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Leading change in call-centres

• By : Carey Kurten & Josh Hayman | BKCOB ERF Committee – Organisational Development Portfolio

We spend hours working with our clients to make change stick in their business. Sharing stories of success with our clients makes change tangible and possible. In this article, we have chosen to share two business stories with you.

We have selected two clients, one from Legitimate Leadership and the other from Mila. Different businesses, found in different locations, but both from the SAME industry. Both have experienced success by applying the Leading Change principles we have shared with you in this series of Organisational Development articles.

Change in systems, structures and processes are always required, but a sustained change in an organisation only sticks when the people in it change, and more so when a critical mass of people have changed. Helping people to change is and always will be a Leadership issue, and does not happen by accident. Both these businesses focused on all three spheres of influence, but for the purpose of this article, we will share only the first sphere – building willing and able individuals who can add value.

CONTEXT: Both organisations highlighted low trust and management by fear, with a strong emphasis on disciplinary processes to keep control. Both were operating with a very thin profit margin and neither organisation could invest in fancy offices and Google-like spaces and facilities.

CASE ONE: Transforming a call centre from a “white-collar sweatshop”, racked by dishonesty and corruption, into a place where people would want to work was the objective of Manager A when she was appointed to manage it. The Legitimate Leadership methodology helped her to achieve that objective. It proved particularly applicable in this low-paying, low-margin call centre business. Low remuneration typically makes motivating employees, and retention of employees, difficult. Manager A joined the call centre business in 2003, as a senior operations executive.

CASE TWO: Manager B had great aspirations of shifting their call centre culture from one of victimisation and favouritism, to one where team leaders cared for their agents, had one another’s back and came to work with purpose. As the HR Director, her role would be one of influencing change at all levels, starting with buy-in from the top. Her commitment to the Mila methodology of building emotionally resilient leadership throughout enabled her to tap into the hearts of her people to achieve results.

METHODOLOGY:
Shifting leadership thinking from seeing employees as a means to get results was the foundation of Manager A’s strategy, “We ran Legitimate Leadership workshops with all leaders to align thinking. We said they had to get on board because we don’t do it in any other way.” The approach worked and support went throughout as the organisation grew. “Eventually, we decided that this shouldn’t just be for managers, so we rolled out the same principals to the agents on the floor.”
Learning and development was a key focus in both organisations. With every expectation of leadership, came a set of practical tools that enabled the leader to make the behavioural changes needed. Development pools were created by Manager B and individual performance coaching invested in. She also used the Mila OD problem-solving principles of exploring multiple perspectives for challenges before generating solutions. These Mila interventions increased personal control and accountability. Both Manager A and B introduced successful mentorship programmes. Manager B says: “We strengthened individuals while at the same time formed lasting bonds that impacted willingness and solution generation”.

RESULTS: Three aspects stand out for us
1. Company Growth and Profitability : At the time of Manager A’s appointment, the business employed about 600 people and it had one call centre near Johannesburg. 10 years later the call centre business had grown to about 2,300 employees and was operated nationally from branches in Johannesburg and six other cities in South Africa. Its revenues had more than quadrupled in the period.
2.Improved Company Culture : Manager B reflects on the 2019 focus group discussions “This is the first year that stories of victimisation and favouritism have been replaced with discussions of how to improve business processes”.
3. The decrease in Staff Turnover : Manager A reflects that staff turnover dropped from 80% per year to 35% which is in line with the industry. Manager B also shares a reduction in staff turnover, from 48% to 23% per year.

CONCLUSION: Both approaches delivered a significant change in business results, but ironically without making the results the primary focus. Instead, both companies focused on shifting the minds and hearts of the people and worked hard to translate this into an actual change in leadership behaviour and practice. Making change stick is both tangible and possible.