Within arm’s reach… how the best agents operate

“Within arm’s reach” is an expression meaning near (or not near) enough to reach by extending one’s arm.  For an agent what needs to be near?

As a manager how can you enable your agents to achieve their very best?  How can you put everything within arm’s reach of your team?


In an increasing world of concern and security more and more emphasis is being placed on people’s memory within a contact centre.  It doesn’t have to.

There are tools to help but knowing and using are two different things.

This article looks at the usage of tools to consider putting in the arms reach of your agents to improve your sales and service delivery.

If you’re an experienced contact centre manager please jump to the bottom and use the checklist as a handy reference sheet for you to sense check your options.

  • Learning from the best
  • What to put within arm’s reach?
  • The tools that help

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Learning from the best

Looking to the best

The CCMA (Ireland) every year have an award for the best agent.

In 2017 there was a winner declared…  Industry Professional of the Year – Customer Service Advisor.

I’ve never met nor had the privilege of chatting to the winner. I’m basing this all on what’s written in the CCMA book of the night and my professional experiences.

Here’s what was said of her:

By going that extra mile with her warm and helpful personality and excellent problem solving skills, she consistently wows her customers and exceeds their expectations.
The judges were particularly impressed with her professionalism and steadfast approach to developing and improving her skills, all in the pursuit of delivering great customer experiences. [She] is a natural communicator who displays great levels of empathy and understanding, even when under pressure.
Her confidence, helpfulness and problem solving ability are greatly appreciated by her customers. She is also a strong team player and is always open to supporting and helping out her colleagues.


Identifying strengths

Let’s take this apart and see we glean what we can from the best of the best.

  • Developing and improving her skills
  • Natural communicator
  • Great levels of empathy and understanding, even when under pressure
  • Confidence
  • Helpfulness
  • Problem solving ability
  • Team player and is always open to supporting and helping out her colleagues
[She] has worked in the financial services industry for over 18 years during which time she has made the successful transition from branch banking to customer service centre.

So she undoubtedly carries a lot of experience and knowledge with her.

The implication is that she is able to use that knowledge to support and help her colleagues.

Yet there is only one of anyone in this world and time is precious.  Could you put her within arm’s reach of everyone?

How could you multiply this resource in your centre?


Natural talent vs. learned skills

Clarity in our words

Talent is defined as natural aptitude or skill.  In other words aptitudes or skills you have without trying.

Looking at the best profile it is a blend of natural talents and learned information that support, process, procedures and operational challenges.

There is a viral image which has made the rounds on LinkedIn and Facebook.  On first look there is a natural reaction to believe it’s all true…

Yet each of these items require one thing, attitude.

If attitude doesn’t work for your way of thinking use one of the synonyms. Approach, belief, bias, character, demeanor, mindset, mood, opinion, perspective, philosophy are all equal.


Practice makes permanent

Consequently an attitude requires practice and drive and most importantly personal motivation.

Furthermore you might be lucky enough to be born with all these skills.  For the rest of us they are skills to learn.

You can attribute each of these to “learnt skills” which with practice and personal motivation can deliver.


  • Firstly we look at being on time:  requires planning and experience.  Knowing what traffic to avoid is experiential.
  • Next we have work ethic:  Listen to any motivational speaker and you realise there is always more you could do
  • Effort:  In a business context, this is very close to work ethic.
  • Body Language:  Eye contact, hand shakes, posture, social engineering?
  • Energy:  Have a young family or massive personal stress?  Sleep is not your friend but planning, caffeine and time management feature.
  • Also we have attitude:  Self-help and motivation again feature here.
  • Passion:  Born of life experience and finding out what does and does not work for you.
  • Being coachable:  An attitude that comes from infancy and nurturing a desire to grow and learn.
  • Doing extra:  work ethic, effort and passion result in “extra work” being a natural by product
  • Finally be prepared:  Planning without action is a waste of time.  Learning to balance prep with delivery is a lifetime skill.

So the personal motivation of “the best” immediately set them apart and moreover everything else can be learnt.


What to put within arm’s reach?

Grouping up your help

So any team needs three different areas of support from their manager

  • Knowledge
  • Skills
  • Motivation

So are all of these within arm’s reach of your agents to help them maximise their own personal motivations?



Sales and care

Firstly, regardless of if you work in sales or customer care, knowledge within arm’s reach means not having to commit everything to memory.

Cheat sheets, reference lists and common material a click away add confidence to the delivery of any agent.

Consequently objection handling and being able to rebut arguments becomes so much more effective with a crib sheet.


Some people are able to create mental crib sheets, however for those who don’t have memory… give them a cheat sheet.

However this isn’t school, it’s business.

Simply put all the answers on a single sheet.  Furthermore make it widely available to your team so you can always have perfect answers.

Above all realise it will change over time, so keep it up to date.  It is better to focus on general capabilities than specific version training.


Tools like retention calculators can massively help in keeping good customers and letting costly customers go.


Security and taking notes

In a contact centre being able to make notes can help memory.

However that is a security concern especially for ISO 27001 compliant centres.

Also if you have PCI compliance note taking quite simply is a no no.

However what do you keep in notes?

  • People who need to be contacted
  • Questions to follow up on
  • Or handy reference information that will help your delivery in the future

So where are the three systems you utilise common to all agents that deliver these three capabilities?


A problem shared

Firstly if you have an amazingly flexible and knowledgeable resource in your business, you’re very lucky.

Furthermore you probably lean on this resource and make them regularly available and within arm’s reach for all the agents.

Floor walkers are knowledgeable people who make themselves available to agents to un-stick issue .

These walking tomes of knowledge can provide instant answers to hep those who don’t know.


Consequently there are limitations in terms of sickness, leave, availability associated with floor walkers.

Furthermore the problem with a conversation is that it evaporates.  So when the question is asked verbally it is “one and done”.

For a week try a chat engine.  This writes down every question and enables transcript reviews.


What are the most common questions?  Can an FAQ list or Knowledge Base develop from it, so you don’t need a walking tome?

As a result of building one, online FAQs / Knowledge Bases can be searched by staff reducing the pressure on floor walkers.

By taking this growing knowledge base it can become the basis for an external knowledge base where clients can FIY.

Where is your knowledge base?  How do you keep it up to date?



Soft skills

The title soft skills is often used as the catch all to explain the skills of dealing with customers

  1. Communication
  2. Teamwork
  3. Adaptability
  4. Problem-Solving
  5. Creativity
  6. Work Ethic
  7. Interpersonal Skills
  8. Time Management
  9. Leadership
  10. Attention to Detail

What training materials have you put within arm’s reach for your agents to improve these areas?

When considering someone for promotion to leadership / management these are the most common skills looked for.


Soft skills like hard skills can be taught and learnt.  Whilst role plays, worked examples and experience aid in learning soft skills.

In addition your crib sheets and reference manuals can address a lot of the missing hard skills and patchy memories.


Going off script and Removing Muda

Certainly bureaucracy vs. practicality often features as one of the key points of the best agents.

Experience teaches that some processes work better than others.

For instance even as an agent myself I remember that there were processes and procedures to follow.

My experience of the source of an issue could result in my short cutting half the time of my call and the focus of the centre at the time was Average Handling Time (AHT).


Every process and procedure is a starting point and provides somewhere for everyone to start.

Yet as a manager how do you refine, evolve, improve and optimise your processes?

What wasteful processes do you have where your best agents are going around that process?


Muda is the Japanese word for waste.  Furthermore it features heavily in process such as Lean Six Sigma which aim to reduce and remove muda from operations.

Why walk 1,000 steps when there is a solution within arm’s reach?  As a result soft skills 4, 5 and 10 manifest in this approach.

Most importantly this review process is part of an entire quality approach to your centre.



Knowing yourself

Motivation is a uniquely personal focus.  Understanding it and harnessing it will provide the key to all the attitudes you wish to see.

In this Information Age, applying psychology to get the best from your team is becoming more important than just skills based training.

Modern tools such as Gamification can support psychological approaches to help your team be the best they can be.

Career pathing is something in conjunction with HR departments to help someone see their future way forward in the business.

Noticeboards can massively boost a team by providing public recognition in the same way awards promote the best of the best.

More importantly how do you manage your own motivations.

Furthermore how can you put all this good info and learning within arm’s reach of your team?


Having fixers

A fixer is defined as a person who makes arrangements for other people, especially of an illicit (forbidden by law, rules, or custom) or devious kind.

Someone with the right access who can get a challenge fixed quickly and effectively can make massive differences.

Make fixers available to everyone or remove the practice altogether.


The expression, it’s not what you know, it’s who you know can lead to very challenging situations especially in professional growth.

As a result and in my experience “needing a ticket for that” completely removes this as an issue.

You can keep the perception of fixers but document it for internal review and understand why some teams process work better than the standard prescribed procedures.


Playing favourites

Subjectivity and objectivity are very difficult concepts to maintain when dealing with a lot of people.  People are not robots.

Managers can gel better with some personalities more easily than others and such is the nature of being human.

Objective measures rather than subjective impressions are the only way to maintain professionalism for all parties.

This requires an objective and measurable quality assurance approach which is clear and audit-able.

To clarify allowing any staff member to review the criteria against which they will be graded allows people self-improve and focus their efforts.


The tools that help


So are all the following within arm’s reach for your agents?

Knowledge Skills Motivation
  • Cheat sheets
  • Objection handling reference
  • FAQ list
  • Internal queries review system
  • Knowledge base
  • Retention calculator


  • A system for callbacks
  • Also a system for FAQs
  • Finally a system for cheat sheets
  • Soft skills training (internal and external)
  • Process review frequency
  • Quality approach
  • Lean six sigma practices and how to use them
  • Understanding personal motivation
  • Gamification
  • Career paths
  • Fixers
  • Noticeboard


Learning from the best

So again looking at the list of what stood out as the primary traits of the best of 2017

  • Firstly developing and improving her skills are as a result of motivation and availability of resources from which to improve.
  • Next being a natural communicator is a practiced soft skill
  • Also with great levels of empathy and understanding, even when under pressure is again a practiced soft skill
  • Confidence stems from strong knowledge, experience and the result of practiced soft skills
  • Helpfulness is primarily from being a walking cheat sheet whilst also able to teach / demonstrate soft skills
  • Problem solving ability is a practiced soft skill
  • Finally being a team player and is always open to supporting and helping out her colleagues completes a person with a well rounded set of motivations, soft and hard skills.

Computers, technology and web based approaches can put all the tools to deliver all an agent needs within arm’s reach.

Consequently this leaves you free to focus on helping your team learn, develop, grow and evolve.

If there’s anything in this article you’d like to chat to me about you can contact me here or on social media.


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