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August 2008 | Volume 27 / Number 3
Workforce Optimization

Experts: Learn About The Benefits and Challenges of E-Learning

By Brendan B. Read
Senior Contributing Editor, Customer Interaction Solutions

E-Learning is an excellent and increasingly sophisticated tool to teach agents valuable new skills and upgrade their proficiencies and to educate them about new product and services, equipment and procedures. The method gives personnel opportunities to practice at their own pace so that they can bring up their own knowledge and skills to what is expected of them, and beyond.

From a performance standpoint, e-learning delivers this training without requiring agents to leave their desks, thereby making them available to handle more contacts; they can be taught during slack periods. e-Learning is therefore also invaluable in training home-based and informal agents so that they do not need to travel into the centers, which may be hundreds of miles from their homes.

e-Learning is not, however, the universal answer to contact center training needs. There are strong motivational, inspirational, informational, reinforcement, and feedback value in live interactions both in-person and through conference calls or webcasts.

For contact centers, the challenge is deciding when and how best to apply e-learning. This month's article offers general insights on e-Learning from a wide range of training authorities in the contact center space. TMCNet will have a followup article with views from these professionals on technology and on applying e-learning to training supervisors, home agents, and ‘CRM agents': those that answer the complex calls from customers who have been through self-service solutions.

Todd Beck, Director of Learning Solutions, AchieveGlobal

Because it's self-paced, e-Learning is great for knowledge acquisition. Agents can study when they want to, for as long as it takes each person. So if you just need to raise awareness about something, e-Learning might be your best choice.

But e-Learning doesn't allow for human interaction with real-time feedback from the other person. So if you are teaching soft skills, e-Learning works best when wrapped in live events. That might be a one-on-one pre-training meeting with the agent's coach to set expectations and guide the learning, and then a live skills practice session afterward with a couple of peers. Soft skills need to be practiced, and you don't want to have the first practice be with real customers on the phone.

My favorite example of this is the current US presidential election. All candidates have web sites to make voters aware of the platform and the latest news. But every candidate also holds daily, live meetings because they know the only way to change voter behavior is to connect in the human dimension, to experiment with ways to present information and get immediate feedback, and to help voters connect broad politics with their unique personal situations.

The driver for e-Learning is always cost reduction, and there's nothing wrong with that. In a business, if one medium is truly more cost-effective than another, it should win. But lower cost and "cost-effective" are not the same. We've had clients who implemented really well, with all the before and after activities that build commitment and allow practice. They could have further cut corners by using e-learning alone, but they saw the value in live wraparound events.

Some organizations might be using e-learning to try to appeal to millennials, but we've seen research both ways—that it does and that it doesn't make a difference to various generations. So, frankly, the decision to use e-learning is always mostly influenced by cost reduction. If e-learning were more expensive, many of those other drivers would be over-ruled.

Our clients use e-Learning for customer service, sales, and leadership development. They are also using technology to support the training—such as emails from leaders, PDFs of related articles and research, etc.

Simply put, an organization will not accomplish behavior change unless the supervisors coach and model the behaviors. That's true whether you use e-learning or classroom. If it's not important to my boss, it's not important to me. Having the supervisors lead the live follow-up practice and application sessions is an ideal way to position them as champions of the change.

e-Learning has one huge advantage over classroom in that if an individual agent needs additional help, the supervisor can easily and cost-effectively have the agent re-take the program—and at his or her own pace.

It's fascinating that 10 years after many call centers first started using web-based e-Learning, as an industry we're still learning how to better use it. In those 10 years we've all learned that the rules of behavior change still apply, and that there's no magic way to train agents.

Just like technologies of IVR, recorded responses, virtual call centers, and CRM, e-Learning continues to make call centers more efficient and more effective only as long as it's used for good, not evil.

Allyson Boudousquie, Director of Business Process Marketing, PerformanceEdge Group, Aspect Software

e-Learning is designed to improve and sustain the performance of agents and supervisors by delivering the right training and communications content at the right time to the right agent and supervisor without negatively impacting costs of operations. Therefore, it is best suited for contact center operations that require ongoing training and communications to prepare agents with the right knowledge, skill and behavior for customer interactions. e-Learning is the preferred method of training agents and supervisors on products or services, program launches, company policies and processes, HR information, call handling skills and other behaviors critical to job performance. Some specialized training functions ideal for e-Learning include Agent Productivity, Sales Optimization, and Collections optimization.

Instructor led training (ILT), also known as classroom training, will always have a home within the contact center as the need for big communications or face-to-face learning will continue to exist. However, ILT is not an effective means to change and sustain agent behaviors because it does not adhere to adult learning principles. Superior performing contact centers today leverage eLearning to change the game of training by pushing up to 80 percent of ongoing training content and 100 percent of the communications content to the agents' desktop. This enables adult learning, reduces the training costs and risks of training, and improves agent adoption of knowledge and skills.

e-Learning is best leveraged in communicating and training existing agents on the required skills, knowledge and behaviors required to optimize performance of that agent at the right time. Proper skills, knowledge and behaviors can apply to any aspect of contact center operations as it relates to agent performance, including but not limited to, business processes, issue resolution, customer satisfaction, cross-sell/up-sell, collections and any business initiative measured by agent performance.

If supervisors and team leaders take an active part in executing e-Learning, the contact center will realize greater competence and confidence in their agent behaviors and measured performance. Operationally, supervisors can monitor an agent's e-Learning assignments as well as their comprehension scores for each completed session to keep driving progress and ensure that the agent's knowledge is reinforced. Supervisors play a key role in ensuring that agents are adopting key concepts and to assist operations in identifying additional knowledge, skills and behavior gaps that can be bridged via eLearning.

Too often contact centers are trying to use the wrong tool to get training to the agents. That's why they are struggling to do so. It's simply too expensive to do instructor-led training or team huddles so it's vital that training be done at the desktop. Unfortunately, most corporate learning management solutions don't work in the contact center because training still has to be scheduled and is often cancelled based on service levels. The solution has to be nimble enough to adapt to the ebb and flow of call volumes.

Scott Kissel, Director, Learning Consulting and Curriculum, Convergys Customer Management

e-Learning can be effective not only for communications, orientation, and knowledge-based learning, but also for immersive, interactive learning of more complex concepts and skills.

Process, products, systems and soft skills can all be trained effectively in the context of the job using a performance based approach, with e-Learning.

e-Learning is well suited for situations in which learners are geographically dispersed, and situations in which learners require schedule flexibility for the training delivery. It is also well suited for compliance training, to ensure that the curriculum was covered in its entirety, with automated completion tracking and reporting.

Areas less suitable for e-Learning include environments where the technology infrastructure does not support e-Learning, namely where there are bandwidth constraints or lack of content caching, inadequate end-user hardware, and firewall issues. e-Learning does not work well in situations in which the content is unstable and requiring frequent updates, most notably systems training when there are frequent and substantial software revisions leading to high ongoing maintenance costs for content.

e-Learning will continue, though, to displace face-to-face learning in the brick-and-mortar classroom. The business case for displacing classroom instruction with e-Learning can be based simply on cost, with the goal of reaching equivalency in performance compared to 100 percent classroom instruction, but a well designed curriculum with a foundation of e-Learning can actually drive improved performance in the contact center while also reducing costs.

Convergys uses a blended, performance-based approach to new hire training for the contact center agent, with e-Learning modules integrated with live, facilitated instruction. Benefits of e-Learning include standardized content delivery, reduced training durations, rich automated reporting, and engagement of the learner in a self-paced environment to support individual learning needs.

Convergys also employs Virtual Classroom training: live, synchronous, facilitated instruction of a remote, geographically distributed class using a desktop sharing application and conference bridge. The flexibility and cost savings offered by this model will continue to drive more Virtual Classroom training to displace face-to-face brick-and-mortar classroom training.

For continuing education, e-Learning delivered to the agent desktop significantly reduces cost in training delivery, and increases agent productivity i.e. shorter training duration and transit time between the production floor and the classroom. Additionally, e-Learning for continuing education automates agent-level reporting, mapping e-Learning completion and assessment scores to performance against key program metrics.

For communications in the contact center, e-Learning can significantly increase adoption and retention when compared to traditional means, such as desk drops-bys and team meetings. Convergys has seen a significant improvement in the speed and effectiveness of communications by implementing an e-Learning model that includes knowledge checks a.k.a. assessments.

Convergys uses e-Learning to train a wide spectrum of skills and knowledge, and across all verticals, programs and lines of business. Convergys utilizes e-Learning in a performance-based model to train soft skills, such as sales and customer service in the context of the job, integrated with training on process, systems and products. All of these areas can be effectively trained with e-Learning.

Convergys uses e-Learning to train supervisors, and supervisors serve in an essential role in training agents with e-Learning. Supervisors at Convergys play a key role in monitoring agent performance and assigning e-Learning events to address individual skill and knowledge gaps, aligned to overall program performance and requirements.

For contact centers considering e-learning, align eLearning curriculum with program objectives and agent performance measures. It sounds simple and obvious, but this is the foundation for successful eLearning implementation. Well designed eLearning can be an effective and powerful vehicle for learning. Poorly designed eLearning can not only be ineffective, it can negatively impact general perceptions of eLearning as an accepted training modality in an organization. For contact centers in the early stages of eLearning adoption, it is essential to have consultative e-Learning expertise in-house, or to partner with an organization that has expertise in eLearning for the contact center.

Prior to implementation, design a comprehensive learning adoption and communication plan for an e-Learning rollout. Cultural attitudes towards e-Learning vary regionally and globally -- do not assume that the audience will embrace an eLearning solution, but on the other hand, do not assume that a well-designed e-Learning solution (with a well-designed adoption plan, and aligned with program objectives and agent performance measures) will not be embraced in the contact center.

Rosanne D'Ausilio, Ph.D, President, Human Technologies Global

e-Learning is effective and efficient for learning systems, hardware, software, phone, internet, anything technical, rules, regulations, protocol, principles, anything rote and repetitive--it can be referred to again and again, as a reference, a resource, and/or a refresher. They are self directed. People can learn at their own pace.

What e-Learning is least suited for is soft skills training, specifically anger diffusion, conflict resolution, communication and listening, rapport building, as examples. Anything that deals with the ‘human.' Why? Because impactful training of soft skills is live, highly interactive, experiential, and in real time. Typical scenarios that crop up on a daily basis are addressed and role played where options are discovered, uncovered, and created in the moment. What is experienced becomes a part of you, as compared to being lectured to.

e-Learning can certainly replace face to face where the information is repetitive, rote, and/or devoid of any emotion. When emotion enters, face to face is necessary for full value. e-Learning is cost effective and in today's world, the focus is on cutting back, such as on training, travel, and time off. [Call Out] People think e-Learning is nirvana. It certainly has its application but will never replace face to face learning.

I don't believe customer service or sales are appropriate for e-Learning. Both customer service and sales are successful when people create relationship and in that space assist a customer and/or sell or upsell a current or potential customer. However, product descriptions, support of products, policies and procedures are perfect for e-Learning. My advice is to think of e-Learning like you think of FAQs. Whatever is repetitive, or like Sergeant Friday used to say: "just the facts, ma'am" put it into e-learning and update it frequently. But anything that touches on the human element keep it live, interactive, experiential, and in real time.

I believe supervisors' roles are one of support and pushing people to their next level. Their job is to evaluate their team and see their strengths and weaknesses and support the strengths and bring the weaknesses up to their strengths. There may be particular modules or facets of learning that they need refresher courses then e-Learning is perfect for this. However, supervisors need to supervise whether it's live training or e-Learning. If e-learning is tracked, the supervisor can recommend a particular avenue to proceed, especially if the person has not availed themselves of such.

When putting in e-Learning be sure to have a tracking system in place so you know who is availing themselves of this, not just the first mandatory time but who has come back to refresh, remind, and/or get updates. There is a direct correlation between using e-learning and agent productivity.

Have the e-Learning be as interactive and open as possible such that it can be updated as needed. Anything that is rote, repetitive, or factual should be done via e-learning. Change is rampant in the contact center, e-learning should have built into it the flexibility to update, change, improve, expand, and interact.

I want to add that e-learning works great where appropriate the caveat being that the highly motivated will take full advantage of its availability and use it accordingly. The people who need it the most—I'm not so sure they readily take advantage of what's available to them.

Mark Brodsky, President and CEO, Ulysses Learning

e-Learning can be used effectively to conduct initial, update, and reinforcement training to develop the contact center agent's knowledge and skill in areas ranging from the company's products, services, policies, procedures, technology and operating systems. e-Learning that's properly designed and implemented is also an effective training method for developing an agent's core and advanced customer conversation skills required to optimally handle sales and service calls as well as develop the essential skills coaches need to monitor, evaluate, and provide coaching to their agents.

e-Learning used by itself is typically less suited for training in areas that may be radically new, involve an emotional component, or may be potentially controversial for the organization. An example would be training agents on a new, more restrictive policy on how customer returns or claims will be handled and customer reaction is anticipated to be negative. In this example, it would be far more effective for agents to be involved in a facilitated training session to raise questions and discuss their concerns along with sharing ideas on ways to implement this new policy and mitigate any negative customer reactions.

Yes, e-Learning is increasingly displacing face-to-face training because: the advancement of the internet; the general population is far more computer-savvy; and the promise that this method will provide training at greater speed, consistency, and cost-effectiveness than possible through face-to-face training. This trend is both good and bad. It's good when e-Learning is the appropriate learning method given the training objective. It's bad when the intent is to capitalize only on e-Learning's speed and cost-effectiveness regardless if it's the right method to accomplish the training objective at hand. Sadly to say, we see this happening in some contact centers today.

Though e-Learning continues to replace face-to-face learning, face-to-face learning is not going away, nor should it. We've done extensive research in contact centers over the years determining which training methods are right for measurably improving service, sales and coaching skills. To that end, [Call Out] we've found the optimum mix to be 80 percent simulation-based e-Learning thoughtfully blended with facilitation, coaching, and performance improvement consulting.

It's important to note that many contact centers might be looking in the wrong places when it comes to improving their service and sales results regardless if they're using e-Learning or other training methods.

The fact is that agents are often trained on their company's products, services, policies, procedures, and technology but they often fall short on knowing what to do with all that information when they're handling a call attempting to solve a customer's problem.

Agents can dramatically improve their proficiency by developing core customer service skills including knowing how to: take control of the call no matter what the customer emotion; quickly and effectively get to the root of the customer's problem by asking the right questions and listening; resolve the problem within the company's policies and procedures; ensure the customer accepts and feels good about the solution; and do all that in one customer contact! Through a combination of simulation-based e-Learning blended with other applicable learning methods, agents can develop these core skills.

The role of the supervisor is among the most important factors that will determine if the e-Learning initiative results in sustainable performance improvement over the long-term versus just a short-lived training event. And the most important role for the supervisor is their ongoing call monitoring and coaching of the agent's use of the newly acquired skills.

With regard to call monitoring after training, it's worth noting that many supervisors fall into the trap of looking for the agent's exact, literal use of the newly learned words or call flow, which may actually sub-optimize the learning and customer experience. Instead, focus should be on the agent's intuitive interpretation of the customer experience, which will have the most positive impact.

And the final key is that supervisors need to provide coaching to agents both immediately following the training and over time to ensure the skills are applied and developed over time. A matter of fact, contact center supervisors should be spending at least 50% or more of their time coaching their agents

If I was forced to choose between great e-Learning or great coaching, I'd choose great coaching every time because that is the key to sustainable learning and performance results.

With all the focus on the e-Learning technology, its real effectiveness will be gauged by only one determinant – the strength of its practical content! Before spending a dollar on any e-Learning application, contact center executives need to ask, "Is the learning content validated and proven to bring about the desired performance improvement results?" If the answer isn't definitive, look elsewhere because the odds are good that the e-Learning won't be useful or used!

When seeking validated e-Learning, you need to look for: practical content and behavioral models that have been researched, analyzed, and validated using a large contact center population; content that is based on tested "best-practices"; and again, the use and blend of other applicable training methodologies that have been validated through extensive research and client results.

Jerome Brown, Solutions Marketing Manager, Verint Witness Actionable Solutions

e-Learning is ideal for system training, simulation training, soft skills development, refresher courseware and technical knowledge. It enables users to leverage a simulated environment i.e., software skill development to explore and learn systems, processes and products without adversely affecting the overall live environment. Further, eLearning allows for deep dives into the "how and why" of process training in addition to using audio and video support mechanisms. This not only encourages better adoption by users who have different learning styles, but also allows for repeat/refresher courses to be taken at anytime from any location.

e-Learning technologies will never completely replace face-to-face learning scenarios. Being in a classroom or learning from a peer is always a valuable experience – especially if it involves career development, coaching or mentoring. However, the introduction of and growing momentum around eLearning has helped simplify the process when a short and concise lesson is needed – this particularly applies to the increasing number of users needing knowledge and/or information when traveling, on remote sites, or sitting at a workstation answering customer sales/service calls. Today's business environment is not as conducive as it once was for the traditional classroom setting.

Contact centers are leveraging eLearning for a variety of purposes, but mainly to increase agent-level competencies around areas of importance specific to each center. These organizations utilize the technology to improve sales efficiency and increase understanding around processes/policies, HR issue education, new hire and pre-hire training, and other areas relevant to the success of the business. If an organization is not using eLearning capabilities – it usually means there is a resource issue more than anything.

e-Learning also is gaining momentum in other customer service areas that are outside the contact center, yet still impact the customer experience. Many forward-thinking organizations are implementing the same e-Learning technology that has been proven in the contact center to back-office departments such as claims processing, billing and order fulfillment and retail banking and branch office environments. This has supported time savings and increased productivity by automatically assigning and delivering learning to staff at their desktops to communicate policy, regulation and program changes; address skill gaps; and supplement classroom training.

In today's economy and business environment, budgets are often affected and employees are being asked to do more in return. It is important to provide teams that are tasked with the development and/or management of eLearning initiatives with the proper tools to support business objectives, while also making it easier to fit these new demands into their daily schedules. Products like Impact 360 Content Producer – part of the Verint Witness Actionable Solutions Impact 360 Workforce Optimization suite – help make the development of content quick, easy and organizationally relevant – such as content for products and services, campaigns and programs, or policies with a limited shelf life.

Supervisors play a key role in the identification and assignment of e-Learning topics. Each center is unique in what it does and how it conducts day-to-day business. Even contact centers with very similar structures still have slight differences. Supervisors working the "front lines" have their finger on the pulse of what's happening and where shortfalls are occurring. They also have the ability to spot developing trends that need to be addressed, like mishandling a caller, too many holds or extensive call lengths. Supervisors have a great opportunity to spot a struggling agent and provide appropriate courseware to help build his/her skills.

My recommendations are that you analyze your current processes and see where efficiencies can be gained. Do you spend a large portion of your day restating a policy or how to perform a task? If so, an eLearning course would help alleviate this headache. Think about your instructor led training – can any of it be moved to e-Learning formats?

Consider transferring some of the pre-requisites to an e-Learning course. It can reduce the amount of time in a classroom significantly and provide tracking data on how well students have "studied up" on specific topics before attending a final class. How many topics do you have to train on each year? Many of them can most likely be transitioned to an e-Learning format, saving time and money in development and delivery efforts. Report on what you do and track progress of your agents. How can you justify the expense of the training plan if you don't track and monitor agent and center success? Take a baseline evaluation of agent performance and then implement a few basic-level competency courses. Then in roughly 30 days, measure again. Keep track of who took the training and how well they retained and applied it. Direct correlations can be drawn from learning and center success and agent performance.

The following companies participated in the preparation of this article:



Human Technologies Global

Performance Edge, from Aspect Software

Ulysses Learning

Verint Witness

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