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10 Best Practices for Agent Training

A few months ago I was asked to speak on best practices for agent training. I quickly jotted down the 10 best practices that jumped immediately to my mind but did not have enough time to cover them all in my presentation. So let me share them with you. Note that these are not the only best practices for agent training, but they are important ones.


1.    Provide an agenda and success criteria at the very beginning of the training. As adults, we want to have some control over what is happening, even in the classroom. At the beginning of class, give your learners some control by passing out one sheet of paper that has the agenda (even at a very high level), lists break times, if appropriate, and lists out the expectations for the course. If learners are going to have to pass a written exam, or do a certain number of role plays, or write up a report, or complete a project, or any other requirements for successfully completing the course, let them know about it up front. Yes, some learners might become more nervous, but nervousness is not necessarily a bad thing and it is something agents have to overcome on the job, so that’s okay. If you find that you have to change up the schedule as things proceed, that’s not a problem—just let people know. Even for a three month new hire training class, I like to fit everything on one piece of paper (sometimes printed double-sided) so that it is easier to find and refer to when needed. For a shorter 1 to 8 hour course, I might just list the agenda and success criteria on a piece of flip chart paper posted at the front of the class.

2.    Focus the training on need-to-know information. One of the frequent mistakes new trainers and subject matter experts make in training is to try and tell everything they know about a subject. The intention is good, but learners cannot take in all that information. A good trainer will take the time to determine what the learners really need to know in order to do the job properly. The nice-to-know information (such as keyboard shortcuts, company history, or all the different places the same information can be accessed, for instance) should be put in a document or made available electronically for the learner to reference when they are ready to absorb it. This best practice also means focusing on the present rather than the past or future. What do learners need to know to do the job NOW—not the way it used to be done or will be done next year. We should also focus training on what the learners need to know about doing the job and not just talking about the job, being as practical as possible rather than theoretical.

3.    Provide graduated practice and repetition over time. Chunking information and repeating it in different ways have proven to be some of the best techniques for retention. This means rather than doing a brain dump of everything a learner needs in one session or course, trainers break up the content into smaller chunks and space out the chunks, building on each one over time. During the course, be sure to get the participants doing something every 10-20 minutes in order to keep them engaged in learning —have them shout out an answer to a question, jot down their thoughts, share an important point with someone sitting near them, create a test question, or any other quick activity involving key points of the content. Be sure to repeat the key information in different ways so that learners will remember it. Going over something or saying something once will not create retention, so say the same thing in different ways, show a picture or diagram, have the learner try it out, test retention with a pop quiz, and do lots of activities for the learners to apply key information so they are better able to remember and use it.

4.    Apply company rules in the classroom. The tendency of trainers is to be helpful, so sometimes they allow things in the classroom that are not allowed out on the floor. This is not helpful to the learners, especially in new hire classes. Part of what they are learning is to comply with company rules on the floor. If cell phones are not allowed on the floor, they are not allowed in the classroom. If food is not allowed on the floor, it is not allowed in the classroom—including gum and hard candy if that is the case. Enforce the dress code, if there is one. Enforce schedule adherence and the code of conduct. Since the job content taught in the classroom has to be performed out on the floor, learning that content under the same rule conditions as on the floor is not unreasonable.

5.    Use adult learning principles. This means that trainers should:

a.    Be prepared to explain the why behind the content. Adults like to understand context and why something should be done a certain way. This does not mean that we get in arguments about processes with learners but simply help them understand why things are the way they are.

b.    Draw on learners’ past experiences. They are adults, so they have varying amounts of life experience that can help them learn the current content. Relate processes to their own experiences as a customer and in helping other people solve problems. We learn best when the current learning is tied to something we already know, so use learners’ experience and knowledge.

c.    Show learners how the course content will help their performance. That’s part of explaining why, but it also means showing them what’s in it for them.

d.    One of the reasons adults learn is to solve problems for themselves, so use a problem-solving orientation. How does this content solve a problem for the agent? How does it solve a problem for the customer? What needs to happen to solve the problem in this realistic example or case?

e.    Capitalize on extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. Extrinsic has to do with external things such as winning a prize or earning a certificate or badge, or moving towards a raise or promotion. Intrinsic has to do with gaining a sense of accomplishment or solving a problem the learner has been grappling with or gaining esteem, power, or responsibility. So we find out what agents hope to gain from the training, we invite them to connect the learning to their personal needs, and we connect the learning to individual long-range goals. We also play games, collaborate, award certificates and badges, practice, and recognize accomplishment.

6.    Let learners have control over their learning as much as possible. This means that we give them choices where possible and let the learners make decisions about how they will approach an issue or solve a problem, or even when an activity will be completed. Let a small group determine how they will approach a case study or how they will creatively present their findings to the rest of the class. Give learners the option of working with a partner or alone. Let them decide if they are going to read the text on the screen or listen to someone else reading it. Even little choices are important and help learners feel in control. This best practice also means that we treat learners as the adults they are and hold them accountable for their learning. The trainer has the responsibility to facilitate learning, but the learner actually has the responsibility to learn, so give them control of learning without letting things deteriorate into complete chaos and anarchy.

7.    Utilize action planning. No matter how short or long the training, always do action planning at the end of the course. For a longer course, you might want to do action planning at the end of each day or each unit. Do not short change the time spent on action planning. We are not training for the sake of training but for the sake of performance. If we want learners to transfer their learning into performance, we need to help them plan what they will do with their new learning, and we need to follow up with them on their action plans. At minimum, learners should write down what they plan to do differently and share that with someone else in the class. Even better is sharing the action plan with their own supervisor who can incorporate follow-up into coaching sessions. (For more information and ideas on action planning, see Action Planning Helps Link Training to Doing.)

8.    Be collaborative about training. Work with the supervisor, quality auditors, other trainers, agents, and anyone else to create an effective experience that impacts performance positively. Use real examples and situations that you get from others. Bring in “guest” speakers to talk about (or better yet, demonstrate) documenting a contact, how calls are monitored, or how to solve a particular customer issue. Sometimes a different voice can be helpful, and the trainer is then role modeling how we can be learning from everyone.

9.    Provide reinforcement tools to supervisors. To link training to performance, we want what we teach in training to be reinforced on the floor. Supervisors are the natural people to do that, as are those monitoring agents’ contacts, so be sure that they know what you are training. If you teach agents to say “I will connect you to billing” rather than “I will transfer you to billing,” are supervisors and quality monitors also reinforcing this word choice? If not, you will be undermining your own efforts. Let supervisors know what you cover in training and give them a follow-up job aid and/or reinforcement activity for a team meeting so that everyone is on the same page and the learning more easily transform into performance.

10.    Always look to get better at training. No matter how long you do training, always try to get better. Keep up with thought leader blogs on contact centers and on training. Try something different in training to stretch your skills. Talk with colleagues. Consider different points of view. Attend related webinars. Observe other trainers. This is what makes training effective and interesting. It is an exciting time to be in training as new things are being uncovered about how people learn, helping to make us all better learners and trainers.

This list of 10 best practices for agent training is just a beginning. What best practices would you add to the list? Be sure to share them in comments so we can all learn from each other.