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Strategies For Managing Difficult Agents

We have all had the experience of working with an employee that just doesn’t seem to care. Many of these employees cause cancers within the center that are far worse than they seem on the surface. Other associates start to side with the negative employee. The supervisor becomes more distant and doesn’t approach the employee. In the end, everyone loses.

Often, the key to success in dealing with negative people is in how the dynamics of the relationship are set up right from the beginning. In some cases, the supervisor was once a peer – and even a friend – of the negative employee before any problems began. Remember, the employee wasn’t always negative. Things occurred (were allowed to occur) over time for this problem to manifest. We will look at the Tips from several different relational points, beginning with a supervisor that adopts a team with problems.

Tips for Preventing Negativity When You Have Just Adopted a New Team

We will take a “worst-case” approach and assume that the team is a group of veterans. Usually a team of new people isn’t that difficult, as they all want to succeed.

Tip No. 1: Make a strategic plan prior to your first meeting with the team.

Too many new team managers begin by soliciting ideas from their new team members. Although this is a good idea, it is a mistake to take this approach as the first step. Associates may see you as weak, as having no ideas of your own. It is very easy to give the impression that things are going to be a “cake-walk” for the employees. When it doesn’t turn out that way associates feel cheated. Right or wrong, they may begin to cause problems.

Begin by planning. Make notes on what you know about the situation, everything from your boss’s wishes and objectives to the strengths and skill deficiencies of each associate. Seek ideas from other successful managers if they know more about your new team members than you do. Look at your information and determine the best ways to generate both immediate and long-term results from each associate. Ask yourself, what kind of floor-coaching does each one need? What types of training will quickly improve or eliminate skill deficiencies? How far are the associates’ results from where they need to be? Based on all of this information, what kind of objectives will you need to set from the beginning?

Make a general strategy, which you will present to the team. Ask the team members how they plan to execute their contributions and expectations. Finally, rather than soliciting their opinions about your plans, ask them for additional ideas on how to make the plan even more successful. You will still be getting their input, but you’re not asking for permission to be their manager and make important decisions. This strong and organized approach will earn their respect.

Tip No. 2: Don’t be so quick to “wipe the slate clean.” Use past information to help you coach.

We can’t say for sure whether it is the majority of managers and supervisors that do this, but it rarely succeeds. On the first day, very first meeting, the supervisor tells the team something like, “Now I know this team hasn’t always performed up to par in the past. And plenty of people have given me advice on how I should approach the performance problems. But, frankly, I decide for myself what is best. Based on that, I’m going to wipe the slate clean and give each of you a new start. I’ll work with each of you and observe you over the next few–”

The reason this isn’t usually successful is because it prolongs the inevitable things like discipline and accountability for lousy performance. Even if the past manager wasn’t a great one, each associate knew what he/she should have been doing to be successful.

All we are suggesting is avoiding the temptation to give that speech about the “slate.” Of course it is up to you what you decide for your team. The other problem with that approach is that the new manager is (unconsciously) either afraid of confrontations and tough issues or he/she is trying to be seen as their new hero. In either case the motivation is wrong.

Approach the team with the knowledge of what they have done in the past, both good and not so good. Use this information to let them know where you stand and what you will expect of them. You will get results sooner and you will eliminate potential negativity.

Tip No. 3: Cut the dead weight now.

Sometimes there are very negative, lower performers that have no right to still be employed. For whatever reason they still are. Sometimes this is due to the difficulty of hiring new people or hiring freezes, but the problem is still the same. If you know that a particular employee is truly cancerous in his/her behavior and nothing has worked to change things up to this point, recommend to your boss that you remove that person now and let them go, if necessary. Often a call center director will be more willing to agree to these things when a new supervisor comes on board.

Don’t use this tactic just for personality clashes. The person must be a problem to the center, period. If you have had run-ins with this person in the past, but others like him/her a lot, this is a good opportunity to bury the hatchet and begin fresh. It will also be a good learning experience for the new supervisor.

Tips for Preventing Negativity on a Daily Basis

These tips are ideal for all supervisors and managers.

Tip No. 4: Make sure that each person on your team receives coaching regularly.

We can’t stress this one enough. The number one reason for negativity that we see is that veterans begin to become neglected. The supervisor no longer observes or provides coaching on a regular basis. It is likely that the veteran associate would even agree that he/she no longer needs any coaching. But that becomes a problem. Complacent, neglected associates tend to stop producing as well as they have in the past, usually due to the mundane nature of the call center business. Once the veteran has become stagnant in his/her skills, resistance to new ideas also increases. Eventually, the associate may become very negative and realize that the job isn’t that important. When you reach this point you have the problems we have been mentioning.

Providing on-the-floor observing and coaching should be a part of every supervisor’s job. Every associate should receive coaching at least once a week, if not a lot more (time permitting). Do not neglect associates simply because they seem to be doing well. Staying out on the floor, close to your people, will help you identify potential problems before they get out of hand. Additionally, associates will continue to grow, improve and develop throughout their tenure with your center.

Tip No. 5: Handle problems quickly.

This sounds obvious, but too many supervisors let problems linger. For example, Bob, your veteran telephone associate, has begun to complain that he isn’t being paid enough for each sale he makes. You know that management will not be making any changes to the compensation plan. Since you can’t fix the problem, is there anything you can do?

The answer, of course, is yes. Quickly speak to Bob. Listen to his wishes (to make sure that this is the real issue) and then explain the company’s position, without sounding apologetic. Ask Bob for his commitment to continue selling at this pay scale. You can certainly be empathetic in these situations, but not apologetic. Everyone would like to make more money. It is also possible that Bob has financial problems that are out of your control. In these cases, handling the issue quickly will get Bob back on track and prevent him from becoming too negative.

Incidentally, if Bob explains that he can’t commit to selling under these circumstances, explain to him that his money concerns cannot impair his performance or his meeting quota. Ask again for his commitment. Remember, “I’ll try/I’ll see what I can do,” isn’t a commitment.

Tip No. 6: Remember to have fun in your center.

We all know that it can be difficult to put on a smiley face when you’re burnt out from being overworked. The point is to have fun so that you won’t burn out. Make your team’s daily efforts more enjoyable by laughing and telling jokes (non-offensive ones) and, generally, making it a pleasure to come to work. These things will encourage positive behavior, not negativity, in return.

Tip No. 7: “Motivational Feedback” on a regular basis.

We’re not saying that you should “high-five” an associate that just lost an easy sale. We are suggesting that you listen for the positive behaviors that each associate exhibits and tell them how much you appreciate them. It is important to be very specific. After a telephone call a supervisor may, for example, approach an associate and say, “Hey, Shelly. That was a great call. I really liked the way you were asking questions, like when you said–” This type of feedback not only feels good to give and receive, but it reinforces positive behavior. Associates are more likely to do it again in the future.

Anyone that plays golf and used to be able to get the ball out of the bunkers easily, but now cannot, understands how important it is to know the little, very specific things that they’re doing well. When you play alone, with no specific, positive feedback, you actually aren’t able to tell what you’re doing well. All you know is that you either have “the feel” or you don’t. Motivational Feedback changes all that.

Tips for Dealing With Strong Resistance: If you have done all that you can, and someone is still being very negative, try these tactics.

Tip No. 8: Try really listening to them.

Sometimes negative associates become that way because they have been so badly neglected, or at least not listened to. If this is possibly the case, sit with this person at lunch and have a chat. After hours conversations can be beneficial as well. By getting out of the standard, boss-employee roles for a while, the associate may open up and tell you what is really bothering him/her. This chat time can do wonders and often changes that associate’s behavior overnight.

Tip No. 9: Use “Formative Feedback.”

Formative Feedback is used to eliminate negativity. Approach the associate (behind closed doors). Explain that you have been observing certain negative behaviors. Be very specific on what you have observed and when. (Take specific notes when the incidents actually occur.) Remind the associate of any “agreed-to” behavioral codes, rules or mandates. If this is a first incident you can ask, “What happened?” This will give the associate a chance to explain. If it isn’t a first incident, ask the associate how he/she plans to eliminate this behavior. You’re really looking for a plan rather than, “Don’t worry. It won’t happen again.” Get a final commitment that these changes will occur.

By using Formative Feedback, especially when first incidents occur, you send the message that only positive, productive behavior is acceptable. You will likely turn potentially negative individuals back into high-performing associates.

Tip No. 10: Separate negative people from each other.

Often there is more than one negative person on a team. If they are able to select cube-partners, they often end up together or develop the negative side in each other over time. It is important to separate these people. By pairing them with new, more positive people they will probably begin responding better again.

Is it possible that the two negative associates just develop two more negative associates once they have been moved? It is possible, but highly unlikely. We believe that you’re far better off taking that chance.

Tip No. 11: Always entertain complaints – coupled with a request for a solution.

This is great for people that may be considered general “malcontents.” They complain and complain, robbing you of time and both of you of your energy.

Let the team know that, anytime they come to you with a complaint, come as well with a potential solution. Explain that you may not take them up on the solution, but you will consider it. When they come to you without a solution, clearly not having given it any thought, explain that, “I will hear you out on this issue some other time, once you have thought about a solution. Until then, I’m going to have to get back to my work.”

Although this approach sounds very negative to some of you reading this, it really isn’t. You could not go to your boss with constant complaints and you should not set that expectation up for your associates, either. The strong nature of this challenge will either 1) encourage some to forget about coming up with frivolous complaints or 2) give you great ideas for making the center work more effectively.

Tip No. 12: Ask associates to put their gripes in writing.

This will discourage malcontented moaning and will encourage real problems to become public. Ask your employees to e-mail you with their problems. This will also make tracking the history of these issues much easier.

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