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Using Improv Techniques for Contact Center Training

For many new agents, the scariest and most challenging part of a new contact center job is the unknown - not knowing what kind of call is next in the queue, and having conversations with potentially angry and difficult customers. While some people are natural conversationalists, others will find it difficult or impossible to carry on a conversation while they are also trying to understand and resolve a customer's issue, especially if they are new on the job. For decades, the conventional solution to this problem has been to provide agents with a script. Customers, however, find contact center scripts cold, unnatural, and off-putting. If they are too dependent on the script, agents get lost and flustered when a customer has a question that isn't in the script. Instead, we have explored using techniques borrowed from improv theater to train agents in active communication skills.

Improv Techniques for Training 

Some managers may be reluctant to dedicate time to so-called "soft-skills" or what they may see as just a fun diversion at the expense of learning hard policies and procedures. While laughing together has benefits in its own right, those who participated in the improv training also reported that having improv tools to fall back on built their confidence in this intimidating area of the contact center agent role. Improv helped them get out of their head, leaving them with the mental bandwidth to focus on learning the more technical procedures of their job.

The techniques used in this training, while borrowed from improv theater, are training exercises designed to isolate and build specific skills that are common to both the stage and the office. They are the kind of games that actors practice backstage and are different from the types of skits you might see in an improv comedy show that's performed for an audience.

Contact Center Improv

All of these games are based on the core principle of "yes, and…" which means accepting whatever has been introduced into the scene and adding to it. In the context of a call center, this means actively acknowledging the customer's experience, and adding a resolution or a next step. Here are a few examples of additional skills demonstrated in these exercises:

  • Active Listening: "yes and" forces the player to listen to and acknowledge whatever their scene partner says, which is also a valuable skill when listening to a customer's issue on the phone.
  • Agreement and Alignment: Mirroring games encourage players to adopt the same attitude or emotion as another player, which can help an agent to align with a customer's tone and sense of urgency.
  • Heightening: Heightening involving making something in the scene (an activity, a movement, a punchline, etc.) bigger and bigger. The same skill is also used to reel those things back in. After aligning with an angry customer, the heightening skill can be employed to de-escalate that emotion to a calmer state.

As a result, compared to their peers who were hired at the same time, new agents who were exposed to improv techniques during onboard training demonstrated:

  • Faster time to proficiency in quality and productivity
  • Longer tenure
  • Greater tendency to earn promotions

Are you a contact center trainer? Consider attending one of ICMI's upcoming Trainer Development Workshops.

Improv can be a great addition to your training repertoire. Here are some practical ways that we implemented improv games into our onboard training:

Improv agent training

a.    Ice-breaker games early in the training while everyone is getting to know each other.

b.    Group circle games so that no one is on the spot at first, and everyone is involved.

c.    Partially scripted, short scenes of 2-3 lines of dialogue like a literal "Yes, and" game.

d.    Gradually extend those into longer scenes, introducing more elements like mirroring and heightening.

e.    Start out with scene prompts completely unrelated to your business, then slowly introduce more relevant content and shift into actual role-playing or mock-call scenarios from your company.

This implementation pattern will ease hesitant or shy people into the concepts and, as the training progresses, clearly demonstrate how the exercises directly relate to the skills the agents will need on the phone, turning role-play training into a game.

Putting it all together in a comprehensive training program alongside the specific procedures and software they will need to know; improv training will engage staff and enhance their ability to do the whole job of customer service and experience more robustly.

Improv #CCExpo drawing