Turning Your Call Center Agents into ‘Net Reps’

It’s one thing to get e-mail and Web chat systems integrated in your call center, quite another to get your agents to use them well.

As we learned in last week’s article, it takes more than just technology to transform your telephone agents into “net reps” or “cyber agents.” Contact centers today must implement comprehensive hiring, training, and performance measurement plans to ensure agents have the skills they need to deliver good customer service online.

Not only do centers need to hire the right agents to support these Web-based interactions, they also need to provide ongoing training and support to ensure they can use these forms of communication efficiently and effectively.

Last time we discussed the first two steps in the four-stage process of Web-enabling your front-line staff, including undertaking a needs assessment and assembling a Web-enabled workforce. Now let’s take a look at how to train your agents to become effective “Net reps.”

Training for Net reps

As you introduce Web interactions, your reps will need to try out their new skills with role-play scenarios. Create simulations to replicate the types of interactions they are required to support. You can easily evaluate their response time, accuracy of the solution they provide, and grammar/spelling errors.

Another area to include as part of your training curriculum is the use of browsers and search engines. The two most frequently used browsers are Netscape and Internet Explorer, and your agents should be comfortable with both platforms.

If your agents are not familiar with search engines, you can structure several interactive “surfing safaris” to search for information. During this expedition, agents are assigned products to find as they explore the wilds of the Web using tools you provide as part of their “survival kit.”

Your training plan should also address business writing specific to online communications. With Web chats or e-mails, it is hard to express emotions nearly as well as a telephone conversation, as online communication lacks intonation, gestures, and a shared environment. Traditional business writing courses can provide the necessary foundation for basic techniques, but specific writing skills for effective online communication should include how to edit the response to be as clear as possible, proofreading to catch errors, using a simple and concise writing style, how to acknowledge the customer’s feelings, appropriate ways to state the solution/problem/request, and how to explain the next steps.

In delivering the training, you also have to consider the platform and delivery vehicle. Since you are focusing on the Web-enabled agent, you may wish to use online resources and Web-based training wherever possible. Make sure you’ve considered each of the following type of Web-based training in your plan:

Standard slide presentations with audio recordings: Several inexpensive systems will enable supervisors to create customized presentations with specific verbal guidelines with audio recordings saved as part of the final file. Using only a PC, a telephone, a Web browser and a Microsoft PowerPoint presentation, anyone can create and publish Web-based presentations enriched with audio. Two such tools are HotFoot for PowerPoint from Digital Lava (digitallava.com/hotfoot) and the Brainshark Communications Platform available from Brainshark (brainshark.com).

Several training organizations, including The Call Center School, use Web collaboration platforms such as Placeware to deliver Web-based call center training on a variety of topics. These electronic, instructor-led (e-ILT) sessions allow users to listen to the live instructor, “raise their hand” when they have a question and actively participate in the presentation by sending questions using a text-chat mode and providing responses to polling questions. These interactive Webinars provide a financially feasible alternative to traditional classroom training.

Many call centers are now using software that is integrated with quality monitoring, telephone, and workforce management systems. Systems like Knowlagent and Witness can push training to the agent’s desktop when gaps have been identified. Combined with a link to the workforce management and telephone systems, these modules are often pushed to the agent when call volume is low. Additional features include reports that provide feedback on students’ performance and can be setup to alert supervisors when the agents do not demonstrate a grasp of the concepts.

And part of the training will be ensuring reps know where to easily find information once they begin handling contacts. Obviously, you’ll want to make sure as many as possible of these references and resources can be accessed online.

Online resources: Call centers can migrate paper-based reference material utilized by agents to a company intranet. Documents that would be appropriate for this format include product information (features, benefits, etc.,), product manuals, selling tips, and new product announcements.

Create automatic acknowledgements: The majority of e-mail management systems will allow the call center to automatically notify every e-mail sender that their inquiry has been received. This allows the customer to know their inquiry hasn’t been sent to a black hole and it also allows the call center to set the expectation for the response time.

Create automated responses using macros: Creating templates with macros can eliminate the need for agents to type the same reply over and over. Some templates will allow the agents to insert additional information using a cut and paste routine to customize the response. However, be cautious: Although e-mail response templates can be helpful, agents must still be able to understand what the customer is telling them. Using canned responses that do not address the customer’s request can lead to additional correspondence from frustrated customers, prompt escalations to senior agents and management, and generate more phone calls.

Policies and procedures for new media: One of the most critical components of your training program will be the creation of policies and procedures to serve as the cornerstone for how your agents manage Web interactions. When migrating from the spoken word to the written word, the legal ramifications of putting something on “paper” grow exponentially.

Obviously, agents need to have good manners (etiquette) when speaking with customers on the phone, but the rules are different when they communicate using the Internet. In order to be successful “Net reps,” your agents will need to know good “netiquette,” which is the etiquette of cyberspace. As agents learn more about the Internet and cyberspace, they will become familiar with acronyms and icons used to represent emotions. Below is a list of popular acronyms and emoticons used in e-mail and various types of Web interactions:

Acronyms

BTW

By the way

FWIW

For what it’s worth

IAE

In any event

IMO

In my opinion

IOW

In other words

NRN

No Reply Necessary

OTOH

On the other hand

TIA

Thanks In Advance

Emoticons

🙂

Smiley Face – Happy

🙁

Frown – Sad

:-@

Scream

>:-(

Angry Frown – Upset

>:-[#]

Gnashing Teeth – Really Mad

:-O

Yell

If a customer is utilizing a text-chat interface and begins to use acronyms to save time and typing, the agent should know how to interpret, and use the acronyms to communicate. While you may not want your agents to sign off their correspondence with a happy face, you’ll want them to at least be able to recognize some of the emoticons shown here to ensure they’re aware of the customers’ emotions and mood when they respond to a question or request.

Next week we’ll take a look at how to evaluate the performance of your “Net reps.”

Penny Reynolds and Pamela Trickey are co-founders and senior partners with The Call Center School, a Nashville, TN-based consulting and education company.

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