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August 2000

 

Training Your Workforce For Better E-Sales And E-Service

BY MARNIE FEASAL, ALESYS

Training your workforce to provide better e-sales and e-service can make the difference between the success or failure of your business. Many call centers are making the transition from telephone calls as the primary method of customer contact to multiple channels. The goal is to enable customers to more conveniently contact the company by whichever medium they choose. The goal is that by offering customers many ways to contact you, more of them will become loyal to your business. After all, acquiring and retaining customers is what business is all about. While the telephone is still the preferred method of contact for many customers, e-mail, fax, postal mail and Web sites are increasingly necessary channels for most effectively serving customer needs. These changes represent great growth opportunities, but only if your training keeps pace.

This article will outline some challenges and best practices for preparing employees and managers to perform successfully in the new multichannel customer contact centers. Of course, one article cannot provide specific solutions to the issues facing your contact center. You will need a customized set of solutions to address your unique business goals and objectives. However, let me share the key steps that many successful contact centers are taking to train their workforces for the future.

The Situation
Let's assume your call center recently decided to join the growing number of businesses that make it possible for customers to do business through multiple channels. You added fax and mail-in order forms as alternative methods of contact several years ago. Now, you are very proud of the Web-enabled communication channel your business has implemented through the Internet. Everyone is excited about the new business this additional channel is expected to bring to your company.

Instead, you begin hearing about complaints from this new Web-based side of your business! Your CEO just received a nasty e-mail about the lousy treatment and service a customer received from your contact center. This customer complained bitterly about the long time she waited for a live agent in your queue. She clicked on the option you provided to speak with someone because she had some questions that were not addressed on your Web site. When she finally reached a live agent (23 minutes later, according to the clock on her computer), she was told to send an e-mail outlining what she needed, and asked to include her contact information so her request could be forwarded to the right department for handling. She was also told a response would be sent to her within 24 hours.

Four days later, she still had no response, and now your company has a more drastically escalated customer relations problem. You may have lost her as a customer. The CEO's assistant is breathing down your neck because you are supposed to be ensuring these incidents don't happen!

What went wrong here? You have a training program in place and your agents are supposed to know how important it is to provide a high level of customer service. But does your training process truly enable your agents to help customers negotiate the complex network of e-commerce?

In many cases, training departments have not revised their methods of training new hires and current staff to enable them to provide high-quality service to customers who use the alternative methods of contacting your business. New approaches, along with some significant effort and commitment, are now required to train employees and managers of multichannel contact centers to be successful in this dynamic and highly competitive environment.

Think about how a multichannel customer contact center differs from a traditional call center. In the call center, customer contact is predominantly by telephone, either inbound or outbound. Customers know they can talk to someone if their need or issue is to be met or resolved. Customer service representatives (CSRs) are usually trained to talk to people about your products, services, systems and processes. However, most CSRs are trained to handle only routine calls, referring difficult or escalated situations to a specially trained team.

A very different situation exists in multichannel customer contact centers. Here, customers are working on their computers, either at the office, at home or on the road, and they expect to be able to start and finish an inquiry very quickly and with little hassle.

They want to be able to talk to a live person only if they cannot successfully address their situations electronically. When they do need to speak to someone, customers expect CSRs to be very knowledgeable and skilled in managing their situations and take time with them to uncover and solve their problems right then. If your staff is going to satisfy these customers, you must make sure they are trained to work effectively in those media.

The second major difference between traditional call centers and today's multichannel contact center is that the customer expects more control of the communication. Today, they want to connect to your site, navigate easily, complete an online order form or appropriate mechanism for telling you what they want, and then have the solution documented for them in real-time, right at that moment. They expect the solution to be accurate, fast and hassle-free. Why? Because they assume no human interaction will be necessary! In fact, many e-customers are seeking to avoid the human contact that was inherent in the traditional call center. These customers are tech-savvy and sophisticated. They want to move faster and with more confidence than ever before.

For those who train the staff of multichannel contact centers, the implications of these changes in customer expectations are significant. Instead of regular classroom training programs that emphasize the company's products and services, the need now is for skills in problem resolution and "working" the system. Customers who need help from a CSR need more complex solutions because they have already covered the simpler, more basic issues through the electronic avenues provided them by your company.

Best Practices
Let's look at some of the best training practices used by companies who have made the transition from traditional call centers to successful multichannel contact centers.

Align all training to specific business goals.
The critical first step in the transition is to clearly identify the business strategies and goals that will make the organization more competitive and profitable over the next few years. Senior management must debate the profile of current and future customers, the direction they want the business to take to meet customer needs and the commitment they are willing to make to the technology required to realize their goals.

They must also discuss the significant role employees and managers will play in the future of the company, and commit to the most effective and appropriate ways of training and continuously improving the skills of their people. Though often difficult, this first step merits considerable time and energy by senior decision makers so subsequent steps are successful. A best practice involves having this session facilitated by an outside consultant who knows how to guide the decision makers to plan the future of the company. All staffing and training issues must then be aligned with the decisions made in this step.

Develop procedures that enable the business goals.
The next step usually taken by best practice companies is to review or develop detailed procedures and job descriptions for the new or revised tasks that will support the business goals and strategies. This documentation process requires the organization to rethink how work is assigned and accomplished. While developing these procedures takes a thorough and unbiased eye for detail, this critical step ensures that customer expectations and needs are addressed at the levels of quality specified by management. Online help systems are then developed from the procedures to enable CSRs to quickly find relevant information needed to assist a customer.

This step is often outsourced to companies who specialize in documenting work processes and then culling out the key steps for placement into a fast, well-organized help system. Don't make the mistake of just plopping entire procedures onto your help system. That information overload will slow your response time to a crawl!

Recruit and train for your business vision.
Best practice companies create an internal partnership between the human resources/training function and the operations function to recruit and train employees and managers who can make the new vision for the multichannel customer contact center come alive. CSRs and managers in these centers need the following skills and attitudes to be successful in the multichannel environment.

  • Technology skills to quickly and accurately function and navigate your systems and resources,
  • The ability to learn software applications quickly,
  • Appreciation for the customer's time in responding accurately, completely and quickly to their requests,
  • Writing skills to explain the status of their request to customers,
  • Probing and problem-solving skills to resolve more complex issues,
  • Patience and perseverance in finding information and solutions,
  • The ability to explain complex processes or steps the customer must take in language that is not condescending or impatient, and
  • Skills in working well as part of a team.

If your center is fortunate enough to have applicants who bring these skills to the job, revel in that luxury! Most centers today find the labor pool in their geography does not produce applicants who are fully prepared to perform well in the contact center environment. The training function must develop many of these required skills in new CSRs and managers.

Training is only worth the time and money if it addresses the unique and specific needs of your business. Organizations that run profitable contact centers typically contract for the custom development of training for this reason. They have learned that "canned" or "off-the-shelf" training packages usually miss the mark in teaching their staff how to be successful in the multichannel environment. Additionally, systems or software training provided by most vendors does not teach CSRs how to most effectively manage the customer interaction, which includes the human issues balanced with the technology issues. Those skills need to be carefully developed to ensure your center meets its quality and customer service goals.

Successful multichannel contact centers include a balance of classroom training for instilling culture, vision and values, with online training and practice in troubleshooting and navigating systems. These companies also provide ample opportunities for new hires to practice explaining solutions and procedures to customers, both in writing for e-mail responses and over the telephone, when necessary.

Training must focus on preparing CSRs and managers to uncover
exactly what customers require, and provide sufficient realistic skill practices in communicating timely and accurate solutions to customers in writing and by voice. This kind of powerful training results in higher quality performance and speedier responses. It is the outcome of the organization's commitment to balance human resource issues with technological issues. It also reflects recruitment and hiring strategies that are compatible with the business vision and goals established by senior management. Centers that insist on this focus consistently achieve their visions for the future.

Develop management skills.
Another critical step that best practice organizations take is to train various levels of management to recognize, reinforce and coach continuous improvements in every job function. This emphasis on quality performance enables the contact center to remain competitive and profitable.

Line and middle managers need training on how to most effectively support and coach performance to quality standards in a multichannel contact center. They need to understand what the CSRs are being taught, and then practice effective coaching skills with scenarios developed specifically for your business. They also need to learn how to use measurement data from the various channels in the most effective ways to continuously improve the performance of their work units.

This step is often provided through a contract with a provider of customized contact center training that has expertise in training management staff. The key is to challenge managers at all levels to enable their staff to achieve goals and standards to acquire and retain customers. That's the bottom line impact that should be expected from any training efforts!

As you refocus your operation to accommodate the unique considerations of the multichannel contact center, your organization will find many opportunities to fine-tune and strengthen current operating and training procedures. The most consistent advice from best practice contact centers around the world is to put at least as much money and attention into the development of the skills of your people as you do for your technology. This investment will help you remain competitive and grow your business. It's a fascinating journey that will reward those who are willing to commit to preparing their workforce for success in the evolving e-business environment.

Marnie Feasel is senior vice president of ALESYS, a consulting and training company that specializes in improving training in call centers and multichannel contact centers. ALESYS has worked with large and small inbound, outbound and blended centers to help them achieve their business strategies for customer retention and profitability.

[ return to the August 2000 table of contents ]


Compensating Your Workforce For Better E-Sales

BY MARK A. STIFFLER, SYNYGY, INC.

Now that your sales and services have been transformed into e-sales and e-services, you can tackle the really tough question: How do you motivate your employees? After all, despite the technology, it is still people that make a business go and grow.

One area in which companies begin to face difficulties as they move into e-sales and e-service is their incentive compensation plan. The addition of Web-based sales channels brings to light "clicks versus bricks" conflicts. Combine these conflicts with compensation plans for call center and other service employees and you experience added complexity and an accelerating pace of change that creates challenges in the design, implementation and management of the plans.

Incentive compensation rewards behavior. Psychology teaches us that behavior that is rewarded will be repeated. In other words, people tend do what the incentive compensation plan pays them to do. You can use this to your advantage by determining which behaviors and results are an important component of your strategy and rewarding workers appropriately. On the other hand, if you are not careful how you design your plan, you may find you are rewarding behavior that is either irrelevant or damaging to your e-sales strategies.

It's not just for sales reps anymore. A recent study by compensation consultants Towers Perrin showed that 40 percent of all companies now offer some form of incentive-based compensation to their non-sales employees. If you are not thinking about how your contact center employees, customer service representatives and other employees can be rewarded for supporting your e-business initiatives, then you might be missing an opportunity to align your company behind your strategy. Another opportunity exists in providing incentives for "click-through affiliates," partners and other companies involved in your e-business efforts.

Understandable and accurate communications are essential. Our experience shows that over 60 percent of plan participants do not understand their companies' incentive compensation plans. If workers cannot understand the plan, it will not generate the results you are seeking.

Make sure your goals are well understood, then provide frequent (at least monthly), timely (within a few days after the end of each month) and accurate feedback to your plan participants so they know how their behavior is connected to their compensation. To experience an even greater shift in behavior, include analyses of sales and performance information to help workers understand the plan, how much they are making and how they can earn more.

Also, make use of interactive technologies, including e-mail, Intranets and the Internet, as a way of putting the results in the hands of your plan participants faster. Putting the results online enables employees to play "what-if" scenarios to see how they can maximize their compensation (and improve your company's financial results, if your plan is aligned with your strategy).

Accuracy in your numbers will reduce costs and boost productivity. Accuracy improves financial performance in two ways: by reducing costs and improving productivity.

For example, you may be overpaying your people and not know it. Or you may be underpaying them, in which case you will face reduced morale and risk increasing employee turnover, which will result in an even greater cost.

Add to this the valuable time that your workers spend doing "shadow accounting" and the productivity loss alone may be many times greater than the amount you are paying them in incentive compensation.

The pace of change causes most systems to fail. Internet commerce is a rapidly evolving, ever-changing market. As your strategy evolves or as new competitors arise, you will need to respond by adjusting your compensation plan.

If you are employing a "spreadsheet farm" or some other hard-coded system to manage your plan, it will be very difficult to quickly adapt to change and you will find yourself falling behind your competitors.

There is a range of software and services available that is specifically designed to provide the flexibility needed to manage incentive compensation plans in today's business environment.

If you do not know if your plan is working, you are in real danger. This is an oft-overlooked area. Executives need information on plan performance as much as the employees do. What is the cost of "not knowing"? It's high, and the impact of not receiving the information you require early enough to make the adjustments to the plan may be tremendous.

Finally, look at incentive compensation as an important strategic tool. Properly managed -- and with good plan design and rollout; fast data processing and validation; and understandable, timely and accurate information -- your incentive compensation plan can be more than just a way to calculate how much money you should pay your sales representatives.

Mark A. Stiffler is president and CEO of Synygy, Inc., an incentive compensation company.

[ return to the August 2000 table of contents ]







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