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Expect the Unexpected

When it comes to training folks to be successful contact center representatives, you know that it’s more than imparting product knowledge or processing details. Often the people we hire to interact with our customers don’t initially have the necessary affinity for our product or perhaps the life experience to understand our customers’ needs, correct a misunderstanding, make a sale or resolve an issue. In order for our agents to be effective and engaging with our customers, we must also provide our people with ‘context’ to apply what they learn in a meaningful way. This can be challenging at the best of times but is definitely more so when your staff has a different cultural orientation. Let me share a humorous but insightful story to illustrate this point.

A few years back, I was working on a campaign to reactivate customers who had previously purchased pantyhose through a continuity program. Now I’m sure you’re thinking how hard could that be? Or that shouldn’t require a lot of training but you’d be surprised at what’s required especially when one of your call centers is located in India where they don’t wear pantyhose!

We spent the first few days getting staff to try on the product so they could understand and explain styles, color, sizing and pricing from a customer’s perspective. Additional time was then dedicated to familiarizing the team with the North American market. We studied geography, watched popular TV shows and read magazines.  We worked on pronunciation and eliminating speech mannerisms that were foreign to our customer base. We set up clocks and newsfeeds to know what was happening half a world away.  Finally, we drilled for skill by working through scenario after scenario to refine our agents’ knowledge and enhance their sales ability. Everyone was pumped and we were ready to launch!

During the first week, hundreds of calls were carefully monitored to identify gaps in skill or knowledge.  As the campaign gained momentum, we started posting numbers that exceeded our initial forecasts and we were pretty proud of ourselves and our team. We’d thought of everything, or had we?

Not only did we want to win back customers, we also wanted to acquire new ones by obtaining referrals. This figured strongly into our sales agents’ individual objectives so we began to focus our efforts on listening to one of our star performers to learn more about her technique, only to get a lesson on cultural diversity. Here’s how one particular call went.

Our agent had been successful in getting the customer to come back and as she was confirming the details for the order, she asked the customer if she wanted the same size as before – large – when the customer excitedly interrupted her to explain that “after she had been with Jenny Craig” she was delighted to report that she now wore a size small.  At that moment, my sixth sense kicked in and I instinctively knew where the conversation was headed when my rep politely asked “Do you think I could have Jenny’s number so I could give her a call?  I bet she’d like our pantyhose as much as you do!”

At that point the customer burst out laughing and it was obvious that my agent had no understanding of what was so funny but she took the feedback in stride, instinctively decided that Jenny was not a good prospect and the sale went through.

I believe that I can vividly recall the details of this conversation from the thousands I have listened to because it really hammered home the fact that we need to create training programs that help our representatives acquire the confidence and ability to not only manage the expected but also the unknown. Continuously honing our listening, acknowledging, interpreting and responding skills is the key to building rapport with the customer and managing the experience - regardless of location or cultural orientation.