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Using subject matter experts (SME) to develop call center managers

Do you see any benefits to hiring SMEs, L2s or team leads as assistants to our front-line call center supervisors? Is there any data that validates or rejects the use of these types of positions?

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Yes, there are many benefits to using subject matter experts (SMEs) in the call center. There are equally as many benefits, if not more, to using team leads (also known as team leaders), particularly in call centers in which supervisors have a large group to oversee (15 or more call center agents). Please note that I specifically said "using" instead of "hiring." In many call centers, the team leader position is used as the first step in an agent's career progression. It is often used as a low-risk training ground for potential supervisors or managers.

SMEs are a valuable information resource and provide a wealth of knowledge and support to agents. They may serve as liaisons to the functional area from which they obtained their expertise. SMEs are often the "go to" people for assistance and up-to-date information on a specialty, policies, processes, quality, marketing programs or general contact center issues. Many technical support centers or help desk environments use SMEs to provide expertise for different products. This approach allows the operating environment to build and share expertise among staff members. It also frees supervisors from having to attend lots of meetings to spend more time in the call center assisting and coaching agents. Call center agents who demonstrate a superior level of job knowledge and service excellence can be assigned to the position of subject matter expert as a low cost, high benefit form of recognition.

Team leads often serve as second-in-command in a call center team, providing back-up to the supervisor. Team leads frequently function as the most senior agents, handling customers who demand a supervisor. They should also be available to lower-level agents who need help. Team leads can assist a supervisor by answering agent questions, coordinating team meetings and activities and providing informal coaching to agents. Team leaders often function as a buffer between call center agents and supervisors, providing guidance or direction on how to handle a request, the best way to proceed with an issue, or simply as an outlet for an agent to "vent." Team leaders should be role models and demonstrate excellent work habits, good judgment, thorough knowledge of products, procedures and processes, and possess excellent interpersonal skills for handling both internal and external customers. Additional functions that team leaders may perform include conducting up-training classes, assisting with quality monitoring, assuming a temporary supervisory role to replace a supervisor on extended leave, or handling special call center projects.

SMEs are sometimes, but not necessarily team leaders. An SME needs to have strong domain expertise in one or more areas, but may not be a good supervisor or coach.

I am not familiar with any data that validates the importance of these positions; however, I do know that if the right people are placed in these jobs, it will have a very positive impact on the satisfaction level of your staff.

This was first published in January 2007

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