Recently I asked several contact center managers, “How prepared are your agents to handle the job immediately following initial training?” The answers ranged from “barely” to “more than 60%.” Many managers said there was no way to prepare them adequately: Agents simply have to get on the phone and experience what it is like.
Unfortunately, you risk losing customers due to their interaction with inexperienced agents. We should design simulated training that covers everything an agent could encounter once on the phone. We can’t afford to leave anything to chance. Just as pilots use flight simulators, contact center professionals need to use simulators in the contact center.
The application phase takes place in the “real” environment of the contact center. It consists of four stages. The coach controls the frequency of the first three stages; the agent controls the last.
The first stage is partnering. The coach sits with the agent in a highly interactive exchange. The coach decides who handles various parts of the call depending on the agent’s demonstrated skill and comfort level.
The second stage is support. The coach is once again sitting with the agent. In this stage, however, the agent is in full control of the call, and the coach takes control only if the agent signals him to do so.
The third stage is a continuation of the support stage, except that the coach is at a remote location. As in the second stage, the coach does not intervene unless there is a request from the agent.
The final stage is the polish stage. The agent goes solo, without coach intervention or continuous monitoring. The agent is asked to start taking control of his own learning process by recording the areas of the call in which he is comfortable and those in which he is not. The coach spends time with the agent after designated call-handling sessions to review the experience.
The invention phase is the last phase of skill development. The coach periodically observes the agent without intervening. In this phase, the agent creatively explores and resolves anomalies between what is supposed to happen and what appears to be happening. He learns how to vary his behavior according to the context of the call and the personalities of those involved. It is in this phase that the agent gains the highest level of skill mastery.
There are several cautions about this sort of simulation approach. First, you may not be able to utilize all the stages in your contact center. For example, you may find it difficult to trade off responsibilities on the same call as described in the applying phase. Second, the phases are not linear. You don’t complete the coaching cycle by going directly from educating to modeling to practicing to applying to inventing. You may find that you need to return to modeling or educating for a particular skill. The coach determines the intervention that expedites the imbedding of the skill.
Kathryn Jackson is president of Ocean City, NJ-based contact center consultancy Response Design Corporation.