The Evolution of E-Learning

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For the rest of the October 2009 issue of CRM magazine please click here. One article in particular, "What's Your Type?," appeared alongside this one.

Perry Kendall has been with Delta Hotels and Resorts, a Canada-based chain of accommodations, for 17 of the company’s 47 years. In his current role as director of global reservations, he leads a staff of agents responsible for booking guests into any of 44 locations. But he had — if you’ll pardon the expression — some reservations of his own: He began to recognize, not long ago, a need to spice up Delta’s existing training practices.

“We wanted to deliver a more-robust training experience,” Kendall recalls. “Not just classroom training, and certainly not a memo format.” Enabling employees to train at their own convenience was another goal. “We wanted to take advantage of the downtimes in schedules — when there may be a quiet afternoon or half hour — to use the time more effectively.”

Four years after deploying Envision Telephony’s e-learning solution, Kendall says the benefits are clear: Within two years, scores for quality monitoring (QM) rose from 83 percent to approximately 90 percent, while call-conversion rates rose from 38 percent to 42 percent. “Agents were basically feeling more comfortable,” he says.

While statistical improvements alone may have validated the investment, Kendall says the real value is the role of e-learning in the company’s overall transformation. In 2004, all of Delta’s agents were based at the company’s location in Canada’s New Brunswick province. Since then, however, another satellite office has been added, along with approximately 100 work-at-home agents (WAHAs). “You could argue that the need wasn’t there prior to opening our satellite operation, but [it] certainly is now, especially with our home agents,” he says. “The ability to make sure the entire team is getting the same quality of training and information is paramount. This tool has absolutely helped us to maintain consistency among the entire team.”

E-learning finally has the potential to shake its reputation as the contact center’s “red-headed stepchild,” says Jerome Brown, solutions marketing manager for e-learning and coaching at Verint Systems. “A lot of people know about it and need it, but they don’t know what to do with the application once they have it,” Brown says. “People are engaged, trying to figure out how to best employ [e-learning] within organizations so that it thrives and delivers a true impact to employees.”

Jim Shulkin, director of marketing for Envision Telephony, calls e-learning the Rodney Dangerfield of workforce optimization (WFO). “It seems to operate underneath the radar,” he says. “People talk about quality monitoring and speech, but e-learning is taken for granted. It isn’t the sexiest thing to talk about.”

Sexy or not, e-learning remains a mystery to many, with conflicting statistics, as well as confusion over whether it’s owned by the enterprise or the contact center. As customer service representatives (CSRs) take on more than just satisfying customer inquiries, however, e-learning will have to evolve.

One issue e-learning has faced in recent years is its actual definition. Keith Dawson, senior analyst at Frost & Sullivan, believes more companies are utilizing e-learning — but they may not be calling it that. “The term was pushed out by the vendor community and hasn’t necessarily been [embraced] by people in contact centers,” he says. “They see it more like packaged or targeted training, more automated than the kind they already do.”

Dawson says that e-learning can be awkward because many traditional training budgets come from somewhere else in the organization — not from within the contact center. “Training professionals that are involved here are really under a slightly different hierarchy,” he says. “It’s a question of mindset in the center.”

Large investments in learning management systems (LMSs) and training departments left companies with the view that e-learning would be a replacement — an unnecessary and wasteful one. Allyson Boudousquie, director of business process marketing for Aspect Software, believes organizations are now beginning to view e-learning appropriately: as a complement. “There were philosophical limitations as contact centers felt that they knew how to train [their] agents,” she says. “This was also back when it wasn’t easy to take lessons from the LMS and port it over to the e-learning system. Now, though, integrations to the LMS have solved that.”

Tim Kraskey, vice president of marketing and business development for Calabrio, insists that e-learning is nothing new—just saddled with a confusing definition. Contact centers with automatic call distributors, he says, already have the capability to communicate with and check on the status of agents.

Outdated or unclear definitions lead to misconceptions about what e-learning can actually deliver. Eric Musser, chief executive officer of productivity specialist OpenSpan, believes that, when the topic comes up, the C-suite suits have a bad flashback to the original e-learning solutions. “The technology has progressed exponentially,” he insists. “We can analyze and automate what you’re doing. We’re moving into automation now as part of the e-learning continuum, and it’s something people just don’t think about — it’s definitely evangelism at this point in time.”

Another vendor, CPP — which offers a Myers-Briggs hiring/personality-testing assessment (see related article “What’s Your Type?”) — won’t even call it e-learning. “We call it on-demand learning,” says Sharon Grimshaw, CPP’s director of program and electronic product development. “It’s no longer e-learning.”

While there may be an issue over coming to a clear, agreed-upon definition of what e-learning actually is — and entails — Paul Stockford, chief analyst at Saddletree Research, has statistics suggesting that e-learning is nonetheless making a comeback. He conducted a survey in 2008 asking three questions about e-learning:

  • Did you use it?
  • Did you have no interest in it?
  • Do you intend to evaluate it over the next 12 months?

Stockford says that in 2008, 26 percent of those surveyed used e-learning, 49 percent had no interest in the application, and 25 percent intended to evaluate purchasing it in the upcoming year. “The number of people who said they had absolutely no interest in e-learning in 2008 surprised me,” he recalls.

Fast-forward to 2009: Now 39 percent of survey respondents use e-learning, only 28 percent have no interest in it, and 27 percent intend to evaluate e-learning in the next year. “The big thing is the percentage of people with no interest is half the size it was last year, meaning more people are paying attention to it,” he says. “The growing popularity of WFO [is] tying all these tools — e-learning, workforce management, [QM], performance management—together.”

Envision’s Shulkin agrees. He says when contact centers purchase a bundled offering of call recording, quality monitoring, and e-learning, they generally utilize the applications in that order. “E-learning is never the priority, but it is the end game to improve agent performance,” he says. “A lot of times companies that implement a package get to e-learning last. Because of that, it takes awhile to get recording and quality monitoring working the way it should.”

Stockford also credits the current recession for nudging contact centers closer to e-learning. “Everyone is running a pretty tight ship right now,” he says. “To pull people off the job for a couple of hours — taking them away from customer responsibilities — is a costly proposal. Unless you have a lot of extra people to cover calls, it’s hard to justify.”

Aspect’s Boudousquie also believes the economy has had an effect on e-learning, but for more consumer-facing reasons. She says customer retention may be more important than ever, and ensuring agents are up-to-date on what they need to know to most effectively do their jobs is paramount. “We’re demanding more of [contact] centers, and customers are increasingly demanding that the agent on the other end of the line will answer any question and take care of them,” she says.

Throwing a bit of a monkey wrench into the equation, Frost & Sullivan’s Dawson says that an end-user survey he did at the beginning of 2009 found e-learning, while considered by nearly a quarter of those surveyed, was not nearly as top-of-mind as other application process optimization (his research firm’s terminology for WFO) tools. QM and performance management were also cited as planned 2009 investments by large segments of the survey pool (53 percent and 43 percent, respectively). “My speculation is that people are looking in the short term for easy wins, and e-learning is not an easy win,” he says of the results. “It is a more-complicated, subtle, nuanced win. It’s a business case that can be made, but you have to go out on a limb.”

Dawson says that companies making the e-learning investment argument must incorporate human resources and other parts of the organization that “are not necessarily immediately integral to the operations of the contact center.” Many companies, he says, first look to cut costs in the contact center, with workforce management (WFM) or QM to determine which agents are performing well and which ones aren’t up to snuff. That can lead to a quick return on investment in terms of rethinking headcount — but e-learning can lead to more.

“E-learning is a very good thing if you use the QM tool to find out who has skills and the ability to upsell and cross-sell,” Dawson says. “It’s not about making major career changes, but rather a targeted boost to find skills that can improve revenue. It’s not an easy win, but it’s one that people should be making. But again, it’s hard in this economy to make the case for something subtle when you can throw money at a WFM system and see instant gains from matching headcount better.”

The way e-learning technology can be used is evolving, arguably making it a more attractive option to purchase. “It’s very innovative if you think about the ability to create clips on the fly, and provide those very specific training clips to a particular group of agents,” Stockford says. “It’s highly relevant, and not just basic, high-level things people dismiss.”

Nowhere is this more evident than in the story of Midwest Contact Center (MCC), a Verint customer of its Impact 360 WFO suite since 2006. According to Kristin Nordgren, contact center manager at MCC, at the time of purchase, her company believed the e-learning application was a tool of the future. “Call centers have difficulty when there’s a communication [that] you have to figure out how to [send] to the entire group of agents,” she says. “We would have different meetings that would almost take two days’ worth of time, and this just helped to simplify that we could do mass distribution and get everyone the same message.”

Nordgren also explains that, thanks to e-learning, her company can provide weekly lessons on different topics selected by scrutinizing reports that come back from the QM module of Impact 360. The lessons can include recorded call clips, as well as best practices for opening, closing, and the body of calls. Now, she says, the company is considering taking it a step further via competency-based learning.

“So, if an agent scores low on a quality evaluation, we can automatically deploy an associated lesson to assist with that, which can help to coincide with coaching in general or solidify training,” she says. “We can understand from a learning-and-development standpoint what people are struggling with in a particular area, and consequently look at our training in general and make enhancements.”

Besides taking care of the quality of internal coaching, Nordgren says the company is now using e-learning to push safety lessons from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) throughout the entire company — not just the customer service. “If OSHA were to come in, we could run a report of what we’re doing insofar as the lessons, and provide it to them,” she says.

MCC is also looking to use e-learning for new hires, and cut down on face-to-face classroom training, which takes precedence with incoming agents now, but can take valuable time away from the phones. “We do have face-to-face training we do for initial hires, otherwise the majority of training is completed through the e-learning lessons,” she says. “Ideally, our ultimate objective is to use it to help us train remote agents.”

This aligns with what Verint’s Brown says is the happy medium of blending face-to-face and electronic learning. “We tell people to do 80 percent electronic delivery in one form or fashion, and the other 20 percent for classroom delivery,” he says. “Classroom delivery is very expensive. Not just the cost of the facilities, but also the cost of customer interactions you’re missing out on by having agents in the classroom instead of on the phone.”

Virtual contact centers and onboarding lend themselves well to electronic learning, according to Stockford, but he believes taking it a step further by using it for the hiring process could have tremendous benefits. “There’s a big opportunity for e-learning at the front end,” he insists. “E-learning and simulation packages can do really well if utilized more at the hiring and selection process. It’s still finding resistance in the market, though.” Dawson agrees, believing that there is a small group of “very savvy, sophisticated, forward-thinking managers that see the big picture of the relationship between the call center, customer retention issues, company health, profit, and viability.”

One last use for e-learning wouldn’t even require a change in technology, Stockford says, just one of mindset: Using e-learning as a career builder for CSRs represents pure, untapped potential, he says. “We tend to look at training as a rudimentary part of the job, but it can also be a way for people who want to make a career out of the contact center to get ahead if they take advantage of the learning opportunities presented to them,” he says. “The benefits go beyond just day-to-day training.” (See sidebar “What’s Your Type?,” below, for e-learning as a form of career guidance.)

In the November 2008 “Generational Spending” issue of CRM, we examined how Generation Y — born between 1977 and 1994 — is changing the way people consume technology, purchase products, and work (“Who, What, Where, When, Y,” November 2008). Nowhere is this more relevant, arguably, than in the contact center — where industry pundits, vendors, and contact centers alike agree that this demographic is coming to work as CSRs in droves.

“To stay relevant to the next generation of workers, e-learning will most likely have to be integrated with social networking tools,” Stockford says. “It could be different delivery methods, ways of getting agents to complete learning modules, or different ways of using the results. We’re not exactly sure what it’ll be yet.”

Verint’s Brown says e-learning, with its strength in delivering information quickly and directly to agents’ desktops, is well-suited to making the jump into Web 2.0. “There is a large move right now toward making what used to be called ‘just-in-time training’ very quick snapshots of points that are important to helping an agent do her job more efficiently and effectively without taking up a lot of time,” he says. “The courses would be seven, 10, or 15 minutes long at the most. This is driven not only from a time standpoint, but the average age of agents is more the millennial generation of 19-to-25-year-olds who like information quickly, to the point, with no fluff.”

Social and Web 2.0 technologies will clearly have a major impact on the contact center, and on business overall — we devoted our entire June 2009 issue to barely scratching the surface — but the benefits on the technical side don’t preclude the need for vigilance about the quality of the lesson. “It’s not just passing on an article or YouTube video,” Envision’s Shulkin vehemently insists. “[Content] must have context to make it more individually useful for each agent, center, and business. The next big thing here will be real-time, on-demand applications that can deliver information with context.”

CPP’s Grimshaw says that the explosion of social media usage clearly affected the design of the MBTI (Myers-Briggs Type Indicator) ThinkBox, a Web-based learning environment for continued, informal learning. (See related article “What’s Your Type?”) Expert tips, e-coaching, video shorts, and so on, all based on the Myers-Briggs assessment, are delivered within the context of an individual’s job.

“The whole concept around learning online has really evolved from just classroom-on-screen, to ‘Let me get that piece of insight quickly and get out,’” Grimshaw says. “Our own thinking about what constituted learning in a Web environment really evolved over the last two years as we’ve been trying to figure out how to design and bring Myers-Briggs online for our customers. If we had done this two years ago, we would have designed the ThinkBox differently.”

According to Maher Hakim, cofounder and chief executive officer of Faculte — which just unveiled BroadcastStudio, a platform for assembling media and other content to create marketing, training, and business communications — we’re seeing the unification of what had previously been silos: Web conferencing, presentation, and online video. “Vendors that started in these areas had a very clear idea on starting from one paradigm and taking it from there,” Hakim says. “No one really thought about how to allow customers to effectively communicate knowledge and information using rich media into various categories using a single, unified tool.”

But companies are beginning to now, and while there are many variables still in flux as to e-learning’s evolution and future adoption, one thing is clear: Agents will always need training. “It helps us tremendously with new agents, but even with the ones here for three to five years,” Delta’s Kendall says. “They may be struggling with an aspect of their job, and a team leader may give them recommendations. But as soon as they see it in action from a clip with one of their colleagues — that makes the difference.”


SIDEBAR: Tips from the Pros
Two users featured in this article, Perry Kendall of Delta Hotels and Resorts, and Kristin Nordgren of Midwest Contact Center, have each survived the pain — and realized the gain — of an e-learning solution. Below are some quick tips they have for others just starting down that path.

  • Have a dedicated staff member lead the initiative. Everyone is stretched thin. It’s vital that the person leading the charge in your e-learning initiative be dedicated and passionate about learning itself. “Instead of just being part of learning and development, have someone in there [who] can create material and has the technical skills, because those are key elements in having someone on board,” Nordgren says.
  • Get feedback from agents before implementation. The customer service representatives are going to be the ones using e-learning the most via the different modules, quizzes, and lessons pushed to their desktops. Make sure you don’t forget about their wants and needs before deciding on a solution. “Find out what agents want, what they see as current downfalls — and then implement aspects of the new product based on their recommendations,” Kendall says.
  • Burst out of the gates. Kendall and Nordgren agree that implementing the e-learning technology itself was great. Don’t waste already-precious time by waiting until after the deployment is complete to start creating lessons for your agents. “Having our lessons already created was definitely one of the keys to our success,” Nordgren recalls.
  • Be patient — true learning takes time. Tempting as it is to push lessons to already-overburdened agents and force them to get through the modules as soon as possible, denying them a sense of which tasks to complete first undermines the entire effort. “Provide time to use the tool in the agents’ schedule, because rolling out a new e-learning platform without giving time to use it is defeating and creates negativity,” Kendall says.


SIDEBAR: In a Perfect World
In speaking with vendor executives, industry pundits, and users about the features and functions any viable e-learning application for the contact center must have, several pieces rose to the top.

  • Out-of-the-box integration — Your e-learning needs to co-exist with other systems, including workforce optimization, workforce management, quality monitoring, recording, scheduling, and learning management.
  • Flexibility — Agents are not all the same, which means your curriculums can’t be, either. Look for an application with the ability to create training modules that are customizable for each agent.
  • Reporting capabilities — You need the ability to measure by team and by individual, enabling comparisons against other relevant performance metrics.
  • Browser-based architecture — You shouldn’t need special applications installed on each desktop, and you want to be able to push modules to satellite offices and work-at-home agents.

Contact Assistant Editor Christopher Musico at cmusico@destinationCRM.com.

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