Leading the Call Center: Flavor of the Month Philosophies

Chinese CrisisHaving just completed a project that saw me leading a team in a call center, I want to make something clear; quick fixes and flavor of the month philosophies do not work.  I cannot stress this enough; yet, the practice continues to the detriment of call center employees and the organizations served by call centers.  Flavor of the month philosophies is the latest bestseller to fix the problems in business.  We have all seen these programs including, FISH, WAIT, Strengths Quest, and so much more.  These ideas are good ideas, and they possess value, but when changed monthly, these programs, never do more than briefly mark the surface intellect of the call center.  I am not disparaging these ideas in the least; let me elaborate as to why the flavor of the month idea fails.

The project previously mentioned when concluded saw the call center director very much converted to a program of definite value in and using one’s strengths entitled Strengths Quest as presented by Clifton, Anderson, and Schreiner (2006).  The culture of strength promotes unity, and by extension, organizational power, when combined intellectually, becomes the corporate culture.  Integration in business, especially in call center operations, remains crucial to bottom-line health.  The call center director invested a lot of organizational resources to capture everyone’s strengths, publish these advantages, and use this information to measure the call center.  The problem was the staff has no idea why they are investing company time in completing the “Clifton Strength’s FinderÒ (CSF),” and many completed this assignment while taking calls and distracted.  How verifiable is the data if the attention of the person completing the task is diverted?

My assignment, as a call center supervisor, included gauging the employees in the call center about their strengths.  Of the 10-employees in the call center, two had forgotten and blatantly said they do not care.  Three expressed a desire to retake the CSF to more fully focus on the task instead of completing it between calls.  Four employees asked why and what is the purpose of taking the CSF.  Finally, all the employees, when asked how they use the CSF data in their daily actions, expressed the same answer, I do not know.

Let’s be clear; there is nothing wrong with the latest flavor of the month programs to improve an organization, provided the leaders understand change, embrace change, train and teach “the what” and “the why,” and then remain committed long after the excitement over the bright new object fades.  I had the misfortune of working in a call center where the entire corporate culture was expected to change with every fresh flavor of leadership, and the organization is a mental mess.  What is a leader to do when each new flavor-of-the-month is presented as a potential fix for organizational dilemmas?  I suggest the following as a launching point for corporate discovery and leadership support.

  • If the organization is going to invest resources in a particular program, do not change for a set period, which includes pre- and post- measurement and evaluation. If the organization does not know where they start, they can never know what happened or where to go in the future.blue-money-burning
  • Organizational change must be more than surface polish or potential money (Blue Money) is lost, never to be recovered. Organizational change needs to fundamentally affect the organization and be allowed to produce measured results.  Does this mean that if something is not working, we keep at it?  No!  It means to provide sufficient time and measurement to gauge the application and the organizational change.  Many times beta-testing the proposed change can identify the processes, procedures, and other trouble points to be mindful of, or correct in beta-testing, to ensure full organizational change may occur with a higher chance for success.
  • Get everyone involved, enthused, and a willing advocate for the change. Getting everyone involved is not producing marketing materials and desk references.  Getting everyone involved requires explaining why and detailing what in the organizational change.  Getting everyone involved means there will be feedback, pushback, and rebellion.  Expect pushback, but never allow pushback to derail reform.  Pushback is a healthy activity that provides essential opportunities for the leader to explore solutions, answer questions, and evaluate the results.
  • Teach and train; train and teach. Learning should be a constant and desirable outcome of organizational change.  Teaching is not training, training is not teaching; but, both are critical skills needed for leaders and learners.  Teaching is helping someone else acquire knowledge.  Training is teaching a behavior or ability.  Teaching is usually one-way communication using measurement tools, e.g., tests to gauge knowledge learned and retained.  Training should be two-directional communication, is completed through experience in closely monitored environments, and includes 360-degree feedback to improve the training environment.  Never allow teaching and training to become the same confused term; while the words are closely related, they are not the same action.
  • When was the last time you discussed what you are reading with front-line employees? When was the last time you engaged a front-line worker about what they are reading, thinking, and ask for suggestions to improve?  When was the last time you asked to be trained on a process, procedure, or organizational action by those who do it all day?  If recently, did you ask why, a lot?  I promise you will be surprised when you have these conversations, especially since they open up opportunities to explain and expound, learn, change, adapt, and engage with those you lead.
  • Organizational change requires enthusiasm from all parties to begin to engage and deepen the shift from surface polish to fundamental culture adaptation. Enthusiasm takes many shapes, sizes, and colors, including the loyal opposition of followers, opinions, and feedback.  The leader must exemplify and honor, or support, the enthusiasm around them as a tool for succeeding in changing the organization.
  • Clarify intentions. Clarify processes.  Clarify procedures.  Clarify by asking follow-up questions and reflectively listen to obtain mutual understanding.  Clarification remains one of the most critical tasks in organizational change.  When confusion rears its ugly head, respond with explanation and follow-up, as detailed in two-directional communication.  When the comprehension is doubted, ask for feedback as an opportunity to increase clarification.  Clarification is both a tool and an opportunity; do not waste this opportunity and tool by neglecting those needing clarification.
  • Organizational change needs a mechanism for gathering data from many sources, including the employees affected, the vendors, the suppliers, and the customers. Open the valve for data to flow back.  One of the most horrific organizational changes it has been my displeasure to witness was increased because the leaders operated in a vacuum and never allowed data flow that was contradictory to the previously agreed upon results.  The leaders in this organization worked hard to refuse hard data, which contradicted their bias, and this ruined the business, the employees, and the customers.

I cannot guarantee following all these points will make organizational change succeed, roses bloom, bottom lines inflate, rainbows dance, and all of life fall into organized lines leading ever upward.  I can guarantee that without these points, organizational change that promotes an environment of learning will never be more than polish.  Consider the axiom, “Lipstick on a pig.”  The lipstick is not bad, the pig is not bad, but placing lipstick on a pig is out of place and does nothing to improve the pig.  Flavor-of-the-month changes are lipstick on a pig, not bad, but out of place until the entire organization is on board and enthusiastically supporting the move, and proper measurements are in place to gauge, measure, and report the change.

Business theorist Chris Argyris put forth a model, later discussed by Senge (1994) explaining our thinking process as we interact with the world.  This seven-step method is called the Ladder of Inference; according to this model, as we move up the ladder our beliefs affect what we infer about what we observe and therefore become part of how we experience our interaction with other people.  Organizational change can be plotted along the same model or ladder of inference.

Leadership LadderOrganizational change begins with information output; then collect data, preferably through listening and observation while doing the work; interpreting the data includes obtaining data, evaluating meaning, deciphering intent, and understanding value.  Please note, the assumptions should not be made in a vacuum and could be wrong; thus, always return to the data producers and ask questions to ensure mutual understanding.  Once conclusions are mutually understood, they become beliefs; but, don’t stop until beliefs become actions.

If a model is needed, please benchmark Quicken Loans and Southwest Airlines, both organizations are doing a tremendous job with the ladder steps, especially moving organizational beliefs into motivated organizational action.  Remember, one does not climb a ladder to view the horizon and scenery, they climb a ladder to begin working, carrying the tools needed to perform the work, and possessing certain knowledge that the work can be accomplished.  Climb the ladder of success with the intent to work, achieve, and move forward.

References

Clifton, D. O., Anderson “Chip,” E., & Schreiner, L. A. (2016). Strengths quest: Discover and develop your strengths in academics, career, and beyond (2nd ed.).

Senge. P. M. (1994). The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. New York: Currency Doubleday.

© 2017 M. Dave Salisbury

All Rights Reserved

The images used herein were obtained in the public domain, this author holds no copyright to the images displayed.

Published by

msalis1

Dual service military veteran. Possess an MBA in Global Management and a Masters degree in Adult Education and Training. Pursuing a PhD in Industrial and Organizational Psychology. Business professional with depth of experience in logistics, supply chain management, and call centers.

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