I have worked in, consulted in and been involved in one type of project or another within the call center environment over the years, and one thing I have always noticed is that a lot of attention is given to the call center agent. The call center agent while being at the bottom of the totem pole in the call center structure has a lot of eyes watching them in terms of statistics, metrics, both anonymous and side by side monitoring and more because the agent is said to be the life blood of the call center. The agent is on the front lines, and it is the individual agents that are closing the sales or keeping the customer happy, whatever the case may be. Call centers do their best to create happy, productive agents and go through great lengths to keep attrition as low as possible, because it is of course costly to train an agent just to have them bounce out the door to the next call center 6 months after hiring them. A lot of time, energy and money is put into training a call center agent, followed by a lot of effort to make sure that these agents are hitting the numbers, are dealing with customer issues effectively, after all they are the face of the business, the agents are who the customer sees and deals with and because of this many believe that the agent is the most important aspect of a call center. I disagree.
While it is true that the agent on the phone is of the utmost important and all of the energy and time is put into training for good reason I have found that that management often overlooks who I believe to truly be the most important aspect of the call center and that is the team supervisor. I don’t care how skilled your agents are and how well trained they are without a good supervisor to lead the team, then there isn’t a team. It takes skill to effectively manage thirty or forty individuals, and there is a skill involved in massaging all those different personalities and molding all of these individuals into one finely tuned team.
I believe that many times people get promoted or hired into a supervisory position without really being evaluated to see if they possess the skills that are necessary to lead. That’s right I didn’t say supervise I said lead, because that is exactly what needs to be done to have a highly successful call center team, someone needs to lead them and I will argue that there is a huge difference between just supervising and just leading.
So the question is can leadership be taught? According to Mark Sarner president of Manifest Communications, the answer is yes, leadership like all skills, can be taught. The literature is clear on the essential components, styles, and dynamics. But can leadership be learned? He claims it is often taught but rarely learned (fastcompany.com). In my part time profession as a University professor teaching post graduate MBA students I have often told them that it takes very little skill to be the boss. Anyone can do it, it doesn’t take any skill whatsoever to point your finger and tell people to do this or that, go here or there, no skills required at all, anyone can do it, it doesn’t take any education, any experience, anyone can do it. Being a leader on the other hand takes a great deal of skill, and in order to be a leader of a call center team, like any team the first step to leading in my opinion is to become a part of the team. So many supervisors separate themselves from the team, there is the team and there is the supervisor, two separate entities. It doesn’t need to be this way and it shouldn’t be this way; a true leader needs to be a part of the team.
Someone once asked me what is the difference between a boss and a leader, either way it’s someone you have to listen to. I told them the answer was very simple, a boss is someone you have to listen to, whether you want to or not, a leader is someone you want to listen to, someone you respect, someone look up to. So the difference between a boss and a leader is miles apart, its apples and oranges. In my experience and my opinion, you cannot effectively teach just anyone to be a leader, empathy, sympathy, compassion are not things that can be taught, you either have them or you don’t and all of them are needed to be a leader. There are certainly leadership skills that can be taught, but you have to teach someone who at their core has the raw skills that are needed to be a leader.
According to Greg Levin Creative Projects Coordinator for ICMI and author of ICMI’s Call Center Humor book series in a Call Center Magazine article from December 2006, many call centers have implemented a comprehensive hiring process that includes advanced screening and to insure that they attract and hire the best agents as possible. But very few call centers do the same to ensure that they have the best supervisors leading those agents. Anne Nickerson, president of training and consulting firm Call Center Coach and author of Not By the Seat of My Pants: Leadership Lessons for the Call Center Supervisor states, “ I think supervisors are the most critical part of success in the call center” (callcentermagazine.com).
So if you have hired the best agents that money can buy and you have put them through a comprehensive and ongoing training program at the end of the month you are left scratching your head trying to figure out why the month end numbers look so bad, take a look at the supervisor who is leading them.