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June 2002

Using E-learning To Educate Call Center Agents

By Arjun Raman, eWebUniversity

The ubiquitous nature of the Internet has allowed e-learning to transform the face of corporate training. Corporations have begun embracing e-learning to reduce training costs that result from high travel bills and the loss of productivity time of employees. Perhaps even more important, e-learning allows companies to provide to their employees training modules that can be completed while on the job. E-learning helps companies extend the breadth of training subjects that can be offered to employees, as the old-fashioned classroom method of training was by its very nature limiting in terms of time and space. The improvements inherent in e-learning are due to the economies of scale gained by offering training modules over the Internet and the lower prices of self-paced and instructor-led content that are offered by e-learning. Most affected by e-learning are businesses focused on providing service. Businesses that must provide a consistent, pleasing experience to end users need to transform their workforce into a motivated army of professionals.

Call center staff are subjected to a high level of repetition in their jobs as their workday typically includes handling calls that are largely similar in nature. Furthermore, most call centers do not provide much aid in professional growth for support agents, which has been, at least in the recent past, a major contributing factor in unleashing a high level of staff attrition.

Call center professionals are subjected to specialized training to handle customer inquiries. Much of this training is handled in large, face-to-face seminars in which the call centers must procure knowledge experts to conduct the sessions. Typically, call centers must bear significant costs in training to ensure their entire staff is well versed in the technologies, applications or services they support. Moreover, the staff need constant retraining to keep their skills up-to-date with evolving products or feature sets. The entire staff is also required to be at the same level of proficiency, which is a difficult task to accomplish for call centers without the adaptation of appropriate e-learning tools. With constant attrition plaguing the call center industry, businesses need to adapt to maintain a lower cost basis for their operations, while providing the same level of quality to their end customers, and continuously train and retrain new or existing employees. Much of the adaptation to survive, remain profitable and provide cost-effective support services to their partners requires call centers to locate their operations and support staff in geographic locations that have relatively lower costs of living.

Call centers can be spread throughout different time zones, states or even different countries. One recent trend has been for large multinational companies to create infrastructure in regions of the world where spoken English and literacy rates are high. These are often places where companies can save money by leveraging the lower costs of living and em-ploy workers at lower wages. Geographical locations bring their own set of hurdles for call center businesses. With new geographical regions come different cultural backgrounds and communication skills. To make a call center successful, all agents must obtain the same communication skills and accents to ensure that end customers receive a uniform experience. To overcome this impediment, call centers must provide to employees comprehensive communications and accent training that is very specific in nature. Due to its specific nature, this type of training tends to be very expensive.

Most of the problems discussed thus far plague call center businesses everywhere, regardless of location and area of expertise. A key factor that contributes to a call center's success is the procurement of people who have the right training and temperament to be successful support professionals. Much of this has been done through skills assessment tools that various e-learning programs provide. Many of the skills assessment packages gauge a learner's aptitude toward specific skills or grasp of technologies required to be effective at their jobs. Further, these 'skills-gap analysis' tools help provide a footing for call centers to outline which training modules each recruit must complete to become proficient in the skills or technologies that are required.

Skills-gap analysis tools also optimize training costs, as they provide accurate recommendations to the learner or the managers on what training modules or areas of interest an individual should pursue. For example, if an individual applies to be a support staff engineer at a call center for Microsoft Office products, the potential employer can gauge his or her knowledge of the product suite by administering a customized quiz. Many e-learning packages will provide automated results regarding how much the call center should expect to pay in training costs to bring the applicant up to the required skill level.

In addition to specific skills, the applicant may also be required to obtain 'soft skills.' Soft skills that applicants may need to acquire include communication skills, accent training or telephone etiquette training. Most call centers are located in very different geographic regions of the world from where the end customer is located. To provide the end customer with the best possible experience, an agent may need to curtail a foreign accent or may require training to bring him or her up to speed on the cultural nuances of the prospective customer base. Due to the specific nature of the training applicants may go through, employers can incur heavy training costs.

Despite the tremendous employee turnover and high training costs that call centers must bear to survive, coupled with the tough economic conditions that persist, call centers must continue to remain profitable. E-learning can contribute to the overall success of a call center to aid it in improving its bottom line and overcoming obstacles such as high training-related costs or high attrition of employees.

Adopting e-learning can also provide the largest return on investment (ROI) for stakeholders. In the traditional sense, call centers must hold a large number of training sessions for their support agents to help them remain abreast of new technologies, processes or advancements to help them assist end customers more effectively. To provide effective training of support agents, call centers must bear the costs related to travel and time of not only the trainers, who are required to travel to locations where the face-to-face training seminars are held, but also the cost related to the loss of productivity of the support agents who must leave their workstations to attend seminars. Post September 11th, travel for training is no longer considered an attractive option by call centers. The burgeoning e-learning market has seen numerous companies provide low-cost, self-paced or instructor-led content that varies in scope from accent reduction training to teaching agents how to be better managers.

The architecture of today's e-learning systems provides tremendous flexibility, allowing call centers to quickly set up training environments and rapidly scale them to offer content in various subject areas to accommodate a large number of users and course offerings. A typical e-learning system can consist of up to six elements ' an online classroom, a virtual lab, learning management systems (LMS), a content management system (CMS), a skills-gap analysis tool and the training content. The online classroom and virtual lab allow employees to participate in learning theory and hands-on practice sessions. The LMS tracks learners' progress through training curriculum and helps in gauging a learner's competence level. The blend of the online classroom and virtual lab technologies provides each learner with ample interaction with peers and mentors, who may be in different physical locations from one another, for a near face-to-face training experience.

A large component of a successful e-learning campaign is the successful adaptation of a content management system (CMS) tool. These tools will typically include wizards that make content creation by trainers easy and fast in order to aid them in creating content that is engaging and interactive for support staff training. Typically, knowledge experts will use text, audio, video and animations to make content interactive and promote higher learner retention. It is the CMS tool that helps generate skills assessment modules that help gauge a learner's competency level. Through the use of prevailing industry standards such as Shareable Courseware Object Reference Model Initiative (SCORM), the assessment modules can link with the skills-gap analysis tools and the LMS that helps track the overall progress of the learners and helps trainers build customized training curricula to gain the most optimized e-learning experience. Examples of content that can be created using the CMS are basic issues such as how to use a headset, or complex tasks such as database management. Through industry standards like SCORM and the rise of newer and more sophisticated versions of the online classrooms, call centers can procure voice-activated software that can integrate with online classrooms to provide online training to agents on topics such as accent neutralization and telephone etiquette. Advances in online classrooms now allow individuals to be assigned specific exercises for these topics that require them to record and upload their voices to the platform. The 'virtually located' instructors can then listen to their learners' voices and comment on how they should improve their accents or methods.

The main advantage gained by call centers in creating content using CMS tools is the usability and re-usability of content for training other members of the support staff. The re-usability of the content helps maintain lower costs for call centers that experience high employee attrition while maintaining the level of quality for training of all employees. Furthermore, all content that is created using CMS tools can be continuously edited and updated to keep the content in line with changes in product offerings or features. The content can also be archived and made available 'on demand' to the support agents in case they are required to revisit it. The end result is that it helps call center staff maintain the highest level of quality in supporting end customers.

Arjun Raman is president and CEO of eWebUniversity (www.ewebuniversity.com), an e-learning software platform and content developer that provides e-learning, knowledge management and online content to the continuing education, higher education and corporate markets.

[ Return To The June 2002 Table Of Contents ]

CIAC Certification: A Benchmark For Performance Excellence In Call Center Management

By Fredia Barry, Call Center Industry Advisory Council

At some point, every industry must 'come of age' in order to continue growth and sustain long-term prosperity. After too many years of being a black sheep, the call center industry has finally reached this point. We have, you could say, come into our own. By 'industry,' I mean collective call center businesses of every kind across all vertical markets. Basically, every call center organization makes up what we've come to consider the call center industry. It's been a hard row-to-tow, but finally call centers are being recognized for the strategic role they play in helping organizations achieve their business objectives. We've still got some laggards out there that see and operate their call centers as a commodity, and there will likely always be some of these, but we're seeing less and less of this mindset as call centers take their rightful place in the business world.

Along with this coming of age is a challenge that will determine the true, ultimate success of our industry. This is the ability to attract and retain competent, qualified professionals for the growing number of call center jobs. People are the lifeblood of most industries, but even more so in the call center industry. Unfortunately, the shortage of people, and in particular the lack of professionals equipped with the core knowledge and skills necessary to hit the ground running, has long been a monkey on the backs of call centers. Never has this been truer than in the past five years as we've watched the explosive growth of call centers meet up with a widespread workforce shortage. The result of this has been most painfully apparent with regard to management personnel. There's no doubt that front-line staff is required for a call center to operate, and ideally staff with the right skills so training can be focused on performance improvement and career advancement versus teaching the basics. Still, a call center can have the most highly skilled CSRs, team leaders and supervisors, but without competent leadership and management, it will be difficult for the center to be successful. It starts at the top. These are not jobs that just any executive or manager can step into. Successfully leading and managing a call center requires specialized knowledge, skills and abilities ' topped off with a good dose of hands-on experience.

All of this adds up to the reason the Call Center Industry Advisory Council (CIAC) was formed back in early 1998. Over the course of the following two years, this industry-elected group of call center practitioners, educators, consultants, vendors and media representatives worked with the industry to identify the knowledge, skills and behaviors (competencies) required for professionals in strategic and operational call center management roles to perform their jobs at a superior level of performance. Thereafter, this was the driving force for CIAC to further work with call center executives and managers from all types, sizes and kinds of call centers to design and develop industry-standard certification based on these competencies, for individuals that lead and manage call center, help desk and CRM organizations. The end result is CIAC Certification.

The ultimate goal of CIAC Certification is to legitimize the call center profession in order to inspire more people to consider the call center a bona-fide and lucrative career opportunity. This will bring more people into the profession, at every job level. While CIAC Certification has begun at the management level, industry certification will be developed for every job role in a call center. With industry-recognized competency standards that define the elements necessary to be successful at each job level and to move up to the next level (career pathing), the profession will cultivate a highly skilled workforce from entry-level to upper management. This is the key to sustaining the long-term prosperity of call centers.
Another important objective of CIAC Certification is to raise the stature of and establish high value around call center professionals who perform their jobs at superior levels day in and day out. There are call center executives and managers who today represent the ideal of CIAC Certification. Most of these individuals have worked in call centers for some time and have earned their stripes through many years of trial and error in learning what works and what doesn't in running a call center. Unfortunately, the rapid growth of call centers today doesn't allow for this learning curve ' we need management professionals who can come in equipped with the necessary knowledge and skills and who, with a minimum time of hands-on experience, can successfully lead and manage a call center organization. The competent call center leaders and managers of today have a responsibility to help pave the way for future leaders and managers following in their footsteps. Supporting industry certification is an important means of doing this.

CIAC Certification for the Management Track is now being rolled-out on a general release basis after completion of phase one beta testing of the certification assessments. Over two hundred call center vice presidents, directors and managers are participating in this beta testing. Phase two beta testing concluded in mid-May with full CIAC Certification scheduled for general release June 30, 2002. Certification testing for the CIAC-Certified Strategic Leader (CCSL) and CIAC-Certified Operations Manager (CCOM) designations consists of four knowledge assessments, a work product assignment, and a 360 Review, all based on role-specific competencies across four domains:

  • People Management,

  • Operations Management,

  • Customer Relationship Management, and

  • Leadership and Business Management.

The knowledge assessments are administered online at public testing centers or at an individual's employer site. The work product assignment and 360 Review are completed at the individual's workplace. There are also CIAC-Certified Management Consultant (CCMC) and CIAC-Certified Management Apprentice (CCMA) designations which require similar certification testing.

CIAC Certification has been designed to establish a new standard around professional certification. Beginning with the competencies, the process is intended to be rigorous and demands a substantial amount of preparation and dedication. When an individual achieves CIAC Certification, there will be no doubt that he or she has mastered the specialized expertise required to excel on the job. The process ensures that CIAC Certification cannot be achieved otherwise. This is what builds high value around the CIAC Certification credential and establishes those that have achieved it as leaders in the profession. The value of CIAC Certification extends beyond the individual to his or her organization and ultimately to the entire call center industry.

As the organization established to provide industry certification, CIAC's focus is 100 percent on cultivating a high performance workforce and certifying individuals who have demonstrated mastery of the competency requirements. As part of establishing a new breed of professional certification, CIAC does not provide training. Its belief is that certification must be vendor-neutral, based on industry-recognized competencies specific to the job role and a standardized assessment process, and holistic with regard to a separation from training. One of the reasons certification has gotten a bad rap is because it's been misused to sell training courses rather than being 'real' certification. As opposed to offering training, CIAC gives guidance to call center trainers to help them develop courses that provide a successful learning experience in preparation for the CIAC Certification process.

We are pleased to note that CIAC Certification is quickly becoming recognized as the benchmark for performance in call center management ' the 'credential of success' and the 'industry standard.' This rapid acceptance is a strong indication of how much the call center industry has come of age and its readiness to take the big step of becoming a recognized, legitimate profession.

Fredia Barry is president of the Call Center Advisory Council. Learn more about CIAC Certification, including pricing and testing locations, and view the industry-established call center management competencies for each management track designation by visiting www.ciac-cert.org. Additional information is also available by calling the CIAC Operations Center at 888-859-2422.

[ Return To The June 2002 Table Of Contents ]

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