If you believe competitive advantage comes from an ability to deliver a great customer experience, it follows that the people who interact with your customers are one of the most important assets you can invest in.
Even with the best designed processes and smartest software, if a customer service agent messes up, that’s potentially a customer lost. So, you need great call centre agents, and there are two ways to ensure you get them. First of all, you should only be hiring great people, who are a good fit for your company’s culture. And secondly you should always be making them even better by investing in continuous training and education.
Table Of Contents
1. Hiring for success
Training and development is a never-ending process, and it starts not from day one but from the moment you start recruiting. As far as you can, you’re going to hire people who already have most of the attributes you’re looking for. But don’t confuse attributes with skills or knowledge. The latter two can be taught and trained. Attributes are much more difficult to develop as they are inherent to who we are as people.
Empathy – sometimes called emotional intelligence, is the ability to listen to someone else and understand their problem or goal they’re trying to achieve.
Initiative – not everyone is imbued with problem-solving skills, creative thinking, and the drive to get to the heart of an issue and fix it. You probably want people who are.
Communication – the great Nobel-winning scientist Richard Feynman said that you don’t truly understand something unless you can simplify it enough to explain it to a sixth-grader. Great communicators can summarise and distil complex issues so that others can understand what needs doing.
Passion – this maybe the most important attribute of all. Some people just have a passion for what they do and for helping others.
Your training program can always be improved, but at the end of the day the raw material you’re putting into it has a huge influence on the outcome. So start by hiring the right sort of people.
TOP TIP! There are many assessment tools used to uncover candidates’ abilities. Some call centres even start training during the hiring phase, by using pre-induction training portals. This usually takes the form of a short online course the new recruit takes at home. It might cover basic product and compliance knowledge, and include call recordings. Staff arrive more ready and confident, shortening induction.
2. Define the goals of your training program
As well as you do your hiring, even rough diamonds need polishing. That’s why behind every great customer service and call centre agent is a great training program.
When designing a call centre training program, it’s important to involve senior management. They are responsible for setting objectives and defining the standards by which the program will be judged. They need to clearly communicate the company’s goals, brand values, customer service strategy and employee engagement plan to those responsible for creating and delivering training.
These high-level objectives need to be delineated into a series of practical objectives so that you can decide what courses and collateral to put together.
The wider goals your training program should look to address depend very much on your company’s business model, internal culture, and brand values. For example, a low-margin, high volume, process-driven, manufacturing company is likely to be more interested in efficiency than a luxury goods company that makes a high profit from a relatively few number of high value customers.
For most companies, however, the basic goals of your program will include some of the following:
Empower agents – companies that allow their agents to make decisions are able to offer a much higher rate of first contact resolution, which customers love. They also have to transfer customers less often and put them on hold less often, which customers also love. This is not just about providing agents with the right knowledge and tools, but also ensuring they feel comfortable making decisions. A culture which encourages agents to take initiative, rather than punishes them for the slightest misjudgement goes a long way to enabling this.
Help them buy in to your culture – agents are the conduit for your brand values and culture. To communicate this effectively, agents first need to know what those values are. It also helps if they believe in them and share them. This is where your recruitment is a big help, as you should be hiring people who fit your culture and values. Skills can be trained but it’s difficult to change someone’s values.
Motivate and engage agents – when you invest in people they generally respond to it positively and feel valued. Training your agents with new skills and knowledge, giving them personal development paths so they see a future with you, all help to keep them engaged and motivated to do their best by your customers.
TOP TIP! A great way to increase motivation is to shout out to agents on the team dashboard when, for example, you get a positive review or note from a customer.
Compliance – particularly if you’re in a regulated industry, you need agents to do things in a certain way every time and follow certain steps in a process. While a lot of this can be built into the software and systems agents use, they need to understand the processes, why they have to be followed, what the purpose of them is, and how to use the tools you give them.
Confidence – being a call centre agent can be a difficult job as a lot of the time you’re dealing with people who have problems and issues that need solving; they likely wouldn’t be calling otherwise. Talking all day with people who might be worried, scared, or angry can be a draining experience. Agents therefore need to have confidence in their skills and knowledge to be able to handle customers and their problems effectively.
3. Training methods
Everybody learns differently, which means any good training program is going to use a wide variety of training methods, styles and media.
It’s not just down to personal preference. Some skills are better learned in particular ways. For example, practical skills are better retained with repeated live practice rather than simulation.
TOP TIP! The mix of training methods you use depends on the type of people you are training, the specific tasks they will be doing, and the skills and knowledge they need. It’s important to be open to different methods to get the best from everybody.
Training practitioners identify four different types of learning styles (Honey & Mumford 1992). Most people prefer one or two of these.
Activist – this type of student learns through doing things.
Pragmatist – is fine with simulations as long as they can see how it would apply to the job in practice.
Theorist – needs to understand the context around information they are given and understand why something should be done in a certain way.
Reflector – doesn’t assimilate information immediately but needs to think it over until they ‘get’ it.
Whatever type of learner you’re dealing with, a few things always hold true. It’s easier to learn and retain new information if you are stimulated and engaged. Repetition and practice are also key to retaining information and skills.
What this means is you must mix up a variety of methods including classroom training, online courses, knowledge bases, gamification, on-the-job coaching, MBWA (Management by Walking Around) and self-coaching.
TOP TIP! Rather than bunching all training into large sessions, it’s often better to reinforce learnings with different types of daily interventions. Fostering a culture of continuous education in your company pays huge dividends. It encourages experienced agents to help out newcomers and gives new agents a sense of accomplishment.
Let’s review some of the most important types of training:
Classroom training – the classic training course takes agents out of the call centre and puts them into a meeting room, either onsite or offsite. Group training sessions like this can be facilitated by supervisors, managers or training consultants. Some consultants will be subject matter specialists and might even be external rather than internal.
Induction training almost always takes place in group sessions as it allows new team members to get to know one another and bond. It also enables managers to judge their performance and skills relative to one another.
For existing agents, classroom training is generally used to introduce agents to important new topics. It enables a whole team to be exposed to the new information at the same time, or for people from different teams to mix which allows for cross-fertilisation of skills and knowledge.
Onsite training – rather than move everyone to a classroom, it can pay dividends to conduct training sessions in situ. Even without taking live calls or other types of interactions it can be better to learn in the live, interactive environment.
In induction settings, this kind of set up allows agents, supervisors and managers to learn to work together and try new things in a controlled environment. It also enables new agents to familiarise themselves with the software and equipment they will use.
For existing staff, onsite training can be used to simulate new processes and working methods and introduce new software and systems. Roleplays are often used in this type of setting, while keeping things as lifelike as possible by using real equipment.
Handle interactions – particularly for new recruits you cannot get around the fact that, at some point, they are going to have start interacting with customers. There is no substitute for experience. Whether they are handling calls or chat / messaging sessions or social media conversations, the first steps should be taken with the assistance of a trainer, supervisors or experienced colleague.
TOP TIP! Today’s automated call (and chat) monitoring systems use Speech Analytics technologies like NLP (natural language processing), speech-to-text, keyword analysis and emotion analysis to understand what is being said or typed in context. They can develop models of best practice to determine what could have been said instead, to deliver a better outcome. As well as providing another source of feedback for individual agents, this can also identify trends against whole populations of agents and across departments, allowing you to stamp out bad habits and reinforce good ones. This information can also help you to refine call frameworks, guides and scripts.
Listening to calls – through your QA department, you should have access to thousands upon thousands of call recordings. While QA checks these for compliance and quality, it’s useful for trainers to get to listen to calls too so they can categorise them into different types. Obviously, there are good calls and bad calls. In between those two extremes, trainers should be able to find snippets that demonstrate when an agent uses a certain skill or fails to use it; applies a piece of knowledge, or forgets it; complies with a process, or does not. By listening to these calls, agents can understand what outcomes were achieved and why, in each case, the agent either succeeded or didn’t in gaining the optimal outcome.
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Monitoring and feedback – the frontline of QA are your experienced agents, supervisors and managers. They should ensure that every agent has a certain percentage of calls and chat sessions monitored every day. There are two important elements to ensuring that monitoring of interactions works towards improving agents’ skills and knowledge. The first is that all interactions must be assessed within an agreed framework. This framework should be constantly updated, for example with regular calibration sessions involving people from different departments. Secondly, agents must also understand that framework, and know which KPIs they will be judged against, and also which ones have the highest priority. For example, is call length more important than first contact resolution, or is the most important to be friendly and accommodating? All feedback given to agents should be clear and actionable against the KPIs.
TOP TIP! It’s not just supervisors and trainers who should get involved in monitoring and training. Encourage managers and senior leaders to listen to calls to and praise agents. For example, they could give out certificates, gifts or an email from the leadership team. This also ensures senior managers have an understanding of the way in which the call centre is interpreting their strategic objectives for customers.
Online training – it is now possible for agents to receive ongoing training at their desks, or even on their mobile phones during breaks or laptops at home. This can be content that is created in-house such as call recordings, video sessions, interactive quizzes, or it could include third party courses. Online training can be self-directed or set by supervisors and trainers when an agent needs a refresher on a particular skill or piece of knowledge.
This ability to receive training any time, any place is a huge boost for smaller call centres where there are no dedicated trainers. The addition to online training of gamification and scoring systems tied to incentives also helps keep agents engaged and motivated to continue learning.
TOP TIP! Online training enables you to make use of agent down time in between calls. Once out of wrap, if there’s no interaction in the queue for the agent, the desktop can instead present a short video to watch, or refresher quiz to complete.
Self-coaching – most of us will take a new piece of knowledge on board much more readily if it is something we have worked out for ourselves, rather than just being told. For this reason, self-coaching is a powerful tool in your arsenal. Instead of the trainer explaining to agents what was good or bad in a call or chat, rather ask them what their own opinion is. Why do you think that did or didn’t work? What could have been done instead? How would that have changed the outcome? In time agents even learn to listen to what they are saying and correct themselves as they go.
Others – there are many more methods of training, including buddying up experienced agents with those who need help, discussion sessions between agent teams, supervisors and managers to discuss issues of quality and service, lunchtime learning sessions where agents talk informally about topics that interest them, incentive schemes related to performance improvement post-training, agent workgroups which agents can join to set their own targets and KPIs, as well as personal logs and career guides so agents can track their improvements and see where they’re going.
4. Training in a multi-channel environment
Of course, these days call centres handle much more than phone calls. There’s social media, webchat, messaging on various apps, emails, SMS and even video calls. Each of these channels requires a quite different skillset, and it’s rare that an agent will master more than two or three of them. That’s OK, as agents normally focus on only one or two channels anyway, but it does mean that the process of training agents is generally longer and more complicated than in the past.
To proficiently interact with customers on a new channel, an agent first needs to learn how to operate that channel from a technical point of view. Picking up the phone was quite easy, then softphones required more training; today agents are expected to master multiple pieces of complex software and know how they all fit together. In addition, they will need to learn the company’s procedures for different interaction types. And finally, they will need to develop the specific hard and soft skills required of each channel, for example typing and spelling for webchat, smiling and eye contact and visual presentation for video calls.
According to Dimension Data’s research, the average contact centre now supports around 9 different channels, and 85% have agents who work on one or more channel. To train agents properly on the use of these channels you of course need supervisors and trainers who are also experts at using them.
TOP TIP! In most multi-channel environments, agents have to use 5 different pieces of software to manage 2-3 channels simultaneously. The more systems you have, the longer it’ll take to train agents and the higher your costs. Improving agent experience by streamlining their desktop not only improves job satisfaction and reduces training costs, it also makes for faster interactions and better customer satisfaction.
A training program to induct an agent on a new channel, or to teach them to become a multi-channel agent, should cover the following:
Train the basics – each channel has its own characteristics. There are things you should and should not do for each of them. Agents need to familiarise themselves with the fundamentals of a channel by listening in, watching recordings or reading transcripts (whichever is appropriate). While customers can generally use whichever channel they like, they tend to gravitate towards certain ones for particular types of queries, so agents need to learn those. They also need to understand the etiquette of each channel, and whether their messages are going to be public or private, how quickly customers expect a response, and if they need to deliver an immediate resolution or escalate to another channel for a fuller response.
Specific skills – other than voice and video calls, most other channels require writing skills. This requires not just a base proficiency in grammar and spelling but also an understanding of how to write clearly and concisely. Many of these channels also allow agents to insert canned responses and imagery such as emoticons. With voice channels, intonation becomes important too, and with video, facial expression. For all channels, agents need to know the company’s communication policy and brand image which govern the types of words and phrases that should be used.
Practice – first in a simulated environment and then in a controlled and supervised manner with live interactions. Supervisors and trainers should be on hand during this phase to provide immediate feedback and correct mistakes. The simulations are useful for developing the spatial awareness and muscle memory that separate an expert user of a piece of software from a beginner. Time and space for trainees to reflect on what they’ve learnt is also important for embedding new skills. A little later on, pairing up new agents with experienced agents for entire shifts help them get help on the fly and gain confidence.
5. Costs and ROI
When it comes to planning your training program and allocating budget, the first question you need to answer is: what should the ROI (return on investment) on the training program be?
There is a significant cost involved in running a call centre training program. Not only do course designers, trainers and supervisors need to be paid, there is a cost associated with the productivity losses that come from agents being in the classroom rather than talking to customers.
In theory, these costs and losses should be more than made up for by the productivity and commercial gains that come from having better trained customer service agents. But you need to be able to measure both the costs and the gains to ascertain that.
Costs – induction training of new agents is one of the biggest costs of running a call centre. Some induction programs can last for up to two months if agents are going to be handling complex or technical queries. At the end of induction training, new agents should know the company culture, understand how to use systems and software, and be capable of answering the majority of routine enquiries.
TOP TIP! Keep training and upskilling your agents and challenging them with new and interesting roles, otherwise you’ll lose them. Call centres have among the highest staff attrition rates of any business unit. When you lose an agent, you not only lose the money you’ve already spent on their training, you also have to spend to train their replacement.
Ongoing training and refresher training will also be needed to ensure agents remain at the top of their game. Every time you introduce a new product, service, system, process or channel, agents will need additional training too. These all require trainers (who need to be trained too), courses to be designed and written, and for agents to spend time away from customers.
Further training costs are incurred if your business needs to expand and take on new agents, whether that’s seasonally or permanently. Finally, if you are in a regulated industry, you might need your trainers and agents to study for and achieve certain certifications. These sometimes require the additional expense of outside training providers and assessors.
Returns – training should deliver a number of benefits, all of which should be directly measurable in terms of improved customer outcomes and satisfaction, higher sales numbers or reduced costs from efficiency savings.
Measuring improvements, monitoring KPIs before and after training, evaluating and assessing agents, and tracking various business performance indicators all give you a good indication of whether your training program is delivering the goods.
TOP TIP! To link performance improvements directly back to training, it’s a good idea to hold trainers accountable for any improvements for 6 weeks following the delivery of a training program. They should be set concrete targets such as achieve a 5% decrease in call transfers. This is a good way to link training directly to cost savings or revenue increases.
Assigning monetary value to the indicators you measure is ultimately the only way to prove that your training program gives you an ROI. How much is a 2% reduction in errors or escalations worth? What’s the value of a 1% increase in conversion rate? You should also monitor the impact on customer metrics such as CSAT, NPS, customer effort and customer advocacy.
6. Don’t stand still
Once you have a training program the work is only just beginning of course. You have to deliver training, monitor the results and ROI, get feedback from agents, trainers and customers, and feed all this information back into the program so you can keep improving it.
Just as training should be an ongoing process for all your call centre agents, supervisors, managers, and even trainers, so your training program should constantly evolve. It will naturally do so as your business expands and transforms.
The most valuable insights into the success of your training program come from the people it is designed to help – your agents. They know better than anyone whether a training course has energised them, taught them anything new, and improved their performance.