Walk a Mile in Your Agents’ Shoes

Here’s a management technique that’s been heard around the world: Unobtrusively, a manager wanders around the workplace, keeping his or her eyes and ears open for an employee who’s doing something right. After observing one such activity, the manager reinforces that behavior with a one-minute praising, which essentially consists of telling people specifically what they did right, how it made the manager feel when he or she witnessed the behavior, and how that behavior benefits the company.

That’s an idea from the best-selling business fable by Ken Blanchard and Spencer Johnson, “The One Minute Manager,” a book that’s sold more than 50 million copies worldwide.

This idea was expanded upon in the popular television show, Undercover Boss. The premise of the show is that executives take on their employees’ jobs for a time, and while the activity sometimes leads to reprimands—but more often praise—the underlying theory is the same: Observing your employees in their natural setting gives you a truer sense of how your employees perform on a daily basis, and provides managers with a simple way of encouraging people to do better more often.

As the leader of a contact center, it’s easy to get lost in our own point of view. We often see our employees from our own vantage point, from the perspective of someone who’s just reviewed call analytics, or overheard a harsher-than-necessary tone, or implemented new technology and training processes. We forget that our Communicators are seeing things from the other side: as someone who’s having a rough day, struggling to incorporate a complicated tool into a challenging customer interaction, or multi-tasking to get more done.

Crossing Over as a Management Tool

It’s important to take time occasionally to see things from the other side. When was the last time you handled customer calls for an entire workday? Spending a day in your Communicators’ shoes will give you valuable firsthand experience of what they deal with every day on the job. You might find that they’re lacking a useful tool that would help them do their job better. Or, you might see opportunities for additional training, working conditions that could be improved, or processes that should be modified.

For example, one executive on Undercover Boss experienced firsthand the negative impact of his cost-cutting measures when he had to spend a long, hot day in the warehouse without water. “Company picnics are nice,” an employee told him, “but take care of us on the job instead.”

One caveat here: Your focus should be on fixing problems, not people.

Another benefit of spending time on the other side is that your employees will be more likely to buy into your mission if they see that you “get it.” You understand the opportunities and challenges they are facing, and you understand their reality. Effective leaders inspire trust, which is more easily done if you feel a genuine connection to those you are leading. You’ll also see an elevated sense of collaboration, where Communicators are open to an exchange of ideas when it comes to the workplace.

If it’s simply not feasible to take to the phones for a day, consider inviting employees to share feedback about their jobs and provide solutions. You may get complaints, but you’ll also get some valuable thoughts about how to fix things—and what to fix. If you do choose to ask for feedback, make sure employees feel safe in sharing their thoughts or the entire exercise will be fruitless.

You may be surprised at what you discover from a trip to the other side. Among the many revelations you’re likely to have, one will surely be a renewed sense of appreciation for your Communicators.

Steve Brubaker began his career at InfoCision in 1985. In his current role as Chief of Staff and as a member of the Executive Team, he is responsible for HR, internal and external communications, and manages the company’s legal and compliance departments. Brubaker is a member of a number of professional organizations, including the DMA, SOCAP, and PACE. He also donates his time to serve on several university boards, including the Executive Advisory Board for The Taylor Institute for Direct Marketing at The University of Akron and The University of Akron Foundation Board. He is a frequent speaker for national events and has also been honored with a number of awards and recognitions for his contributions to the call center industry.