The Bottom Line

Leadership: Mastering Operational Excellence

The following article from Dawn and Tom is featured in the June 2011 edition of Contact Center Pipeline. Please let us know what you think, and share your thoughts/questions on how mastering the fundamentals drives excellence!

Leaders aren’t born, they are made.  And they are made just like anything else, through hard work.          Vince Lombardi

Leaders.  Leadership. They are words we often hear, especially when discussing the constant quest to achieve operational excellence in contact centers.  Of course, process management and technology are crucial; however, without effective leadership of your people, neither of those critical components will deliver you or your contact center to the desired destination of operational excellence.

Nearly all of us have probably had experiences where outstanding processes and technology existed, yet results were less than stellar due to a lack of people leadership.  On the other hand, we’ve all more than likely experienced the opposite as well: outstanding leaders created a successful contact center despite less than ideal processes or technology.  Leadership truly is the linchpin of success in a contact center environment.  

We frequently encounter participants in our workshops or customers who have purchased books who are searching for what it means to be a great leader in the contact center space.  Everyone acknowledges that leadership ability will make or break you, but what can you do to strengthen your own leadership and improve the leadership capabilities of your teams?

Unfortunately, there isn’t a silver bullet to become a great leader; however, there are some fundamentals that are required to get on the right path to achieve excellence.  Vince Lombardi gave us the direction that, “Excellence is mastery of the fundamentals.”  When we apply that simple thought to contact centers, what does it mean? 

For us, it means that you must have a consistent and rigorous focus on applying leadership strategies and tactics directly to the five most important components of running a highly effective and efficient contact center.  We call these the big 5:

1.  Hiring the very best every time 
2.  Developing people for unprecedented results
3.  Creating your highest employee satisfaction
4.  Building strong teams
5.  Driving key metrics for maximum impact

The big 5 are truly about leadership – without any of the above components, no amount of technology or process improvement will propel you to operational excellence.   Operational excellence is genuinely a people-centric, people-dependant pursuit to improve the big 5 annually, quarterly, monthly, weekly, daily and even hourly!
Do you have a relentless focus on hiring the very best? Are you dedicating the majority of your time to developing people?  Are you and your leaders creating a culture where employee satisfaction and strong teams are the foundation of all that you do?  When you do these things well, you’re prepared to fully leverage and drive key metrics for maximum impact, and are well on your way to achieving operational excellence.

Operational excellence requires a focus on people performing at their best in every position in your organization.  How do you crack the code for leading others in a way that inspires top performance?  Let’s start with some basic business truths:  We know that employees who are most engaged with their companies have the highest levels of satisfaction, and their satisfaction translates into higher customer satisfaction and ultimately, in better business results. The employee-customer-profit chain is a proven and well documented correlation between people and profits; and once again, the critical path begins with people being led in a way that inspires top performance.  Leadership is the catalyst for employee satisfaction – so what can you and your teams do as leaders do to inspire top performance?

Gallup conducted a study over a period of 25 years with 12 million people representing 7,000 companies and asked the question: “What makes employees happy and satisfied?”  The results were quite amazing (notice pay isn’t on this list!) and reinforce the importance of solid leadership:

• The employee’s work environment/culture
• The leadership management team in the location
• The relationship the employee has with their boss
• The relationship the employee has with their co-workers
• The amount of loyalty the employee felt to the company

One of these was the most frequently provided answer by a substantial margin.  Can you guess which one it was?  Yes, the employee’s relationship with their boss was the most significant predictor of job satisfaction. Once again, how employees are led is truly the “make or break connection” when it comes to employee satisfaction, customer satisfaction and ultimately your company’s bottom line.  These findings make it paramount that your leaders deliver day in and day out not just for  the business, but for their employees.

Sometimes organizations consider things like culture, relationships and loyalty as “soft measures”, but research proves some very hard, bottom line results are achieved when employees are engaged and satisfied.  In fact, GuideStar Research found that for every five point improvement in employee attitude, customer satisfaction rose 1.3% and revenues increased a half a percentage point. Studies from the Texas Quality Organization further reinforced that businesses in the top 25% of employee engagement scores benefited from 1-4% higher profitability than their competitors.  Clearly, having leaders who know how to engage and satisfy employees is a requirement on your quest for operational excellence.

To assist you in your mission of mastering operational excellence in your contact center, we have created a list of best practices from our leadership books and workshops that companies have been able to easily apply to measurably improve results.  Here are a few of our big 5 best practices to ensure that you and your leaders are constantly mastering the big 5.

REDUCE NEW HIRE ATTRITION:  Implement specific activities that guarantee your new hire’s transition from training to the production team is as smooth and successful as possible.  Having the new employee’s boss building a relationship with them from the first day of training is critical.  It shows the new hire that there are at least two people dedicated to their success: their trainer and their new leader. Establishing a strong relationship with the “boss” as soon as possible tells new employees that they are headed to a leader who cares about them and their success in training and beyond. 

Establishing this relationship provides your leaders with the opportunity to not only influence the new hire’s success in training, but also facilitate meeting other members of the team. New hires need to feel like a member of their destination team as quickly as possible to reduce the anxiety that comes with joining a new company.  Other key activities include assigning a mentor on the destination team that the new hire can look up to and learn from, this helps  insure that what is learned in the classroom is applicable to the on the job reality and provides a sense of security that they won’t have to “go it alone” when they graduate from training.  

One best practice that often is overlooked is inviting the new hire to join team meetings, luncheons or informal gatherings where they can begin to bond with their new team while they’re still in training.  Once they’re “out of training” they will be overwhelmed with applying all that they’ve learned to the job.  Having a team of supporters surrounding them (instead of strangers) can make all the difference in whether the new hire is successful or struggles to survive those first daunting days on the job.

By establishing a few specific activities that are consistently applied to the new hire experience, you can make measurable progress to reduce attrition, improve results and reduce costs.  The key is defining what works best for your company and integrating these activities into your leadership team’s expectations for every new hire class.  Being a great leader means that people want to follow  you…establishing that bond the first day that a new employee enters your company is a once-in-a-career opportunity, so make sure you and your leaders are making the most of it!

MAKE THE MOST OF COACHING SESSIONS:  In every workshop or keynote address we do, we ask, “How many of you have coached the same person on the same skill more than one time?” and nearly everyone will nod their head, chuckle and raise their hand almost faster than we can finish the question.  It is a real problem in our industry – we often don’t have enough time to coach, and when we do, it seems we’re often “re-coaching” in areas we have already discussed.  That’s inefficient and not effective for the leader, or the employee.
Most often this is due to the leader sharing their feedback and “how it should be done” with the employee then moving on to the next issue that demands their time. Let’s face it, time for employee development always seems too short while the “to do” list usually is too long!  To make the most of your limited coaching time, we advocate that leaders apply a simple CSI method to each coaching session as a supplement to your existing feedback model.  It only takes a few minutes, and the results are well worth the extra effort.  It’s simple and it works: Use CSI=Check, Set and Inspect. 
First, CHECK the employee’s understanding.  Do they know how to do what you’re asking them to do?  This can involve having the employee demonstrate the proper use of the skill by role playing, navigating the system or showing that they do know how to do what is expected.  Check that they know how to do it on their own; if this part is missed, leaders can find themselves back coaching the same issue again and again.
Once leaders know that their employees can do it, then it is time to SET the expectation that this is how it should be done every time, share why it is important to your customers and/or company and then ask for the employee’s commitment to do it this way.  Getting the employee to “sign up” for using the skill or knowledge every time is imperative; if they still have a reservation about using it, they will say so at this point.  This is the equivalent of “closing the deal” and clearly communicates what is expected and why to the employee in crystal clear terms.

Then discuss how the leader will INSPECT this moving forward.  Let the employee know exactly how they will be held accountable for implementation.  If it is through monitoring, a specific report or quality control processes, establish how inspection will occur.  Feedback that is paired with CSI dramatically increases the overall efficiency and effectiveness of the coaching process. 

None of the above ideas are earth-shattering concepts, yet when they are applied consistently over time, the results that you achieve will be.  Coach Lombardi believed that leaders were not born, that they were made with hard work and it is our experience and sincere belief that he was 100% right.  Keep developing your leaders to master the big 5 and operational excellence will be your reward!

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