Jonathan DeVore

By: Jonathan DeVore on November 16th, 2021

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5 Tips to Improve Call Center Coaching (+ Example Coaching Phrases)

One of the most difficult things to do in life is watching somebody else do a task that you can do well.

Having four children, I have to watch my kids do simple tasks like pour milk, brush their teeth, and mow the grass imperfectly. My knee-jerk reaction is to step in and just do the job for them.

As a phone coach, you have a similar experience. You listen to reps handle calls less than perfectly. You see where they should have asked this question or used more empathy.

You may feel the knee-jerk reaction to step in and do the job for them. Or you might feel the urge to just offer corrections and tell them what they did well, where they screwed up, and how they can do better.

However, neither stepping in nor telling reps what they did wrong will give you the results you want. Coaching is about helping your reps develop and learn and grow. And sometimes, the best approach is to simply observe, ask questions, and allow for them to tell themselves what needs to be changed.

One thing I’ve learned in 8+ years with ScreenSteps — a knowledge base company that supports call centers — and as a certified professional coach is that telling is not teaching.

Sometimes, the best thing to do is provide a space for reps to process what just happened. They’ll often learn a lot more with you asking thoughtful questions instead of giving them direct feedback around where they screwed up.

In this blog post, I share five tips on how to create space for your agents to improve by developing your call center coaching skills. I even break down into detail how to move through a phone coaching session.

What is call center coaching?

Here’s a modified definition of coaching, as described by the International Coaching Federation: “Partnering with a client [or call center rep] in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential.”

In other words, coaching is a process that is designed to bring out the best in somebody. So, in your call center, phone coaching is a process aimed at bringing out the best in your reps.

What follows is an explanation of the process you can follow to successfully coach your reps.

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5 call center coaching tips

Use these five call center coaching tips to help your phone reps improve and reach their goals.

1. Create an environment where they feel free to share

Managers can be intimidating. When you are a customer service agent and you have a leader listening in on your calls, it is nerve-wracking.

Your agents don’t want to make a mistake in front of you. Plus, coaching can sometimes be synonymous with “You need help because you’re bad at your job.” Nobody likes to feel that way — so change the environment.

Let your agents know you are there to help. Make sure they feel like you’re not there for those “Got ya!” moments. Together you can fix mistakes and form better habits for the future.

Make sure reps know that the coach is there to help them continue to improve. Just like LeBron James needs a coach to win championships, great employees need a coach to bring out their best.

2. Listen live to calls and give immediate feedback

It’s great that your call center can record calls and you can listen to them at a different time to provide feedback. But, nothing replaces listening in to live calls and providing immediate feedback.

The downfall of providing feedback on recorded calls is that it is far from the past. By the time you are talking to them about the call, your agent has taken 50, 100, or more calls. That call you want to coach them on is ancient history.

Sure, you can playback information for your agent, but they won’t necessarily remember why they made the choices they did during the call. It’s more difficult to get to the core of the issue when your agent can’t remember the influencing factors.

When you listen to a live call and discuss the call immediately afterward, you can help agents reflect on their choices. This allows the rep time to think through what they did.

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3. Don’t tell — teach agents to recognize their areas for improvement

A common approach to giving feedback is three positives to every one negative feedback piece. Avoid this advice. While it’s great to focus on the positives, it isn’t as productive for your agents’ progress as teaching them to recognize their own areas of improvement.

Instead, follow these six steps to allow the rep to process, reflect, and come to their own conclusions about what they need to change and how they can do it.

Notice how in each of the below steps the phone coach is not telling. The phone coach is listening and encouraging the agent to evaluate what they are doing.

A- Ask a “door opener” question

After you listen to a call and take your notes, don’t start by saying, “Here are the things you did well. Here are the areas for improvement.”

Instead, ask a door opener question. A “door opener” question is an inquiry that provides the agent a chance to stop and reflect on a call they took before hearing any outside influences. Some examples of door openers are:

  • “How do you feel that call went?”
  • “Tell me what you think went well during that call?”
  • “What part of the call would you like to have a do-over?”

Don’t ask leading questions

Even with “door opener” questions, it can be tempting to give advice through your questions. Leading questions are a way of providing your thoughts without putting them in a sentence.

Sometimes managers and coaches say things like, “Wouldn’t you want somebody to ask for your name when they answered the call?”

Instead, say, “What’s your experience been like when a service rep uses your name during the conversation?”

B - Say an “encourager” statement

After your coachee shares some thoughts, get them to say more by using an encourager such as:

  • “Tell me more about that.”
  • “Uh-huh”
  • “I’m with you”

An “encourager” statement prompts your agent to dig deeper. Essentially, you are taking what they have just told you and you’re asking, “Why is that?”

C - Paraphrase what you hear

After you hear their story, let them know that you heard their story by paraphrasing what they said (in a non-judgemental way). This could be:

  • “It sounds like ________.”
  • “I’m hearing you say _________.”
  • “You felt _________ because _________.”
  • “You felt __________ when ________.”

Paraphrasing allows you to show the agent you heard them, confirm that you understood what they were saying, and shed light on the situation by rephrasing your agent’s experience for them.

For example, your agent might tell you: “The caller just started going and I didn’t get a chance to even ask them what the problem was. Then I lost track of what I was supposed to do.”

To which you respond with this paraphrase: “I’m hearing you say that you felt flustered because they threw a lot at you and weren’t sure where to go with it.”

Not only do you understand what they said, but you understand their experience (helping you empathize).

🔍 Related: How to Make Call Center Training Less Stressful For Your Agents (4 Tips)

D - Validate your agent’s experience

While it’s not always necessary, validating what your reps are thinking or feeling can be helpful — especially if they have some negative feelings around their experience.

Validating lets your reps know that it’s normal to experience what they’re experiencing. One way to validate agents is to use this sentence outline, “Based on _______, that makes sense you thought/felt _________ in that situation.”

For example, you could say this to a new agent who’s struggling, “Based on how long you’ve been taking calls, it makes sense that you felt overwhelmed in that situation.”

E - Ask Clarifying/Insightful questions

With phone coaching, questions are your best friends. Even if you have a hunch as to why your rep did something a certain way, let them discover it by asking a clarifying/insight question. These questions could be:

  • “What do you think contributed to that?”
  • “Was there anything that contributed to that?”
  • “Were there any opportunities to _______?”
  • “How would you describe ________?”
  • “How could straying from the procedure affect the call?”
  • “I’m curious why that was.”

One example of this is: “It sounds like you felt kind of lost during the intake portion of the call (paraphrase). What do you think contributed to that? (insightful question)”

F - Share your observations

Sometimes, the rep won’t identify things that you observed but you still want to bring them up because the rep needs to work on something.

In that situation, share your observations. Offering feedback as observations makes you more approachable and less forceful. It gives your agent the power to welcome learning opportunities.

First ask, “How would you feel if I shared some observations?” Once you receive permission, then continue with, “I noticed that________.”

After you share your observations, ask a clarifying/insightful question. Clarifying questions are good at any point of phone coaching to push the pause button in the conversation. It invites the agent to contribute to their own learning.

One example is, “I noticed that at this part of the troubleshooting guide, you left the procedure and improvised a little (observation/feedback). I’m curious why that was (clarifying question).”

Don’t fish for answers

Sometimes when we get in the habit of asking questions and helping workers come to their own conclusion, we accidentally fall into fishing for answers.

Fishing for answers means you ask questions that have one answer. And this is frustrating for everybody. These questions set your agents up for failure. If they don’t know the specific answer you are looking for, they often end up feeling stupid or inadequate.

Either tell them what it is you want or ask broader questions to gain an understanding of what they know. Consider the fishing question example below and the alternate approach.

Example of fishing question: “What’s the best way to respond to this question?”

Better question: “What are some ways to respond to this question?”

Based on the agent’s response, you can ask follow-up questions or share insights such as, “In the past, when reps have responded that way, I’ve noticed that callers get defensive.”

🔍 Related: How Long Does Call Center Training Take? (+ How to Cut Training Time)

4. Brainstorm together

After going through the call and discussing observations, you may need to brainstorm some ways to make changes. Since the point of phone coaching is to improve performance, both the agent and the phone coach should have a common goal.

With a common goal — improving performance — the agent and phone coach work together to set goals so that the agent can become better at their job.

Here are some questions to initiate the brainstorm (as well as some examples):

  • “What are some ways you could __________”
    • Example: What are some ways you could be more confident during the intake portion of the call?
  • “How could you learn more about _________”
    • Example: How could you learn more about Product Y?
  • “Let’s brainstorm some ideas for how you could _________.”
    • Example: Let’s brainstorm some ideas for how you could learn more about the “why” behind the troubleshooting guide.

5. Determine action items

Now that you’ve thoroughly discussed phone calls, it is time to move to action. At the end of phone coaching, summarize any action items and offer your support in helping them.

Your reps need action items that they know they will be held accountable for. Some phrasing for segwaying into this conversation include:

  • “Based on what we’ve discussed, it sounds like you want to ______________.”
  • “Based on what we’ve discussed, it sounds like it would be helpful to _____________.”
  • “As we wrap up our time together, what would you like to work on between now and next time?”
  • “How would you like me to support you?”

Don’t assume what hasn’t been said

If your rep says that they’d like to learn more about product Y, don’t ask, “What books should you read to learn more?”

Instead, ask, “How could you learn more about product Y?”

If the answers aren’t good, just say, “Mind if I offer a suggestion? I’ve read this book about product Y and found it very helpful. How would you feel about reading that book, too?”

Collaborating on goals and helping your agents improve requires both parties to be clear on what steps need to be taken.

Help call center agents avoid mistakes with clearly written call flows

Handling phone calls at a call center isn’t easy. Having supportive phone coaches and leaders who are willing to take the time to help agents understand best practices helps. But it is difficult for your agents to remember everything they learned while they are on a call.

By having clearly written call flows that are easy for agents to follow, agents have a reliable resource that helps them remember everything they need to do. 

With ScreenSteps, you can write call flows that are so simple to follow that agents don’t need to put callers on hold to find answers. Our robust content creation tools help you design articles that help agents follow the steps. Plus, there are different article designs — interactive checklists and workflow articles — to make it easy for agents to move through an article.

Want to write clearer call scripts to support agents? Use these three tips to turn even your most technical guides into call flows any agent can follow.

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About Jonathan DeVore

Customer Success