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October 1998

Training Virtual Call Center Reps Is Difficult - But There's A Solution


One of the most challenging aspects to any call center operation is the ongoing training of call center personnel. This is particularly acute for "virtual" call centers, where telesalereps (TSRs) often work from home or from remote office locations. The reason a business adopts a virtual call center approach is typically driven by a desire for improved cost-efficiency and the ability to more easily recruit staff. Home-based workers don't require office space, and reps like the flexible hours. However, the need to continually train personnel is at odds with operating a cost-effective virtual call center. Solving this paradox may be the key to fully unleashing the power the virtual call center model offers. In fact, it can likely benefit traditional, centralized call centers as well.

Call productivity is the name of the game in running a successful call center. Human capital is expensive, so anything that improves revenue per sales rep or allows reps to handle more calls has a large impact. Steve Davidson, president of Info-Tel Solutions in Oklahoma City, a maker of predictive dialing solutions for small and medium-sized call centers, agrees. "If we can keep reps talking with live prospects, instead of dialing and speaking with answering machines and voice mail, then the center operates at peak efficiency." Taking a similar approach to training also helps. By allowing short topic training to occur right at the desktop, TSRs can be frequently trained, with no wasted time or travel expense. "This ability is critical for virtual centers, which can't pull people together on short notice," said Davidson. Studies show that the frequency of training and the ability to apply new concepts immediately aid in learning retention. Training TSRs at their desks allows both.

Certain types of training lend themselves to the "stay-at-your-desk" approach better than others. Method and procedure training (call handling, routing, escalation, etc.) for a new hire may be accomplished initially through self-guided computer courseware or through in-person introductory classes. On the other hand, "refresher" sessions, new technique training for the experienced TSR or short-topic subject seminars (for instance, a new product update) may be conducted effectively at the desktop. The TSR joins the session at the prescribed time, and disruption to the workday is kept to a minimum.

New integrated voice/data solutions allow this desktop training to occur in a live, highly interactive manner. Participants converse by phone and see the visuals on their PC. All that is required is a telephone (common fare for a TSR), and a PC Web browser. Session participants listen-in by phone as the meeting conductor (a center coordinator or subject-matter expert) displays visuals (slides, images, Web pages, etc.) or shares an application. This allows all participants to simultaneously see and even test drive the application, immediately applying their newly acquired skills. The same technology allows support reps to assist inbound callers by observing their screen changes from afar, offering real-time abilities to remotely control the application. All this takes place on a PC server, typically employed on company premises, with no change to existing networks. While video is not an integral part of this solution, digital snapshots of the presenter can be displayed if necessary to let the audience know who is speaking.

Why not just use a traditional third-party teleconference service? One reason is most require significant advance notice and users are billed regardless of who shows up. An integrated voice/data conference server eliminates the expense of outside service bureaus, and is immediately available for conferencing - reservations are not required. Just dial up the server and begin conferencing. Users pay for only their point-to-point connection to the server. No conference tolls or setup charges accrue. Perhaps even more important, a dedicated conference server allows the meeting conductor(s) to see a list of those on the call and how they are connected ("Is Sally seeing the slides?"), and to control the call, muting or unmuting participants, and responding to raised "hands." These seemingly subtle distinctions can make the difference between a smooth training session and one that is derailed by technology and distractions.

These same conferencing technologies can be applied for group discussions, management meetings, expert escalation and other training activities. Even traditional centralized call centers can benefit. For example, remote support offices may need to coordinate a crisis response on short notice. Any location can initiate a conference, notifying others instantly via e-mail or other electronic means. Within minutes, all necessary participants can be in on the call, and an appropriate, informed response can be quickly formulated. It's also useful for developing and delivering course content. Laura Johnson, who heads a distance learning initiative for OutReach Technologies, said, "Many instructors and students are comfortable working with a phone and PC, whereas, in front of a camera, they clam up."

Future enhancements of conferencing/training technologies for the call center environment include:

  • Conference scheduling integration within e-mail and other communications interfaces,
  • The addition of live training "help" buttons to company Web pages,
  • Voice and data integrated into one streamlined package,
  • Integration of POTS conferencing with voice-over-IP and IP gateways.

The benefits derived from live desktop training extend beyond the obvious time and travel expense savings. Many users report quicker decisions, enhanced group participation and improved teamwork. And while virtual call centers are a relatively new phenomenon, the application of integrated voice/data presentation solutions for educating dispersed groups is not. For example, ComLinx, of Edison, New Jersey, is using this technology to host business "Webinars" for companies that sponsor online events. With the addition of effective training in remote locations, the future looks bright for both virtual call center operators and the teleservices professionals.

David C. Stuart is the vice president of Marketing for OutReach Technologies, maker of the CONFERease family of CTI-based, integrated telephone and PC conferencing servers. Stuart joined OutReach Technologies in 1997 and has 18 years of marketing management experience in computer systems, networking and software environments. OutReach Technologies, a division of Communication Systems Technologies, Inc. (CSTI), is a leader in integrated, easy-to-use phone and PC conferencing. The company was established in 1995 to capitalize on CSTI's 12-year success as a developer of wide-area audio conferencing, audio/data switching and remote radio control systems for the federal marketplace.


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