By Janet Livingston
Call center agents, your public-facing staff, are key to your call center’s effectiveness and fuel the success of the overall organization. Successful agent development starts on an agent’s first day of employment and continues every day after that. This begins with initial training, continues with ongoing instruction, and moves into possible promotion and a realistic career path. You must consider all three.
1) Agent Success Starts with Great Training
Training begins on day one of employment. Here are some tips to foster successful agent training.
Pick the Right Medium: There is a time and place for online training, but self-directed instruction will not work in all situations. Some training calls for a classroom setting, where agents can learn from one another as they seek clarification, share insights, and respond to questions. Other times, such as during coaching or call evaluation, effective instruction necessitates one-on-one interaction. This is not to discount self-paced online training, but rather to view it as a secondary resource.
Use Multiple Methods: While some will learn via verbal instruction and visuals, others need printed material or multimedia interaction. To effectively address all learning preferences, employ a variety of teaching tools, such as lecture, PowerPoint summaries, handouts, and interactive multimedia. Allow time for practical application.
Employ Role-Playing: Regardless of how agents learn, practicing that element of work helps establish their competence. Instead of using real callers, a safer solution is role-playing in a classroom environment. While some relish these opportunities, not all will. Yet all agents can learn through role-playing and internalize key proficiencies before applying them to actual callers.
Don’t Assume: When instructing agents, don’t take anything for granted. For example, a hashtag is only a pound sign to some people. Saying “URL” may be clear to some and confuse others, who will instead understand “web address.” Explain everything in detail.
Teach Soft Skills: The focus of agent training is how to use programs, navigate resources, and the most efficient button sequence. Yet callers are more concerned with the agents’ customer service abilities—their soft skills. Teach agents how to truly hear what callers say, convey empathy, and defuse emotions.
Provide Practice Time: Great instruction means nothing without the opportunity to apply it. As the saying goes, “Practice makes perfect.” Build practice time, including role-playing, into all group training. People forget what they hear or see, but what they do stays with them, especially when they repeat it. Athletes call this muscle memory. The same principle applies to mastering agent skills.
2) Agent Success Builds on Ongoing Training
Call center agents should never complete their education. If agents claim to have finished training, either they’re deluding themselves or their call center is letting them down. Agent training isn’t a once-and-done task; it’s ongoing.
Advanced Skills Training: Initial agent training covers basic competencies. Until agents can master fundamental abilities in a real-world setting, it makes no sense to provide additional instruction. However, once agents have the essentials down, they should receive advanced training, such as customer service skills, soft skills, and dealing with unusual caller situations.
Call Evaluation: All call centers record caller conversations. In most operations a quality assurance advisor listens to a sampling of calls to rate them and provide agent feedback. It’s important to address actions needing attention, but feedback should also focus on the positive aspects of the call to reinforce the agent’s great work. To maximize effectiveness the feedback should happen as close to the call as possible.
Corrective Action: In an ideal situation mistakes will never occur. Yet they do. Even the most seasoned and accomplished agents sometimes mess up. While ignoring errors is tempting, doing so is never constructive and only serves to increase the chances of a repeat. Instead meet with the agent as soon as possible to point out the error and offer corrective alternatives. Do this in private without letting other agents know what is occurring. Avoid taking corrective action during the agent’s breaks or after they clock out. Make it quick—say what you need to say and move on.
New Instruction: Call centers aren’t static places. There are software updates, new apps, advanced integrations, and replacement computer technology. In addition new accounts start service and existing clients change processes. Don’t let agents discover these changes in the midst of handling live calls. Provide needed training to fully prepare agents in advance.
3) Agent Success Hinges on Career Development
Agent Onboarding: The primary focus of agent orientation is the initial training. As mentioned, this starts with how to use the computers and associated software, apps, resources, and websites. It addresses basic customer service skills and instructs them how to effectively talk with callers. When agents finish their initial training, their learning is not complete; it has merely begun. Positive initial training helps agents start well and prepares them for a possible call center career.
Continuing Education: Once agents complete their initial training, they shift to ongoing instruction, which should occur to some extent every day they work. As mentioned this can take the form of advance skills training, call evaluation, corrective action, and new instruction on the latest equipment, software, and client processes. Some instruction needs repeating. Occasionally agents need remedial lessons. The point is to never assume agent training is finished. Successful ongoing training moves agents into their future.
Promotional Preparation: Some agents desire to advance in the call center. While this isn’t practical for every agent, it bears noting that most non-agent call center positions are staffed by former agents.
However, just because an employee is a great agent, he or she will not automatically function with distinction in another position. Specialized training is required first. Moving a successful agent into another position prematurely will merely turn a great agent into an ineffective employee. Preparation is key for success. Also coach agents to have patience while waiting for openings.
Career Path: Beyond the call center, other positions in the organization beckon. These may be in sales and marketing, accounting, or technical areas. While few agents arrive possessing the skills to assume these positions, their educational pursuits may point them in that direction. Hiring a freshman accounting major may provide an agent for several years and an accounting department staffer after graduation. Look for these opportunities and groom agents for advancement whenever possible.
Call center agents need training, ongoing feedback, and regular encouragement to develop into valued employees, be it as agents, in the call center, or as part of the greater organization. Agents are the key to successful call centers, and ongoing training is the key to effective agents. Start training today and never stop.
Janet Livingston is the president of Call Center Sales Pro, a premier sales and marketing service provider and consultancy that provides custom training solutions for all levels of call center and telephone answering service staff. Contact Janet at firstname.lastname@example.org or 800-901-7706 to learn more about arranging specific training for your organization.