Sunday, July 31, 2005

The circle of life

Stepping back and looking at my time as a supervisor, I can see a definite cycle in how I'm managed by The Powers That Be. We're always trying to change, to respond, to make things better -- but, much like a dog tied to a tree, no matter how fast we run around in a circle, we're not making any progress. If anything, the leash just keeps getting shorter.

The cycle seems go something like this:

Step One: The Changing of the Guard. Massive management changes or policy changes occur. Chaos ensues. A lot of meetings are held, pep-talks are given, and reams of memos are issued. The older employees grumble about how all of the changes are stupid. They're wrong, of course. Only most of the changes are stupid. Random chance dictates we're likely to at least one thing right.

Step Two: The Big Squeeze. Why aren't we making money? How can we cut spending but increase earnings? Things start to get strict and mean -- perform, or die. To save money, the management always decides to squeeze the employees by cutting spending on compensation, building improvements and basic maintenance, proper amounts of training and enough supervision. All the while, there is a drunken orgy of spending elsewhere, wasting absurd amounts on useless things -- consultants, expensive travel to "train" managers elsewhere, and crackpot theories from people who have never worked in a call center. Meanwhile, management contends that they key is to focus on "let's treat our people better!" and squeezing supervisors to have no morale loss from the budget cuts by giving us stress balls for our whole team. "This should motivate everyone! So why aren't they working twice as hard as last month?"

Step Three: Truth and Consequences. Like waking up next to an ugly stranger after a night of heavy drinking, we feel regret and horror when we see the all too apparent flaws in our hastily planned strategies. We see many of the programs that we spent so much time and effort on fall apart because of day-to-day issues that dominate our workload. Due to lack of investment in operations, nobody is available to mess with all of the actual feedback that the expensive consultants gave us, and it fades to a distant memory. Employees start leaving in droves because of all of the various offenses they've endured during the process. We can't be bothered to spend enough time (or, really, money) on the hiring process, so we start to bring in people who have no business with any type of employment. This scares or insults our existing staff -- like rats fleeing a sinking ship, they leave without notice or regard. Meanwhile, the supervisors are being squeezed to solve the problem; having no means, the supervisors generally start to beg people to stay or give in to demands, and lose authority. The quality of the work suffers, and productivity slumps back from its brief surge. The supervisors are looking around saying "how did this person get hired?" and wondering what happened to the center, because they've been too busy following orders to pay attention.

Step Four: Crisis. Do something! Do anything! Just try to cork the hole in the boat! We're just trying to stay afloat and make it through the day, and the frantic decisions made to keep us going rankle and backfire. People are walking around with angry faces or, worse, silent resignation and nameless dread. The calls never seem to stop and we simply don't have the staff to handle them; the remaining dregs don't really care if we sink, but we don't fire anyone because we can't afford to. Management starts to get desperate and cruel until, finally, they're gone too. The corporate office is starting to breathe down the back of our necks and nobody knows what is going to happen. The supervisors, burned out and frustrated, are pressed for ideas and then blissfully ignored, and we hire a bunch of new management that will Fix Everything!

Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

Friday, July 29, 2005

Apathy

I've been feeling pretty burned out in my job lately. It's tough to go in every day and face the problems that just keep getting piled up. It just seems that every day, it gets worse. My team has reached a record high in number of CSRs reporting to me, we have more tasks than ever assigned to us, summer vacations (for everyone else) have made us even more short-staffed than ever, and it just seems that I have one nightmare after another. One day, an agent wants to tell me about which orifice they're bleeding out of and how they can't afford surgery; another, I have to explain to a earnestly confused individual that screaming at a customer is never okay.

I feel like a hypocrite because, truth be told, I could be working harder. It's just hard to really care. I just can't look at another sighing, eye-rolling little twit who is nodding to anything that will get them through their terrible performance evaluation as quickly as possible. Why am I wasting my time?

Instead, I've been blissfully faking doing what I am supposed to be doing (coachings for individuals that don't care) and spending more time doing career planning and assistance for people who are actually not bleeding sores on the ass of humanity. There are some people for whom working for my corporation is a wonderful thing, compared to the seething chaos in their personal lives. Besides which, I try to shield my agents from the worst of it. As long as someone is legitimately trying to do a good job, I am very supportive and friendly, and I try to make each day pleasant for them.

Interestingly enough, while I don't think the brass would think so, I feel that this has been one of my most productive periods. I'm doing less running around, but I see the faces of my best agents and I know they're happier than before. I guess I really don't care if the management likes it or not; all of my futile tilting-at-windmills didn't achieve anything anyway, and this way I'm at least keeping the good ones. The ones that don't care -- well, it's just my mission to get rid of them. If you don't care to do even the bare minimum, then I don't care to have you on my team, and I don't care to help you get paid for sucking.

I feel a strange lassitude about the situation. My anger and rage has started to even out to general depression and despair about management, but genuine pleasure as well in dealing with my core group. I guess, now that I think about it, I really don't feel bad at all. I've gotten hugged this week, I've been told that I was the best boss someone ever had, I've been told that I've made this job better than anything else in their life for someone, and I'm happy about that. I guess I've found that little spark that made me like being a supervisor to begin with.

So, you know what? I'll always get mad about the stupid corporate policies, ridiculous management types who can't walk the talk, useless employees that I can never seem to get permission to fire, and endless turnover. I may move to another job. But, in a moment of extreme anger, I took a step back and realized that I need to find happiness in what I'm doing -- the "zen of supervising", if you will.

That's what I try to tell myself, anyway. Stress, it'll kill you.

Monday, July 11, 2005

How to invest in your people

The powers that be have decided that Priority One in getting us out of our slump (high attrition, terrible quality, makin's no money) is to Put People First. This included such earthshattering edicts as "Treat your employees like real people!" and "Make sure to talk to your people like people."

Step one in achieving this plan? Well, we might have a big morale-boosting event; we might try to poll the employees for what we can improve; or perhaps we could do manager/CSR meetings to find out what would help.

Any of those would make sense. But, what's this? A memo from the new management?

Ah. Apparently we are to strictly enforce a bunch of little rules about personal conduct on site, because this way we will tightly enforce professionalism. Mind you, when these rules didn't exist, we didn't have perfect professionalism, but for reasons utterly related to these stupid rules. In addition, there are petty new rules specifically for supervisors. Yes, our tiny little pool of overtaxed supervisors, still trying to hang on despite several losses of staff and persistent openings that never seemed to get filled, get to follow specific rules intended to make us appear "separate and distinguishable" from the staff. Heaven forfend we look like the rabble.

Yeah. Put people first -- after all, the management are people -- and we should spend our time not coaching or developing people, but enforcing their little pet peeves.

I can see that we're really turning this company around.

Saturday, July 02, 2005

Trying to get people to think

Agent: "Hi there, I'm having a problem with my computer."

Me: "What seems to be the trouble?"

Agent: "My password doesn't work."

Me: "Ok, I can reset that, which password?"

Agent: "The database password."

Me: "Oh? Did you have to restart your computer or something?" (Normally they're logged into the database all day.)

Agent: "No, I came back from break, and now my password doesn't work."

Me: "That sounds like it's your Windows password, not your database password."

Agent: [blank look]

Me: "You know, when you start the computer, it asks you for a login and password that's different than the database and the other systems."

Agent: "So, in other words, I need help so I can take calls. I need the database."

Me: "...well, I'm just trying to figure out which password reset you need."

Agent: "The database."

Me: "See, the database doesn't require a password when returning from break. However, Windows does. It's the password you use first. Do you know what I mean?"

Agent: "I need help! I need my database password reset!"

Me: "Look, password resets cost the company money. All I want to do is make sure we're resetting the right password, okay? Now, which user ID is it showing?"

Agent: "[Name of database program]"

Me: "No, what I mean is, your user ID will automatically be filled in. If it it's Windows, it's going to appear with your initials and last name, and if it's the database, it won't. What does it look like?"

Agent: "I don't know."

Me: "I tell you what. Go back and try entering the first password you use every day, and see if it works. If it doesn't, come back here, and I'll get the password reset. Okay?"

Agent: [frustrated] "FINE, I'll try it, but it won't work."

They didn't come back.