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October 1998

Training CAN Produce Better Reps!


Does this sound familiar? You struggle to find the best-qualified applicants for the position of teleservices representative in your call center. You compete with the salary offered by other employers in your area and finally fill your next new hire training class. Then you cross your fingers and wait for the reports to start coming in: how many of the new hires have quit during training? Or worse yet, you learn that some of them stayed on the payroll right through training only to quit within a few weeks out on the job!

Then you start analyzing productivity, availability and customer satisfaction scores of your most recent group of new hires who are now on the floor - and you are not happy with what you see. It appears that the important messages about how to treat customers and how to perform technical functions are just not getting through to these reps. There are more customer complaints than you can tolerate. Mistakes on customer accounts are costing too much money and time - not to mention that customers are leaving you because they get stuck in the holding queue or they are downright unhappy with the treatment they receive from your company!

What is going on? Why can't your training function prepare these new hires to successfully perform the job of phone reps? What's so hard about that, you ask!

There are several very critical factors contributing to this all-too-common picture today. Many call centers are overlooking or mismanaging the preparation of perhaps the most critical asset to the whole operation - the teleservices rep. It takes much more than just good recruiting procedures and competitive salaries to find and keep good performers. If you're going to resolve these troublesome issues, it takes a proactive approach that integrates several key factors.

What follows is a look at best practices - what call centers around the country are doing to improve their new hire training so they can increase employee satisfaction, retain customers and increase productivity - all at the same time.

Employee Selection
First there's the issue of selecting the best candidates from the available pool of applicants. This is an art that can be analyzed and made scientific by giving skills-based assessments to applicants as an initial screening tool to eliminate those, upfront, who cannot meet the most basic performance requirements of the job. For example, if it is important to your organization that your reps enter accurate and meaningful notes about a customer's account into your system, then an appropriate skills-based assessment might include being able to type at least 30 correct words per minute from a taped conversation. You might also have the applicant speak a script into a telephone while the interviewer plays the role of the customer and tapes the conversation. Then a predetermined evaluation would be applied to the "call" to rank the applicant on certain important characteristics like pace of speech, diction, and use of language. Over time, a profile of those applicants who make the most successful reps in YOUR organization can be developed and used to make the best possible selection of applicants.

Once you have a group of new hires, it's time to train them so they will be able to manage calls in synch with the way you want the business to operate. Many call centers have learned valuable lessons about how to increase their return on investment from new hire training. Here's what they're doing to improve the effectiveness of their training program.

Instructional Materials - A logical place to start is to analyze the instructional design and training materials used in the program. Training materials are often developed and then delivered by former "star reps" who definitely know how to do the job well, but may lack the skills to manage the learning process effectively. They usually have no expertise in how people learn things most efficiently. Imagine what level of quality you would get in the classroom if you assumed that one of your better managers could leave their role and go teach others how to be a good manager without any well thought-through instructional design or materials. If you left them to plan their own training session, you'd likely find them rambling on and on from their own rough notes - or worse yet, reading out of a procedure manual! Your trainers also need to work from well-developed, structured training materials that will ensure consistent delivery of the training content every time it is taught by anyone in your company.

Instructional Design - There is also a very sound, logical approach that must be followed to ensure that new hires are taught what they need to know in the right sequence to enable long-term retention. Good instructional design is important for technical as well as customer service content. It is also the foundation that must be in place for any multimedia learning format to be effective. Successful call centers have also learned that different learning formats are best used with highly technical content, and with content that does not change much as the business evolves. For example, if you have a form of on-line technical support for your reps, the training format should incorporate computer-based training, balanced with other learning formats like skill practices that use call scenarios. If some of your work procedures change only slightly over time, the training of those procedures can be captured in a more costly form of multimedia, like CD-ROM. It does not make good business sense to put rapidly changing content into an expensive media, because the costs to keep that content up-to-date over time become too expensive.

Professional Development Of Trainers - Then there's the issue of HOW to train. Without any professional development in how to manage a variety of learning styles and training methods, the learning session will not be effective. No wonder many call centers' trainers do not achieve the results expected by management when the new hires hit the floor. They do the best they can with the tools and skills they have. But many of them are operating with the severe handicap of not knowing much about the learning process and how to manage it well. There is no excuse for that anymore! There is a known skill set that those who train must possess.

One best practice in use by successful call centers is to offer professional development opportunities to everyone who trains anything to anyone. This training includes how to manage various training methods and materials to accomplish specific learning objectives. Those objectives should be tied directly to the skills needed to perform specific tasks on the floor. Consistent delivery of high-quality training to each group of new hires is the result of such an investment in the professional development of those who train.

Learning Environment - Then there's the issue of the learning environment itself. If you want your new hires to be productive on the floor as quickly as possible, the learning environment needs to closely simulate your work environment. This applies to the equipment used, the pace and timing of each session, and the work ethic and culture established during training.

For example, imagine that your new hires were trained on old computer equipment for several weeks, only to get to the floor and find a completely different system! Believe it or not, that has happened in too many call centers. What do you think happens to those newly learned skills? In those cases, floor management inherits the extra responsibility of retraining the new hires on the system actually in use. What a waste of time and morale!

If the same training session started four to six minutes late most days, what message are new hires being given about the importance of time in that company? If your trainers don't model your organizational values and culture in every interaction with new hires, don't be surprised when you hear about behavioral problems within work units or with members of management. And just imagine the treatment your customers will receive! They may wait in the queue forever while a rep "gets ready" to talk with them.

New Hires need to clearly understand that they are on the job from hour 1 of training. Since they are on the payroll, they should be expected to behave as mature professionals who are responsible for their own behavior. Their job is to LEARN everything they possibly can while they are in training. Any deviation from this behavior MUST be coached appropriately by the trainer, who is, in essence, their first manager. Good productive learning behavior should also be recognized and acknowledged. Successful call centers have found that holding Learners responsible for their behavior goes a long way toward establishing the desired work behaviors and culture for effective call management by each rep on each call. Anything less produces mediocrity!

Managers' Role
Floor managers and supervisors also have a very important role in making sure that training produces better reps. They need to understand exactly what new hires are being taught so they can effectively coach specific productive AND unproductive work behaviors and performance. One way some call centers are addressing this need is to rotate supervisors through parts of the training that have been recently up-dated. Others offer two-hour sessions several times a week in which a senior trainer shares key training content and methods being used. Others ask managers to study the training content on their own and pass the same competency checks required of new hires. Managers study until they "get it right," ensuring they will be able to provide appropriate guidance to new hires on the floor on very specific issues.

Don't assume your managers and supervisors know how to coach effectively. It's not a skill we're born with! Without timely, specific feedback and coaching, real learning does not occur. The most effective call centers integrate into their new hire training process a serious plan for improving the coaching skills of everyone who interacts with new hires. That includes team leaders, peer coaches, buddies, etc. Generic coaching skills are usually not enough. The application of coaching skills in the context of learning new or improved work procedures is what makes the difference.

The last important element that helps make training effective goes hand-in-hand with coaching. And that is measuring learning effectiveness in accordance with specific business objectives and performance standards. For example, you probably expect your new hires to close each call according to a certain procedure. And that's what your trainers have taught them to do. To be able to coach job performance to that work standard, your managers need accurate and specific information on the performance of each rep on that important part of call management.

There are many ways to measure rep performance. However, the key lies in what you do with all that data. If your supervisors and team leaders cannot get access to data on individual reps in a timely manner, they cannot use it to effectively coach work performance. Specific and timely feedback is absolutely essential to real learning and performance improvement. Don't fall into the trap of some call centers that collect mountains of data, and then either don't use it for individual coaching, or abuse it through inappropriate management styles.

By integrating all these elements into a carefully planned and implemented training process, many call centers are producing reps who are capable and motivated to provide high-quality call management to each customer. And these reps don't forget what they've learned after a few months on the job! Their learning continues as they are measured, coached and reinforced by an alert management team committed to success. Everyone working together CAN produce better reps!

Marnie Feasel is vice president of ALESYS, a consulting firm specializing in learning effectiveness in call centers. She has many years experience in the training industry with a specialty in customer service integrated into technical skills. AlESys, partnering with both large and small companies internationally, researches, develops and implements customized training programs that result in greater return on training investment through behavior change on the job.


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