Noobes shouldn’t be on the front line until they can do it with ‘no hands’

The dreaded western customer service job

Yesterday, I had to sit around offices a bit and I watched two people work in jobs that aren’t very high powered.

The noobe

In the first, the relatively more senior job, was a young fellow, baby faced but with determined lower body movements. He was racing the clock as he tried to execute what, for him, is still a complicated sequence of moves.  He took great pleasure in deftly picking up the paper, entering stuff in a computer, standing up, sitting down, and barking out commands to customers.

He needs the time and space to practice but should he really have been released into the wild?

The old hand

The second was a very much more junior job but a more experienced guy was handling two customer points simultaneously.  He was relishing the challenge and got ahead by anticipating what people wanted and priming his work station.  He was still racing the clock, but out of boredom rather than inexperience.

The old hand vs the noobe

The big difference between the two came when the experienced guy had forgotten something I asked for it.  Then I got a big smile and “I am onto it Miss”.  The younger guy would have snapped.  And this is why.

Feedback cycles

Noobe vs old hand

The goal for the the ‘noobe’ was his own performance.  The  goal for the second man was my convenience and satisfaction.  Multi-tasking was just the way he stopped dropping from boredom but he would drop multi-tasking in an instant if customer satisfaction was threatened.

Understanding the psychology of ‘noobishness’

This sounds as it the ‘noobe’ is being morally wrong in some way.  A psychological analysis helps us out of that evaluative trap.

We see what goal is driving someone’s performance by watching what feedback they look for and respond to.

A rank ‘noobe’ attends to their own performance.  They have to.  Indeed, if we want to design a really bad job, we interfere with their do-check cycle.  They cannot get good at a task until they have repeated the task often to their own satisfaction.

Customer service is not the place for ‘noobes’

The trouble is that customer service is one level higher.  It is the same level as supervision.  They have to judge a situation as well as execute work.

In a front line where a lot of customer situations are utterly predictable and require no attention whatsoever from the attendant, then it is OK to put a ‘noobe’ there.  But a supervisor should be close to hand.  The supervisor mustn’t micro manage, because that muddles up do-check feedback system. They must be there to step-in when the situation has changed from a ‘practice turn’ to a ‘choose the bundle of tasks that will lead to customer satisfaction’.

Training supervision

This distinction between situation and execution is the key to training a supervisor.  Are they able to say clearly to their charge: the situation began like this – it has changed to this – now do this – or I’ll finish this and I’ll show you after ward what I did?

So how do ‘noobes’ get experience?

I’m a teacher and I also consult.  All my life, I’ve tried to take on work that creates practice slots for juniors.  But there have to be some rules.

  • Confidentiality:  I teach them to forget everything they see and hear in the office.  Write it down. Put it in a file.  Wipe your mental slate. Then when someone tries to find out things from you, you can honestly say they’ve forgotten.  Everything is recorded and forgotten.  (This may be less essential in other businesses but we deal with personal data.)  The sweet line “Tell me again what you do” is anyway a great conversational opener.
  • Rhythm: I teach them to look at me and make sure I have given them permission to speak before they open their mouths in front of a client.  The reason is this. I might be following a conversational line that they don’t follow. If they interrupt, the client loses their train of thought.
  • Alerts: If they believe there is something that I should know about, they can catch my eye.  That look is very different from the look of “I would like to practice a little now.”  I’ll immediately take them outside and ask what has concerned them.

With these three rules, ‘noobes’ can observe interactions with customer and gradually ease into bigger roles.

They earn their keep with carefully calibrated back room tasks following two principles: (A) Never give to a ‘noobe’ what cannot be redone and (B) Show them and make them practice over-and-over again until they can do it “with no hands”, so to speak.

Then they are able to handle the rapidly changing requirements of customer service.  But they aren’t handling the customer on their own until they can do all the technical stuff with “no hands”.  Their minds must be free to attend to the people they are speaking to.

Feeling shy as a junior manager? Or got a clumsy boss . . .

The embarrassment of supervision

I’ve just had a meeting with someone who had to evaluate my work, even though he is much less experienced than I am and was dazzled by my qualifications. He had the grace to apologise and did so with considerable charm and ease.

I might add that he holds important community positions outside work. In the course of the meeting I learned that he chairs his football club. There was no hubris about this either.  A mature man.  Did I say that he was younger than me too?

The rareness of big people

It is rare to find people who are comfortable overseeing others. Do you remember you first supervisory position? Do you remember how awkward you felt? In my first few weeks as a prefect at school, I actually practised some stern eye contact in the mirror.

It was such a nonsense, of course. This man’s genius was to acknowledge the awkward ‘social’ situation. Then he was able to walk through the evaluation criteria, some of which were manifestly laughable. But the job got done and in the process he earned my respect and importantly, though no one will thank him for it, he earned my loyalty to his organization.

Why don’t we train managers better?

It really is important to train managers before exposing them to scrutiny of their subordinates. Yet, it seems few firms do and managers wallow in their own insecurity.

Minimally, future managers need to role play likely scenarios. It is a bit like driving a new route. When you’ve driven it once or twice, you don’t have to think about directions. You can concentrate on the other traffic on the road. Then managers need training in giving instructions.

What the army teaches young lieutenants

A young infantry lieutenant is taught two things. First, how to plan the movement of troops through enemy territory. Second, how to prepare troops to move.

Taking the second, first, because it is shorter. While the lieutenant is preparing the order, they alert their subordinates that an order is coming “prepare to move out”.  This saves time when they have to get going, and gives the soldiers some feeling of control over their own lives.

The order itself is based primarily on whether they expect to be “in contact” with the enemy or not. The categories of situations would be different in other industries but a similar idea would apply.  What are the major situations that the team deals with?

Then lieutenants decide how to move their three sections, each headed up by a sergeant, in a leap frog fashion, one on high ground covering another that is moving to take another advantageous position.

When the lieutenant gives the order three more rules apply: First, show people the positions they must take. They should be able to see the positions. Second, give the whole order at once with everyone listening so they understand how their work fits into the whole. Third, take questions.

Always take questions.  The last points is so important and relates to the point I began with. Sergeants are normally much more experienced soldiers and leaders than lieutenants. As the King Abdulla of Jordan said when he addressed the House of Lords: he learned three things at Sandhurst: Listen to your sergeants. Listen to your sergeants. Listen to your sergeants.

Starting out as a manager

If you are starting out as a manager and are feeling self-conscious, put aside your awkwardness.  This isn’t about you.

Think of the task that needs doing by the whole team.  Begin with thinking about the conditions they will encounter (will they meet the enemy), look at who you have in your team, set targets for the whole team to move through the space and while about 1/3 of the team is under pressure, have the other 2/3 cover them.  Get everyone to the other side safely.

  1. Give people advance warning that a change is coming.  Get them together when you are ready and tell them the job.
  2. Where do you want to move to, when and why?
    1. What is happening – where is the enemy, what are the weather conditions, etc. (or the equivalent)
    2. How will the job be divided up?  Who will take the group forward and in what order?  How will we cover and support each other?
    3. What arrangements are in place if there is an emergency (the equivalent of air support and medical evacuation)?
  3. Remember to show people what you want. Keep it concrete.
  4. Ask for questions.

If you have followed this, I bet you no longer feel self-conscious and shy?