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Navigating Generational Differences in the Contact Center Workforce

Patty Isnor | Feb 22, 2017 121 views No Comments

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What makes a great contact center agent isn’t as easy to define as you might expect. Yes, they need to be great communicators and they need to have the chops to navigate call center systems and software in their sleep, but the best skills and personality traits differ from agent to agent, depending on the brand, the type of customer service, and the specific support channel. There’s another layer to be considered as well: generational differences in the contact center workforce.

A Baby Boomer agent may share some skills and traits with a Millennial agent, but their perspectives and cultural experiences often result in some foundational differences that can help or hinder their experience in the call center. We’re not just talking about contact center agents – coaches, supervisors, managers, and even your executive team are all part of this conversation. The way each role interacts with the other – whether directly or indirectly – is frequently impacted by perceptions that stem from generational differences. There are two key areas in which this is most apparent. The first is training; the second is management.

Training a Multigenerational Agent Workforce

When it comes to training, one size rarely fits all. Every individual possesses their individual profile of neurolinguistics traits that dictates how they work, engage, and learn. But generational differences add an extra layer of complexity.

You can probably guess that Millennials lean towards digital-based training methods. After all these are our true “digital natives” – people who grew up with computers in their homes and classrooms from their earliest days. They tend to be tech savvy and self-directed, hands-on learners, and they appreciate the benefits of on-demand training at any time, in any location. Plus, most online learning programs can be customized to the individual, depending upon their learning style and in what areas they require the most improvement.



With this in mind, it comes as no surprise that Millennials are typically not raving fans of “old school” (literally!) classroom-style lecture where the expectation is that they will sit and listen quietly while someone talks at them. On the other hand, that is the exact classroom model that most Baby Boomers are perfectly comfortable and familiar with – someone speaks and you take notes. Many Baby Boomers appreciate a subject matter expert teaching them and they value the opportunities to ask questions and get immediate answers rather than hunt for the solution through a self-directed model.

In the middle of this spectrum is Generation X –  a cohort that can be challenging to engage. They bring a healthy cynicism to the workplace and are generally proud of it. This is the generation that had to take care of themselves from an early age (the original “latchkey kids”) and who have had to fight their whole adult lives for their place in a labor market overcrowded with Boomers. This cohort is looking for a clearly articulated return on their investment in the training and employment process – a “what’s in it for me” kind of approach. You need a strong evidence-based approach to engage the typical Gen X and you need to be prepared to be questioned. What matters most to this group is how they will apply the training in a way that is meaningful to them and to their goals. For example, on-the-job shadowing, giving them the opportunity to learn independently from real world examples, highlighting the direct benefits for them.

If your contact center workforce is generationally diverse, creating a successful agent training program that incorporates these alternatives in an engaging balance is a real challenge. In our call center, we balance different adult learning styles – auditory, kinesthetic, visual – with the generational make-up of the class. Trainers are expected to understand that a Baby Boomer who is a visual learner is not the same student as the Millennial visual learner, for example.  How do you create a program that engages every learning style across generations? How do you avoid isolating certain groups of people? What balance will achieve the highest level of contact center performance across this generational divide? It’s a complex equation and one that requires continual development. If you’re seeking a call center partner, ask questions about how often their training programs are audited. And ask questions about how training results are measured, how trends are reported on, and how those results inform process change or content changes in how training is delivered. Our approach to training has been audited by JD Power and given their highest rating, but that doesn’t mean we’re done. It means we have to adhere to our proven process and keep an eye on continual improvement as training technologies and theories continual to evolve.

Managing an Multi-Generational Contact Center

Millennials are entitled. Generation Xers are apathetic and self-absorbed. And Baby Boomers are set in their ways. Right? Well, if you’re anything like us, those stereotypes make you feel just a little (or a lot) defensive and uncomfortable. But the hard truth is that generational biases seep into the workforce almost undetected and have a significant impact on the way agents and managers interact with each other.

You’ll probably notice this disconnect first and foremost in communication breakdown. With more channels of communication available than ever before, there are generational preferences that can quickly lead to conflict if not controlled. For example, Millennials will quickly turn to instant messaging and texting, whereas Gen Xers often stick to email, and Baby Boomers will pick up the phone. These choices may reflect different messages to different generations, causing misunderstandings in expectations and feedback, as well as tension in coworker or manager relationships.

We believe that overcoming the multigenerational challenge begins with awareness of our own habits and preferences and then creating an awareness that “different just means different not worse.” We have a vice president who frequently reminds her team that a disconnect in communication “is never malicious.” It’s great advice. If you’re a Boomer manager, reminding yourself that your Millennial direct report who sends a curt “yup” via chat instead of sending a response formed in full sentences and delivered via email doesn’t communicate like that to intentionally annoy you. They do it because that is where they live – that is the style and channel preference that has been embedded in their brain since they were in junior high making plans with their pals via MSN Messenger. That is worth remembering. And on the other hand, it is worth letting the Millennial know how you prefer to receive communication so that they can help themselves grow by adapting their style to their audience in order to get their message heard clearly and quickly. It is unreasonable to expect people to adapt if they don’t know what the barriers are or what the triggers are for a communication disconnect.

Finally, a significant benefit to the multi-generational contact center is the opportunity for mentorship. Individuals with richer work experience can guide employees who are newer to the workforce, providing valuable feedback and fostering employee appreciation on all sides. After all, no matter what generation they identify with, every employee simply wants to know they’re a valued member of the team.  Some of our most successful and exciting moments of development have resulted from cross-generational mentorship. Young Millennials thrive on sharing knowledge and helping others grow and GenX and Boomer managers can learn as much from the digital native with a passion for creative problem solving as the Millennial can learn from the experience of the Boomer or Gen X.

Navigating Generational Differences in the Contact Center

There have always been a number of generations working side-by-side in the workforce, but today’s world has made those differences all the more apparent. With Baby Boomers retiring later than the norm and the Millennial generation entering the workforce en masse, keeping everyone on the same page is a fresh challenge.

For a multigenerational contact center to thrive, we recognize the need to build a meaningful, empowering workplace where people connect and grow and succeed. If you’re looking for a contact center solution that aligns with your brand and values, let us know. We’d love to get to know you.

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