Kick the One-Size-Fits-All Approach to the Curb



By Chad Hendren

When it comes to customer service, a cookie-cutter approach won’t cut it. After all, a meaningful connection isn’t meaningful if it’s the same for everyone.

Depending on your industry, Harvard Business School reports that increasing a company’s customer retention rate by just 5 percent can increase profitability anywhere from 25 to 95 percent. Additionally, Walker Information predicts that by 2020, customer experience will overtake product and price as the key brand differentiator. This means that how you differentiate your brand depends on how you treat your customers.

Making customers wait on hold for lengthy periods of time, transferring them from agent to agent, and opening the conversation with a canned list of questions that may not relate to the reason they contacted you will leave customers frustrated and ready to hang up for good.

So how do you ensure that an experience is meaningful to each of your customers? Connect with context.

Acknowledge the Customer’s Journey: Smart watches, smart homes, and essentially the Internet of everything has put brands at a customer’s convenience. What they haven’t done is stop phones from being the number one support channel. According to a 2017 customer service trends report by Forrester, 67 percent of people contacted companies by phone for customer support in the last twelve months. How do you ensure that an experience is meaningful to each of your customers? Click To Tweet

But ending up on the phone doesn’t negate the importance of the channels where customers started. With those channels in mind, think about the various pathways or touchpoints customers may have taken before placing a call. Did they go straight to the phone, log in to their account on a website, jump to social channels, or email the helpline? The effort customers take to reach a company should never go unnoticed.

Depending on the complexities of their journey, customers are likely to be scattered, rushed, and frustrated before they pick up the phone. Having a system in place that shows each customer’s route, where they have looked, and their history allows agents to acknowledge who the customer is and where they’ve already been. This shows a company cares about and understands how valuable the customer’s time is, which is a crucial component for making a positive first impression.

Personalize the Experience: When a customer connects with a company, context clarifies why. Without it, agents ask customers for additional information, put them on hold, or transfer them to another agent to repeat the cycle. If the customer wasn’t already frustrated when they first called, they will be after jumping through context-less hoops.

As customer service and retention rise to the top of company priorities, contact center staffing issues also take higher priority. Agent training should focus on improving overall communication through active listening skills, asking questions to unearth other relevant information, and using positive phrasing to help build positive relationships. To take it one step further, every customer should be routed to the most appropriate agent.

Context ensures that customers are given the service and attention they deserve on their first contact. Seek tools to reduce customer effort, automate warm transfers, and provide agents with informative screens that highlight the customer’s past and present journey, including recent channels they have navigated. This information not only arms agents with much-needed context, but it allows the contact center to provide the most relevant agent for the issue.

For example, a customer who looks at their bill online prior to picking up the phone is best matched with an agent well versed in billing. Additionally, that agent can acknowledge that the customer was checking their statement by asking if they have any questions about the bill. From the start, the agent addresses the issue before the customer even speaks.

Arming agents with this information empowers them to solve the customer’s issue quickly, eliminating repetitive, unrelated questions—thus decreasing the possibility of frustrated customers. Additionally, companies primed for future success are the ones that continue to create personalization out of context. Imagine all the opportunities to present customers with a product, idea, or service when they are most attentive and the solution is relevant to their immediate concerns.

Connect with Meaning: When customers connect with a company, a meaningful and personalized experience helps their interaction go off without a hitch. When done successfully, any frustration the customer initially had can—and most likely will—melt away. In fact, CEB reported that 65 percent of a customer’s perceived level of effort is driven by how the customer service representative made them feel during the service interaction. What the customer actually needed to do accounts for only 35 percent of their perceived effort.

What does this all mean? When customers come in with negative emotions and leave feeling more positive, they remember.

Chad Hendren is vice president and general manager of customer experience solutions for Virtual Hold Technology, providers of VHT Navigator, which addresses cross-channel customer experiences by connecting key moments as customers move across channels.

Three Aspects of Agent Training



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. Never assume agent training is finished. Ongoing training moves agents into their future. Click To Tweet

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 contactus@callcenter-salespro.com or 800-901-7706 to learn more about arranging specific training for your organization.

Professional Telephone Skills



By Kathy Sisk

When you make or receive a call, your telephone skills reflect you and your company. It’s important to project professionalism in handling calls because it affects the image of your company, product or service, and you. The key is to put customers first. Make them feel good by practicing professional telephone skills: be courteous, helpful, and genuine.

Use Your Voice to Make a Difference: Start by taking a breath; you’d be surprised at how better you sound when you’re relaxed and not out of breath. Sounding in a rush gives a negative impression. Consider these scenarios:

  • Answering or making a call: State your full name in a friendly tone, and avoid using wordy expressions. By simply stating your first and last name, you save time. The success of each call depends on the tone of your voice; make sure you always sound welcoming and willing to help.
  • Answering someone else’s telephone: State the person’s name before you identify yourself. For example, “Hello, Mr. Jim Smith’s office, this is Janice Gold.” And never use your title such as, “Mr. Smith’s office, Ms. Gold.”
  • Answering a departmental phone: Always identify yourself after stating the department, “Hello. Bookkeeping, this is Janice Gold.”

Answer Quickly: Taking too long to answer projects a negative impression. Callers will wonder if anyone is there, which gives your conversation a difficult start.

Find Out Who’s Calling: A critical telephone skill for inbound calls is to ask the caller’s name; then use it to build rapport. Also, confirm the spelling; ask if you’re not sure.

Transfer Calls Professionally: If you can’t help the caller, let him or her know you will connect them to the right department. Customers get frustrated when their call is transferred, so stay with them until they’re connected to the right department. You may also take the caller’s name and number so the appropriate person may return the call. Taking these extra steps shows respect to callers.

Take Messages: A complete message should include:

  • the caller’s name
  • the company
  • the date and time of call
  • preferred callback number and extension
  • the best time to return the call, and
  • all other relevant information.

Kathy Sisk Enterprises Inc. has forty years of experience providing call center set up, reengineering, assessments, training, script development, and project management services to centers globally. 

Make Training a Priority This Year



By Janet Livingston

I suggest that you designate 2017 as the year of training. Train your agents, supervisors, managers, and support staff. Train them so they can do their jobs better and wow your clients and their callers. Train them to remove frustration over the unknown and provide a sense of increased confidence. Train them to make your call center better and your operation more successful.

It seems that “everyone talks about training, but no one does anything about it.” For this year, let’s stop yearning for more training and hoping for better training. Instead let’s move forward and make it happen. Here are nine areas to consider for better call center training:

1) Employee Development: Begin with basic agent training to get them started and then move to ongoing training to propel them to success. They need instruction in equipment, software, apps, and technical skills, along with soft skills such as customer service, dealing with conflict, and defusing emotional situations.

Present training in multiple formats: use classroom teaching, one-on-one coaching, and self-paced computer instruction. For group training, mix lectures with discussion; provide handouts; use PowerPoint slides; tap multimedia tools; and allow for plenty of time to role-play and practice. Ongoing instruction and advanced teaching should follow these same ideals.

2) Leadership Training: Most call center positions are filled by former agents, yet without adequate training, a great agent will seldom become a great leader. Look at a career path for agents. What positions can they move into within the call center? What training will they need to do so effectively? Outside of your call center operation, what other positions can they move into within your organization? Consider sales, marketing, accounting, human resources, technical, and mid-level management. Each of these requires training. Failing to provide this needed education will cause your best people to leave to join companies that will provide a career path and the support to realize it.

3) HIPAA Compliance: HIPAA, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, applies directly to healthcare call centers and has ramifications for all call centers. Is your operation doing all that is required to protect the personal health information of callers and maintain compliance? Don’t leave this to chance; the risks to both your finances and reputation are just too great.

Even if your call center does not serve the healthcare vertical, many of the practical implementations of HIPAA regulations have worked their way into other industries – such as finance and banking – and are emerging as best practices across all industries. Don’t be left behind. Learn and implement HIPAA-inspired processes in your call center this year. It starts with training.

4) Supervisor Instruction: Supervisor training is nonexistent in most call centers. It often amounts to little more than saying, “Go sit by that person.” While job shadowing has its place, it should be an ancillary support tool, not a primary education strategy. Smaller operations can conduct supervisor training one-on-one. Larger operations warrant classroom instruction. This should mirror all the paradigms of agent training, but with different content.

Supervisors need training on how to manage people, adjust schedules, understand agent stats, conduct coaching sessions, resolve conflict, and so forth. Achieve this through a mix of established instruction and practical application as situations arise.

5) Human Resource Education: While human resources take on many aspects relevant to hiring staff and overseeing their employment, a key element is interviewing skills. Do your interviewers know which questions they should ask applicants? More importantly, do they know which questions they must avoid? A quick path to a discrimination lawsuit is asking an illegal question during an employment interview.

Beyond interviewing, human resource staff is also involved in leading disciplinary meetings, developing employee action plans, writing job descriptions, and conducting performance appraisals, which can include both gathering the information and meeting with agents. They need training in all these areas if they are to succeed.

6) Call Center Outsourcing Considerations: If you’re an outsource call center, agent training is much more involved than for a corporate call center. Outsource agents require extra initial training and additional ongoing instruction. The training department plays a huge role in this. Training is much more complex because agents must switch between numerous call types for various clients, back-to-back. In this regard, the idea of training the trainer becomes paramount.

7) Customer Service Teaching: Advanced customer service training is nonexistent at most call centers. Though most agents want to do a good job, most call centers don’t provide the requisite instruction for them to do so. As a result people often receive promotions into key customer service roles without the instruction needed to do a good job. Relevant training is the solution.

8) Agent Onboarding: Welcoming new agents is too often a hit-or-miss proposition. Yet an employee’s first impression of the call center sets the tone for the rest of that agent’s experience. Don’t leave this to chance. Beyond that, the most critical role of a training department is to help each new hire confirm that he or she has made the right decision in joining the company. The third element of the onboarding process is the initial agent training. Again, we’re talking about training for the training department.

9) Quality Assurance Coaching: Every call center claims quality is their number one goal, but do they actually back up this platitude with actionable processes? Quality assurance involves recording calls, listening to calls, and evaluating calls. The focus shouldn’t be on the number of QA reports but on the actionable content of the evaluations.

A key issue in QA is consistency. Will two quality assurance specialists rate a call the same way? Without thoughtful training, a wide variation of opinions can result over the quality of any particular call. Yes, quality assurance staff needs training, too – not only initial instruction on the process, but also ongoing reviews to insure consistent application.

Every call center needs to meet these nine training needs, but few operations appropriately address them all. Pick your call center’s biggest training deficiency and tackle it first. Then move to the next one until you cover all nine. Make this year the year you move your training dreams from hope to reality.

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 contactus@callcenter-salespro.com or 800-901-7706 to learn more about arranging specific training for your organization.

Training Is Key

By Donna Fluss

If a contact center manager could invest in only one initiative, what should it be? While I hope contact center managers have a budget that allows them to invest in enhancements to the operations, people, and systems needed to deliver a consistently outstanding customer experience, one item stands out: training. This is true for service organizations of all sizes – from the single person behind a counter to contact centers with thousands of agents.

Correct Answers Are What the Public Wants: Customers are willing to forgive many wrongs and mistakes made by a company, once they get to an outstanding agent who accurately and politely answers their questions. (The agent will get an earful of what previously went wrong, but even this is positive, as it will hopefully allow customers to get the negative out of their systems by venting to the agent instead of going viral on social media.)

While it’s essential for agents to be trained in the soft skills that enable them to successfully interact and communicate with the public, this is not always pleasant. Being nice is not enough. It’s more important for them to give correct answers and concise information. I’m not saying it’s okay for agents to be rude, nasty, or short with customers. What I am saying is that receiving accurate and helpful information and answers is a priority for callers.

Give Agents a Chance to Succeed: The public often blames agents for poor service and wrong information, but typically the company they work for is at fault. Sure, there are rogue or rude agents – these are people who should never have been hired to work in a service organization – but more often than not, agents are doing what they have been trained to do. If they are not properly informed about a company’s policies, procedures, and systems and are not taught how the organization wants them to communicate with their customers, they’ll ask a peer or just do whatever it takes to meet their productivity goals.

Since agents, like most employees, are goal-oriented, companies need to set the right goals and give agents the tools to succeed. In a contact center, this means prioritizing high-quality service and a great customer experience, which has to be clearly defined.

To achieve this objective, agents must be trained to deliver accurate answers and information and present it to each caller so it is easily understood. This is much harder than it sounds because every customer is unique and has different expectations. The best way to prepare agents is via experiential learning, where they can practice the skills they need to survive and thrive in a high-pressure environment.

High Quality Drives Productivity: Well-trained agents can rapidly diagnose (and if necessary diffuse) a challenging situation and then determine the most effective approach for interacting with the customer. This allows them to succeed at their primary job, which is delivering an outstanding customer experience. The better prepared agents are, the more effective they will be at resolving issues and answering questions.

While the primary goal of agent training is not improving productivity, it is a direct outcome of good training. There is a direct and proven correlation between effective training and reduced average handle time (AHT). Agents who are fully prepared and trained to answer questions and manage callers will get the job done more quickly than someone who struggles to find answers.

Training Is a Bottom-Line Issue: Too many companies skip training because they are in a rush to get agents on the phone. This is a counterproductive strategy, as having agents handle phone calls before they are trained is more likely to hurt a company than help. Effective training pays for itself by improving the customer experience, building agent satisfaction and engagement, enhancing productivity, and reducing operating costs.

So if your budget allows only one investment, go with training.

Donna Fluss is president of DMG Consulting LLC. For more than two decades, she has helped emerging and established companies develop and deliver outstanding customer experiences. A recognized visionary, author, and speaker, Donna drives strategic transformation and innovation throughout the service industry. She provides strategic and practical counsel for enterprises, solution providers, and the investment community.

3 Tips on Retaining Millennials at Your Call Center

By Jason Quinn

Millennials have a reputation for leaving their jobs faster than any other generation. Most stay in roles for about two years before jumping ship. Apply that ratio to a call center, where the very nature of employment is transient, and that number skyrockets.

At our call center (where I am the senior sales trainer), we rely on our agents as the front line of our sales force: They respond to every incoming customer call, and their professionalism and skill in answering questions is essential to our revenue. Retaining these employees is integral, but most of them view their position as a stopgap until they find other employment or a steppingstone to other opportunities in the company.

Providing agents with proper onboarding and coaching is of the utmost importance. Throwing too much information at new hires, failing to create a supportive and fun environment, and neglecting to outline the potential for mobility within the organization only adds to poor retention.

Here are three tips for turning Millennials into engaged, productive employees in any call center:

1) Hit Them with a Culture Blast: Before you turn on a fire hose of information, remember that new employees only retain about 25 percent of the information presented on the first day. Instead of a dry information dump of company facts, teach them about your corporate culture. Make day one about who you are as a company and how you’re working to achieve a common goal.

One of the most powerful ways to reinforce culture on their first day is to share the story of who you are and how you got there. Like most organizations, ours has a memorable rags-to-riches story. If a new hire goes home and explains the genesis story to a friend or relative, he or she has already taken the first step to being engaged. Help them understand where you came from so they can be part of where you are going.

Another way to teach aspects of culture is by immediately pairing new hires with veterans or star performers. By shadowing them, they get a firsthand look at how current employees interact with customers, and expectations are set from the beginning. It also serves to introduce them to their peer group and reinforces that together they are building something bigger.

2) The Power of One: One Goal, One Team: Going home at the end of their first day feeling overwhelmed with technical knowledge can leave new hires feeling anxious about what’s next. “Is every day going to be like this?” “Am I cut out for this?” “Did I retain any information?”

After showing your great culture, the most important thing is to help newbies understand how their role contributes to the success of the company. In my company, our managing director gives a speech to each class of rookies on their first day, telling them, “I could go away, and this business would run smoothly tomorrow, next week, and next month. But if you are not here, the business will not exist.” Your sales center agents are the first contact with your customers, and the importance of this interaction should not be understated.

One of my all-time favorite moments came after the first day of one of my training groups. As everyone filed out of the training room, a new agent came up to me and said, “Wow, you guys really care about your frontline employees.”

This is how you want trainees to feel when they leave after their first day – and each day after that.

3) Make Everyone a Visionary: Providing new hires with a glimpse into how passionate your call center agents are and sharing success stories of agents who have transitioned from the call center to other positions in the company helps reinforce how an engaged, supportive culture can benefit everyone.

Vision is how you connect your entire company together, working toward a common goal. At most call centers, senior managers and leadership never stop by the sales floor to say hello and share their vision for the business. But in our culture most of our department heads pop in at different times to express their appreciation for our frontline workers and explain how they contribute.

These five-minute check-ins model the passion we expect from our employees, and it energizes new hires.

Conclusion: If you want to run a successful sales center with high levels of retention, especially when dealing with Millennials, help new hires understand the company’s history and integrate them into your workplace culture. Break down barriers between upper-level management and frontline employees by showing appreciation, sharing goals, and letting them know that most of the ideas that push the company forward come from them.

Jason Quinn is the senior sales trainer in the call center at 1-800-GOT-JUNK?

[From Connection MagazineMay/June 2016]

Crisis Call, Line One: Preparing and Training Staff for Crisis Callers

By Scott J. Terres

Not long ago it seemed that dealing with credit card or cable companies were the only times customers were likely to engage a call center. Currently, call centers are utilized to provide services to customers across a wide array of businesses. Not all will deal with crisis callers on a daily basis, but all can benefit by being prepared to deal with such callers if and when they present themselves. This article focuses specifically on call centers that are more likely to encounter crisis situations, but it will also provide good general information for those who encounter crisis callers less frequently.

Start with the Definition for Your Call Center: The first step of any call center is to define what they believe is a crisis caller. Centers focused exclusively on customer service may define crisis as a large customer calling with a complaint that threatens the contract or the incoming revenue. Centers focused on transit or shipping may define it as those dealing with late-arriving or lost items. However, a crisis call center tasked with handling medical or mental health services may define crisis in a completely different manner.

Crisis call centers attempt first to define both the crisis behavior and level of severity. Callers may have concerns about verbal, emotional, or physical abuse; chemical use or abuse; or thoughts of harm to themselves or others. Violence and threat of harm indicators may be passive (less extreme), active (actively planning or currently engaged), or pervasive (daily or ongoing regular planning or action). Chemical use and abuse is often present in conjunction with violence indicators but can also exist independently.

Determine the Needed Action: Once a crisis is defined, the center then must determine its role – based on the center’s respective industry – in assisting the caller. Those in customer service or transit centers may see their role as keeping the customer happy at all costs, where a crisis call center has the role of keeping the caller alive. With the role clearly identified, the actual workers need to be trained with these definitions and roles in mind and put into practice.

Staffing and hold times need to be considered for the different types of centers. Where a five to ten-minute hold in some industries may be considered acceptable, this is not so for crisis call centers. Staffing needs to be such so that an agent or multiple agents are potentially ready for calls as they arrive in real time. Abandoned calls may represent someone in an abusive relationship not getting the help they need or a suicidal caller hanging up on their last chance of hope.

Provide Appropriate Training: The professionalism and development of crisis call center employees is of paramount importance in a crisis call center. Staff should have the education and background to handle callers in a competent and effective manner. They need training in how to talk about crisis frankly and openly. A suicidal caller will not develop the needed level of trust with a worker that whispers the word suicide and is clearly uncomfortable or unskilled in talking about such a serious matter.

Additionally, workers in crisis call centers experience a higher rate of compassion fatigue than those in other centers, due to spending the majority of their days talking about horrific actions, plans, and thoughts. For this reason, they may need more than two fifteen-minute breaks during a workday.

These workers also need ongoing training and education to keep current with standard practices in handling crisis situations. For example, a crisis call center accredited through the American Association of Suicidology (AAS) requires all crisis center workers to obtain a minimum of four to six hours a year of continuing education.

Provide Needed Resources: A well-trained staff equipped with relevant resources can make a significant difference in the life of a crisis caller. Ideally, these resources should be available at a moment’s notice, either via an electronic computer document or an up-to-date printed list accessible to the staff. The maintenance of resource information is crucial to long-term success, and directly linking the caller with the resources should be standard. Staff often terms this as a warm transfer, where the center agent can actually engage a resource with the caller still on the line, to ensure they are connected and needed help is received.

Crisis call centers also need to make safety planning a normal part of all crisis calls. Safety plans can vary widely depending on the need. A caller presenting as the victim of active domestic violence may need assistance in planning where to go, how to get there, whom to contact, how to gather money, what to tell the children, when to call law enforcement, and many other situations in an effort to provide the best chance for success. A suicidal caller may need similar assistance with safety plans, and AAS accredited centers will further attempt to verbally contract with the caller that they will not harm themselves until they are able to get help via provided resources or until they are able to obtain counseling or medical care.

Consider Confidentiality: When the goal is to keep the caller alive at all costs, companies need to be aware of their respective state laws about confidentiality, Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), and duty to warn as established by Tarasoff vs. Regents of the University of California. Briefly, a duty to warn may arise from products that are known to potentially cause injury to notifying a third party if a caller makes a specific threat of harm against an identified person, such as a threat of violence or homicide.

Crisis call centers accredited by AAS must be willing to break confidentiality and inform law enforcement when callers will not agree to a safety plan or provide a verbal no-harm contract. Typically the staff that answered the phone will continue to speak to the caller, while another staff member calls law enforcement to send help. Knowing about and informing law enforcement of any weapons or drugs in the possession of the caller is helpful information to pass along.

Seeking Successful Outcomes: Call center workers rarely know what awaits them when the phone rings. The next call may be normal and customary, or there may be a client in severe crisis. Companies that have a solid definition of what they consider to be a crisis and a plan in place of how to handle those calls are going to achieve better outcomes, whether it be retaining a customer or saving a life.

A well-trained staff with appropriate resources has the ability to stabilize a crisis call, providing relief to both the caller and the answering agent. Safety planning and a clearly defined contingency plan round out the ways in which any call center can operate more effectively and efficiently, whether they are providing transit services or are an AAS-accredited crisis call center.

Scott J. Terres, MA, LPC-S, PhD, serves as vice president of Alliance Work Partners, a professional service of Workers Assistance Program. He has been with the company since 2004 and has been an intake counselor, a case manager, and the call center director prior to his current position. The company has provided employee assistance programs since 1977 and has one of the largest stand-alone, best-practice programs in the nation.

[From Connection MagazineMay/June 2016]

Ten Best Practices for Delivering Virtual Training

By Ryan Apodac

It’s go time. Training is over. It’s time to put everything I’ve learned into action. Can I do this? Do I have what it takes? These are just a few of the thoughts we’ve all had on our first day after training for a new position. The unspoken question, though, is always “Was my trainer prepared to help me learn what I will need to succeed?” While this is nothing new, the latest trend in training pertains to the environment. As more companies trend to a virtual model, virtual training is becoming more common in the workplace. Virtual training is convenient. However, one can easily overlook important factors that mean the difference between merely conducting a virtual training and conducting a successful one.

Virtual training offers unique opportunities. The obvious flexibility of people attending from multiple locations makes coordinating and scheduling easier than ever. Let’s review the top ten best practices to ensure a successful virtual training.

1) Webinar Service: In lieu of the traditional classroom training projector or large screen monitor required to display training materials and slides, it is almost impossible to conduct a successful virtual training without using some type of webinar service. There are many popular services available; the key is to know which features your trainings will utilize. Some services offer features such as passing your mouse, limiting interruptions by providing chat features, or manually muting that heavy mouth-breather. Typically, the more features you need, the more expensive the service; it’s crucial to balance budget with having the tools you need and will utilize.

2) Conference Call Line: Most webinar services provide audio conferencing. This feature seems to eliminate the need for an independent conference call line, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Technical difficulties on behalf of attendees can eat up enormous amounts of time. From mute malfunctions to pesky pop-up authorization screens, anything you can do to simplify the process of communication for your attendees is paramount, and nothing is simpler than dialing the phone and entering a conference ID. Even if you only use a conference line to get all attendees onto the webinar audio service, it’s a lifesaver to have available if issues arise.

3) Instant Messaging or Chat: Verbal communication is not the sole means of communication in the virtual environment. Instant messaging or chat features are a pivotal piece of virtual training. Understandably, chat messages can be distracting during trainings; some services allow attendees to message the presenter directly. Chats can be used for pop quizzes or a quick check of attendees to ensure everyone is able to comprehend and digest the subject matter. It’s also a safe place for those who don’t feel comfortable asking questions in front of a group or who prefer to ask questions without interrupting the group.

4) Screen Share or Audio Share: The traditional training environment allows new employees to see and hear existing employees conduct activities in real life. In the virtual training environment, this can be a challenge. While one can demonstrate how to use systems and play recordings for new employees, it’s critical for most people to see and hear a situation in real life. As virtual training becomes more common, new technologies are emerging almost daily. Though it may require multiple applications to do so, enabling a new employee to see and hear an existing employee at some point in training is critical.

5) Participation: Any successful trainer will tell you how important it is to “work the room” and focus attention on those attendees who are distracted by directing a question to them or standing close to them to help draw their attention back. This is one of the hardest things to accomplish in virtual training, but here are a few tips. First, ask questions. But ask different attendees each time in an unpredictable fashion to keep them on their toes. You also could ask questions and have each attendee message you privately, thus giving everyone the opportunity to answer. You can also ask each attendee to handwrite and scan notes or type them and then send them at the end of the training session, which helps identify anyone who was not paying close enough attention.

6) Role-Playing: Role-playing is the best way to help someone connect with the training. This will help new employees get past the nerves of beginning their new position and avoiding potential mistakes. Every training will have one person afraid of role-playing in front of a group; it is unavoidable. Give everyone a chance to have his or her turn, but be mindful of this common fear. If absolutely necessary, offer to work with them one-on-one, but it’s vital that they practice. You can’t expect a new employee to succeed without practice in a safe environment where you can coach them.

7) Know the Technology: Knowing the content of the training is essential. In virtual training knowing your technology is also important. From which web browser to use and which button to click to “all I see is a little circle spinning; what do I do?” – as a virtual trainer you become IT by necessity. Research the usage of your applications on different web browsers and know the limitations and system requirements, such as updated Adobe or Java. Know your applications well, and be prepared to prove it. Inevitably every virtual training has at least one technical difficulty; the key is to know how to fix it in a timely fashion and diminish downtime for the rest of the class.

8) Icebreakers: Icebreakers are a fun way for participants to get to know each other in any training environment, but it is even more important for virtual training. In traditional training environments, attendees have breaks to socialize and get to know one another; that’s hard to do in a virtual training environment. And as it is sometimes hard to identify with a coworker by voice alone, getting creative with different icebreakers can help employees identify with each other and feel more comfortable working as a team throughout training. Icebreakers should be scheduled at the beginning of training and after any extended break. For longer trainings, have ideas in mind to use after heavy, detail-oriented segments as a way of not overloading attendees.

9) Hands-On Experience: In the virtual training environment, one of the main keys to success is giving attendees hands-on opportunities early and often – especially when it comes to systems. Most people don’t fully feel comfortable until they are able to navigate through systems themselves. Repetition is fundamental in learning systems, and it will allow attendees to ask for help with things they didn’t know they didn’t know. As the old proverb says, “Those who waste their time in idleness or in a nonproductive manner are easily misled.” This is especially true in virtual training. Even the most devoted attendee might have the urge to sneak away if he or she won’t be missed. Giving attendees something to do throughout the training will help mediate this risk.

10) Beyond the Classroom: Virtual training, like traditional on-site training, should not end in the classroom. As a virtual trainer, it’s easy to pick up and leave when the training is done, but it’s critical for new employees to begin new tasks with good habits. In order to ensure a new employee’s success, identify issues and help solidify best practices early on. Objectivity is key. As a trainer it’s easy to develop a mindset of “I can help anyone succeed,” or “I’ve invested so much time in their training.” This phase is the last chance to identify someone who is just not going to make it and conversely to give someone the extra coaching he or she needs to succeed.

While there are other aspects of training in both traditional and virtual training environments that are important, these ten best practices should not be overlooked. Do your research on technologies you can use to facilitate the needs of your virtual training. Experiment with different ideas and methods, but above all else make it fun and engaging. Just remember: “It’s better to train employees and lose them than to not train them and keep them.”

Ryan Apodac is responsible for training at Quality Contact Solutions, a leading B2B outsourced telemarketing organization. With a background of more than a decade in sales, Ryan is passionate about developing and delivering training that ultimately results in improved performance for client programs.

[From Connection MagazineMarch/April 2016]

Five Little Words

By Sherry Gouel

In this age of the Internet, websites, and social media, our process of gathering information has drastically changed over the past decade. Any information we need is at our fingertips – just a few clicks away. While technology is great and certainly has its benefits, I remember a time where, without hesitation, I could pick up the phone and speak with someone in customer service. Yes, I’m dating myself, but there was something nice about hearing a human voice at the other end of the phone, and it was especially nice to hear the words, “How can I help you?” These five words would produce a sigh of relief in the anticipation of finally connecting with another human being who would understand my dilemma and make it all better.

I’m not underestimating the convenience of today’s technology. Most often I go to websites and search for information; usually the answers are there. I have often used Web chat to ask a question or confirm an answer, but sometimes the answers are not so obvious. Some websites encourage you to email your questions, promising a reply within twenty-four hours.

But there are times where I just want to speak to someone instead of typing on a keyboard, and I always appreciate the companies who provide a customer service telephone number on their website. Even so, if I do call the chances are I will be placed on hold for several minutes, listen to the company’s promotional ads, and be reminded that I can visit their website for faster service. I appreciate the convenience of the Web, but websites will never replace the reassurance of the human voice. No matter how much technology evolves, the Internet will never match the human connection, emotion, and empathy that go along with the words, “How can I help you?”

So how can the call center industry compete with technology? The purpose of call centers is providing services that outperform machines. Agents in the call center industry take calls all day to answer client questions and help with an endless list of predicaments. The voices that answer these calls are important. Their voices convey the comfort of the human connection, and this is a valuable element.

In this day of everything digital, call centers remain in the business of people talking to people. Regardless of its stated purpose, calling into a call center has a customer-service component. The voice on the other end of the phone should communicate to the caller, “How can I help you?”

Every call that comes in is different in nature; therefore, agents provide a truly personalized service to each caller. Their tasks go beyond just taking a message or answering a question. They provide a human touch to an ever-expanding digital world.

I sometimes watch kids who text as fast as I can speak, and I’m not sure whether to feel awe or sadness. This new generation is constantly trying to find ways to access instant information. We are prompted to type a question or submit a request electronically rather than ask another person for answers or assistance. And we’re all becoming more comfortable doing so.

It’s important for the call center industry to continue to provide the human touch to our clients. As the scale tips more toward everything digital, hearing someone say, “How can I help you?” is more than just five little words. It’s a small reminder that there is still some human left in humanity.

Since 1993 Sherry Gouel has been in charge of marketing and sales support at Szeto Technologies, a company that has provided telephony solutions since 1986. She can be reached at 877-697-9368 or sherry@szeto.ca.

[From Connection Magazine – January/February 2016]

Ask Kathy: The Outbound Calling Woe – “I’m Not Interested”

By Kathy Sisk

When it comes to outbound campaigns, it is not realistic to assume that the prospect is sitting and waiting by his or her phone in anticipation of your call. That never happens. On the contrary, the prospect may have already been inundated with calls similar to yours, in the middle of doing something more important, or simply is not available.

When you are able to reach the prospect, he or she may not have an interest in what you are calling about. If you get any negative response early in your presentation, your method of handling that response is critical at this point. One of the most challenging parts of an outbound telemarketing call is the ability to handle a premature “I’m not interested.”

Your response to this should be the “easy close.” It will guide you through this challenge and allow you to continue with your presentation. At the very least, this will keep the door open for future contact with the prospect. The easy close sounds like this: “I respect that. If I could provide you with information that could save you [money, time, effort] on your _____, are you open to receive more information about this?”

The idea is to get the prospect to say “yes.” Get the prospect to confirm that he or she would be open to more information. This turns a negative reaction into a positive response, and helps you to nudge the process forward. Once your prospect has responded positively to you sending more information, you can move onto the next portion of the easy close: qualifying the prospect’s interest. Ask the reluctant prospect: “To ensure that you can benefit, I need to verify some information if you don’t mind.” This final portion of the easy close gets another positive response that helps you go into the next step of your presentation: probing.

When a campaign is carefully thought out, and when you diligently incorporate your training into your calls, you will gain greater confidence in handling prospects and experience more positive outcomes.

Preparation is a vital key to overcoming obstacles.

Kathy Sisk, founder and president of Kathy Sisk Enterprises Inc., is a trainer and consultant, contributing thirty-five years of expertise to the telemarketing, sales, and customer service industries.

[From Connection Magazine Jul/Aug 2015]