From Transactions to Interactions

Workforce Strategies to Support Extraordinary Customer Experiences – Part 3

By Penny Reynolds

In a previous issue of The Connection, we introduced the concept of getting beyond the basics of a transaction to a more effective customer interaction and a more memorable, loyalty-inspiring experience. In that article, we introduced these five areas that must be addressed to give that “wow” brand of customer service:

  1. Hire the right people for the job.
  2. Train staff for the “interaction” as well as the “transaction” part of the customer contact.
  3. Coach regularly to fine-tune performance and reinforce desired behaviors.
  4. Develop individualized motivation programs that encourage each employee to excel.
  5. Assemble a system of quantitative and qualitative measures to ensure you’re getting the behaviors you want.

The last issue’s article addressed the second item and this article will review critical components of the next strategy area.

Coaching for Outstanding Performance

Coaching is all about helping someone improve performance and when done right, it’s an experience frontline staff will welcome and appreciate. However, for many call center supervisors, coaching is simply a meaningless presentation of numbers or pointing out of errors with no positive roadmap for improvement. It’s much like the basketball coach who points out that the last three shots were missed and that the team needs to score ten points in the next three minutes to win the game. Telling someone that handle time is too high and they need to work on call control does not constitute an effective coaching session.

The key elements for effective coaching involves defining performance standards, measuring and observing existing performance, identifying performance gaps or excellence, diagnosing root causes of performance problems, and coaching to either celebrate or correct. Here are several important strategies associated with effective coaching in the call center.

1. Define performance standards.

You can’t coach unless you have defined standards of performance. A supervisor can’t possibly sit down to coach without having clear definitions about what good performance looks and sounds like. Your call center will need to have a road map of detailed definitions of competencies, defined all the way down to specific measurable behaviors that can be observed.

For example, most call centers would agree that a desirable competency is to be able to demonstrate call control techniques that balance quality and service provision with length of call. The observable, measurable behaviors would be the specific call control techniques learned in a training class that keep talkative callers on track but still allow for the discovery of customer needs and ample time for presentation of solutions and needed information.

Part of the work in defining these standards is creating a definition large enough to allow for and even encourage the use of “above and beyond” behaviors to serve the customer. Be careful that call control techniques that should be followed don’t handcuff the staff from identifying when extra time and effort could be used to make a real service impact with the customer. Make sure your performance standards include definitions of what “above and beyond” behaviors are desirable.

2. Identify the “why” of performance problems.

Before coaching, supervisors need to pinpoint the reason that someone has a performance gap. For example, if an agent has failed to ask additional discovery questions in order to recommend the best solution for a caller, the supervisor has to figure out why the agent performed that way in order to correct the behavior and encourage more customer-focused behavior the next time.

It is natural to assume that if someone has not performed and followed through on a call-handling technique that they must need more training. However, the person may actually know how to do the technique, but is being influenced by pressure to meet handle time numbers and is therefore skipping through some of the call steps. It’s crucial to identify the reason for the gap before beginning the coaching process.

3. Avoid “good…but” coaching.

The best way to encourage staff to repeat customer-pleasing behaviors is to catch them doing something right and rewarding those behaviors as soon as possible. However, since many supervisors are pressed for time and looking for ways to make the most of coaching time, it’s tempting to recognize the good behaviors, but also take time to clean up any performance problems.

An important rule of “on the spot” coaching is to keep it simple. If you’ve heard someone do something great for the customer on the phone, praise that behavior as soon as you can. And try to make it all about the positive feedback. Let the person bask in the glow of recognition without any other corrections. Sometimes the good behavior is pointed out, but then glowing words are following by a “but…” statement that serves as a verbal eraser for the initial praise.

If you’ve heard someone do something great on the phones, go praise it and let it stand all by itself. There will be other opportunities to correct the fine points and mistakes. Just let the positive reinforcement flow when you catch staff doing something very right so they’ll want to do it again.

4. Look for coachable moments.

Part of the problem with call center feedback is that supervisors don’t have enough time in their schedules to spend doing one-on-one coaching. In many centers, supervisors can be responsible for 20 or more people and finding devoted time to sit down to coach is nearly impossible. Therefore, when it’s time for a coaching session, there is pressure to make the most of the time by describing “what went wrong” rather than looking for “coachable moments” and making the most of them.

Many call centers are missing out on these “coachable moments.” We see many centers that pull four or five calls per month as coaching samples. These calls are generally selected randomly, but this random selection often just means haphazard. The calls selected for coaching rarely represent a true sample of call behavior and they don’t always provide the right kind of coaching scenarios. Supervisors will sometimes just select the short calls so they can complete the requisite number of reviews, so the longer, harder calls probably don’t get the attention they deserve.

One practice we’ve observed that works well to supply supervisors and quality analysts with coachable scenarios is to allow the agents to select some of their own calls for coaching. In one center they supply one great call to enter into the “Best Call of the Week” contest, providing a much-needed opportunity for positive reinforcement and recognition. The other call submitted is one where the agent needed help. Agents can provide these calls in a no-scoring format and get guidance on what to do better next time, but in a very supportive, non-judgmental way. This practice helps to get agents more involved in the process and helps them view coaching as a way to improve rather than a “gotcha” that catches them doing something wrong.

5. Plan floor time for “on the spot” coaching.

In addition to planned call review time, it’s critical that supervisors simply get out and walk the floor to look for coachable moments. This “walk-by coaching” is very effective, as agents get comfortable with on-the-spot coaching and recognition. The sooner that coaching can happen related to the positive or negative behavior it’s meant to shape, the more effective the feedback will be. Therefore, it’s important to schedule “walk by” time each day out on the floor in addition to the planned one-on-one time for more formal feedback.

Coaching is the single most important activity on the supervisor’s list of job responsibilities. We need to make sure they’re equipped with the right skills, manageable team sizes, and data in the form of coachable moments to make the most of their valuable coaching time.


Getting a “wow” customer experience to happen requires two key ingredients – the transaction and the interaction. Much of the impression that is left after the call is molded by the “interaction” part of the exchange. Getting staff to deliver their end of great interactions requires that five essential elements be in place:

  1. Hire the right people for the job.
  2. Train staff for the “interaction” as well as the “transaction” part of the customer contact.
  3. Coach regularly to fine-tune performance and reinforce desired behaviors.
  4. Develop individualized motivation programs that encourage each employee to excel.
  5. Assemble a system of quantitative and qualitative measures to ensure you’re getting the behaviors you want.

However, the best of interactions can’t overcome a transaction that was handled poorly due to system or technology issues. Frontline staff giving their all won’t be able to erase customers’ transaction problems. Just as it’s important to get the right people in place, train them properly, coach for improved performance, and reward desired behaviors, it’s also critical to have the proper technology in place to support the transaction. Solutions that provide ease of use for both the customer and the agent are critical for seamless transactions where great interaction skills can shine through.

Penny Reynolds was Co-Founder of The Call Center School and is a popular speaker and writer in the area of call center operations. Recently retired, she serves as an Educational Advisor to QATC, continuing to provide thought leadership and training to the contact center community. She can be reached at or at 615-812-8410.