Demanding Customers, Demanding Skills

By Brendan B. Read, Senior Contributing Editor  |  February 01, 2011

This article originally appeared in the Feb. 2011 issue of Customer Interaction Solutions

Staffing and training contact center agents have arguably never been more demanding. Customers are now charge of the relationships with the companies they do business with. They are dictating what they want, when they want it and how much they are willing to pay, and recommending to others, especially via social media, which outfits they should or should not spend their money on, based on their experiences.

Contact centers must then make the time and money available to seek out and train those agents, located in employers’ premises but increasingly at their homes, with the necessary talents to meet the needs of today’s rightfully demanding customers. And while staffing and training properly is expensive, it is a bargain compared with the lost revenues when customers spend less or go to competitors.

“Even though the economy appears to be stalled, having an excellent customer experience is a high priority for consumers, so much so that many often will pay more for a better one,” observes Rosanne D’Ausilio, president of Human Technologies at Global. “Contact centers therefore need to have more consistent training on products and services to meet these greater expectations.”

Communications/Relationship Skills Focus

To answer customers’ expectations contact centers must focus on hiring and training agents with the abilities to build relationships via excellent communications skills, not just understanding what customers are saying. Emotion accounts for over 50 percent of customers’ experiences with firms, reports D’Ausilio, which means it is vital for agents to have personal connectivity with customers.“People assume that if you can speak or write that’s communication, when that’s only talk,” says D’Ausilio. “Communication means a message was sent, was received and was understood. Communication really is about creating and building relationships.”

Customers, especially the next generation, are increasingly using text-based means–chat, e-mail, SMS/text and now social media, principally social collaboration sites–as well as voice, to communicate with organizations. This milieu requires having agents screened for oral and writing skills and to be thoroughly trained on how to speak and write in a businesslike fashion, with no slang or emoticons. Agents must also be exceptionally accurate in their language use; one slip of the tongue–or a finger–could end up harming their employers’ brands and reputations if their comments end up on social media.

The RCCSP Professional Education Alliance offers the Contact Center Professionals Training and Certification course that teaches a wide range of agent skills. These include building customer relationships, creating a positive business image, recognizing customers’ needs and problem resolution techniques. It also includes training on writing effective e-mails.

“There is more emphasis by employers that is being placed on finding the right personality fit for the position, and on identifying candidates that possess strong written communication skills in addition to verbal skills,” reports Nina Kawalek, CEO of the RCCSP Professional Education Alliance. “However, the significant changes we see relate to what contact centers do with their workforce after the recruitment process. They are realizing the value of having a comprehensive training strategy that prepares recruits for the specific types of customer contacts they will be handling.”Contact centers also need to empower agents so that they can identify, handle and resolve issues. Requiring them to tell customers “please call this other number” no longer cuts it in today’s marketplace. The benefits of such empowerment are two sides of the same valuable coin–greater customer and employee satisfaction and retention.

There is an extensive array of e-screening tools that can assess applicants based on their issue handling skills. FurstPerson’s new CC Audition Talk & Note is a web-based contact center simulation that allows job candidates to “play the part” as if they worked in a center. By leveraging a speech application, Talk & Note is even more like the jobs that contact center are recruiting for.

“Our job analysis research is showing an increasing importance of agents’ problem-solving abilities, especially understanding a situation and generating possible solutions and the willingness to resolve these problems,” reports Jeff Furst, president and CEO of FurstPerson.

Training the Informal Agents

Providing an exceptional customer experience often requires connecting customers directly with “informal agents”. They are subject matter experts, linked from contact centers by presence; they are also counter, office, reception or sales staff via contacts routed to their phones or inboxes when they are idle.

Human Technologies Global’s D’Ausilio strongly believes that anyone who touches the customers, whether they work in the front or back offices, must be trained on customer service skills to provide consistent, seamless high quality service. With this, everyone would be speaking the same service language to avoid pitting one department against the other or creating silos.She once provided contact center training to a large food company client that had found that messages from contact center agents to other departments to call customers were being “circular-filed”; agents were not allowed to transfer calls. The firm discovered this because the customers would call back. The client then prodded those departments’ employees to attend the training.“These employees were kicking and screaming, saying they didn’t belong there but I told them that if they were going to be taking calls to support the front lines that they need to speak the same language,” says D’Ausilio.

Yet many of these informal agents were and are in most cases not recruited, let alone trained for their customer service skills. They may speak in the jargon of their professions, which customers may not understand and they could be abrupt and lack empathy.

RCCSP’s Kawalek points out that most IT jobs require technical expertise, logic, and attention to detail; empathy is not a critical requirement of that work, she points out. Engineers have high math and problem-solving skills, with virtually no communications requirements.  Accounting is all about communicating, but not of an oral or interpersonal nature; clarity, brevity, and accuracy are key. She recommends that informal agents be screened for customer service skills and have only those that possess such skills be contacted by agents or have customers’ contacts escalated to their desks.

“Anyone who interacts with customers should receive the same training that ‘traditional agents’ receive, on how to assess a caller’s service expectations, how to properly handle the call, and other tools, techniques and soft skills,” says Kawalek. “At the same time, companies need to be realistic about ‘assigning’ call center duties to analytically-minded professionals whose fortes may not be those shared by contact center agents, such as dealing with difficult personalities or handling complaints.”

Bilingual English/Spanish Recruiting

With the rapid rise and spread and affluence of the Hispanic population across the U.S. there is a growing need for bilingual English/Spanish-speaking contact center agents. The practice of connecting interpreters onto the calls is arguably no longer viable in this instance as it does not provide Spanish-speaking customers with an equivalent experience as those enjoyed by English-speakers.

FurstPerson recommends evaluating these language skills while the applicants are performing simulated calls to see if the added complexity of handling them impacts their language capabilities, especially for bilingual positions, in addition to measuring oral communication clarity and overall comprehension.

“Leading call center firms are either building the Spanish language capability internally or outsourcing these calls to firms that can manage the Spanish component successfully,” says FurstPerson’s CEO Jeff Furst.

Recruiting Via Social Media

Today’s workers, especially the next generation, meet not so much over coffee as over social media to chit-chat. Yet just as savvy recruiters seek out where people gather to introduce themselves, or listen in and the follow up with individuals one-on-one, is undertaking those practices via social media an effective contact center hiring method?

The answer is yes, but only in conjunction with other tools such as employee referral programs and IVR/speech recognition-delivered evaluations. Social media could invite prospective employees to call specific numbers or provide links to recruitment pages but it cannot seek out and assess for defined attributes such as personality fits and voice skills. Nor is it always effective timewise in tapping a wide enough applicant pool in a short period of time.

“Social media tools such as Facebook (News - Alert) and Twitter, if used properly, can be part of an effective recruitment strategy, as they allow contact centers to reach a wider audience at minimum cost and can increase the productivity of recruiters,” says RCCSP Professional Education Alliance’s Nina Kawalek. “To use them though requires properly defined guidelines and screening procedures that ensure quality.”

FurstPerson’s research found that it takes four to five times as much recruiting time to source applicants via social media compared with traditional employee referral campaigns.

"While a well-run referral campaign will generate 20 to 30 referrals per hiring class, the effort to generate 20 to 30 social media hires is probably 10 times the effort of running a solid social referral program," reports Jeff Furst.

Enough Time for Training?

As contact center agents take on more challenging contacts, with self-service and social collaboration via customers’ peers stripping away the simpler ones, they may not have enough non-call time for the added needed training. The consequences may well be firm-hurting performance gaps.

Lee Anne Wimberly, director of marketing at Knowlagent says her company is seeing more contact centers look to e-learning because it is more efficient for agent training. Yet they are running into adoption problems because contact center service level rules limit the allotted time for these sessions, which either means that training comes in at a distant second or management has to double-staff for it.

To solve this problem savvy contact centers are altering these rules and taking advantage of small pockets of downtime for activities such as e-learning. These centers, she says, will have the highest e-learning adoption as well as more training actually delivered, and better results.

Knowlagent has created active wait time in its e-learning solution. In a specialized queue, activities–including training–are delivered to agents during their idle time.

“There are a lot of opportunities as well as risk on each call now,” says Wimberly. “All of these things conspire to require enhanced skills and more performance improvement.”

Hiring and Training Wounded Veterans

There are few individuals who are arguably more deserving of being offered excellent employment opportunities such as in contact centers than those who were wounded while honorably serving their country. The rewards for employers are having employees who are skilled, disciplined and who are determined to succeed.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) contracts with Project HIRED through the Ability One program to hire individuals with severe disabilities—including wounded veterans—to work at five contact centers co-located at its hospitals in Fresno, Livermore, Palo Alto (News - Alert), Sacramento and San Francisco, Calif. Disabled vets comprise 40 percent of the approximately 55 agents working there, handling a wide range of calls from missed doctors’ appointments to suicide and code blues.

Gwen Ford is executive director of Project HIRED, which trains and transitions disabled individuals into the workforce. In January 2010, with a generous grant from Google (News - Alert), it started the Wounded Warrior Workforce Program that provides veteran-specific training and placement. The VA is not surprisingly one of its largest clients.

The Wounded Warrior Workforce Program offers general customer service and computer skills, literacy education and job training such as writing resumes and cover letters in civilian language and placement through career fairs. It also trains managers how to hire and retain those with disabilities.

This last one is a critical issue as there is an unfortunate perception that all wounded vets suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome and other ailments when only few of them do, and no more than the civilian disabled workforce, Ford points out.

The VA is not alone in partnering with Project HIRED to recruiting and assist wounded vets. Lawrence Livermore Laboratories, NASA Ames and the Department of Rehabilitation and private firms such as Cisco (News - Alert), Google, Hitachi, LiveOps, Lockheed and Yahoo! have successfully hired and supported those who have gone through the Wounded Warrior Workforce Program.

Project HIRED will be opening more opportunities in 2011 by starting up its own outsourced contact center with equipment donated by LiveOps (News - Alert). Ford points out that with the Iraq and Afghanistan wars winding down, there are more candidate veterans than there are positions. Her program requires that before being accepted for it, veterans must have their treating physicians and therapists approvals. Very few have “washed out” and they can return when they need additional help or are ready to be retrained.

Ford has found that on the contact center side alone there is not a task that wounded veterans cannot take on successfully. She has disabled vets working in every area from switchboards to medical support.

 “It is very hard to rattle the veterans, which isn’t surprising considering what they have been through,” says Ford. “They are very professional and focused, which is why the VA hires them away from us once they are rehabilitated and retrained.”

The following companies participated in the preparation of this article:


Human Technologies Global



RCCSP Professional Education Alliance

Brendan B. Read is TMCnet’s Senior Contributing Editor. To read more of Brendan’s articles, please visit his columnist page.

Edited by Stefania Viscusi