A majority of call center agents recognize that first-level supervisors have little decision-making capability. They understand that first-level supervisors are squeezed between upper management and themselves. This opinion by agents is reinforced when they receive a “no” answer from the first-level supervisor and a “yes” response from the less-exposed senior executive. Agents know that upper management makes final decisions, and first line supervisors enforce those decisions.
Yet, the communication from the front line supervisor to the agents is the one the agents take most seriously. Why? Because, the front line supervisor is the person the agent has the most direct contact with. The agent receives pay raises, performance reviews and consistent interpersonal communication from the front line supervisor. The channel of communication usually stops at this level. The agent’s trust and confidence are with the front line supervisor.
Yet, when it comes to decision-making capability, agents understand that their supervisor is simply in parrot mode. Agents recognize that supervisors provide answers based on what they have been provided, not based on their own choices or opinions. Therefore, agents know that final decisions rest at levels above their supervisors.
Although agents see their supervisors as their main line of contact, agents will not hesitate to use their supervisors’ boss to get what they need. One can see an analogy with children and their parents. A child may ask one parent if he may go to the ice cream shop. When that parent says “no”, the child goes to the next parent, who now has the position of wielding more power. Because of the conditioning they received as children, agents in the call center have perceived that going from supervisor to supervisor’s boss works! They learned as kids that it works, so they use the same game in the working world.
One of the great travesties of supervisor-agent management is that the higher agents go up the management ladder, the more likely some high-level executive with little knowledge of the actual situation will make the wrong decision. (How many times does parent B tell parent A, “I thought it was okay to give her the candy bar.”) In so many work environments, supervisors make a decision, agents appeal above the supervisor, and the decision is repealed. Supervisors lose all credibility, and agents learn a new way to manipulate decisions in their call center. One agent told me “When I need something important done, I go above my supervisor to her manager, because he always gets it done for me.” Although agents understand the quandary first-level supervisors are in, they are not sympathetic towards it. In fact, one must expect agents to exploit the decision-making ladder when supervisors make a decision which agents don’t appreciate. Also, one must expect the more savvy and veteran agents to use their supervisor’s lack of power to their advantage at critical junctures. Agents are intelligent enough not to exploit their advantage every time- just when they need it. This is the communication culture that exists in thousands of call centers across the world.