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Hiring and Training For The Call Center:
Developing The "Universal Agent" And Beyond

By Ted Nardin, ClientLogic


If you asked most CEOs what the most important aspect of a call center is, you will likely get a quick response: 'low cost.' In today's competitive landscape, however, smart executives are beginning to reevaluate their call centers and turn them into well-oiled, revenue-generating machines. A call center that adds business value in addition to retaining a low cost profile gives a business a tremendous advantage over its competitors.

However, an often overlooked function of a call center is managing the customer experience so it is consistent with the company's brand. What customers experience during their transactions with call center agents solidifies their overall impressions of the company. Transforming a call center from a cost-cutting afterthought to a viable, brand-carrying, profit-generating division of the business begins by establishing effective hiring processes and training programs.

Establishing A Strategy
As with most business processes, the first step in the agent hiring process must be to establish goals for the call center itself. A company can hire call center agents and managers only after developing a comprehensive strategy that clearly defines objectives. Executives need to define what the call center's top priorities should be in order to hire employees who are best suited to execute this strategy.

In-depth research, advancements in call center technology and the emergence of niche outsourcing companies have shed new light on the capabilities of the contact center. If staffed and managed properly, the contact center can be an invaluable asset to the business. Companies should thoroughly examine the possible added benefits of the call center in order to set goals that match its strategy. Consultants can help organizations determine how best the call center can help drive marketing, sales and product development initiatives.

The key is to recognize the links between a company's branding strategy, call center goals and resulting training program. From analysis and understanding of these areas and how they affect each other, an accurate agent profile can be built. Many companies fail to recognize, for example, that the hiring profile they created does not attract candidates with the requisite skills to start training. This puts the trainers at a disadvantage, forcing them to either expand training ' which increases costs ' or produce agents with low confidence and skill, which in turn reduces customer loyalty and drives up costs through poor work and a high turnover rate. Similarly, some companies hire agents qualified beyond the requisite skills for entering training. Without good communication between the hiring and training teams, the agents end up bored, unchallenged and often stay with those companies for a shorter duration.

Regardless of the strategy, however, there are many benefits a call center can provide that require hiring talented, highly motivated agents. Some of these value-adds include increased first-contact resolution, revenue generation through cross-selling and upselling, marketing insight through agent focus groups and customer loyalty created by agents who are trained to establish an emotional bond with customers. Once a company establishes goals for its call centers, it can begin the process of hiring agents who will attain and exceed these goals.

Attitude Versus Aptitude
After call center goals are established, companies can put together a profile of the type of agent necessary to meet these objectives. A common mistake that organizations make is to focus this profile on aptitude without considering attitude. While the ability to learn new skills is absolutely necessary to becoming an effective agent, only employees who possess the drive to succeed will be able to effectively execute call center goals.

While this may seem like common sense, consider that many organizations struggle with their customer service efforts. One of the reasons is because without the right positive attitude, even the most skilled agents will be unable ' and unwilling ' to effectively help the call center add business value. They will simply go through the proverbial motions, waiting for their next paycheck. Companies must implement tactics to evaluate candidates' attitudes and behavior patterns in order to breed an environment of success.

Developing the right blend of attitude and ability can begin well before the hiring process even starts. Companies can work with local colleges, for example, to offer free technical training and other classes. Students who score high on their certification exams could then be granted interviews for call center positions. Similarly, businesses can initiate 'job shadowing' programs at their call centers. Local students can observe first-hand what it takes to be a successful agent.

Unfortunately, managers are sometimes fooled during the hiring process by candidates who appear to have the 'right stuff.' Conducting standard interviews or relying heavily on skills testing often results in selecting agents who put on a good show, but are only looking for a quick job rather than a long-term opportunity. There are methods that managers can implement to reduce hiring error.

For example, during the hiring process, incorporating detailed behavioral questionnaires and conducting behavioral interviews are ways managers can evaluate a candidate's strengths beyond what is printed on a resume. Conducting an interview by phone in addition to in person is also beneficial in determining whether a candidate's positive attitude is reflected during a phone call.

Another example is requiring candidates to return to the call center multiple times during the hiring process. By doing so, managers can determine a candidate's desire to be employed by the company. It is important to keep in mind, though, that too many visits will likely frustrate a candidate. Many top agents are often single parents or have other jobs, so it is important to respect their busy lives during the hiring process.

Using a combination of skills tests, behavioral interviews and realistic job previews yields the best results. Using all three approaches provides an opportunity for managers to triangulate results and gain a 360-degree view of the candidate. This will help in selecting agents with enthusiasm and skill. More importantly, these methods should help call centers find agents who are driven by long-term success, which is important as training costs continue to escalate.

Creating The 'Universal Agent'
After candidates who possess the proper mix of aptitude and attitude are hired, companies can begin training them to become 'universal agents.' The universal agent is one who can perform multiple tasks. Agents who can take on several duties ' from customer care to technical support to sales ' are a valuable resource to the call center, both in terms of reducing costs and adding business value.

As desirable as the universal agent is to a company, the idea that one person can address all of a caller's needs is even more important to the consumer. If one agent can fix a problem with a bill and then offer technical support, the caller does not have to deal with the frustrations associated with being put on hold and transferred to various agents. Not only does this improve the customer's experience, but it can lower costs by eliminating multiple queuing problems and increasing agent utilization.

In order to ensure that its agents can effectively satisfy all a caller's needs, a company must implement effective training programs. Developing and training effective universal agents takes time, dedication and a clear process. It is important that training focus on one technique at a time so that agents become 'experts' in one area before trying to learn another. Satisfying customers and attracting their loyalty is a long, slow process, but losing a customer takes no time at all. Therefore, it is important that agents are fully prepared to handle multiple concerns before they are asked to field calls.

For example, one way to employ universal agents is in selling, cross-selling and upselling. Embedded in nearly every customer service or technical support call is an opportunity to generate revenue by selling additional products or services while solving the customer's issue. Studies have shown that when an agent solves a customer's problem quickly and also successfully makes a sale, satisfaction increases significantly over those customers who had their problem resolved but were not sold additional items. These studies conclude that a properly trained agent is viewed by the customer as an expert and that by being able to get an expert's advice, the customer was able to make the correct purchase with no further effort.

The ability to cultivate opportunities and bring a sale to fruition should be an integral part of the agent training process. Customer service representatives who can recognize and execute opportunities to generate revenue are a valuable asset to the business, and the agent training program must reflect this. Satisfying customers
and attracting their
loyalty is a long,
slow process,
but losing a customer
takes no time at all.

Because the skills required to effectively manage universal agent skills ' selling in particular ' are quite different from those necessary for navigating through a technical support call, companies typically hire and train separate agents for customer service and technical support. However, it is often beneficial if a customer care agent can also help a caller with a support issue. Customers who call to activate a mobile phone account, for example, are likely to also have questions about their phone's functionality. If one agent can satisfy all of a customer's concerns, the potential impact on that customer's satisfaction and, ultimately, loyalty is tremendous.

Managing For The Future
Agent churn has traditionally been one of the largest obstacles facing the contact center. Turnover is a concern particularly when utilizing the universal agent approach since training time is elongated, and therefore the cost is much higher. The nature of the business dictates that, at least to some degree, turnover will always exist. However, companies can implement processes to reduce turnover by training agents with a career path in mind. One way to accomplish this is to start training agents for management positions before there are actually positions available.

The management training process, much like developing the universal agent, is deliberate and involves a commitment from both the company and the trainee. Companies must develop a management assessment process to identify management-caliber talent ' inside or outside the company ' to clearly define candidates to ensure that the investment is mutually beneficial. Too often, call centers pick the 'best' agents, promote them and expect results right away. Companies can ensure a higher rate of success by properly training agents for management positions ' for example, by working them into assistant manager or coaching positions ' before officially promoting them.

When developing and instituting these processes, it is important to illustrate to agents exactly how they can achieve management positions. For example, companies can provide documentation that includes a detailed timeframe of how the management training process works. This timeline lets agents know exactly who they will be working with, what they will be doing and what is required to move on to the next phase of training. Clearly illustrating the path to attaining a management position bolsters confidence, increases morale and motivates agents to succeed.

As industries become more competitive and budgets are stretched thin, the call center is evolving from being the lowest rung on the corporate ladder to a revenue-generating, viable part of the business. Smart companies realize that call centers can add tremendous business value in addition to simply lowering customer service costs. Agents speak with customers on a daily basis, and therefore possess an incredible wealth of information that is valuable to departments throughout the business ' from product development to sales to marketing. Putting the right people in place to harness this information is critical, and companies should evaluate their agent and management hiring and training processes to ensure that the call center shares and effectively executes the corporate values. CIS

Ted Nardin is the senior director of performance management at ClientLogic (www.clientlogic.com), an international business process outsourcing provider.(news - alerts)

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