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The Essential Role of Today’s Front Line Managers

By Brad Cleveland

In an era of expanding contact channels, customer-driven innovation and growing complexity, supervisors have become increasingly important to the contact center’s success.

Rewind the clock about ten years, and you’d find top level managers in many organizations, along with most industry pundits, predicting that front line managers (a.k.a. supervisors) would become less important in contact centers, and that their numbers would begin to dwindle. The usual rationale, couched in discussions of flattened hierarchies and team-oriented structures, was that because agents and teams were becoming more empowered, the need for supervisors would decline.

And yet studies from ICMI and others suggest there are more supervisors today – proportionally and in real numbers – than ever. With today’s developments – emerging channels, proliferation of social media, the competitive importance of customer relationships, and the wide range of generations our customers represent – supervisors have become increasingly important to the contact center’s success. But it is a role that is much more about communication, coordination and development than any industrial-era vestiges of command and control.

Assessing what has transpired requires thinking through some cross-currents. For example, there is an increasingly diverse scope of organizational structures, responsibilities and definitions in use. In addition to supervisors, many larger contact centers also have team leaders, whose responsibilities range from primarily handling calls to roles that are oriented around supervising and managing. Other contact centers have left the term supervisor with the industrial era and instead have team leaders and lead agents. And for many small contact centers these divisions are unworkable and unnecessary, as the supervisor is the manager, forecaster and scheduler.

But whatever the variation on organization and semantics, the role of supervisor is as important and prevalent as ever. Today’s centers often have between 10 and 12 agents per supervisor, down from the 12 to 20 range of the past. However, there are significant differences by type of service; e.g., technical support centers may have as few as four or five support reps per supervisor.

So, why were the predictions largely wrong, even as much of the rationale – flatter organizations, growth of teams, etc. – has proven correct? Most contact center managers point to growing complexity and variety in the workload, along with greater emphasis on first contact resolution. But there is another overarching factor at work: high-performance centers have significantly expanded the responsibilities of supervisors. Some of the trends include:

From individual coaching and training to process improvement. Monitoring and coaching remain the two most time-consuming activities for most supervisors. But they are increasingly involved in leveraging the knowledge gained from these efforts into more lasting and significant process improvements. For example, they are spending less time making improvements one agent at a time – the “personal trainer” approach – and more time working with their peers in other areas to improve training, information, communication and procedures throughout the organization.

From enforcing to enabling adherence. There’s a big difference between supervisor as traffic cop and supervisor as liaison who works with both the agent teams and those who do the planning and scheduling, to make sensible decisions and adjustments.

From merely implementing to actively participating in contact center planning and management. When supervisors are involved in forecasting, scheduling and other planning processes, they not only contribute their perspective, they also gain a better understanding of the factors that contribute to service level and quality. As a result, they more effectively supervise their teams.

Voice of the customer and cross-functional improvements. As more contact centers capture and use customer input to shape products, processes and services, supervisors are taking a more active role in organization wide improvement efforts. This trend will likely continue as contact centers become increasingly important hubs of communication for internal and external customers.

These developments haven’t left mid-level and up managers with less to do. In most forward-thinking organizations, managers are investing additional time in strategy, building customer relationship-oriented processes, collaborating with colleagues across the enterprise and developing up and coming leaders.

In one sense, agents are increasingly being equipped and enabled to do what supervisors used to do, and supervisors are spending more of their time in what used to be the realm of management. Of course, that perspective carried too far would be overly simplistic – after all, in some contact centers, agents are involved in planning and strategy while directors spend at least some of their time handling calls and walking the floors. But clearly, there is top to bottom upgradetaking place in roles in responsibilities, as contact centers assume a more strategic mission.

This article was originally published by ICMI, www.icmi.com

Copyright 2015, Brad Cleveland.