Talking About The Weather Does Have Its Purposes

Michael Barbagallo
Posted: 12/16/2010

One of the most difficult tasks I ever completed as a contact center manager was to convince a newly promoted supervisor to leave his office and spend time with his agents. Initially he saw no value in this. I found that ironic because these were people he spent time outside of work. In addition, they were his peer group prior to being promoted.

Unfortunately, the practice of supervisors, managers, and directors, working safely from their offices and watching the contact center from afar is still alive and kicking. While technology has provided contact center management many tools to help them assess the performance of their agents, many managers and supervisors rely too heavily on those tools and not on old-fashioned face-to-face management practices to drive performance.

Trust is the key element in business, and while work can be accomplished without it, the lack of trust places high hurdles and large obstacles in the path toward efficient vocation and operational progress.

For a business to run smoothly, trust must exist between management and employees. But, what is trust? It is the willingness to take a risk that others will act on your behalf without needing your consent. It is important to note that trust is a rational decision and a by-product of the interactions between two parties. People build mental databases of the outcomes of their interactions and decide to trust others when they have gathered enough positive information (the "gut feeling").

Building trust goes beyond simple interactions. The key element to building trust between parties is that interactions must create value. While value is relative to the individual and certain circumstances, informal interactions between managers and agent can fulfill certain basic human needs such as social identification and acknowledgement by authority figures.

By spending time with agents, casually chatting between calls about their family, after work activities, or congratulating them on a recent good call, managers build links with the agents and reinforce social contracts. Talking about non-work "stuff" allows management to relate to agents on a personal and human level.

Moreover, people do not decide to trust others from a single interaction. Parties need to interact repeatedly over time. This is where supervisors socializing with agents play such an important role. It opens opportunities for the parties to interact and the more opportunities for interaction, the bigger the potential for trust.

The type of trust that develops depends greatly on the relationship of the parties. For example, friends build a different type of trust than do professional peers. Trust-relationships are based on where the authority resides and there are several forms of trust-relationships, including peer-to-peer and supervisor-to-employee relationships. When relationships change, such as when an agent is promoted to supervisor, the trust-relationships that existed prior to the change diminish and new trust-relationships need to be established.

As mentioned above, trust is built through interactions between parties. To establish a new trust-relationship, agents and new supervisors must interact within the new circumstances. Chatting informally provides time for agents to ask questions and provide opinions.

The location has a significant role in types of interaction. One-on-one meetings and team meetings are formal events. No matter how managers try to make meetings informal they’re still considered formal events because they have structure (agendas, action point, follow-ups, etc,).

Furthermore, they occur in "management territory," where the signs of management authority (desks, reports, closed doors, etc.) are present. When managers venture into "agent territory", they give up the trappings of authority and interact on an equal footing.

Managers also give the agent the impression they are interested enough to leave their comfort zone. Unless the manager has a reputation of chewing out agents in front of peers, having informal conversations at an agent’s desk places them at ease and even offers them a significant level of control in the interaction.

Finally, while trust is not built overnight, it can be accelerated by peer action. If a supervisor has proven himself trustworthy to an agent in part by spending time informally with him or her, then the agent can influence the trust-building process between the supervisor and the agent’s peers.

If a trusted peer puts in a good word for a manager with other agents then depending on the strength of the peer-to-peer trust-relationship, the agent’s trust of the supervisor can be transferred to other agents. Word-of-mouth marketing works under the same principle and it is just as effective within an organization as it is in the marketplace. A word of caution to managers who do not establish a trust-relationship with their agents: distrust spreads faster than trust.

Spending time informally with agents is not all that managers and supervisors need to do to establish trust-relationships, but it one of the most critical. Keeping promises, providing good explanations and other personal interactions are all part of the trust-building process. Nevertheless, as the new supervisor learns, it all starts with a few minutes a day talking about the weather.

Michael Barbagallo
Posted: 12/16/2010

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