Support reps get tons of training from the moment they start their job—whether it’s on products, new feature launches, or soft skills like communication. This is great. Training gives new hires a solid baseline to start their jobs and do them well.
While training is vital, it isn’t enough to help employees grow professionally at your company or in their careers.
Customer support reps—just like anyone else—need one-on-one time with their managers and direction to hone their skills and develop their craft. After all, there’s a lot to learn in a training program. The work of a customer support rep spans a spectrum of psychology, hard and soft skills, and emotional intelligence. These can’t improve through training alone.
That’s where coaching comes in.
Why coaching beats training support teams
Training by itself offers diminishing returns. You probably know this anecdotally (how many hours can you sit still listening to someone else anyway?).
In their book, The Effortless Experience, co-authors Matthew Dixon, Rick DeLisi, Nick Toman found: “Organizations that focus on training (often at the expense of coaching) tend to have relatively lower-performing teams compared to organizations that prioritize coaching (often at the expense of training).”
There could be a number of culprits behind this:
- Training is inherently passive and too much of it can get boring.
- There’s only so much you can absorb in one session.
- Training programs are not usually tailored to individuals either, so a lesson may not match an employees’ goals or learning style. That results in lower performance, too.
Training is great for introducing new topics and approaches, but mastery doesn’t happen there.
Mastery happens on the field or, as we like to call it, in active mode. This is why coaching needs to be included in a support rep’s development.
Coaching builds and refines much-needed support skills
Coaching hits the switch on active mode learning. What makes it different from training?
In coaching, employees get individualized, one-on-one feedback and support to help them guide customers through positive experiences. It’s also where reps master their skills and funnel it into better interactions.
Daniel Mooney has been on both sides of the table as previous Product Support Manager at Redgate. He says of 1:1’s,“The feedback is not where it stops—the follow up to that is suggestions of how I improve. Being provided examples [of interactions] and suggestions for how I could have improved on that interaction was essential for my understanding and improving!”
Coaching gives employees a sense of ownership
Investing in support team coaching starts to pay off immediately. When coaching is based on specific feedback (more on that later) and Objective & Key Results (OKRs), reps put that coaching in practice right away.
The result is that your team can more easily shift from running on rules and restrictions to one that empowers employees to improve individual interactions—making judgment calls, steering customer conversations towards positive resolutions and taking ownership of the outcome.
Use coaching to achieve OKRs
It’s easy for customer support reps to feel out of the loop about larger company goals. They’re handling daily interactions and resolving cases, but they might not be aware of the larger goals of their organization. This is where OKRs come in. OKRs help bridge this gap and help individual employees and departments better understand how they are contributing.
For example, if a business wants to focus on retaining more customers, but support reps haven’t been told this is an OKR, they may not know that they can be taking steps to increase customer satisfaction, such as reducing wait times or improving FAQs to help customers find answers to questions faster.
OKRs are typically not a focus of technical training, so that’s where coaching comes in. 1:1’s give you, the manager, the chance to articulate these big picture goals with your employees and talk about ways they can contribute now and ways they can grow their skills over time.
Coaching gives employees consistent feedback
While most people think of criticism when they hear the word feedback, they shouldn’t. When used effectively in 1:1s, feedback is a valuable tool that can improve employees’ skills, achieve OKRs, diagnose and fix problems, and motivate your team.
Use feedback to:
- Talk through a recent issue from a place of learning, rather than criticism, to highlight how an employee can improve next time.
- Congratulate an employee on a job well done and highlight what specifically he or she excelled at (don’t just say, “Great job!”.
- Review comments from customers about interactions and analyze key trends to problem solve ways to improve.
Use coaching to highlight best practices
Many of the hard skills that support reps need to control a customer conversation (positioning alternatives, anchoring expectations, etc.) and grow in their careers aren’t learned in training. They’re learned through practice, instant feedback, and repetition. Any great coaching initiatives you’re planning to add to your support department must include role-playing.
On our own support team at Kayako, coaching takes the form of scenario redux and role playing real interactions with customers.
The reps who actually worked on the issue start off the scene. Then the moderator calls in others from the audience to jump in and replace them to carry on the role of the support agent or success manager. Everyone pays attention because they know they can be called on from the audience to play any role at any point during the discussion.
After we’ve played out the scene, the success manager leads a discussion, going over questions like, “What would have they done? Why?” During these sessions, we question everything.
Use coaching to help employees grow
Adding regularly scheduled 1:1’s to your coaching arsenal can help your employees grow professionally, as well.
1:1’s present the perfect opportunity to not only give positive and negative feedback and talk through an employee’s recent work, but it also creates a space for employees to share personal problems that may be affecting work, as well as their larger goals with your company and beyond.
It’s a good idea to start any 1:1 by asking how things are going for the employee and if there’s anything you, as his or her manager, should know about at work and at home. By asking these questions, you can create a space where your employee feels comfortable telling you say, he is experiencing a lot of stress at home. Then you can strategize about how to alleviate any stress in the workplace.
1:1’s also give you the chance, as a manager, to set and check-in about professional goals. You might use this time review the company OKRs your employee is working on quarterly or monthly. Or you might discuss how an employee can develop new skills and expertise that will then help them earn promotions and pay increases later on.
Resources for 1:1s:
- Kayako: Rock Your next One-On-One Meeting: For Employees and Managers
- 7Geese: Conducting effective 1-on-1s over time
- Mark Rabkin: Awkward 1:1s: The Art of Getting Honest Feedback
- Tom Tunguz: The 4 segments to an effective 1-on-1
Build a better customer experience
“Some companies where feedback isn’t as much part of their culture don’t consider the small details as a ‘serious’ problem, and this is how they start to fall short,” says Mooney.
The obvious winners in a successful coaching program are the customers themselves. Companies that treat every single interaction as an opportunity to build the relationship require a more granular attention that only coaching can give.
Coaching that asks, “How can we make this customer experience better?” always wins.
A final tip on customer support coaching
Coaching can take on a number of forms depending on your team and company structure, but it must happen regularly and it must be actionable. That is, managers should be able to point a finger at specific interactions and recent performance. Then use small-scale formats, like 1:1’s and role-playing sessions to give feedback and work on making tangible improvements.
Editor’s note: This piece was originally published in August, 2015, but has been updated for freshness, accuracy, and comprehensiveness.