As most of us are painfully aware, agent training presents both exceptional challenges and opportunities. If you’re considering adding virtual agents to your contact center, you may be wondering about the even greater challenges that come with training remote agents. Don’t worry — help is on the way!
I recently had a chance to talk about remote agent training with Drew Daly, senior sales director of World Travel Holdings, who is recognized as a leader in managing and motivating remote teams. Daly oversees the company’s sales team, located in Miramar, Fla., and its 175 virtual agents. He was instrumental in creating the company’s comprehensive virtual agent network. In developing its successful remote agent training program, Daly and World Travel Holdings have had to face, head-on, many difficult challenges. In this Q&A, Daly reveals some of the lessons they’ve learned.
How long have you had virtual agents, and what made you go that route?
We started testing the water back in 1999. Initially, the virtual agent program began as a solution to retain top talent. Then it morphed into numerous ways to save money with facilities, etc. We had several contact center sites, and we were able to consolidate buildings and transition individuals to work from home. From there, we decided it was worthwhile to look around the country for talent when our local markets were dry. I traveled around the United States to recruit individuals. Today, while we still look for talent within the organization, we also look externally to expand the team.
What are some of the unique challenges of remote agent training?
There are several. One of the biggest challenges with conducting face-to-face agent training is engaging the student. Virtually speaking, this becomes an enormous obstacle. Not having the ability to look over an agent’s shoulder and see what he or she is doing is a huge disadvantage. It interferes with the learning process quite substantially. The challenges that inhouse agents face during training are magnified significantly when the employee is remote.
Learning remotely is challenging, and teaching people over the phone can be as tough as you would imagine. System outages, slow Internet connection speeds, and overall misperceptions of communicated messages add to the difficulty.
Another big challenge is the ability for a team to connect virtually and to get to know one another on a personal level. We’ve tried to recreate the traditional touch points of a brick-and-mortar facility for our at-home team. We use several technologies that enable us to deliver the best experience to the team, including instant messaging, email, chat rooms, conference bridges and voicemail blasts.
One disadvantage with virtual agents is the lack of visual feedback. Making sure that our remote agents understand what is being taught is challenging because we can’t see their faces. It’s difficult to tell whether they’re absorbing the detail or if they have the look of a “deer in headlights.“
Although our training takes place remotely, we have individuals in our brick-and-mortar sites who monitor the remote agents and conduct the training. In the past, we used to fly agents to a local office so that they could be trained on site. Now, through Adobe Connect, conference calls, instant messaging and Web cams, we’re able to deliver engaging presentations and training that best fits the needs of our business. In addition, hiring the right individuals with strong work ethics and professionalism is key when conducting virtual training. Our training classes, virtually speaking, are about half the size of our inhouse classes. Normally, if we’re training remotely, we’re looking for about 10 individuals, maximum, and our agent-to-trainer ratio is approximately 3-to-1.
How do you identify training needs for remote agents?
We’re always evaluating our business practices when it comes to managing the team — including how we deliver training. Our entire business practice has evolved over the past couple of years to focus primarily on virtual learning opportunities and systems/practices. In the past, we held a small amount of training remotely and conducted recurrent and new-hire training in person. We’ve been able to streamline our business practices and are more efficient because we primarily deliver training, conferences and team meetings virtually. The technology that we use enables us to record training sessions and team meetings and store them on our intranet site. This allows agents who missed training or meetings to review the same information that was delivered to the larger group. In addition, we’re able to send podcast messages to the team when we want to quickly review important information with them. This helps with daily briefings and huddles.
Our ongoing, recurrent training is completely virtual, and we no longer rely on training in a brick-and-mortar building. We can basically train any agent, anywhere, at any time. We’re in the process of developing on-demand training so that our agents can always stay up to date. These have been well-received by the team.
Our external vendors have embraced our philosophy. They’ve found that it saves them time, as well, in delivering their message to a mass audience.
How do you measure training ROI for remote agents?
We measure overall performance and productivity for new-hires, as well as our veteran agents. Agent attrition within the virtual team is the lowest within the company, and overall performance tends to be 15 percent greater than that of an inhouse employee. This is primarily due to the lack of water cooler talk and any negative influences that tend to permeate a building.
We look at the key performance metrics (margin per hour, selling time, conversion, attrition, etc.) to measure overall success. From both a new-hire and recurrent training perspective, we feel that a virtual platform and training is the cornerstone for our continued success and growth as a business.
What advice do you have for those who are struggling with remote agent training or who may be thinking about implementing this?
Keep it simple. Start off small, and keep in mind that anything is possible. Once you successfully transition a small number of agents, use the same formula for a larger group. Don’t sweat the small stuff, and stay connected to your employees. The most important part of a successful virtual platform is to connect personally with the team and make sure that they realize that they’re part of something greater and not just working in their home. Always assess and evaluate the needs of the team to ensure that you are constantly evolving as a business.