Six Tips for Training Universal Service Agents

Universal service agents perform a wide variety of tasks in today’s contact center: taking inbound order calls, resolving customer service issues, responding to e-mails, engaging in online chat with Web customers. Sooner or later — if it doesn’t already — your company will need flexible agents who can juggle multiple methods of communication during one shift, so that your contact center can cost-efficiently maintain service levels. So you’d best start thinking about training some of your contact center reps to be universal service agents.

Not all contact center reps are suitable for universal status. “Agents who were selected to be on the telephone may not have either the skills or the attributes needed to be successful universal service reps,” says Maggie Klenke, founding partner of Lebanon, TN-based consultancy/educational provider The Call Center School. “The ability to speak well and the ability to write a good English sentence are two different things.”

And therein lies the challenge: The same charming agent who excels in upselling and cross-selling while on the telephone may struggle when it comes to composing an e-mail or holding up his end of an online chat. Here are six tips to help you meet the challenge of identifying which of your existing CSRs have the makings of a universal service agent and then training those agents effectively.

  1. Test for written skills

    Obviously a rep who will be corresponding with customers via e-mail and Web chat needs to have solid writing, typing, and spelling skills. So the first thing to do is give prospective universal agents a brief writing test: Have them respond to a few sample e-mail queries, giving them a time limit, or conduct a mock Web chat with them.

  2. Focus on online business writing, not writing in general

    A gifted writer may not necessarily be skilled in business writing specific to online communications. While traditional business-writing courses can provide a necessary foundation, universal reps need training in online communication, which requires a simple and concise style, the ability to acknowledge the customer’s feelings, and knowledge of appropriate ways to state the solution/problem/request.

    Don’t overemphasize writing skills to the point where you neglect to train the reps in product knowledge and the navigation of your company’s Website, however. “Are they knowledgeable enough to answer questions about technology as well as those pertaining to your products or services?” Klenke asks.

  3. Role-play

    As you introduce your reps to additional media, they 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 evaluate their response time, the accuracy of the solutions they provide, and grammar/spelling errors.

    At Jacksonville, FL-based Venus Swimwear, customer service reps undergo an initial two-week training period before “graduating” to universal agent status, says contact center manager Elisa Lowry. At that point, novice universal service agents “buddy up” with more-experienced agents for about two weeks.

  4. Spell out policies, procedures, and even scripts

    Written communications — even a seemingly innocuous e-mail correspondence between an agent and a customer — can be used against you in a court of law (see “Leaving a paper trail,” left). That’s why a critical component of your training program is a manual complete with procedures to serve as the cornerstone for how agents should manage their communications with customers. This manual should also include consumer-rights information and any applicable product regulations.

    When communicating via e-mail or chat, Klenke suggests using templates that eliminate the need for agents to repeatedly type the same reply. Make your templates broad enough so that the reps can tailor them as appropriate. George Isaacson, a partner with Lewiston, ME-based law firm Brann & Isaacson, suggests instructing employees on how to “cut and paste” the templates — and scripts, in the case of verbal communications — to provide consistent responses to frequently asked questions and common complaints, especially concerning sensitive subjects.

    But make sure that your agents know when to follow which templates. Nothing irritates customers more, warns Klenke, than canned responses that don’t address their queries. The last thing you want is your e-mail prompting a telephone call — to you.

    Isaacson adds that your agents should never “wing it” when trying to resolve a customer service issue. “This kind of preparation and training [regarding standard responses] is essential, whether communications with customers are oral or written,” he says.

  5. Emphasize the importance of friendly professionalism

    “When speaking with customers on the telephone, we all know that good manners apply. The same rules apply to e-mails and chat,” Klenke says. The challenge with written communication is that there are no vocal clues to let the recipient know when the other person is joking, say, so an e-mail that’s meant to be humorous could end up inadvertently insulting a customer. For that reason, you need to show agents the proper written tone you want them to strike.

    For instance, though Venus Swimwear’s customers tend to be Web-savvy teens and young adults, Lowry says, “we refrain from using emoticons.” These are symbols or letters used to as a type of shorthand — for instance, 🙂 to indicate happiness or a joke.

    “But we are very flexible in empathetic responses that are tailored to the subject,” Lowry continues. “We always try to end a chat or e-mail with some sort of individually personal comment. For example, if a customer starts with ‘I’m shopping for a swimsuit for my cruise in the spring,’ we’ll end with something like ‘Have a wonderful cruise and don’t get too much sun.’”

  6. Consider e-learning

    An increasing number of contact centers are using workforce management systems to push training, in the form of e-learning modules, to an agent’s desktop during off-peak times. The lessons can be sent to agents manually, or they can be automatically triggered based on rules specified by the manager in advance. For example, the software can be programmed to send an e-learning course titled “10 Ways to Improve Your Handle Time” to any agent whose average handle time increases over a five-day time frame.

Leaving a paper trail

When it comes to litigation, being able to produce a written running dialogue between a contact center agent and a customer can help your case, not hurt it, says George Isaacson, a partner in law firm Brann & Isaacson.

“Certainly direct marketers have to be careful with what they put in print, whether it is catalog copy, Website information, or responses to customer inquiries,” Isaacson says. “But written communications between online shoppers and a direct marketer’s customer service representatives are an opportunity for not only improving service but also for lessening legal risks. In many consumer-rights cases, a company can actually benefit from being able to produce a copy of its written exchanges with customers.”

In consumer-rights cases, Isaacson explains, the question of what a merchant promised a customer often boils down to a he said/she said dispute. “Where there is nothing in writing to resolve conflicting versions of events and conversations, government agencies are often inclined to side with the consumer,” he notes. “Many courts, especially juries, take the same approach, making it an uphill battle to disprove a consumer’s allegations. A written record supporting a marketer’s position can quickly end such unsupported claims.”

Block it out

The purpose of universal service agents is to provide flexibility in the contact center by being able to handle multiple types of customer communications. But while it’s essential that your universal reps be able to switch among media, Maggie Klenke, founding partner of consultancy/educational provider The Call Center School, advises against having universal service agents juggle three or more channels simultaneously. “Don’t assume a person can effectively mix calls, e-mails, and Web chats on an intermingled basis,” Klenke says.

Along similar lines, “people ask me the appropriate amount of chat screens you should have open at one time,” says Kathleen Peterson, chief vision officer at Bedford, NH-based Powerhouse Consulting. “I tell them one. Any more than that will become irksome to your customers. After all, there’s a customer staring blankly back into the terminal.”

Klenke advises scheduling universal service agents in blocks of time so that they perform one skill at a time. “That gives them time to concentrate and get into the rhythm of the work, which will result in greater efficiency and fewer errors.”

Peterson agrees. “If you randomly distribute whatever contacts are in the queue to whomever is available without regard to the realities of human nature, your customers are going to be disappointed,” she says. Continually switching tasks disrupts an agent’s workflow. “CSRs should start and complete a task before beginning another.”

Multichannel merchant Omaha Steaks carves out dedicated e-mail time and phone time for its reps, says customer care operations manager Cheryl Holtzen. Response time for e-mails is 80% answered within two hours. Phone response time, according to Holtzen, is 80% of calls answered in 20 seconds. Overall, the volume at Omaha Steaks is 70% telephone, 30% e-mail.

Universal agents are often scheduled for two three-hour blocks devoted to responding to e-mail each week. The rest of the week, the reps will send e-mails only when call volume is slow. “This allows us to maintain a high response time on calls and e-mails with a relatively small staff,” Holtzen says.

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