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Sparky is responsible for the “tyranny of the urgent.” Have you a “to do” list of very important items that are never accomplished because more urgent things always keep interrupting? Are you constantly putting out fires in your contact center? If so, then the “tyranny of the urgent” is the track you are running on.

With Sparky in control, you feel lucky just to survive the day with your sanity. Urgent tasks overshadow important ones—and we all know there are plenty of urgent items in customer contact operations! Sparky is the villain who keeps you from planning. He says, “Why plan? Don’t try! It’s useless. Your environment is not conducive for planning.” And he is half right.

Management requires both agile and essential thinking. “Agile thinking” focuses on the immediate solutions required to manage urgent issues. The immediate takes precedence over the longer term. Let’s say some unforeseen event occurs and your service level starts to degrade. No manager in her right mind is going to call an eight-hour strategy session to fix the problem. To recover service level right now, you need to apply agile thinking.

The problem with prolonged agile thinking is that if you continually apply it to situations that require essential thinking, you end up with a predominance of tactical or short-term solutions that can cause more problems in the long run. Agile thinking does not allow much, if any, time for root cause analysis.

Sparky encourages agile thinking. That’s pretty good for a villain.

Sparky comes down hard on essential thinking—times that the manager steps back to look at trends, evaluate the root of problems, and focus on fixing their underlying causes. Essential thinking is strategic, proactive, and has structure. But, just as a strict agile diet is not good for a manager, neither is a predominance of essential thinking. If you have ever witnessed “paralysis by analysis,” then you have seen the effect of a supervisor who is taking essential thinking to the extreme.

Balancing agile and essential thinking is not as easy as it sounds. Supervisors are constantly interacting with agents. Each day, they must address immediate behavioral issues (agile thinking) and, at the same time, address performance issues (essential thinking). However, supervisors often demonstrate unbalanced thinking. How many times have you or your supervisors, spoken with an agent about a performance (skill) issue based on one observation rather than a trend? Let’s say you monitor a call and the agent blows the greeting. If you walk up to the agents after the call and speak with them about how they need to work on their greeting, what reception do you get? Anger? Frustration?

Or, let’s say that you pull a daily report and an agent is demonstrating a call per hour number that is below your standard. What do you think it feels like to the agents to hear that they aren’t doing well based on one day’s worth of data?

Perhaps you have heard your supervisors say, “I know that Sally’s outfit doesn’t exactly conform to the dress code, but I’m going to wait to speak with her until I see a trend. I don’t want to ruffle those feathers until I have plenty of ammo.” No trend analysis necessary when dealing with policies like tardiness and dress code. Have you, or your supervisors, ever confused the type of thinking required to deal with behavioral versus performance issues? If so, then your balance needs work

Supervisors struggle with balance when they tackle real-time service level degradation (agile thinking) and contingency planning (essential thinking). Does your team continually “save the day” when service level degrades but fail to avoid most catastrophes because they don’t invest in documenting contingency plans? Or perhaps some on your team invest hours designing and documenting contingency plans, but never seem to balance this essential thinking with real-time crisis intervention.

Sidebar 2.A
Are you crazy to be a customer contact manager?
Call center craziness is often caused by its constant urgency. In the call center (as in the rest of life), the urgent crowds out the important. Anything with the title of “urgent” seems to supersede “important.” During our interviews, we ask call center managers the following two questions:

1. “Where does your call center management team currently spend most of its time during the day?” (“What are the urgent activities?”)

2. “If you had a magic wand, where would you like your management team to spend most of its time during the day?” (“What are the important activities?”)

They defined the top three urgent activities as:
1. Maintaining service level,
2. Answering questions and solving agents’ problems, and
3. Communicating intra- and inter-departmentally (a euphemism for “meetings”).

They defined the top three important activities as:
1. Improving the skills of the agents,
2. Improving the processes of the call center, and
3. Tied for third:
•Monitoring call quality, and
•Improving employee morale.

It was obvious from our interaction that everyone experienced the same frustration. Managers had no trouble answering either question. Plenty of important activities were seldom addressed due to fire fighting the urgent.

In Part Three you’ll take a quiz to see if Sparky reigns in your center and if so, how to deal with his devious ways.

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This narrative opened several cans of worms for me, both as one who consults to call centers and one who uses call centers, albeit begrudgingly most of the time. He's my problem--my wife would say that's not my only one.

To me, micro-monitoring CSRs is akin to pulling up a freshly planted daisy every hour to check how it's growing. That doesn't happen to any other person in the organization. Not only is every interaction monitored and measured--often against KPIs that adversely affect the customer--, it's even recorded. CSRs have people watching them--supervisors-- whose very title implies the CSRs are probably on fragile ground. No where else in the firm does anyone else report to someone whose title so brazenly states, I'm your boss and I'm here to keep and eye on you.

Imagine this conversation. It's 5 PM and the Chief Marketing Officer, Nancy 'I've Never Met a Customer' Jones, is meeting with the VP of Sales, Sam 'Me Either' Smith.

Nancy: I've just finished reviewing your performance reports for the past two weeks, and I have some concerns we need to address.

Sam squirms in his seat and a small bead of sweat runs down his back.

Nancy: Three days you arrived at the office two minutes late. On Tuesday, you didn't sign out for your fifteen minute break, and yesterday you were ten minutes late returning from lunch.

Sam: I can explain that. I took my daughter to the dentist instead of having lunch. Two weeks ago I asked you for a half-day vacation so I could take her, but you never replied.

Nancy: Well, if everybody did that we would have anarchy. Also, I have issues with the reports you sent. You were to do five a day, and on several days you only did three. I videotaped you as you were writing them, and your efforts were sub-par.

Sam: I was trying to do my best with each one, not trying to rush through one just to get to the other.

I'd quit, and so should Sam. A very similar dialogue comes from a real conversation between a supervisor and a rep. The supervisors at my client averaged 4 hours of floor time a month. I removed the doors from their offices and we saw quite an improvement. Notice the two lists of three things in Sidebar 2.A. The word customer never appears. The sole purpose, the mission of call centers, is the customer.

Urgent activity - maintaining service level (callers in queue, call wait times, abandonment rates, % of calls transferred, call length) A strong argument can be made that one could double service levels and not do a thing to enhance the customer experience, improve retention, or increase sales. A similar argument could be made that this would destroy employee moral.

Which mercifully brings me to the end of my rant. Move improving employee moral from last to first. Fix that, and many of the other issues would take care of themselves. Treat the CSRs like adults. Oh, and how about improving customer moral.

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