Any organization that stakes its reputation — and profit margin — on being able to deliver an outstanding customer experience knows the importance of a well-trained sales professional. This person should have the skills and training necessary not only to satisfy every customer demand but also to support all sales and marketing initiatives within the organization — directly contributing to the bottom line and the company’s overall success.

Not enough companies apply this way of thinking to their call center staff, however. But as the role of the contact center evolves from a cost-based function to a revenue-generating line of business, agent training will become increasingly important for the delivery of highly effective and efficient customer interactions.

Of course, while it makes sense to prioritize service quality in the contact center, traditional training methods are expensive. Given that retail contact center agents are a high-turnover resource, many marketers hesitate to invest too heavily in what are likely to be short-term employees.

But a newer approach to agent training, consisting of emerging technology and sound management principles, can help you save money while you sharpen the skills of your contact center agents.

The four coaching components

This new approach to agent training and achieving better service levels in the contact center is based on four “coaching” components: agent monitoring, ongoing feedback/performance evaluation, personalized training, and agent empowerment.

  • Agent monitoring

    If a supervisor can’t see or hear what the agent is doing, he can’t evaluate the call agent’s performance and provide the feedback necessary for improvement. Traditionally, supervisors monitor agents by sitting in on live calls or manually recording them. Both of these approaches take a fair amount of time, though, and they’re not always convenient.

    An automated monitoring system can record calls, capture agent screen activity, and provide unbiased feedback. You can create templates for the system that include all the measurable areas of work: Did the agent address the customer by name? Did the agent use the company’s standard opening and closing statements? By reviewing the recording of the actual customer conversation to complete the template, the evaluator can make a fair assessment and play it as many times as is necessary. The agent also knows that the supervisor is using the exact same metrics for measuring the performance of his co-workers. Additionally, there is always a record of the customer interaction, therefore eliminating any subjectivity and “she said, he said” confrontations.

  • Ongoing feedback/performance evaluation

    Once a supervisor has observed a specific behavior, it is important that he address the issue quickly and easily in order to improve the agent’s performance. Immediate, ongoing feedback — coaching — increases an agent’s retention of the information and dramatically accelerates his level of improvement — directly improving the contact center service quality.

  • Personalized training

    Traditional group classroom training, which requires call center employees to leave their stations, can ratchet up your staffing and overtime costs, since you need workers to cover for those in training. Conversely, delivering personalized training materials to the agent’s desktop saves time and money; employees can review training videos, evaluate customer interactions, and review supervisor notes during down time at their own desks. You can train an agent as soon as a need is identified, rather than waiting for a group meeting. And supervisors can address the specific needs of each agent, rather than teaching too generally and to the lowest common denominator. Many tools, such as short training clips consisting of a voice recording synchronized with a screen capture of an application, have been found to decrease the amount of time needed to train new hires.

  • Agent empowerment

    With easy access to training and self-evaluation tools, agents can learn at their own pace and actively manage their development. Receiving fresh, updated information about policies, special sales, and new products instantaneously enables agents to feel more connected to the big picture. By creating a centralized repository for critical data, you empower employees and encourage their initiative. The uninterrupted flow of information to the desktop means that agents have a knowledge base for improving their performance and providing top-notch service.

A case in point

An example of how applying this new training approach transformed a contact center into a profit center involves a retailer known for superior store service. It faced problems translating its trademark service level to its contact center using traditional training methods.

Adding insult to injury, the traditional training methods didn’t come cheap. The company, which suffered a 50% annual turnover rate among its contact center agents, spent $250,000 a year hiring and training call center staff. And between meetings and evaluations, the company was taking each agent away from the phone for a few hours each month, which translated to hundreds of thousands of dollars in labor costs. The retailer also had to bring on temporary agents for special events to accommodate increases in call volume of up to 70%.

While this marketer had already invested in an automated call recording system, it had only limited visibility into how its Web group was operating. Twenty-five agents worked specifically with e-mail and Web chat, but the supervisors weren’t able to monitor their service levels.

The company added to its automated system such tools as personalized training videos and the capacity to capture agents’ Web screen activity. The screen grabs helped it determine how well agents used e-mail and Web chat and ensure that they maintained appropriate service levels in those channels.

The company also used the training videos to encourage agents to upsell. Supervisors created short videos to reinforce specific initiatives, such as upselling clearance items and promoting house credit cards, then delivered these instructions directly to the agents’ desktops.

Within a year of implementing its new training program, the company found that it had saved more than $50,000 in labor costs and up to $40,000 on training costs.

At what cost?

Such savings are well and good — provided that they’re not significantly outweighed by the cost. Typically, an integrated system costs approximately $800 per seat.

You can calculate the return on investment by a number of variables. At one company, it might translate into higher sales by ensuring that agents are reminded on a regular basis to suggest additional products. For example, in the consumer banking division of Bank of Oklahoma Financial, the new approach to agent training boosted cross-sell referrals by 97%, according to James Morris, senior vice president of consumer banking.

Other organizations may calculate the ROI through saved time, since training delivered to the desktop means that agents do not need to leave their workstations. The ROI may also be calculated in terms of leveraging resources, because agents who handle customer contacts more efficiently can serve more customers per hour. For instance, Charlie Moore, customer service director at books and music retailer Borders Group, credits the new coaching approach with reducing agents’ call handling time by 17%, to less than two minutes a call.

For the customer, one bad experience over the phone or the Web can tarnish a company’s otherwise sterling reputation. Conversely, a contact center can be converted from a cost center to a revenue-generating powerhouse. For retailers, the answer can be as simple as using more-creative approaches to training.

Diane M. Williams is director of marketing for Envision Telephony, a Seattle-based provider of contact center solutions.

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