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Cutting-Edge Technologies For The Contact Center
June 2004

Educate Your Agents And Reduce Turnover: Can E-learning Help?

By Todd Beck, AchieveGlobal


There's growing consensus that training is effective in reducing turnover, even in the 'revolving door' environment of the contact center. The questions, however, are: 'What type of training can be most effective in the contact center?' and 'Will all training methodologies produce comparable results?'


Managers in organizations of all types and sizes have grappled for years with the question of the value of training for 'revolving-door' organizations with high employee turnover, such as contact centers.


With contact center staff often serving as the primary source of customer support after the sale, their level of product knowledge and interpersonal skills are critical factors in maintaining a company's competitive edge. And for outsourced contact center operations, their very survival depends on the performance of frontline agents.


Although success begins with selection and hiring, the real key is how well the organization equips its contact center staff with the tools and skills they need to deliver on the company's value promise while meeting their own personal and professional goals.

The Case For Contact Center Training

There are a number of compelling reasons for training employees, whether or not they become long-term employees.


To attract and retain customers. The defining moments that occur when the customer interacts with a contact center agent determine whether that customer will come back, and the tools and strategies needed to be effective in this respect far exceed what can be acquired through experience alone. Poorly trained agents can significantly damage a business, even during a brief tenure.


To maintain a competitive edge. Today's customer is much more 'service savvy' as well as demanding of a high level of product knowledge from the contact center agent.

Training as a recruitment tool. Surveys conducted by the Gallup Organization indicate that employer-sponsored training is a major attraction for employees entering the workforce or deciding whether to remain in their current position.


The learning contract. Years of downsizing have irrevocably changed expectations of an employer's loyalty to the worker. This has been replaced by a more explicit quid pro quo: 'We'll offer you new skills while you work for us ' skills that can be taken with you when you leave. While you are here, you not only complete tasks, but also use your talents to improve our competitive position.' Thus, training benefits both the individual and the organization, even if only for a short time.

Training as a retention tool. Trained employees who feel they contribute to the organization are less likely to leave prematurely. When people have skills to deliver and are recognized by managers for delivering these skills, they are less likely to look for another job. Although it's true that the better you train your staff, the more attractive they are to other organizations, it's equally true that your organization becomes more desirable and your recruiting becomes easier by offering training opportunities.


Creating a unified culture. Training can be particularly valuable in keeping employees motivated during periods of uncertainty such as downsizing or pre-merger by confirming that the organization is willing to invest in them, whether they are short-term or long-term employees. Such training can also be a cost-effective way to establish a common language and focus, speeding the transition to effective, integrated operations.

Commitment and innovation. The more skilled and efficient your contact center agents become, the more likely they are to be committed to organizational objectives and interested in seeking innovative ways to become more effective. Untrained workers seldom look for a better way or suggest workable improvements.


Profitability. Logic suggests that achieving the benefits listed above will improve any organization's overall profits.

Unique Training Challenges In The Contact Center

Training can be particularly challenging in the contact center, and some of these challenges have led to the widespread consideration of e-learning. Let's examine these challenges and how e-learning fits into the picture.


Balancing time requirements with production goals. Traditionally, training was delivered in a classroom setting, requiring agents and supervisors to leave their workstations and offices. E-learning was perceived to be an on-demand system, capable of being accessed at a time and sequencing individualized to the learner.

The need for 'systemic' as well as 'systematic' training.

It's particularly important for soft-skills training to 'cascade' from level to level within the contact center to create lasting behavioral change and keep staff engaged. Although e-learning can provide systematic product-related training, it has distinct limitations in the systemic, soft-skills training area because staff participate in training in 'silo' situations, with no opportunities for integration. Lacking feedback and reinforcement, frontline staff may become disaffected and leave.


The need to align agents' personal goals with organizational goals. Answering the question of 'what's in it for me?' is a critical consideration if training is to be effective in retaining staff. The credential of having completed an e-learning course is often considered less valuable than having completed the equivalent classroom course. That feeling, and the impersonal nature of the medium, can reduce the value of e-learning in meeting this goal.


Allocation of time to technical/product training versus that available for soft-skills training. With time at a premium for contact center staff at all levels, the volume of technical or product training (training most likely to be provided through e-learning) required to keep current with the business often overwhelms available resources ' whether these resources are defined as trainer, time and/or mindshare. It's not surprising that so little time remains for soft-skills training.


The technical capabilities of both the call center workstation and the call center employee relative to the technical requirements of e-learning. Just because the workstation is a computer or just because the employee can use a workstation doesn't guarantee that either the machine or the person is capable of e-learning. Too many organizations underestimate the technical requirements of e-learning or overestimate the technical aptitude of their agents.

The hope that reactive electronic performance support systems can eliminate proactive training for all skills ' hard and soft. The harried supervisor might like nothing more than to skip training and, instead provide agents with a menu of just-in-time information and cues, all of which are available and accessible as e-learning. Unfortunately, live customers usually won't wait patiently while an agent learns how to provide the expected service.


Value produced by training versus the cost of turnover. The following section discusses this issue.

Calculating The Value Of Training 'Short Termers'

Following are calculations to assist in analyzing the return on training investment in terms of both skills improvement and employee retention. In some cases, we've estimated values for purposes of the analysis.


Identify the average compensation package for the position to be studied. In this case, we've assigned a conservative annual value of $30,000.


Working with HR and L&D staff, develop a competency profile for each position, such as frontline contact center agents, assigning a relative importance to each set of skills, with all skills adding to 100 percent. For example, problem-solving skills may account for 20 percent, accuracy 10 percent, listening skills 10 percent, etc., adding to 100 percent.


Identify levels of proficiency for staff, both pre- and post-training. For example, the average pre-training proficiency in problem solving for new staff may be 25 percent and they may be expected to progress to (a conservative) 50 percent proficiency after training, based on a review of the proposed curriculum.

Estimate the per-agent cost of training by dividing the total cost of training by the number of agents trained. For example, a $30,000 training program for 20 agents costs $1,500 per agent.


Estimate the cost of agent turnover. Turnover often costs a typical organization between 100 and 150 percent of the departing worker's annual salary. For our example of $30,000 annual compensation, turnover costs would be $30,000 to $45,000. It's then possible, with some straightforward math, to use these figures to calculate the ROI of training.


Description of calculation


Calculation of pre-training performance:  Average compensation multiplied by importance of skill, multiplied by pre-training level of proficiency. 

Average compensation of $30,000 X 20% value X 25% proficiency = $1,500. 


Post training performance:  Average compensation multiplied by importance of skill, multiplied by post-training proficiency percentage.

$30,000 X 20% X 50% = $3,000

Predicted value of training:  Post-training performance minus pre-training performance value

(b ' a = c)

$3,000 - $1,500 = $1,500

Payback period based on skills improvement:  Divide the per-agent cost of training by the predicted value of training to learn the number of years it will take to achieve training payback.

$1,500 (per-agent cost of training) divided by $1,500 (predicted value of training) = payback period of one year


Payback threshold based on employee retention: Compare the total cost of the training implementation to the cost of turnover to identify when training pays for itself in terms of retention of agents.


$30,000 (total cost of training implementation) divided by $30,000 to $45,000 (turnover cost per agent) = number of agents whom training initiative must help retain to justify training cost 


In this example, training more than pays for itself with the retention of just one agent.


Using E-learning Wisely And Effectively In The Contact Center


The first issue is to differentiate between training for product or operational skills and soft-skills training. It is generally recognized that e-learning is at its most cost-effective when it transmits facts, whether these are related to products or contact center procedures and operations.


Soft-skills training is another issue entirely. People have always acquired social skills through observation, practice and feedback. To ensure the maximum application of new interpersonal skills in the workplace, it's vital that training reflect the phases of adult learning. Only then can the methods, media and technology be put in place to promote lasting behavior change.


Following is a suggested approach that balances classroom and e-learning methods for soft-skills contact center agent training. This approach considers media and methods to achieve the desired outcome for each learning phase, using technology as is most appropriate to achieve the desired outcomes.


Learning Phase

Description and Training Methodology

Commit to learn

Training requires commitment on the part of both the learner and the leader.  Leaders must support the value of training, model key skills, coach and recognize skill use. For the learner, an effective training experience generates commitment by highlighting both the need for a skill and the impact of its absence.  This is best accomplished live or in a classroom setting.


Assess current performance

Specialized instruments allow the trainer or manager to measure and help learners focus on skill gaps.  Post-training assessments measure recollection of training content and frequency of new skill use.  This lends itself well to asynchronous Web methods.

Acquire knowledge

During training, learners gain a detailed understanding of skills through presentations, readings, discussions, simulations and observation/analysis of examples. This can be accomplished through asynchronous Web methods.


Develop competence

In this critical yet often-neglected phase, learners gain proficiency by rehearsing skills with other people. Real-time practice with another person, whether face-to-face or voice-to-voice, is essential to soft-skills mastery.  This phase will be most effective if it is delivered through live or classroom settings. (You don't want an employee's very first 'live' practice opportunity to be with a real customer!)


Apply new learning

Learners are more likely to use new skills when they have a plan and consistent reinforcement.  Managers can promote application by coaching and modeling skills.  Application is best done in a live setting, and reinforcement lends itself to asynchronous Web methods.




Drawing The Conclusions

It seems clear that training is a valuable tool for retention in the contact center. The challenge presented, then, is to select the proper training methodology to convey the content and achieve the desired objectives in the most cost-effective ways. E-learning is certainly a cost-effective methodology for providing product knowledge and operational and process information. And, with careful execution of a balanced approach to soft-skills training, e-learning can be a valuable and cost-effective component of this training as well.

Todd Beck is senior product manager, service portfolio, for AchieveGlobal, an international provider of skills training and consulting services in customer service, sales performance and leadership. A former call center supervisor and trainer with Continental Airlines, Beck received an MBA in marketing from Brigham Young University.

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