Original Publication: Call Center Magazine - July 2006
Those who think that traditional classroom training is the be-all and end-all in call centers have a lot to learn.
So do agents. That's precisely why so many centers have embraced new training tools and approaches aimed at increasing learning efficiency and effectiveness -- and, ultimately -- both employee and customer loyalty.
Fewer groups of new hires are piled into a room and hit with anywhere from two to six weeks of one-size-fits-all training led by a supervisor. Also fading are training regimens that force existing agents to abandon their workstations every time they need to learn a new skill or improve an old one. Today, training is being delivered, on-demand, on-line, just in time, from a distance and even by agents themselves. Agents no longer dread sitting through static lectures on new products and services; they look forward to, embrace -- even request -- specific types of dynamic training that are aligned with both their and the organization's goals.
Now, this is not to suggest that classroom training is dead. Traditional training will always have a place in and make an impact on agent learning. However, as experts point out, new tools and an increased focus on eclecticism and performance development are helping to bring about the end of agent training as we know it.
"The old days of sending everyone [through the same] training program and then thinking training is complete are becoming obsolete," says Sharon Daniels, CEO of training firm AchieveGlobal. "Organizations realize that classroom training has a purpose in developing strong skills through practice and feedback. They also know that blended solutions -- e-learning and classroom -- when implemented well, can yield strong results."
Anne Nickerson, president of Call Center Coach, a training and consulting firm specializing in customer contact, agrees. "While I don't think that classroom training will ever go away, I do think that classroom training is more efficient with the use of knowledge-based systems and simulation technology."
AGENT EDUCATION EVOLVING
Just as customer expectations and contact channels are evolving, so is training in the call center. Here's a look at the tools and tactics many are using to enhance agent education and development -- and center-wide performance:
Asynchronous Web-based training. This has become the most common, and most effective, method of e-learning. Asynchronous WBT refers to online training modules that are completed by the agent at his/her own pace, typically at his/her desktop, without the presence of a live instructor. The training can be provided at any time, and the agent can re-access and review it any time from a PC. The best modules are highly interactive; some even have the look and feel that other agents and an instructor are present.
Call centers often use asynchronous WBT modules to reinforce -- but not replace -- material covered in new-hire classroom training. Such modules enable trainees to practice key skills and test their knowledge of new principles they've just learned. Some include lifelike call simulations where the agent "handles" simulated customer contacts, thus increasing their confidence prior to taking calls from real customers.
Many centers also use asynchronous WBT modules to foster ongoing learning and advancement. Studies have shown that what agents want more than just about anything else is the opportunity to continuously grow in the call center and the organization, and that an effective WBT strategy can play a critical role in providing that opportunity. Centers that create a wide variety of WBT modules covering a diverse range of key skill/knowledge sets enable all agents to advance at their own pace -- and the call center to perpetually enhance overall performance and agent retention.
The most progressive centers have taken advantage of the latest WBT tools -- those that enable supervisors to quickly create and send agents short, personalized videos that cover problem areas recognized during a monitoring session. These tools, such as Envision'sClick2Coach, serve as an extension of the center's monitoring software, and let agents see (via video demonstration) and hear (via the supervisor's voice-over explanation) how they could have handled a particular contact better.
"It provides us with a powerful coaching tool to put information and training at agents' fingertips," says Tim Burkhart, director of customer care at Fossil, which uses the Click2Coach product. "[If there is] a single coaching issue that needs to be communicated to a specific [agent], Click2Coach enables us to deliver this message without having the agent leave their workstation."
While it sounds like a lot of work to create customized coaching modules on the fly, most tools have features that enable supervisors/coaches to easily insert documents, graphics, audio (including call recordings) and video clips into modules that can then be sent directly to the agent's desktop. To help further save time -- and to ensure consistency -- most centers that use e-coaching tools incorporate existing coaching /training material and templates into customized modules whenever possible.
Whether using asynchronous WBT to bolster new-hire training, ongoing training or monitoring feedback, experts all emphasize the importance of not dispensing with face-to-face interaction. Too many centers, unfortunately, have done just that, says Daniels of AchieveGlobal. "E-learning still requires the manager to coach and mentor the skills and desired behavior change. Often, managers don't plan for reinforcement of skills, thus the impact of the Web/e-learning is minimized."
Transition training. When it comes to hot training trends, it isn't all about new technologies. Transition training, for example, is all about creating comfort -- and enhancing new-hire performance and retention. Rather than throwing trainees to the wolves right after they've completed classroom training, WBT modules and simulations/role plays, the call center creates a "nesting area" (a.k.a., "incubator", "cocoon") where new hires can practice handling real customer contacts in a highly nurturing, controlled environment.
Typical transition training programs last anywhere from one to three weeks, and often are followed by additional classroom and/or Web-based training to help each agent smooth out any rough spots that are discovered while handling contacts in the nesting area. Agents in the nesting area work under the watchful eye of one or two supervisors. Some centers also call on their experienced agents to help oversee the nesting area. "Having agents present to assist with questions and coaching helps to put trainees at ease," explains Stephanie Morrison, manager of Nationwide's San Antonio Claims Call Center, which has a comprehensive transition training program in place. "We understand that sometimes a trainee feels more comfortable asking a peer for assistance instead of asking somebody on the leadership team."
Involving veteran agents in transition training is beneficial not only for the trainees; it serves as a powerful learning experience for the veterans as well, according to Frank Saviano, director of quality assurance and training for Supra Telecom. "Our new hires are able to make a smooth transition to the phone floor, and experienced agents get a chance to share their knowledge and develop critical supervisory skills."
Mentoring. Many call centers continue harnessing the power of peer interaction and learning well after initial training has ended. At Georgia Power, for instance, new agents with a weakness in a particular area are matched up with an experienced agent who is proficient in that area. The protege and mentor sit next to each other on the phone floor, thus enabling the former to easily receive assistance and support from the latter while adjusting to the dynamic nature of call center work. The mentor, in addition to serving as the protege's personal help desk, helps to develop action plans for improving the protege's performance.
Some operations, such as Nationwide's San Antonio Claims Call Center, have taken a team-based approach to mentoring, where several experienced agents on a team work closely with each rookie who arrives.
A typical mentor- protege relationship lasts anywhere from one to three months, depending on the center's and the new hire's needs. In addition to serving as an empowering coaching and training tool -- one that requires little time off-line or in classrooms -- mentoring fosters lasting camaraderie within the agent ranks. "The agents become very close to one another," explains Nationwide's Morrison. "And, because of the bond that forms between them [and their mentors], it's very hard for us when we have to change someone from one team to another."
Key to any mentoring program's success is the selection process. Just because an agent is experienced doesn't necessarily mean that they will thrive as a mentor, says Paula Sacks, a supervisor at Georgia Power's call center. "We look not only for experienced high performers, but for people who are willing to give their time to help make somebody else successful. Some of our very best performers have not been selected because they don't want to take time away from their own work."
Even when agents seem like ideal mentor candidates, they still require additional guidance and training, Nickerson points out. "While some individuals are naturals at presenting, there is a different set of skills needed for managing others' learning. Attention to learning aides, participant materials and certification for new trainers is mandatory for creating a consistent experience for learners."
Performance management. Big changes have been made not only to how agent training is delivered, but also to how it is perceived and managed. Many call centers are taking a more holistic approach to learning and development, moving away from the traditional one-size-fits-all type training. In the most forward-thinking centers, individual agent needs and competencies, as well as their personal goals, are carefully considered to determine detailed performance development plans that benefit both the center and the agent.
Without such development plans in place, training -- and even the job itself -- isn't likely to seem meaningful to the agent, says Daniels of AchieveGlobal. "For training to be effective, the learner has to truly understand the performance requirements, and the gaps in his or her knowledge, skills and attitude. With a development plan in place, training takes on a much more focused meaning for the learner, and the organization benefits from the alignment of the learning and the desired outcomes."
Agents in performance management environments receive not only classroom, Web-based and peer-led training to help them achieve their development plan objectives. They are given the opportunity to do so also by completing special projects of interest to them, working on special teams or completing special coursework.
Agents working in centers that have embraced performance management receive feedback, progress reports and positive recognition on a regular basis. This helps to remove any doubt as to where they stand or what is expected of them, and keeps them continuously inspired to improve and evolve.
The feedback and recognition doesn't always come from a single source. Several call centers have implemented a 360-degree feedback initiative, where agents are appraised by and receive comments from managers, supervisors, trainers, peers and even customers. "By getting specific, well-rounded feedback on competencies and behaviors that are expected in their current position," says Nickerson, "agents will have a clear picture of ways to use their strengths, and where to focus their development time."
David Bracken, director of organizational assessments and research services for the consulting firm Personnel Decisions, agrees. "360-degree feedback systems 'feel' more reliable than single-rater systems. Multiple raters can provide a variety of perspectives; employees generally assume that those viewpoints will add up to an accurate assessment of an employee's performance."
Formal measurement of training's impact on the call center/organization. Recent research conducted by the American Society for Training and Development (ASTD) revealed that the best organizations consistently evaluate the impact of training to demonstrate the link between learning and organizational performance. Historically, however, most call centers have dropped the ball with regard to training measurement, says Daniels. "Call centers measure what's easy to measure -- how long training is, who attends, how they score on mastery or behavioral assessment -- but struggle to show training's influence on business results. Call centers should measure how well the implementation works (level 1), how well the learners absorbed and are applying the skills (levels 2 and 3), and if the business is improving overall (level 4)."
Fortunately, a growing number of call centers are starting to heed Daniels' expert advice. One company -- McKesson Corporation -- implemented a measurable training initiative with the help of its own agents, and has since realized huge gains in productivity, quality, employee morale and customer satisfaction.
Through the initiative, the center's management and staff identified the specific skills and knowledge required to succeed in various agent positions, defined those skill/knowledge areas in a matrix, assessed each agent based on the matrix (using both self- and mentor-led assessments), then documented in formal development plans the areas in which each agent needed to improve.
Each agent was given six months to get within the acceptable skill/knowledge range for his or her specific position. Not only did all agents do so via self-paced training, the individual and team skills matrices that had been created revealed, over time, a significant increase in the overall skill/knowledge level within the call center. Having a measurable training program in place also helped to expedite cross-training -- enabling three separate groups to consolidate into one.
Susan Evilsizer, manager of support at McKesson's call center in Charlotte, NC, doesn't really know how the center ever functioned without such a measurable program in place. "All training is now tracked with a value that is consistent for all [agents]. We have assessments that validate their knowledge in each of the different areas they support. We have training agendas to validate what the instructor is teaching. And then there is a class assessment to ensure that individuals get out of the class what they need."
Nickerson commends such a training initiative, as it epitomizes what she feels needs to be done more in our industry. Just don't expect it to be quick or easy, she says.
"The challenge is that it takes a concentrated effort and resources, thus a long term investment, to create valid measurements of performance. Call centers that offer a trainer incentive based on performance of the graduates of their class would certainly go a long way toward supporting this effort. It takes a very well-designed program."