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Agent Coaching & Development

Customer Service Coaching 101: Improve Agent Performance

August 2, 2021
0 minute read

Letting underprepared customer service agents handle complex customer service issues isn’t just frustrating for customers—it’s expensive for businesses and bad for the overall customer experience (and customer satisfaction).

A steady increase in self-service support technologies means that customers now resolve simple questions on their own, leaving agents to handle tougher tickets. As a result, live support costs an average of $8.01 per contact compared to self-service channels, which cost about $0.10 per contact, according to Gartner.

Given this challenge, how can customer experience leaders set their agents up for success, and how can they provide exceptional customer service? 

Relying on check-the-box training modules doesn’t prepare agents for those nuanced challenges. On the other hand, micromanaging every interaction can lead to agents feeling resentful and resistant to change.

Instead, you need a customer service coaching strategy that’s informed by actionable data, two-way feedback, and a plan to keep everyone accountable. That’s the secret weapon for high-performing agents.

But before we dive into the specifics, let’s take a step back and start with the basics.

What Is Customer Service Coaching?

Customer service coaching is the ongoing process of improving a support agent’s skills so they can provide top-notch customer experiences.

Support agents are usually coached by a customer experience (CX) manager, aquality assurance (QA) analyst, or customer service supervisors. Regardless, coaches need strong customer service experience and good visibility into agents’ day-to-day work to ultimately impact customer satisfaction.

Customer service coaching isn’t a static practice—it’s a process that evolves based on organizational goals and what individual agents are struggling with on any given day.

Customer Service Training vs. Customer Service Coaching: What’s the Difference?

You might hear “coaching” and “training” used interchangeably in customer service. But these terms are actually quite different.

Customer service training refers to teaching baseline, check-the-list information and processes. This is one-to-many communication, usually for new employees to ramp up.

Customer service coaching refers to 1:1 sessions in which agents receive individualized feedback, performance reviews, and suggestions to improve their interactions. All agents should receive coaching, whether they’re brand new or seasoned veterans.

Think of it like tennis: you can attend a weekend camp to learn the basics like stroke types and how to keep score, but you need ongoing, one-on-one feedback to master advanced elements like footwork and positioning.

Why Is Customer Service Coaching Important?

More than half of people have higher expectations for customer service now compared to a year ago, according to Microsoft’s State of Global Customer Service Report. Investing in coaching is the best way to help agents meet these stringent expectations.

Here are a few reasons why:

1. Better Support Yields Loyal Customers

40% of customers say a brand can earn their loyalty when support agents surpass their expectations in resolving an issue, according to Zendesk.

This is critical for a company’s bottom line, considering it can be 5x more expensive to acquire new customers than it is to retain current ones.

2. Coaching Closes Knowledge Gaps

Even the most talented customer support agents will stumble at some point. Individualized coaching ensures those mistakes become learning opportunities.

For example, an experienced agent might have rockstar people skills but a weak spot when it comes to resolving questions efficiently. Rather than doubling down on boilerplate training sessions, coaching addresses their specific areas of need.

3. Coaching Keeps Agents Aligned on Organizational Goals

Agents perform better when they have tangible goals to work toward. Whether your goal is to improve performance metrics like First Call Resolution (FCR) or soft skills like empathy, coaching meetings clarify expectations and keep agents focused on what matters most.

How to Implement a Customer Service Coaching Program

So, you’re sold on the benefits of customer service coaching—great. Before you start a session or share any feedback, it’s important to map out your coaching plan ahead of time. This ensures you align on goals, hold yourself accountable, and maximize the ROI of coaching.

Here are three steps every customer support team leader should take to implement a coaching plan:

1. Collect QA Data to Find Opportunities for Improvement

You can’t improve what you don’t measure. Accordingly, CX managers need to know what, exactly, agents need help with in order to maximize the effectiveness of coaching meetings. The most effective (and efficient) way to do this is by collecting quality data from customer-agent interactions.

This takes patience and strong attention to detail. So consider leveling up your data collection like Monday.com, the project management software company. Monday.com’s CX team struggled to fully understand the experiences their customers had.

“We needed a better barometer of how our customer interactions were going,” said MaShari Walker, CX Strategy and Operations Leader. “Metrics like NPS and CSAT were too one-dimensional and didn't result in any action items that allowed us to iterate on or improve the experience.”

To get richer CX insights, Monday.com increased their volume of quality audits by 48% within three months. This enabled the team to find new areas for improvement that were previously overlooked.

The result? Monday.com reduced their AHT from 24.1 minutes to 16.9 minutes—nearly a 30% improvement.

2. Establish a Coaching Cadence to Ensure Timely Feedback

Coaching needs to be conducted systematically, not arbitrarily, to hold agents and coaches accountable and ensure it doesn’t slip to the bottom of the to-do list.

There isn’t a set-in-stone rule for how often agents need coaching. It can range from once a week to once a year. However, there are a couple of questions that can help you settle on a cadence that works for you:

  • Are agents struggling? If the customer support team is consistently coming up short on KPIs, agents may need more frequent coaching sessions—perhaps every other week.
  • How experienced/talented is the agent? Veterans and top performers may only need to be coached once a month as opposed to newcomers who might benefit from weekly sessions.

No agent should be immune from coaching. Whether they have five weeks of experience or five years, routine coaching sessions can refine their skills and keep them motivated, while also serving as a touchpoint to discuss any work-related issues the agent might be facing.

3. Set Up a System to Track Agent Progress Over Time

CX managers should always have a pulse on the progress agents make to know whether coaching sessions drive results (or need reevaluation).

Take MeUndies, a direct-to-consumer underwear and apparel company, for example. MeUndies used CSAT to evaluate the strength of their agent performance. Their CX team coached agents against a high standard, and the results proved it was working. However, their CSAT score started to stagnate in the high 90s.

A CSAT in the 90s is considered masterful by any standard. But rather than resting on their laurels, the CX team at MeUndies revisited that data and asked, “Is this ticket really deserving of 100%?” With data at their fingertips, MeUndies dug into why CSAT stagnated and found areas that could be improved through coaching.

Tracking progress over time also lets CX teams celebrate key milestones that agents reach. You can even set up incentives—bonuses, prizes, etc.—to reach KPIs by a certain date.

Once you’ve laid the groundwork for your coaching program, it’s time to outline what an actual session involves.

What Does a Customer Service Coaching Session Look Like?

Effective coaching is so much more than walking agents through a metrics checklist. Here are five features of a productive session:

1. Set Expectations Ahead of Time

Agents should go into coaching sessions with a clear understanding of what topics and issues will be addressed.

For example, you might invite agents to come to each coaching session with three questions or challenges they face, like “How should I balance AHT with First Call Resolution targets?” This can be done asynchronously ahead of time so you can spend the majority of the session focusing on resolutions.

Likewise, coaches should set a clear agenda for each session to stay focused on key areas and keep the meeting organized. This agenda can be shared via email, internal messaging, or in a shared document.

2. Promote an Atmosphere That’s Bi-Directional and Open

Coaching isn’t a one-way street. The ideal coaching session is one where agents feel as comfortable sharing their experiences and point of view as they are receiving feedback. This minimizes communication gaps and helps get to the root cause of issues faster.

If an agent hesitates to give feedback on their own, prompt them with questions such as, “What would have made you feel more confident in this scenario?” or “Do you think this score accurately reflects the interaction, and why?”

Open-ended questions like these prompt agents to think through situations in a collaborative learning environment. When it comes to complex issues, active learning is almost always more effective than one-way lectures.

3. Cover All of the Bases

There are typically five general topics that are addressed in a coaching session:

  • Quality Assurance (QA) Scorecards: Reviewing QA scorecards provides two-way insights into how well the agent lives up to the business’ standards for quality customer service.
  • Customer Service Satisfaction (CSAT) Scores: Examining CSAT scores can help identify correlations between customer support and how satisfied customers are with a product or service.
  • Productivity-Based Metrics: Discuss how performance has improved (or declined) for metrics such as Average Handle Time (AHT) and First Call Resolution (FCR).
  • Professional Advancement: Take time to discuss potential promotions and how they perceive their current role on the team. Additionally, discussing long-term planning can motivate employees and help coaches zero in on what kind of training the agent needs.
  • Overall personal and emotional wellbeing: Agents are people first, not just cogs in a wheel. Take a few minutes for an open discussion about their stress levels and morale.

4. Share Objective, Evidence-Based Feedback

Providing detailed examples of problems (and successes) from agent interactions is crucial for information retention and boosting confidence.

For example, Tails.com, a pet food subscription service, struggled to provide constructive feedback to help remote agents identify and overcome roadblocks to better customer experiences.

“It’s difficult to know why some tasks take more time than others to complete,” said Daniel Jensen, Quality & Training Team Leader at Tails.com. “Unless you’re sitting in the same room with the agent, you just can’t tell what’s going on.”

After realizing they lacked the proper tools to diagnose and resolve these issues, Tails.com used screen capture technology to literally visualize their agents working through problems, giving coaches more context and helping them provide concrete feedback.

For example, while watching one agent’s actual interactions with customers, Jensen’s team identified 17 specific opportunities for improvement, including simple keyboard shortcuts, computer monitor configuration, and support ticket navigation.

These insights reduced the agent’s AHT by 50%.

“Seeing someone’s work eliminates flawed assumptions and helps us understand the process that they went through,” said Jensen. “This creates a more forgiving QA score, so agents aren’t penalized for things outside of their control.”

5. Set Clear Action Items

In order for agents to improve, coaches need to assign specific action items before the next session. Having a tangible to-do list holds agents accountable to a result, as opposed to vague instructions like “try to be more empathetic.”

This could be an assignment to review a lesson on greeting techniques or a link to your internal knowledge base to buff up on product or industry knowledge.

Action items can be tough to keep track of as your team gets bigger and busier, which is why MaestroQA has features to keep them organized. For example, coaches and managers can document agreed upon "next steps" and improvement plans, and even track agents’ improvement over time.

5 Tips to Level Up Your Coaching

Here are five ways to kick your coaching up a notch.

1. Make QA the Foundation of Your Coaching Strategy

QA scores are your best source of intel for coaching agents effectively because they give a detailed breakdown of the areas in which they excel and the areas in which they need help. This could include grammar, friendliness, and tone.

The success of your quality assurance program hinges on your quality assurance scorecard—the better your QA scorecard, the more accurate your QA findings will be, and the more efficiently your graders can do their job.

Here are three simple, effective questions coaches can add to QA scorecards:

  • Did the agent use proper grammar and appropriate tone of voice?
  • Did the agent identify the root cause and tag the ticket accordingly?
  • Did the agent choose the appropriate resolution to the customer’s issue?

Ideally, CX teams should test scorecards for 3-4 weeks to ensure graders understand the questions.

2. Close the Feedback Loop

Closing the feedback loop between coaches and agents frees up bandwidth for busy teams and helps agents make adjustments faster.

Zola, the wedding planning service, needed a faster way to onboard and empower new customer support agents. However, that was a tall task considering it was a busy season. Their solution was implementing MaestroQA’s in tandem with Lessonly, a team training system. This integration enabled QA graders to assign relevant training lessons with a single click from any scorecard.

For example, Zola’s CX team found that agents needed help with call de-escalation. They assigned training lessons in real-time before following up and augmenting that training with regularly scheduled coaching sessions.

“Now that we have a great workflow for assigning lessons from MaestroQA, we’re experiencing more lightbulb moments,” said Rachel Livingston, Senior Director, Operations at Zola. “Integrating MaestroQA with Lessonly has helped Zola close the feedback loop between quality and training.”

3. Standardize Ticket Grading with a Calibration Workflow

Agents might struggle to balance customer issues with the fear of being graded harshly, especially if they feel QA rubrics fluctuate arbitrarily. The solution is implementing a standardized, department-wide calibration workflow that takes each team member’s perspective into account.

To see what this means in action, consider Stitch Fix, a personal styling service with a team of more than 200 support agents. Their team leads were calibrating in silos, which meant agent evaluation varied widely.

Stich Fix bridged that gap with a “ticket of the week” program where the quality team selects a ticket that’s graded by all members of the CX department. Meanwhile, Stitch Fix’s quality council calibrates on the ticket and develops an answer key.

The quality team tabulates all feedback and compares it to the quality council’s answer key. The data is aggregated into charts and graphs, a summary recap is written, and the newsletter is shared with the entire department.

“Regularly looking at tickets as a department makes it easier for agents to build the muscle for dealing with difficult situations,” said Jenni Bacich, CX Global Programs Manager at Stitch Fix. “We’ve normalized the expectation that we’re driving toward commitment, not consensus.”

4. Have Managers Grade Other Managers’ Teams

Coaches, through no fault of their own, can fall victim to complacency or biases. One effective way to keep them on their toes is having them grade tickets for teams besides their own.

Plangrid, a construction planning software company, implemented this strategy and found that it was easier to communicate openly about areas of improvement. It also keeps graders honest and on their toes.

“Because managers grade each others’ teams, we know that if we don’t work through our grading assignments for the week, another team will not get timely feedback on their performance," says Joshua Jenkins, Customer Support Manager, Plangrid.

This promotes a sense of transparency between teams and highlights areas for improvement.

5. Track Coaching Sessions to Spot Trends

Keeping track of sessions over time helps CX teams better understand how agent success correlates with coaching. Pro tip: don’t rely on clunky spreadsheets to track your sessions.

MaestroQA’s Coaching Sessions charts keep everything you need to know organized, including who coached the agent, the number of sessions a coach has conducted, and the number of sessions an agent has marked as complete. You can even attach customer support tickets or CSAT survey results to coaching sessions.

Customer Service Coaching Isn’t a Cost—It’s an Investment

High-performing customer support teams aren’t a coincidence—they’re the result of methodical, data-driven coaching.

If you’re on the fence about the ROI of customer service coaching, research from Avanade found that companies expect to see a $3 return on investment for every $1 invested in the customer experience, including the development of CX skills.

Ready to see how MaestroQA’s coaching features can elevate your agent performance and enhance your customer experience? Request a free demo today.

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