Employee Engagement Starts With Engaged CX Supervisors

Employee engagement for contact center agents is the current shiny object in customer experience (CX). Focusing on improving the agent experience is vital in today’s tremendously volatile talent market. But all the light reflecting off that shiny object is blocking the view to another crucial issue: supervisor engagement.

While attending Customer Contact West Nashville 2022, I got a clear view of that issue through conversations and observations.

All the CX challenges that organizations face today — high customer and employee expectations, shifting channel use, remote working, fast-changing technologies — also affect frontline CX managers. Their role needs to evolve in response to these challenges.

They need to be masters of change management. And they need to use that skill as they deal with other related issues, such as agents’ demands for flexibility, having to manage remote workers at the same time as in-office staff, competitive hiring and retention pressures, and the need to be a “unicorn” — a mythical employee who excels at a nearly impossible variety of skills.

Managing Through Constant Change

Many agents are bristling against the continual change that’s become standard in customer experience. Frontline supervisors need to set expectations with agents: Change is part of the job. These managers also need to work with HR to bake resiliency into onboarding and training.

Agents are also demanding flexibility — but providing that flexibility requires change. And agents dislike change. CX managers have to explain that meeting those demands requires change. And then they must help their customer support staff manage through any changes that occur in their work environments, including new processes and technologies.

One approach CX supervisors can use to help agents embrace change is to ensure they feel empowered to raise concerns. They can invite agents to brainstorm solutions and test new ideas. In addition to any formal processes they create to encourage agents to provide feedback, frontline managers can also host roundtables and other group discussions. And they should invite senior leaders to attend.

The reality is that modern CX is a team sport; we need frontline agents to take a more active role in defining the right path forward and co-creating employee engagement strategies. If agents have a perspective on being asked to work with subpar processes, tools or training, their supervisors should invite them to help solve those issues.

Supporting Agents’ Demands for Flexibility

Agents insist on flexibility, but it’s becoming increasingly difficult to provide it.

Interaction volume is increasing, many customer-agent interactions are more complex, talent is more difficult to source, and the skills required mean that managers can no longer recruit at the bottom of the employment ladder.

Consider this “simple” request that one CX leader I spoke with pointed out: When employees flex their working hours and choose to work four hours on Saturday, but their supervisor doesn’t work on Saturday, who do they escalate to? One solution is to have a primary manager and dotted-line reporting to a matrix of other supervisors who are working those shifts.

But flexibility for the agent isn’t just about their hours. It’s also about wellness and balance.

Supervisors are challenged to provide an environment that supports both. One approach is to provide their teams with breaks between stressful customer interactions.

They also can create a collegial environment through team-building activities in-person and virtually, so agents can support each other — whether they’re onsite or working remotely. It also means embracing modern workforce planning processes and tools that truly respect the needs and expectations of the agents and the business.

Managing Remote Workers — While Being One

Many frontline CX supervisors are dealing with issues they didn’t need to worry about when everyone was in the office, along with all the standard issues from before. It can be a lot to ask of people who aren’t trained to lead a remote team.

These supervisors need the skills and aptitude to be successful when working remotely. And they need to ensure they’re prioritizing the right skills among their remote workers.

Managers leading remote CX teams need to excel at communication and time management, for example. And their teams need to excel at these skills as well.

Supervisors might even find themselves helping their teams balance work and remote-specific personal demands when the latter interferes with getting their jobs done. For instance, a remote agent caring for a child or parent might be interrupted more frequently during the workday when working at home than they would working in the contact center.

Often, the managers and agents who burn out fastest are the ones trying to be at work, remotely, and care for family at the same time. “You can’t raise your kid while you’re at your desk — that’s a recipe to fail at both jobs. Home-base agents and supervisors have stress that at-office workers don’t have,” said one CX leader.

Retaining the team culture and collaboration can be especially challenging for supervisors who are new to working with remote teams. Some agents who are used to working on site in a contact center might feel a loss of identity that their manager will need to help them overcome: “I’m not part of the Jacksonville team anymore. I’m a ‘national’ employee.” With a distributed workforce, the simple but powerful moments of engagement (“Birthday cake in the breakroom!”) and casual peer development (“You want to grab lunch and review this new process?”) are lost.

In this situation, CX managers can help the employees establish new identities by explaining how they fit into the organizational model. And they can use virtual team-building activities to strengthen bonds.

Being a Unicorn Isn’t Always Sunshine and Rainbows

As the role of frontline CX managers expands, these leaders find themselves needing to be good at being an agent and being good at coaching, training, and managing. They’re also expected to have the skills needed to be an operations manager and a data analyst and a recruiter. That’s a lot to ask of people who might have been promoted to frontline leaders based primarily on their own individual performance, such as always having high first-contact resolution and customer satisfaction scores.

But most of their training is on the job, in the moment, and still focused on the technical processes that dominate the agent’s job. The need for training has accelerated past many organizations’ training capacity and standard curriculum.

“We’re asking frontline managers to be camp counselors and life coaches while also dealing with the same call volume,” remarked one CX leader.

The challenge is that few people will excel at the disparate and myriad responsibilities today’s CX supervisors are tasked with — not even with extensive training. The best coach isn’t the best operational person, isn’t the best hirer, isn’t the best “camp counselor.”

“Are we being penny-wise and pound-foolish in trying to squeeze more into the same person?” asked another CX executive.

Until CX leaders can add supervisory staff and training, frontline managers can play to their strengths and collaborate with their peers to get support in other areas.

Leading the Charge

The burden on frontline supervisors to address these many issues creates significant stress. As an industry, we need to find ways to alleviate that stress. These CX managers are the linchpin in the contact center — ensuring the quality of the customer experience by nurturing and supporting agents. Without support themselves, they’re likely to burn out and churn — and CX will suffer as a result.

Workforce engagement management techniques and technologies are a place to start. Artificial intelligence-based coaching and training can help.

And hiring more supervisors, which 70% of CX leaders say they’re planning to do over the next one to two years, is essential. The business benefits you’ll see in employee retention and customer experience improvements are worth any investments you make in engaging CX supervisors.