Fighting Firefighting Fatigue

During the past 19 years, I've spent a lot of time in and around customer service teams If there is one single problem that I've seen affecting most of them, it's that frontline supervisors and managers too often spend too much of their days putting out fires.

You probably already know this, yet continue to struggle with getting yourself or others out of the habit. Call-offs still happen; volume remains erratic, and complicated problems spring up seemingly out of nowhere. It can often feel like you're on the losing end of an uphill battle.

This reactive approach to management isn't sustainable, and it most certainly contributes negatively to culture, engagement, and overall morale. It's something that many leaders desire to change but are unable to do so despite their best efforts. It's the result of confusing what one says is important with what one treats as important. As a result, managers only address the symptoms of a problem rather than eradicating the cause.

If you genuinely desire improvement, you've got to find a way to move from this overemphasis on reactive real-time management to a reliance on proactive planning and prevention. It's first important to consider the following questions:

If I were to ask you to identify the single most important priority in your customer service organization, what would you say? Delivering an exceptional customer experience? Maximizing revenue? Reducing costs?

What if I were to alter the question by asking you to identify the single most urgent priority in your customer service organization? Would the answer stay the same?

Do you find yourself spending more time on the important priorities or the urgent priorities?

When I conduct this exercise with customer service leaders, a striking discovery is made almost instantly. In most cases, urgency always trumps importance. In fact in some cases, exceptionally trivial matters expressed with great urgency easily diverted attention away from much more important work. These pervasive distractions (many of which are often symptoms of much larger issues) are eating away at a majority of your time and have become so commonplace that many metrics and standards focus on them.

Don't believe me? Think about your core customer service metrics, quality criteria, and day-to-day coaching conversations. Are you primarily focused on the important or the urgent? Are you focused on measuring outcomes, such as average handle time or quality assurance scores, or do you use a behavior-based model to drive performance? If your emphasis is on the outcomes, you're going to find yourself having the same conversations time and time again, without ever reaching a long-term solution.

A Real-World Example

In a recent meeting I attended, I watched a classic example of this play out. A group of customer service leaders in the retail space gathered for a few days to discuss the challenges they were facing in their contact centers. One of the most common issues was frontline agent turnover. It seemed, as one said, that no matter what they did, the number of people quitting the job continued to rise. The advice from the around the room began to flood in: Rewrite the job description. Ask different interview questions.Conduct personality analysis. There was a lot of insight on how to treat the symptoms, but no one recommended a solution that looked at the cause: Why were some people leaving, and equally important, what caused others to stay? My suggestion to conduct interviews with both those who chose to leave and those who have opted to stay seemed to take many by surprise; they never considered that as an option to resolution. Rather than focusing on fixing the root cause issue with retention (which, by the way, is shown to be much less expensive than the cost of hiring), these leaders instinctively pursued fixing the symptom of turnover, and they didn't even realize it.

In what ways are you, too, naturally treating the symptoms of a problem rather than addressing the root cause? It could be the way that you measure agent performance, customer satisfaction, or even the strategic value of the contact center.

I also recognize that addressing these problems isn't always easy to do yourself, and you might be looking for advice on how to connect your priorities and desired outcomes with the root cause(s) and potential symptoms of why you're not getting there. If that's the case, please don't hesitate to contact me for ideas. I love being a resource for customer service leaders and always welcome email .

Another important question to ask is where do you spend most of your time? On the things that are urgent, important, non-urgent, or non-important? One of the best resources for understanding how to classify and use your time is The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey

Customer service leaders are meant to be efficient real-time managers, but they can't do that if they're spending all of their time chasing down problems that should be prevented altogether or measuring outcomes that won't deliver the desired results. Achieving your important priorities is possible when you recognize the daily distractions, identify the actions and measurements needed to accomplish your desired results, and hold yourself accountable for making change happen. So, what's holding you back?

Justin Robbins is community services manager and senior analyst at the International Customer Management Institute (ICMI) and community director at UBM Tech. Prior to joining ICMI, he was manager of training and guest experience at Hershey Entertainment & Resorts in Hershey, Pa.