The Impact Of Technology On Call Center Training
BY LINDA GHERARDI, OLSTEN CORPORATION
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
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
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 customers 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.