Team Leaders As Performance Coaches


Share on LinkedIn

Team Leaders As Performance Coaches

In my last post on the topic of the changing role of team leaders in Customer Service, I promised more about the skills, daily routines and mindset now required.

This is the result of ever increasing pressure to deliver step changes in customer experience.  How that’s done is of course a broad topic and one that can suck in all aspects of a customer value proposition.  The part I’m exploring here is the humanly transmitted experience of service.  And the role that team leaders play in facilitating a high performance culture.

High Performing Cultures Remain A Great Opportunity To Differentiate

This is not easy and takes sustained effort and investment to achieve.  Any version of a high performing team you can think of goes through many milestones and crossroads.  Until they arrive at the point where the latent capability of each team member is switched on, tuned up and in service to their team’s collective ambition.  That’s when the team is capable of beating its own limitations on a regular basis and you have a winner on your hands!

Only the best quality leadership can make that happen and keep it going. That’s why it remains rare.  But on the other hand is a damn good reason to try since it’s tough to imitate once activated.  This fits the ‘how can we be different’ ticket perfectly.  So please let any corporate strategy team know that your customer service centre is ripe for their attention!

Even in 21st Century ‘It’s All Digital’, People Remain The Best Way To Deliver Experiential Service

One of the catalysts necessary to commit to this path is a deep realisation about the real nature of customer service and what it takes to do the thing well. There are two points that make up this realisation.

The first point is that live service, whether delivered as voice or text, still dominates customer interaction volumes. My guess is that it always will.


Because a person will often add ‘invisible’ value to even the most perfunctory task through a helpful tone of voice or by intervening with the right question. This is the hallmark of those who ‘get’ what this whole industry is really about. Whether a call centre, a shop, a restaurant, hotel, domestic airline etc etc. The service mission is to empower the customer.

In other words, help them get the job done without feeling stupid, frustrated or demoted to secondary importance.  A responsibility it seems that cannot be effectively delivered via decision trees and algorithms.

We have often failed to acknowledge how the little things impact customer experience. That old adage ‘Retail Is Detail’ very much applies. Even when research says the autonomous customer wants to be able to do it for themselves, that extra question ‘just to make sure’ often follows. Incidentally, this is a human need I’ve noticed is often missed on six sigma produced process maps which supposedly capture the customer journey.

Why do you think the concierge style customer service offered via Twitter is so popular? A real person takes your problem on and gets it attended to without you jumping through any process hoops or routing conundrums. The stuff of dreams!

Once this point about the human touch sinks in, then the second point follows on from the first. People are, and always will be, the best means of production as far as service delivery is concerned. This implies they should not be viewed as a ‘cost waiting to be automated’!

This is a crucial distinction since the wrong mindset has dominated the Customer Service industry for the last quarter of a century. Either we have wanted to get rid of the people or at least reduce their unit cost of labour. Too few people got the secret sauce of making service work. Or if they did were unable to figure how to fund it.

And that is when the real issue emerges. People are expensive. They are variable in terms of attitude and performance. They can get lazy, cliquey, bored, disruptive and even destructive. As was told to me way back in my apprenticeship, a group of people without leadership will quickly descent to their lowest common denominator – their ‘stuff’ (aka petty differences, self limitations, etc)

And, as was noted earlier, few people know how to turn that into a high performing team.

Since We Don’t Get How Service Works, We Don’t Know How To Support Its Success

The result is a sorry mess.

The UK call centre industry tripled over the last 9 years which is testament to the ongoing need. Yet average salaries for the sector sunk to 34% under the national average according to ICS data. That sucks!

This in itself is worth a moment of serious reflection. If people are central to our service value proposition then they should be treated as such. Problem is we don’t think like that. We have a deeply engrained habit in business of strategically assuming people are surplus to requirement once the right automation arrives. That’s how we write business cases and think about optimisation.

Getting rid of people is so much easier than supporting them be consistently productive.

Of course, tasks that people add little value to are good candidates for automation. Don’t tell your boss, but for that very reason, Facebook only needs a few thousand people to envelop 850m people in social networking. There again, that may of course be why they suffer the worse customer service record in the social media sector!

So paying the minimum and looking out for the next phase of automation to replace people is one aspect of service strategy that is out of kilter. Here’s another one. And guess what, I feel even more strongly about this one!

We are all guilty of using industry standard job jargon such as ‘agent’ or ‘rep’.  But just examine the impact of those titles. Such language is a killer to anyone’s self esteem. Is that how you would like to be introduced? And I bet the low pay does not help either. I won’t even bother to get started on those stories about timed loo breaks.

So if you want a high performing team, start by relating to them as such.

One last thought on this topic. Here’s a new mindset to try on. Throw out ‘reps & agents’ and consider this.  When on top of their game, people that fix customers’ problems all day are much better described as ‘professional communicators’. Nothing less.

I’d argue they are in the same league as high profile conference speakers as far as inter-personal skills. In fact that group has nothing on them as far as stamina is concerned. So if that’s the class of skill they can bring to your table, what’s an appropriate job title?

Start to see the potential and the better ones will reciprocate.

The Next Generation Of Team Leaders Need To Be Set Up To Succeed

So how does this impact the traditional policing role that team leaders have had to play thus far? Their world is full of compliance,  absenteeism reports and unwelcome demands from further up the chain of command. By the way, if you suffer this universe, then Greg Levin has done a wonderful job satirising its madder moments.

Following my first post on this topic, I received some great comments.  One came from a long standing friend. Lucy has tons of operational consulting experience and her exposition on the issues that team leaders face and the support they need cannot be bettered. So I’ll let her tell this part of the story.

Amen to that. Lucy clearly points to the need for some heavy lifting further up the food chain if team leaders are going have the space to evolve into coaches of high performing teams. For me, it’s also interesting that she picks out the neglected skill of listening as being important.

Or to put this in language that might be more familiar to some. Your success in tackling ‘failure demand’ directly impacts the time and concentration that team leaders can invest in performance coaching. So ‘get lean’, ‘get mean’ and clear the space for a transformation of value.

Starting With What You’ve Got

Moving in this direction is a tough ask. For a start, step into many customer service environments and extensive cultural re-engineering is needed to get anywhere close to what we have been discussing.

Nonetheless we have to keep reminding ourselves that as far as the core cultural strategy is concerned, there are no short cuts. It is part of the human chemistry of customer engagement that those ‘professional communicators’ need to feel equally engaged. This organic, ongoing cycle of support cannot be ignored or underfunded. It’s an immutable given of human psychology. Providing of course you still have peak levels of performance as your desired goal.

And guess who is central to that replenishment cycle? Team leaders and the rest of the leadership team of course. In fact once you start to join the dots, it’s nothing less than a ‘re-peoplefication’ agenda!

So, if you can stomach the demands of setting up a high performance culture, there are some early decisions that need making before any of this will start to seed and take root. I’m going to highlight two areas requiring focussed change management.

The first is that not all current team leaders will make the grade. Good customer communicators do not necessarily translate into good Performance Coaches. And as we all know many team leaders are employed for their administrative skills. So expect a changing of the guard over time.

Secondly I’ve noticed that too great a gap exists between team leaders and operational director level. The person who manages the head of call centres.

What do I mean by that?

For them, Customer Engagement should matter strategically. Customer Service is core to that achievement. Therefore any sensible ‘owner’ of this function needs to stay close to those who can operationally affect outcomes.

Gain insight from them. Inspire them. Frequently connect them with the strategic relevance of their work.

This needs to be done directly not via delegation. Human intent and learning does not easily travel up and down the chain of command. Moreover, people need to know that high performance matters to those in authority.

In any event, as the process of building a high performance culture unfolds, this level of decision maker needs to be directly available. Making sure ‘we can’t do that because we have always done it like this’ does not win the day and take the wind out of everyone’s sail.

The Daily Slog Of Becoming Brilliant

Organisations that build a reputation for being great customer brands have got there by being continuously obsessed with every detail of the customer journey and how it affects them. It is a never ending effort to maintain standards, reinvent the appetite for those standards and look for the next opportunity to raise those standards. And as Lucy picked out, that means listening ‘hard and consistently’ for what is changing.

The role of Performance Coach is particularly important because it provides the ‘hands on’ influence that manages the day-by-day quality of customer interaction. Their leadership through coaching, inspiring and personal example is how an ordinary team becomes a great team.

To get a better feel for what this really means, let’s swap perspectives; come right down into the driver’s seat and start imagining the way it feels. You are now looking through the eyes of the Team Leader. Getting the experience of becoming an inspirational Performance Coach.

For starters, how do you actually raise standards in other people? Particularly the lot you are currently blessed with!

Searching around for inspiration, you know from understanding your own motivation that it has to begin with engaging a person’s interest. You need to win their attention before being able to challenge them about making the most of their full potential during those performance conversations.

Simple fact is you cannot force someone to listen and be changed. Without some connection being sparked, you will end up ‘talking to the hand‘, (’cause the face ain’t listening).

My own experience of learning the art of being a professional communicator is that people connect when I am ‘being me’ and excited about something. Took me a few painful lessons to understand that. ‘Being authentic’ is what triggers an audience’s willingness to engage. And there is literally only one way to emanate that vibe. Be willing to be you 100% and risk the imagined fear of having that thrown back in your face.

For the people you want to keep and invest in, this becomes an exciting challenge and a compelling reason to turn up for work. You want them in particular because their core motivation remains undamaged. Ready to be activated through your inspiration!

Wanna do something great. Be proud of what I’ve achieved. Feel happy as a result. Energised to do more.

As you challenge them, they become more and more engaged and pass that on in how they interact with customers.

It’s your job to start that chain reaction!

This is the zen of performance coaching. Sustainable performance happens when your team becomes fully engaged with your vision for what the team can achieve together. People get excited when they manage to achieve a breakthrough, do something they could not do before and then win on a regular basis. That’s the motivation they need to keep doing more and is what effective ‘performance conversations’ can deliver.

Like I said, it’s only people with undamaged motivation that are likely to make the grade given the personal inner changes often needed to become a great performance coach.

Being A Performance Coach Who People Remember

Talking up the human angle makes sense from an engagement point of view, but the fact is many organisations are not that way orientated. Their communication style is dry, abstract and about as exciting as a bus timetable for bedtime reading.

So one of the hallmarks of a great Performance Coach is being able to make the world of targets, strategic aims and cascading internal comms sound interesting.

The best way to do that is by translating corporate ‘stuff’ into personal challenges for the team. In effect your job is to provide local meaning to the Big Picture.

Anyway that’s enough new ideas. Here is that checklist I promised way back at the start of this. Some of the crucial skills, daily routines and mindset for being a ‘Performance Coach Who People Remember’. Trust me it’s a great feeling when people remember you in that light later in life.

I’ll sign off this session on Performance Coaching with a great quote. In fact I stuck it on the front of the Performance Coaching Toolkit I produced last year.


Martin Hill-Wilson, Hill-Wilson
Customer Service, CX & AI Engagement Strategist - Chair, Keynotes & Masterclasses. Brainfood is an advisory and education service. Advice in terms of co-designing practical engagement strategies that balance customer and business needs. These are orchestrated from a blend of live assistance, self service and proactive contact using whatever optimised mix of voice, text and video works best across realigned customer journeys.


Please use comments to add value to the discussion. Maximum one link to an educational blog post or article. We will NOT PUBLISH brief comments like "good post," comments that mainly promote links, or comments with links to companies, products, or services.

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here