The more I’ve worked with contact center supervisors, the more I’ve appreciated the position’s conflicting interests. Let’s sympathize for a minute.

The Contact Center Supervisor Position Is At Odds With Itself

The supervisor and agent coaching relationship is the most pronounced contradiction. To mentor and coach effectively, the supervisor must build trusting personal relationships with agents.

Yet, supervisors are also expected to discipline or terminate underperforming agents at a moment’s notice. It’s the elephant in the room in coaching and feedback sessions; is the session meant to help, or is somebody in trouble?

Empowering their team while executing leadership directives that impact standing with their team isn’t easy — a team they spend many hours shoulder to shoulder with in the bullpen.

Then the pandemic made contact center supervisors’ lives even more difficult by further blurring the lines dividing work life and personal life, both with their agents and other contact center stakeholders.

The Contact Center Supervisor: First Time Position

The contact center supervisor role is often an agent’s first leadership position. But managing people isn’t the same as managing calls. People are complicated, nuanced, and sometimes thankless creatures. Everyone who’s worked in a contact center knows that. The skills that helped them find a supervisor role don’t always translate to supervisorial success.

Sure, soft skills from the phones, such as active listening, persuasion, and empathy, can go a long way. But rarely are essential leadership skills taught; skills such as providing feedback, strategic planning, mentoring, or disciplining.

And there is often an expectation that a new contact center supervisor should perform without much onboarding. After all, they received a promotion and a pay bump, right? They should be excited to dive in!

Well, maybe. There is another elephant in the room: contact center supervisors often don’t seek out the position. The supervisor role was simply the next step toward better pay and career growth. It’s not a bad thing (we’re all driven by such incentives), but we should also be honest about it. Not everyone is itching to manage people.

Incentives: A Mixed Bag

Many organizations wrongly assume that the money from a supervisorial promotion is enough incentive for them just to figure it out (or else). After all, there are proven leadership strategies for the supervisor to implement, like agent incentives, which obviously drive effective behavior.

But “obvious” solutions, like paid incentives, aren’t obvious. One study from Harvard Business Review suggests that incentivizing certain workplace behaviors makes people less inclined to do them. Why? Because “punishment and rewards are actually two sides of the same coin. Both have a punitive effect because they are manipulative.” Incentives can lead to more unethical behavior as supervisors feel pressure to perform.

Contact center supervisors can’t always convert out-of-the-box incentives into desired results right away. If they could, the job would be a lot easier.

So is the Contact Center Supervisor Position Flawed Beyond Repair?

So is the contact center supervisor position flawed? Maybe. Is it flawed beyond repair? No, not at all. Data suggests the contact center supervisor role is still vital despite competing interests. Take this recent University of Munich economic study, for example:

Researchers placed multiple teams in an escape-room challenge. Researchers then asked specific teams to select a leader at random. 63% of groups with leaders completed the escape room, while the non-leader control group was successful a mere 44% of the time. In other words, having a leader, even randomly selected, is better than no leader. And contact center supervisors aren’t chosen randomly. Despite conflicting interests, the promotion is for a reason.

Trust from Leadership: The Key To Success

It’s critical that organizational leadership set clear leadership objectives and trust in new supervisors. Empowering contact center supervisors to make decisions — even bad decisions — leads to the most substantial long-term success.

Micromanaging a newly promoted contact center supervisor is the least effective situation. Such an environment sabotages the role on both fronts. The supervisor doesn’t have an opportunity to improve or implement new ideas, and other leaders find themselves pulled “back in the weeds.”

What about a Flat Contact Center Structure?

I’ve heard discussions about flat or nearly flat contact center organizations, distributing leadership responsibility among agents rather than centralized within contact center supervisor roles.

While I understand the premise, I disagree with it in practice.

Many companies implementing a flat organizational structure ask people to do a little of everything a supervisor would do — QA calls, set up schedules, train new agents, etc. These activities theoretically lift spirits and create responsibility.

However, unless roles are defined, confusion and duplicative work are inevitable, as agents do not know where their responsibilities stop and another’s begin. Intentional decisions are better than no decisions, which may happen in flat organizational structures.

And people are people. Without leadership, power vacuums arise between agents vying for de facto leadership roles. Then, higher-ups need to “break it up” or make simple decisions. That’s not a good use of their time or the agents’.

Value a Contact Center Supervisor Brings

There’s something to be said for having someone there to lean on, learn from, motivate, and push you in a way that a peer cannot. Contact center supervisors must tie-break decisions, bring balanced perspectives, make the job fun, bring experience and mentorship to their teams, and carry out company initiatives. That can’t be left to chance or diluted to a committee, and data supports this.

Can being a contact center supervisor be a thankless job? Without question. Is it at the center of a contact center’s success? Unquestionably. Just make sure you sympathize and appreciate the work that they do.

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