Start with a dash of one-to-one instruction. Add a pinch of online training. Sprinkle with the facts from a knowledge base. Cook at a moderate level, stirring occasionally, and voila, the right blend of face-to-face training and e-learning technologies makes a deliciously winning combination.
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Running a training program in a call center is a little like being a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse. You're often faced with the challenge of teaching groups in which no two students are at the same level. Some need remedial help, while others are so far ahead of the class they can train themselves. In this situation, experts say, how you train someone becomes just as important as the subject matter you're teaching--especially since there's far more than just grades riding on call center training.
According to a recent Yankee Group study on call center spending priorities, 62 percent of businesses say call center training is the spending priority. Unfortunately, more than 25 percent also say call center training is one of the biggest challenges they face.
The dichotomy of call center training creates the need for more than just one type of training method. Until a few years ago the only options for call centers were face-to-face, instructor-led classes and self-learning using books, videos, and documents. Today call center training has evolved, giving managers more options and, theoretically, higher chances for success.
"Call center training has really changed and managers have far more options than they did in the past," says Michael Brennan, program manager for research firm IDC's corporate learning and performance group.
According to a recent IDC study, the majority of call centers use at least one of the three most common types of training--face-to-face, e-learning, or self-learning using agent-searchable knowledge databases. The majority, nearly 65 percent, uses classroom-based courses. E-learning, either via intranet or CD-ROM, is the second most popular method of training delivery, with more than 23 percent of trainers choosing this method.
It's telling that instructor-driven training still rules the call center. Analysts say it's the method of choice because instructors can deliver something that other methods can't: instant feedback and flexibility. Trainers can teach reps not only what they need to know, but also the best ways to disseminate that information to customers, says Rebecca Wettemann, vice president of research with Nucleus Research. "Training someone to answer questions correctly isn't enough. You want them to be thinking, How do I set customer expectations? How can I use the knowledge I have? How do I know when to escalate a call? All that makes someone a better customer service representative, but that's not something that someone can learn from a computer program. Role playing and back-and-forth feedback is essential."
Instructors can assess and rate interpersonal skills, but they can also give trainees the option of getting hands-on with new products.
That's not to say that there's not a place for e-learning modules, which are expected to grow in popularity over the next few years. According to IDC, by 2006 e-learning will surpass classroom-based instruction in the call center, garnering 53 percent of the total training market. Classroom-based instruction will drop to 41 percent, according to IDC's Brennan.
E-learning has several advantages that directly impact the bottom line. First, e-learning modules can be completed in the call center, eliminating travel, personnel, and classroom costs. Today many companies ask service representatives to switch to e-learning lessons between calls or at the beginning or end of a shift.
Second, anyone with a PC can use e-learning tools, so there's less chance of representatives misunderstanding a lesson or falling behind. They can work at their own pace and go back to anything that is unclear.
Third, in a regular classroom setting retention and progress is negatively affected by a large number of students. For this reason most call centers cap class size at about 25. With e-learning one rep or 10,000 reps can access a lesson without sacrificing lesson quality.
These benefits also apply to the increasingly popular self-learning searchable knowledge databases. These tools, which agents can access on the fly, make it easier for reps to find the answer to a customer's question without having to commit too much to memory. This can be crucial for companies whose procedures, pricing, and product information changes daily, or even hourly.
It's Not What You Know
Experts say that although continuing education is vital, whom you train is the variable that's most important. According to IDC, first-year reps receive 66 hours of training, while second- and third-year reps receive 36 and 18 hours each year, respectively. Some of that training time might be a waste.
"Eighty percent of call center training is low-fidelity stuff," explains Nucleus Research's Wettemann. "It's stuff people can learn quickly, so you can put it into a knowledge database or use e-learning. The other stuff--the hard questions that reps will need to know--is only 20 percent of what people need to learn, but it's 80 percent of the value of your service." Wettemann says that although all customer service representatives should receive continuing education, it's not always necessary to train everyone on the same curriculum. It may be more cost effective and time efficient, she says, to teach reps when to pass a call on and give extra attention to managers and people who handle call escalations.
The following three companies have taken expert advice to heart. Each, like most companies, uses a combination of teaching tools in the call center. And each says training is giving it an edge over the competition.
You wouldn't think that a company that's won awards for its customer service would need to revamp its call center training program, but that's just what Continental Airlines did about a year ago.
The company, which polls its customers after interactions with the call center, was looking for a replacement for its old assessment and training program. In the past each rep had five calls taped and graded per month. Based on the results, supervisors provided feedback and suggestions. Unfortunately, this method couldn't ferret out problems the reps had using the company's reservations system. Monitoring only five calls per month led to results that weren't always representative of actual performance, and supervisors were often reteaching basic information that could be easily disseminated electronically.
Continental implemented Witness Systems' evaluation software to help improve its training. The airline increased the amount and altered the type of training it provides based on data collected from the new software. Each agent now receives six hours of computer-based and classroom training every month, well ahead of the national average. Training duties are doled out to team leaders who work one-on-one with reps. Rote information is shifted to a computer-based model so trainers can concentrate on the tough stuff. And since each leader only works with 32 reps, there's plenty of time to discuss nuances that don't translate to a computer and can get lost in a group lesson, says Andre Harris, Continental's reservations director and head of training and quality assurance.
Continental also uses its Web-based training modules to boost retention, by making more information more easily accessible to agents. Reps can learn about new policies, read about software upgrades, and find answers to questions online.
The new training focus has gained big wins for the company, Harris says. The average call length is down two to three seconds, and customer quality scoring has increased 10 percent. In addition, e-ticket sales have increased by 8 percent. In the past agents' problems processing e-tickets meant lower e-ticket conversions, Harris says. Solving this alone has resulted in a drop in the number of call escalations in the call center. Before the new training went into effect 6 percent of calls were transferred to supervisors and specialists. Today only 4 percent are forwarded.
"Reduced calls to the support desk pretty much paid for the improvements," Harris says. "Our trainers can also do more targeted training. We are able to do a lot more one-on-one training today, because trainers aren't wasting time on basics."
Integrating Training Styles
Packaged foods manufacturer General Mills revamped its call center in November 2001 after a merger pushed it into assessing its training program. General Mills, which manufactures cereal, Betty Crocker baking products, and snack foods, acquired Pillsbury and its existing outsourced call center. Hoping to bring the product lines--and all 66 reps--together, General Mills compared its internal training program to that of Affina's, the company that managed Pillsbury's call center and training. As a result, General Mills upgraded its internal program to a more proactive, face-to-face training program, while incorporating some of its own program into Pillsbury's.
The typical customer who calls General Mills is looking for help with recipes or information about promotions. Sometimes customers call with negative feedback like reports of foreign objects in their food. Handing these types of problems takes finesse, says Jan Foster, who manages consumer services for the company. Finesse that only a classroom setting can provide.
"If we're teaching someone about a new product, we can say, 'Here's the product,' and they can taste it and look at the packaging during the training," Foster says. "We're giving our agents a way to interact with trainers. They can say, 'I've always done it this way, I don't understand the change.' We find the exchange beneficial."
This kind of training is imperative for any consumer packaged good company, says Nucleus Research's Wettemann, because it helps reps learn the types of answers that most callers are going to be looking for. "A lot of customers are going to the Web for self-service. If they're calling in, you can assume that they're probably calling with a problem that they can't solve themselves online."
Like Continental, General Mills uses electronic training, but sparingly. Notices about price changes or anything "black and white," Foster says, go out on paper and online.
General Mills doesn't release specific return on investment data, but Foster says turnover and call quality has improved since the new training program was put into place. "If you have a well-trained rep, turnover goes down. We know that ongoing training impacts the cost-per-contact," Foster says.
Even the Professionals Do It
Stream International is a subsidiary of Solectron Global Services. It has 10 call centers--nine in North America and one in India--and more than 9,000 customer service reps. The performance of each and every customer service representative is tied directly to the success of the company, because Stream handles customer service for more than 200 other companies. If a service rep doesn't satisfy the customer's customer, not only can that company pull its business, but it can also demand remuneration based on the details of its service level agreement. Training is designed so that this will happen infrequently, if it happens at all.
About a year ago, to improve its training further, Stream International switched to a new training program that features plenty of self-learning and electronic training.
To find the right software, the company had to consider the needs of its four separate training programs. Before anyone is even hired they go through a program designed to weed out the best candidates. Once hired, agents spend between two and six weeks with an instructor learning the basics of the job, as well as key customer service skills. Management trainees have their own program, which teaches them how to assess and work with agents. While all of these programs are time-intensive and necessary, the company spends the most time and resources on its ongoing agent education, says Jare Buckley-Cox, Stream International's vice president of education and quality. The new training program had to provide value for all four of the company's internal training programs.
Today, the bulk of agent training is handled using Click2Learn's e-learning program. Customer agents work with modules right from their stations. Sometimes they complete the 30- to 60-minute modules before or after their shifts; other times they browse them during down periods. So far the e-learning option is a winner, Buckley-Cox says.
"We can create lessons and get them out to agents in a more timely fashion. We can also track the training and measure effectiveness," she says.
Of course, there are still times where hands-on learning is the only way to go. For example, customer service agents who handle technical calls need to open the products they support. And new agents are still likely to sit in a classroom--at least initially.
Still, the combination of e-learning and more traditional training methods is working out well for the company. Although ROI data is still being assessed, Stream International reports that both customer and agent satisfaction has gone up significantly. "We have a lot of flexibility now," Buckley-Cox says. "Anecdotally, it's made an impact on our business."
Karen Bannan is a New York--based freelance journalist.