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August 1999

The Impact Of Technology On Call Center Training


Customer loyalty is one of a corporation's greatest assets, and with face-to-face contact declining, call centers are becoming increasingly important to the way a company interacts with its customers. To set themselves apart from the competition and ultimately gain market share, firms must view call centers as a means of generating revenue, rather than simply as a cost of doing business. Call centers can be a corporate asset or liability, depending upon how well the technology and front-line agents are integrated into the customer's information needs. If it is run properly, a call center can actually build customer loyalty and keep a business profitable. If you fail to provide good service, your customers are going to find alternatives. To the customer it is not a call center they are contacting, but a company.

Call centers date back to the late 1970s and early 1980s, when telephone companies introduced toll-free numbers. Today, technology has made it possible for customers to get information and support in a variety of ways: phone, fax, e-mail, interactive voice response (IVR), even voice over Internet Protocol (voice over IP or VoIP).

Call center managers have recognized the value of the Internet and World Wide Web in providing online customer support. Close to three-quarters of respondents to Call Center Staffing Strategies1, a study of more than 400 call center managers representing North American companies conducted for the William Olsten Center for Workforce Strategies, indicated that they have a customer-oriented Web site. Today, a consumer searching catalogs on the Internet might want to order a product and can click on a Web page link that will begin the ordering process through a call center. New technologies such as VoIP, however, require more specialized training, in addition to basic Internet training.

All this new technology and ways of communicating with customers have changed the required skill sets of customer service representatives (CSRs). The increasing complexity of call center systems requires new strategies for recruiting, training and retaining knowledge workers. Still essential are customer service and effective communication skills. With the increase in e-mail requests, however, CSRs must also know and understand Internet and e-mail basics. Many agents can speak fluently, but have difficulty communicating effectively in writing. They must be able to clarify and understand customer needs, use judgment to determine what action should be taken and compose clear, concise written responses that address the customer's request.

In a telephone transaction, the voice, through words and inflections, is the only tool you have to convey attitudes. With e-mail, this element of interaction is missing. Therefore, agents must understand the basics of good communication and pay attention to both written and unwritten communication from the customer. Language skills training and evaluation should cover topics such as composing a business letter, memo or e-mail, using correct business vocabulary, proper grammar, spelling and proofreading (before hitting that "send" button). Clerical skills training should include basic arithmetic and double-checking � is the information correct?

Training Is A Win-Win Investment
The investment a company makes in hiring and training employees is easily lost through excessive turnover. Ongoing training is critical to ensure that employees have the skills they need today and in the future. Ongoing training also leads to greater productivity and improved customer service, as well as greater CSR job satisfaction, self-confidence and reduced turnover.

Many call center managers are fighting turnover by enriching their environments with ongoing training. A majority of the companies responding to the Call Center Staffing Strategies survey (76 percent) say they have a formal training program for their call center employees and another 10 percent are considering such a program.

One major training focus consists of acquainting representatives with computer-telephony integration (CTI), which provides online access to telephone account information. One respondent to the survey reported a major effort to “educate call center staff on the use of CTI to reduce costs significantly.”

Training programs can be delivered in a variety of formats, from computer-based to video to classroom/instructor-led training. The use of various training methods can have a positive impact on the level of learning comprehension and retention. CD-ROM and Internet-delivered training use multimedia formats and interactive audio to reinforce training. Many programs offer the user specific audio feedback as they progress, and provide tests at the end of each program module so trainees can check their progress. In this way, a student demonstrates his or her knowledge of various tasks by actually performing the task. For instance, a student learning to format a document learns best by actually formatting a piece of text. They would use toolbar, menu or keyboard commands to change fonts, font attributes, margins, tabs, etc. Video and classroom-led instruction is well-suited for training larger groups and provides the instructor with immediate feedback on how the trainees are absorbing the information being provided. Whichever methods you choose, you should add variety to your delivery modes or risk losing your participants’ attention. This can result in diminished learning.

Turnover in call centers has long exceeded levels found in other professions or other areas of companies. The Olsten survey found there is a direct correlation between the amount of training and the type of turnover a company experiences. The average training program is about three weeks in length. Those companies with minimal levels of training (three days or less) tend to report annual turnover rates averaging 55 percent. By comparison, for companies with training that extends over a month, the rate drops to 25 percent.

Demands For New Types of Training
Forty-one percent of companies surveyed evaluate the technical skills of their call center employees as a measure of performance. Technology was ranked as the third biggest call center challenge today, while eight percent listed computer literacy as a leading staffing challenge. CSRs must, at a minimum, understand the basics such as being able to maneuver comfortably around a keyboard and be “at home” in a Windows environment.

Customer service representatives will require even more training and development to become proficient in the emerging technology. They must be comfortable working in a Windows environment and be able to maneuver through the various databases and software systems, whether proprietary systems or a Microsoft Access database, that collect data and provide information to customers.

While technology has fostered the demand for more formal and informal specialized training, it has decreased demands in other areas. Approximately 58 percent of call center managers responding to the survey say that with the use of technology, they have, to varying degrees, been able to avoid increasing staff levels. For example, technologies such as interactive voice response (IVR) provide automated responses to routine customer inquiries and free telephone representatives from this workload. But this means that CSRs are now responding live or via the Internet to the more complex questions (and in some cases, to more irate callers who have been trying to work their way through a complex or poorly designed IVR system). All this adds additional stress in an already stressful environment and requires an informed, top-notch customer service agent. This is where training can make a difference.

CSRs must be trained not only in the new technology, but in the use of deductive reasoning to identify causes of complaints or questions. They need to be able to understand and respond to the customer’s explanations by asking meaningful questions that elicit the relevant information. CSRs need hands-on training to give them the confidence they need to effectively respond to customer inquiries and solve customer problems. Multimedia, interactive training programs that replicate the call center environment provide CSRs with “real-world” situations without putting relationships with customers in jeopardy. These programs provide training in topics such as the importance of providing outstanding customer service, how to “listen” to the customer, how to ask questions to understand what the customer really needs and how to deal with an angry caller. Continuous training comes on the job, working with a “buddy” or mentor to identify areas that need reinforcement.

There is no question that your call center workforce directly impacts service levels, customer satisfaction and profitability. The challenge is to find, evaluate, train and retain knowledge workers so they become long-term contributors to your team.

Training is a continual process. Call center managers should evaluate their existing training programs to look for updates or enhancements to meet these new demands. Those companies without a formalized, structured teleservices training program should make it a primary goal. That commitment will pay you back with reduced turnover, happier CSRs and more satisfied customers.

1 Call Center Staffing Strategies, William Olsten Center For Workforce Strategies, 1998.

Linda Gherardi is the director of teleservices product development for Olsten Corporation. In this role, Linda focuses on developing the methodologies, tools and selection and training procedures for servicing this growing market. Based in Melville, New York, Olsten Corporation, with 1,500 offices on three continents, operates more than 1,000 staffing offices — providing staffing solutions and assignment employees to business, industry and government under Olsten Staffing Services and related brands.

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