I’ve coached hundreds of individuals in customer support and in blended sales-service environments, and, as a coach, I’ve experienced success and failure. Invariably, when coaching is successful, it’s because of a human or emotional connection to the team member and the team member’s emotional connection and commitment to the intended goal. Real behavioral improvement is always the result of targeted guidance and feedback, based on the team member’s progress, his or her specific situation, and the impact on the customer and business.
Based on those criteria, the framework for effective coaching consists of three areas:
- Connecting with the team member on a human or emotional level (believing, feeling)
- Connecting with the team member on a rational or thinking level (knowing, understanding)
- Connecting the goal to specific behavioral changes or specific tasks, articulated clearly, step by step, with written follow-up
Here’s an example: I’m working with a customer support professional—let’s call him Chris—who relies heavily on colleagues and the team lead when working with customers to resolve issues. He also escalates calls that could be resolved at the first level. Chris seems to lack confidence in his technical knowledge as well as his knowledge of internal procedures.
The manager in me is rationally assessing the impacts of this situation: increased costs due to unnecessary escalations, lower productivity of other team members due to interruptions for guidance, etc. The coach in me is rationally and emotionally assessing the situation and the individual by asking several questions that will help me prepare for the subsequent coaching session:
- Is lack of training causing this situation?
- Does this team member have the knowledge but lack the confidence to work independently?
- Can the team member use support tools effectively, such as the knowledge base and the service management tool?
- Does the team member interrupt colleagues due to lack of focus or a need to socialize?
You can see that these questions address both the human element (i.e., the individual) and the thinking or knowledge element. In addition to attempting to answer the above questions on my own before meeting with the team member, I use the quick assessment below to decide where to begin. This assessment helps me determine whether the issue is training-related or attitude-related.
Six Steps to Effective Coaching
Once I’ve set the direction of the coaching discussion, I will further prepare by reviewing the six-step coaching process.
- Define and communicate the reason for the coaching session, and get the team member to buy in.
- Discuss ways to improve or excel. Listen with empathy.
- Encourage participation by asking open-ended, high-gain questions.
- Use the team member’s suggestions whenever possible.
- Agree to and document a plan of action (who will do what by when). Both parties should sign off on the agreement.
- Schedule a follow-up meeting within five to ten days, and make sure the necessary resources are in place.
This process encourages the team member to take ownership for discovering what needs to be improved and how to go about making those improvements. It also prevents the coach from “nagging and swagging” or “preaching and beseeching,” neither of which are strategies that work very well.
The coach is responsible for the first three steps. First, establish a meeting time and reserve a private meeting location, such as a conference room or a high-walled office. When you meet, exchange greetings, create a relaxed atmosphere, and then begin the coaching dialogue, which may go something like this:
Chris, as you know, I review incidents from all of our team members. I’ve noticed that many of the incidents you handle are being escalated. Some of those incidents could have been resolved by using our knowledge base, or perhaps by asking a few more questions. When we escalate issues, our customers have to wait longer for solutions [appeals to emotions] and the cost to the business is higher [appeals to rationality], so I’d like to see you resolve more incidents on your own before escalating them.
Notice that I’ve focused on one specific concern for this coaching session. The other concerns can be addressed in future discussions, since you should be having monthly one-on-one coaching sessions (20–30 minutes) with each and every team member anyway. Getting back to our conversation, after addressing my concerns, I will ask for Chris’s feedback. Hopefully, Chris will agree that some improvement can be made. Next, I will ask some open-ended questions, prepared in advance, that address ability, not attitude.
You can even use or rephrase some of the following questions:
- How often do you use the knowledge base?
- What do you think would be help you resolve more issues on your own?
- Perhaps we can listen to a few of your calls together to identify some additional probing questions that might help you resolve more issues on your own. Would that be helpful?
Now it’s Chris’s turn to reflect and respond to your guiding questions. The next three steps shift the conversation toward the team member’s responsibilities, one of which is being accountable for the action plan (i.e., for results). Together, Chris and I will formulate an action plan, and at the end of the session, I’ll ask Chris to send me an email summarizing the plan and his understanding of the expected results. As his coach, I will continue to provide feedback and resources as necessary.
The Coaching Relationship
As we’ve already discussed, the coaching relationship exists on three planes: the emotional, the rational, and the dialogical (e.g., feedback and guidance, discussing specific, descriptive goals). Ultimately, coaching is a relationship between the manager/coach and the team member. The team member will opt in or opt out depending on the strength of that relationship. A strong relationship is built on the following elements (based on the work of Jim Selman):
- Partnership and mutuality
- Commitment to producing a result or enacting a vision
- Compassion, sense of humanity, and nonjudgmental acceptance
- Communication (speaking and listening for action)
- Responsiveness to the coach’s interpretation
- Honoring the uniqueness of each player, relationship, and situation
- Practice and preparation
- Giving and receiving
- Team sensitivity
- Willingness to go beyond what has already been achieved
This list of required behaviors is easily articulated, but it’s hard to achieve. Cooperation and commitment are the keys to success, but each coach must develop his/her own comfort level not only with the ten foundational elements but also with each team member, all while maintaining authority (if you are, in fact, in a position of authority). At the end of the day, there are tasks that must be accomplished, and you have the final word as far as what must be achieved and by whom.
When Coaching Doesn’t Work
As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, most of the time coaching is successful. However, when it isn’t, you may have to acknowledge that the job is just a poor fit. If you’ve tried training, motivation, and improving the work environment with no result, then it may be time to transition the team member into another job at your company or to another opportunity elsewhere.
If HR counseling is what’s required, be sure to meet with your HR representative and get his or her recommendations. In the event of HR counseling, documentation is very important, so save both hard and soft copies of the action plans generated after each coaching session. Also, be sure to document work samples and your observations, in case the team member eventually needs to be terminated.
Coaching for Change
Coaching is a function of leadership. As a manager, you can encourage and enact change through consistent and caring coaching. Some changes will be small behavioral changes; some will be larger changes, such as team member roles or widespread organizational change. Regardless, effective coaching can help change happen more easily, more quickly, and with less fuss. Ultimately, people decide to improve and change based on emotions, rational thinking, and clear, visionary guidance.
Ben Franklin once said, “Men are best convinced by reasons they themselves discover.” As a coach, you can help your team members discover how they can improve and succeed within your team, your organization, and our growing industry.
For the past twenty years, Mia Melanson has provided professional and organizational development programs for customer support centers in entrepreneurial organizations and Fortune 1000 companies. As president of Performance Consulting, Mia gives her clients the tools to reinforce skills development and assess industry standards and metrics, and she’s written articles and books on coaching, communication skills, and stress management. Mia’s also an HDI Faculty member and an adjunct faculty member at Northeastern University’s School of Business.