How to help your Contact Centre Agents improve their Performance

In this post I share how to help improve your Contact Centre Agent performance.

What is the job of a Contact Centre Agent?

When we hire a Contact Centre Agent, we’re responsible for helping them succeed in their job.

To help improve Contact Centre Agent performance.

So a fundamental understanding of the job is the right place to start.

For the Contact Centre Agent job, this definition helps:

The job of a Contact Centre Agent is to do the right things at the right time.

 Doing the right things corresponds to Quality, while at the right times corresponds to Productivity.

So let’s look at some choices you can make to improve performance in Quality and in Productivity.

At the end of the article we’ll close out with a look at the role of Attitude(s).

Doing the right things = Quality

Here are some choices you can make to help your Contact Centre Agent performance in Quality.

1.  Develop a compelling Service Delivery Vision  

When you try to please everyone, you end up pleasing no one.

That’s a powerful statement and important when you’re looking to deliver Customer-pleasing quality for your Customers.

Every organisation has its own purpose, its own set of Customers and its own style and brand.  So by design, it should have its own kind of service too.

A well-crafted Service Delivery Vision helps everyone understand what kind of service we deliver around here.

Even better, ask Agents their opinion of what kind of Service we deliver around here and incorporate their voice into the Service Delivery Vision.

Wouldn’t be great if every Agent could say –

I know exactly what kind of Service we deliver around here, how to explain it to others and how to bring it to life in my job role.

If they can’t then here lies an important opportunity.

2.  Select the right Performance Standards by channel and train them well 

Every channel –  Live Chat, Email, Voice – has its own set of behavioral practices that separate a great interaction from an average one.

For example, in Email it’s important to write the way you speak and to use inverted pyramid writing when sharing content.

So first understand those behavioral practices by channel.  If your internal Trainers don’t have this know-how then go to the outside word and get help.

Second – filter those practices through your Service Delivery Vision.

The behaviors you choose should reflect the kind of Service you deliver ‘around here’.

Agents shouldn’t have to learn how to deliver a ‘different kind of service’ across different channels.

That’s not only confusing – it’s a mess.  Align to the Service Delivery Vision and then bring out those behavioral practices inherent in each channel that supports the Vision.

Third – choose and document meaningful Performance Standards for your Agents to learn and practice – for each channel they’re asked to handle.

And be sure that anyone involved in coaching understands these Performance Standards inside and out.

3.  Don’t ask Agents to practice on Customers

I regularly come across Centres that ask their Agents to practice on Customers.

For example:

  • Email Agents who have never been formally trained in email writing practices.
  • Live Chat Agents who are told to start handling Live Chats without a background or understanding of what separates an average chat from a great chat.
  • Voice Agents who may have received orientation training or product knowledge training – but that’s about it.

It’s hard to be an Agent who is asked to practice on Customers.

And don’t buy-in to the idea that Agents who have good ‘hearts’ know how to give good service.

That’s not just untrue, it’s unfair.

There’s a lot to human communication.

If you have any doubts about that just google ‘human communication’ and see what I mean.

No one goes to work to be mediocre.  So when our Agents struggle to deliver on Quality it can be demotivating.

Quality Assurance (QA) should be an enabler – not a barrier.  And yet so many QA folks spend most of their time marking people down for things.

Wouldn’t be great if each Agent could say –

I know the ‘why’ behind the Performance Standards my organization chose to measure quality and I appreciate that there are mechanisms in place to continuously equip me to do well in quality – across every channel I handle.

4.  Implement proper Interaction Coaching practices

Talking to someone about a ‘bottom box’ satisfaction rating from a Customer is not coaching.

Telling someone they failed a critical error is not coaching.

You should call it what it really is.  A poor performance conversation.

The goal of a poor performance conversation is to help the Employee understand what was poorly done and the consequences.

But a poor performance conversation is not the same as a transaction coaching conversation.

It’s not enough to just help Agents avoid ‘being bad’.  Learning & growth don’t live here.

Whoever came up with the term ‘fatal error’ should resign from the industry because that term – and the approach that goes along with it – promotes fear-based interactions between Agents and their leadership.

Interaction coaching is developmental in nature.  And it’s always about both sides of the interaction.

What went well and what can be improved.

Agents who only hear what they did wrong, understandably disengage, dislike ‘coaching sessions’.  They become mistake-avoiders.

Effective interaction coaching is at the heart of Contact Centre Agent performance in Quality.

For some lucky Agents it happens nearly every day – not now and then or crammed in at the end of the month like a quota system.

Wouldn’t it be great if each Agent could say –

My boss has high standards and believes in my potential. I receive regular and helpful feedback about my quality performance which helps me understand where I do well and where I can improve. 

At the right time = Productivity

Let’s look at some choices you can make to help your Agents improve their Productivity.

1.  Stop measuring the wrong things

More than anything else, the key to Agent productivity is to understand what Agent productivity is – and what it isn’t.

Let’s start with what it isn’t:

2.  It isn’t Average Handling Time (AHT)

The significant drivers of AHT don’t lie in the control of Agents.

They lie in processes, technologies and the rational & emotional complexity of the inquiries posed by Customers.

Leading Centers measure individual AHT to identify outliers for root cause analysis and correction.  But they don’t consider AHT to be a major productivity metric at the Agent level.

AHT is important for forecasting & staff planning.  It’s not a matter of ignoring it at all.  It’s simply a matter determining where it matters the most.

For Centers that still want some aspect of AHT in their Agent performance scorecard sure – I see that often. But what these Centers do is assign AHT a lower weightage in the overall basket of productivity KPIs.

Don’t buy in to the idea that there is some industry standard for developing the weightages assigned to various metrics.

The learning & power of your performance system is enhanced by the work you do to get it to align and ‘fit’ into your culture and context.

3.  It isn’t Number of Calls Handled

The mathematical realities of Service Level based contacts like calls and live chats mean that Agents don’t control the number of interactions handled.

factoryOnly Response Time contacts, such as Correspondence & Email, can have appropriate volume-based targets.

If you still think that Agents should be measured on quantity for Service Level based contacts you need to urgently sign up for some solid Operations training.

This mistake in thinking # of calls is a valid productivity metric is among the most damaging in the industry.

Not to mention the damage created to Customer Satisfaction, Employee Engagement and the opportunity for Agents to develop a powerful communications voice & style of their own.

Which isn’t just a Contact Center skill – it’s a life skill.

4.  It isn’t Occupancy

Agents don’t control how ‘busy’ they are when they are signed in handling Service Level based contacts.

Management is the ultimate driver of Occupancy through activities that include setting Service Level objectives, Forecasting & Staffing and Managing Service Level in Real Time.

If you believe Agents somehow control their Occupancy rate, you need to urgently sign up for some solid Operations training.

We’re talking here about how to help your Agents improve their performance – and Occupancy isn’t in their control.

Mathematical realities such as the Pooling Principle further highlight how wrong it is to target Agents on personal Occupancy rates.

What you need to know about the Pooling Principle in Contact Centers

5.  Setting the wrong productivity KPIs will earn you Agent confusion and a host of unwanted outcomes

It’s not so great when your Agent says –

I work in a Centre that asks me to achieve both productivity & quality but then sets KPIs that compete with each other. 

I never know if they want me to be fast or if they want me to be good. They can’t really explain it to me either.

Something feels wrong here.

6.  Start measuring the right things

We turn back to our definition of the job of a Contact Centre Agent.

The job of a Contact Centre Agent is to do the right things at the right time.

At the right time is best expressed through ‘Adherence to Schedule’.

Simply put, when your Agent adheres to the schedule they’re given –  at an interval basis – your Centre Service Level improves and stabilises.

That’s a great thing.

Adherence to Schedule is at the heart of Contact Centre Agent performance for Productivity.  And it makes intuitive sense.

When you’re short by even a small number of Agents, your Service Level goes down and all sorts of important KPIs go awry.

When you’re overstaffed by any number of Agents, your Service Level barely improves.

That means you’re wasting organisational resources.

Putting the right people, in the right place at the right time is not just a mantra.  It’s a way to manage your Frontline resources efficiently.

At a management level, you need to marry effective interval-based forecasting, staffing & scheduling with great Adherence to Schedule behaviour across all individual Agents.

You can’t wing this part.

And don’t think that Agent performance cannot make up for weak forecasting practices.

You need both.

When it comes to Agents, choose the right measures for productivity – with a heavy emphasis on Adherence to Schedule – and combine them in an appropriate basket of KPIs to measure their performance.

The weight of each item in that basket depends on the degree of control the Agent has over that item.

Wouldn’t it be great if your Agent could say –

I work in a Centre that has defined Productivity very clearly for me. 

And they’ve explained the rationale behind it. 

I understand how my individual contribution has a big impact on our Centre’s overall performance and why I need to be in the right place at the right time. 

Best of all – the Productivity standards set do not compete with Quality.  I’m in a position to deliver both.

Summing up Productivity & Quality (P & Q)

One of the powerful aspects of this Productivity (P) and Quality (Q) approach is that P & Q don’t contradict each other.

You can ask for both and you can help your Agent achieve both. They should never be in contradiction.

see saw balanceAnd there’s no such thing as ‘balance’ here.

Seeking a balance that doesn’t exist is the wrong question – and trying to achieve it is a dangerous myth that costs many Centres either their Quality or their Productivity – sometimes both.

There’s one more dimension I’d like to look at before closing this article.

That’s the power of attitude.

Nobody has an attitude problem

It’s quite normal to hear a Manager say, “I think my Contact Centre Agent has an attitude problem.”

But is this a fair assessment?  I don’t think so.

There’s really no such thing as an ‘attitude problem’ because there are so many different attitudes at play to succeed in a job role.

In my former VP Operations days, if a Manager came into my office and said their Agent had an attitude problem, I’d ask them to tell me specifically which attitude was the problem.

If they couldn’t, I’d recommend that they figure it out and then come back and see me.

Was I being overly strict?  I don’t think so.

Every job, from the top on down, requires a certain set of specific attitudes to succeed.

And it’s our job to know the attitude requirements for any job role we manage – in this case the Contact Centre Agent.

Some common attitudes I come across for Contact Centre Agents include –

  • Adaptability
  • Ownership
  • Positive Attitude

But I’d recommend you work through the selection and definition of the attitudes that make the most sense for your Centre and for your Agents.

Then be ready to explain what those attitudes really ‘look like’ at work.

What it helps to know about Attitude(s)

Nobody is a superstar at every attitude.

Some attitudes were inculcated in us through how we were raised, some we learned from trusted teachers and mentors.

Attitudes evolve and develop over time , especially with the right guidance.

For me, I’ve found the following two thoughts about attitude to be helpful-

  1. An attitude is a settled way of thinking or feeling about something
  2. Attitudes are choices – people can choose and/or change their attitudes over time

When helping someone develop a specific attitude, my goal is that they end up making a conscious and personal choice to adopt the attitude for their success.

So that means that in addition to talking about Quality and Productivity, I need to also talk about Attitudes with my Agents as well.


When you’re able to help your Agent improve their quality, productivity & attitudes, their P, Q & A, life is good – for everyone.

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