Operations and Management: Give Your CSRs Some Class

“Continuing education” shouldn’t apply only to adults who take a weekly pottery or art-history class at their local college. Employees in your contact center should be participating in continual on-the-job training as well.

At most call centers, customer service reps learn the basics of handling calls and entering orders during an initial training period — and that’s it for instruction. Big mistake, says Liz Kislik, a Valley Stream, NY-based operations consultant.

“There’s an assumption that CSRs are unskilled workers performing rudimentary tasks,” Kislik says. But CSR training should cover not only “rudimentary” systems and procedures, such as how to look up an order, but also product knowledge, communication skills, and decision-making acumen, such as determining who should get a refund and for how much. And these skills need to be continually updated.

The reason many hesitate to invest in continual training for service reps is simple: the high turnover rates of contact center employees. But Tena Perrelli, customer contact center manager at Burlington, VT-based cataloger Gardener’s Supply Co., argues that turnover is precisely why catalogers should strive to train continually. “It’s an ideal way to keep our seasonal hires plugged in with new advances by the company,” she says, not to mention keeping full-time workers up to date.

In fact, continued training can reduce turnover, Kislik insists, by making your customer service reps feel like an integral part of the organization. And if your reps are armed with the most current company information, they’ll likely be able to upsell and cross-sell more productively — providing the return on investment in hiring an outside trainer or paying for the extra man-hours to cover for employees who are in training sessions.

Lessons in training

About three years ago Gardener’s Supply increased its training budget 40% to accommodate additional instruction throughout the year, Perrelli says. Now its Gardening Guru program, offered three times a year, includes product training and visits from horticulture lecturers at nearby University of Vermont so that its contact center employees can speak the language of the gardening cataloger’s audience.

And before each catalog edition mails, the entire call center shuts down on a Sunday for special training. “When you’re in a peak season or short-staffed,” Perrelli says, “operations people don’t like to take people off the phones for training purposes.” In the Sunday sessions, staffers learn about new and promotional products and the merchandise featured on the catalog covers; they’re also instructed on how best to capture source codes.

Bedding and apparel cataloger Garnet Hill keeps its customer service reps up to speed through “finesse sessions,” in which senior-level trainers sit with employees to evaluate specific job skills. Betty Moody, vice president of customer satisfaction for the Franconia, NH-based mailer, says trainers actively monitor CSRs at work about six times per month.

“When we identify an area that may need clarification or retraining,” Moody says, “we take individuals or small groups aside for 30-minute to 60-minute finesse sessions.” Session subjects include order entry, time management, phone etiquette, product information, policies, and upselling.

Kislik suggests scheduling short training breaks such as those Garnet Hill offers immediately before or after shifts, or during a paid lunch. If you can’t provide enough coverage to stagger training sessions throughout your group, consider closing your call center for a day or for a few hours during a slow period, as Gardener’s Supply does. You can set up a special recorded announcement, such as “We’re in training to serve you better” that also suggests when to call back.

If you’re still tempted to skimp on continual training, keep in mind that, as Perrelli says, “training is what sets your company apart. It distinguishes who you are and what you sell.” Without it, she notes, “you’ll end up sounding like everyone else.”

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