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August 2008 | Volume 27 / Number 3
Listen and Learn

The Best Course for Service, Why e-learning is essential to your investment in agents.

By Joe Fleischer

In recent months, high fuel costs have forced various types of businesses, most notably airlines, to scale back their operations. As is typical during an economic downturn, companies in various industries seem to have few choices other than to cut costs. But if you want your company to stand out in how it cares for customers, reducing costs need not require you to lower standards for service. At a time when companies are likely to cut back on service in an effort to reduce costs, now is the best opportunity for companies to distinguish themselves in customer care.

An investment in service is primarily an investment in people. In many industries, employee compensation typically accounts for the majority of a company's costs. The same is true throughout the overall U.S. economy, given that employee compensation has represented between 57% and 59% of the U.S.'s gross domestic product throughout this decade. If you seek a return on your call center's investment in service, your best option is to focus on agents.

Various types of software help agents become more productive. But e-learning software is unique in that it accelerates your efforts to increase agents' value to your company and customers. This type of software delivers material, such as slide presentations or video courses, to agents' computers only when agents are available for training. Some e-learning tools automatically assign an agent specific material based on how your quality assurance team evaluates the agent's proficiency with certain skills. In this scenario, quality assurance and training teams determine in advance which training material corresponds to certain skills, and which material reflects the degree to which agents need help with developing these skills.

E-learning software enables agents to use their time more efficiently than if they only receive training in classrooms. A more efficient use of agents' time translates to lower costs. You increase the amount of time agents dedicate to retaining or attracting customers. You decrease the amount of time you pay agents to shuttle between their workstations and classrooms.

The most significant benefit of e-learning software is that it gives agents more opportunities to improve their communication with customers. That's because the latest e-learning software tools enable agents to simulate conversations with customers. Let's say your quality assurance team observes, after listening to recordings of an agent's conversations with customers, that the agent consistently argues with callers who complain about new charges on their bills. Many of these callers hang up on the agent. To show the agent how to reassure irate customers, the e-learning software presents the agent with a series of simulated calls from fictional customers. The agent's responses to hypothetical callers, like the agent's responses to actual callers, reveal that customers become frustrated because the agent often says what she can't do rather than what she can do to help them.

The simulation helps the agent understand which actions, such as emphasizing how she can assist customers, lead to better outcomes. For the agent, the better outcome is that callers not only stay on the line, but also listen to the agent's suggestions about how to avoid charges on their bills. For your company, the better outcome is that, with the help of e-learning software, you quickly enable the agent to retain rather than alienate customers.

Although e-learning software performs certain functions, such as delivering courses, and scoring agents on their understanding of them, far more efficiently than classroom training alone, the software ought not to replace classroom training. For example, if agents have to know the details of a new promotion within a short period of time, it's usually a good idea to convey this information in person. Moreover, agents learn much from their colleagues during classroom training that they wouldn't absorb only from viewing courses from computers. But e-learning software gives you many more ways to disseminate information among agents, including courses for those who are new to customer service, refresher courses for experienced agents and training on policies or procedures that are unique to your company.

E-learning software is most useful when you combine it not only with classroom training, but also with call monitoring, coaching and pre-hire assessment. Internal evaluations of agents' interactions with customers provide the basis for coaching, which, in turn, enables your center to identify agents' training needs. Once you have a clear picture of agents' strengths and areas where they can improve, you can refine the set of traits and skills you seek in the agents you hire. In so doing, you establish a cycle of continuous improvement in the skills of the agents you currently employ and the next agents you bring on board. If agents' compensation represents the majority of your center's costs, then there is no better investment than providing agents with tools, such as e-learning software, to enable them to become as valuable – to your customers and your company – as they can be.

Joe Fleischer has covered the call center industry for more than 11 years. With Brendan Read, he co-authored the book The Complete Guide to Customer Support.

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