A Conversation with Karen Travis: Talent Management for Service Professionals

In last week’s webcast featuring Phil Verghis, we talked about how most support managers are made: the best support techs get promoted to manager, though the skill sets of the two roles couldn’t be more different. That’s how I made it into support management, and if anyone I managed that first couple of years is reading, I apologize. I thought my job was to micromanage every incident and make their lives crazy…which worked great as a team lead, but not so much as a manager. Luckily, I worked for JCPenney, a company famous for outstanding management training programs, and ultimately I do think I became a good manager. But it wasn’t easy.

Newly minted support managers usually have the technical chops—we know how to interview and train for that. But effective employee communications and relations can be as much art as science, and not all companies have the education programs JCPenney offered. So how do you become an overnight expert on recruiting, coaching and leading a team? Here’s one way: take advantage of our professional development workshop, “Talent Management for Service Professionals,” offered on Monday, October 18th, at our TSW Conference in Las Vegas. We are lucky to have as the course instructor Karen Travis, president and CEO of Sigma Performance Solutions, Inc. Sigma, a TSIA partner, provides training facilitation, instructional design, and consulting services. Karen has spent more than 20 years working with organizations on communications, performance management, conflict management, and employee relations and retention. I sat down with Karen this week to talk about why training for managers and supervisors is more important today than ever.

John Ragsdale: Karen, thank you so much for agreeing to speak with me about your upcoming professional development course, “Talent Management for Service Professionals.”

Karen Travis: My pleasure, John.  I appreciate the opportunity.

John: It seems to me that it is even harder today to be an effective manager. I keep hearing that many long held practices are less effective with Gen-Y workers, dealing with a global and more remote workforce adds lots of new wrinkles, and there is so much focus on metrics and quality within support that people can get lost in the equation. What are you seeing out there?

Karen: John, you’ve described it pretty well!  Managing effectively has become much more complicated.  It’s stressful on the workforce and managers!  Add in the recent economic tension with all of the above and it’s a recipe for disaster.  Very few organizations are coping well.  Right now, talent management is frequently at the bottom of the heap, and that’s unfortunate.   Not enough time and attention is being placed on managing the workforce.  As the economy starts to recover, employees are going to be less fearful of moving (i.e. turnover will increase), and the competition for the skilled workforce will heat up!  Companies that want to recruit and retain the best and brightest need to work on their talent management efforts now, not later.

John: One of the things I liked in your workshop description is when you say that customer service skills can work on employees and peers too. Could you talk about that?

Karen: Sure.  Years ago, we focused purely on the relationship between the service pro and the customer, and that was a great step forward.  But, in today’s world, it’s hard for one person to be “the solution” or to have all the answers when organizations are dealing with software from Vendor X and hardware from Vendor Y, networking equipment from yet another source, and who knows what else!  With the “complexity avalanche” so aptly described by J.B. Wood, it’s less often that one service rep can address all the issues that might be impacting performance.  We work closely with our clients to make sure the service pros have the conversation skills necessary to communicate well with customer and their associates.  Beyond the communication skills, if the service pro doesn’t understand where they can access help internally or how to escalate and issue appropriately, sometime we see a myopic approach to their problem solving that hinders effective and efficient problem solving.  The top service pros are not only able to manage the customer relationship but they also work extremely well with their peers – knowing when they can go solo and when they need to bring in other resources is a key differentiator.

John: Something I learned at JCPenney was a framework to hold discussions, whether it be a promotion, a performance review, even a termination. Something I still use to this day. I was reminded of that when I read about Sigma’s proprietary four-step conversation management process, and how you’ve seen the process improve productivity, reduce conflict, increase employee satisfaction, and reduce turnover. Could you talk about LIST®?

Karen: LIST® is also a framework, like you learned at JCPenney.  We know that techies like to follow a process! LIST® gives them that step-by-step methodology for conducting a conversation, and regardless of the topic, the process works.  I won’t bore you with all the details, but most important, the first step is to LEARN – many folks thing L is for listen.  That’s close, but not enough!  How many times have you listened to someone, but have difficulty remembering what they say?!  The L-step (learn) stresses the importance of not only listening, but being able to comprehend what the person is saying and to reflect back to them what they are saying.  That’s actually the transition to the second I-step — when you can indicate understanding the person realizes you “get it” – trust increases, stress is reduced and the process becomes a collaboration.

Anyone who walked by our booth at previous shows, may recall that we have a unicycle on display.  The unicycle represents your technical skills – difficult to master and requires lots of practices. I’m envious of anyone who can ride a unicycle! But, by adding the “front wheel” conversation management skills, we build a bicycle — make it easier for techies to navigate by adding some balance to their technical skills with “front wheel” people skills.

Lastly, just a brief sidebar, we’re learning that LIST® also works via email or in a chat process – we’re very excited about that given how support options are expanding and “conversations” are changing in the way they happen – but we still need results.

John: How will the workshop be structured? How will the attendees spend the day?

Karen: The workshop will focus on several aspects of talent management.  As you mentioned at the top, typically the best technician is promoted to management, and that is not necessarily the right answer.  And thanks for apologizing to those who might have suffered under your leadership, or lack thereof!!  As you pointed out, with good training, those deficits can become assets, but it’s not always possible.  We’ll show how organizations (or individual managers) can do a better job of selecting managers, training them, and also highlight some organizations that have created dual-career ladders…a way for companies to promote techies, valuing their technical expertise without making them managers.  Aside from a few lessons learned, most of the day will be hands-on, highly interactive with opportunities to learn all four steps in the LIST® process, practice those conversation skills, explore some anger defusion techniques, and explore what participants are doing right now in the area of talent management and provide a talent management approach for how they can become better people managers, individually or as an organization.  As you mentioned, we know how to hire for “technical” skills – but we want to help organizations become just as proficient with promoting and hiring for managerial skills.  I don’t know if we’ll make participants an overnight expert, but we’ll certainly open their eyes!

John: Thank you so much for taking the time to sit down with me, and good luck on your workshop!

Karen: Thanks John.  I look forward to seeing everyone in Las Vegas.

If you have a question or comment for Karen, please add a comment or drop me an email. And as always, thanks for reading!

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2 Comments on “A Conversation with Karen Travis: Talent Management for Service Professionals”

  1. Carl Says:

    Nice piece, I like the unicycle/bicycle metaphor.

    Oddly, the practice of “promote the strongest individual contributor” seems to be commonplace across the IT industry, not just in tech support. It has one advantage: at least the new manager will have skills that the techs respect. (Or at least, he will for a year or so until his tech skills become stale…). Unfortunately, that’s not nearly enough to offset the disadvantages. One other dynamic I see often that needs to be carefully handled is that the techs left behind may resent the former peer who is now their boss — especially if the person promoted isn’t obviously and transparently the best for the job.

    (Historical aside: this worst practice seems to have about a century of precedent. In industrial manufacturing, it seems to have long been the practice to promote the most productive worker on the shop floor to Foreman, thereby instantly making him envied and hated by his former co-workers.)

    • Karen Travis Says:

      Carl — you are correct, there is a loooooooonnnng history of promoting the best inidividual producer, creating several issues, as you point out. At Sigma we see this practice in IT, nursing, sales, and other industries where technical competence is highly valued. The alternative – developing good managers isn’t easy either, but hopefully we can encourage folks to stop repeating these mistakes and take a serious look at best practices in talent management and supervision. Hope to see you in Las Vegas. Karen


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