be executed at the cube level. And many of those cubes just happen to be in the Contact Center.  This new visibility is manifested in many ways; some are good and some not-so-good.

Those Contact Centers lucky enough to be viewed as a strategic asset typically have an executive “champion” somewhere in the enterprise to thank for that designation. This is an indication that someone in the chain of command has been wise enough to engage the Contact Center in discussions around Customer Experience strategic objectives and the Contact Center’s role in executing those objectives.

Working together to determine expectations is the best way to meet them. Discussions around requirements take place. Confirmation on the current state of the people, the facility, the processes, the technology, the tools, the training, cross-functional alignment, growth, and scalability are put on the table for ongoing evaluation and action. This facilitates the objectives and removes obstacles. Believe it or not, there are Contact Centers in which this is the case!

Sadly, a much more frequent situation exists … that same executive champion is now reassigned and there is no certainty that another champion will take their place. These days most folks in senior positions are on a moving sidewalk; the Contact Center is just another stop along the way to wherever they are going in their enterprise or in their career. Far too often when a solidly-engaged executive moves on, there is no guarantee that the replacement will hold the same beliefs about the Contact Center as the previous champion. The support and understanding provided by one executive is not necessarily replicated in the next. In many circumstances, when a new executive takes over they abandon all significant work previously done. They are determined to put their own mark on the Contact Center, even when they have limited expertise in actual Contact Center leadership.

Some fortunate Contact Centers are “left alone” by a new executive because they are comfortable that the Center’s performance is meeting company objectives. But what has faded away is an executive with genuine interest and enough passion to push for the changes that maximize the value of the Contact Center. Neither of these outcomes of the moving sidewalk is “good” because both lead to difficult times for the Center.

Difficult times often come in the form of a new executive that has their own set of objectives for the Contact Center. The objectives will be linked to what the new executive sees as most critical. Though rarely stated openly, cost is as important (or more important) to executives in today’s world as the Customer Experience. These folks are likely bundling cost discussions under the banner of “efficiency.” Their argument could be correct until you look at the approach. It is often detrimental to the Customer Experience, Contact Center morale, and to anything other than reporting a “wash” when it comes to efficiency.

There are some indicators that a leader on the moving sidewalk has landed in your midst. First, when senior executives start talking about individual agent performance there should be alarms, red flags, and an immediate dusting off of your resume. Changing that erroneous thinking is often a challenge too great to bother with, in an industry that affords many professional opportunities.

Here’s an example … a Senior Vice President takes over a growing Customer Care organization. It is growing quickly and an immediate issue has been how to deal with the fact that they are outgrowing their facility. The previous executive was a champion and had been working with Contact Center leadership to evaluate three options: a second site, work at home, and outsourcing some of the contacts. The new executive summarily dismisses these options because he/she determines that if calls do not exceed a specific duration the existing facility is sufficient!

So the entire team agrees to this as if they haven’t spent an untold number of hours analyzing processes, implementing enhancements, and optimizing technology prior to identifying the options. None of this work is meaningful to the executive so he/she just crafts an “order” to keep all calls shorter than x minutes. Mind you, this order is without benefit of any meaningful explanation of exactly HOW the front line should accomplish this fete. “Just do it” was the order. Of course this doesn’t work! Some agents try to shorten calls by “hurrying up.” Then (in some situations) callers who were hurried along actually realize that they have to call back to complete their query! This drives up both volume and dissatisfaction. Other agents don’t try at all because the task cannot be executed properly in this way. Coaches that previously coached to quality struggle to coach to quantity and morale hits a new low. This promotes turnover! And yet, the executive continues to demand compliance … as if one can successfully grow a garden by going out each day and screaming “Grow, grow, grow.”

Over a period of 24 months demand grows. The command to limit call time does not work; call delays are notoriously long; errors, turnover, and abandon rates have skyrocketed; and complaints are finally reaching the most senior levels of the enterprise. So guess what? This executive is promoted out and yet another executive on the moving sidewalk arrives to deal with the aftermath.

There seems to be a chronic lack of real Contact Center leadership know-how in some organizations. Yet somehow those totally without the requisite know-how do not hesitate to launch often disastrous initiatives. Executives searching for efficiency ought to sit down with the folks running the operation and gain some understanding of the “current state” prior to imposing directives related to calls handled per agent or individual agent handle time. The fact remains that when Contact Centers are properly managed individual agent productivity is a reflection of the processes, tools, training, and technology that these folks have been given to work with. Asking just how effective those elements are must enter the conversation.

The leaders in Contact Centers that suffer at the hands of the moving sidewalk have few options. One is to engage in a dialogue around what the Contact Center is looking to accomplish; this is followed by how it is to be done. If it is efficiency the executive is looking for, point out that the only way to enjoy tangible efficiency gains is to provide enhancements to processes across ALL agents. Which works better, faster, cheaper … coaching one person at a time to cut a few seconds off a call OR improving a process, tool, or technology that cuts a few seconds off ALL calls? Of course, the process option is better, though it is harder to implement and requires an upfront investment. It can be a long and painful task when cutting cost parades as efficiency.

Senior executives new to overseeing Contact Center operations must collaborate with Center leadership to gain a clear understanding of the current landscape and how it is aligned to enterprise objectives. All must work together to give the Contact Center what is needed to move in the right direction. Demanding some new report on individual agent performance only serves to disclose a complete lack of genuine expertise when it comes to Contact Center management and delivering on the promise of the Customer Experience.

“I like to keep my feet on the sidewalk.” Josh Homme, American Rock Musician