Call Center Simulators

A company's heart is often its call center since it provides a first line of defense for customer dissatisfaction, as well as an unparalleled opportunity for cross selling. But building and maintaining a qualified staff is a constant challenge. Atlanta-based Simtrex offers its answer in star Trainer, a voice-interactive call center simulation environment that attempts to train and reinforce agents with repeatable, real-world skills and tasks.

star Trainer's servers integrate with a call center's telephone system. The servers place calls to training desks, playing back recorded voice clips to order product, request technical support or lodge a complaint. During the call, agents use a replica of the company's CRM system on their computers, carefully recreated to look and feel like the actual application without exposing live customer data to accidental corruption. "It's no different than a flight simulator," says Tom Lynch, president and CEO of Simtrex. Unlike airlines, Lynch says that most companies have not learned that risk can and should be minimized by putting employees through realistic simulation rather than relying on on-the-job training.

Trainers can also review the call log and suggest corrections to the agent's approach. In addition to audio playback, all mouse and keyboard actions are captured, so if the problem is not with the agent's phone skills but with the software navigation, the problem can be properly identified.

Hilton Reservations Worldwide, which handles 30 million calls each year for the Hilton family of hotels, first implemented star Trainer in November 2000. Currently up and running in three of five national call centers, with full rollout scheduled by the end of the year, star Trainer has taken the place of some 900 minutes of instructor-led role play in Hilton's four-week training course. Although star Trainer is new to Hilton's training process, Hilton reservations director of training Carl Pollock says the payoff has come quickly. Agents are coming out of star Trainer-powered courses with a 12 percent call resolution time, and are meeting Hilton's average performance benchmarks in half the time of conventionally trained reps.

Like many star Trainer customers, Hilton currently uses the system for new-hire training only, although Lynch says the platform is ideal not only for retraining veteran reps who have strayed from the acceptable service formula, but also for coordinating cutovers to an upgrade or replacement of a call center CRM application. "You can't take 1,000 people off the phone and spend days upon days training them how to do the new stuff, so companies generally flip the switch with only a modicum of exposure to the new application," he says. "Then, it's trial-and-error with customers to get up to speed. The cost of doing that is catastrophic in terms of errors, customer satisfaction levels and loss of customers because of the incredible amount of learning going on in real life."

The biggest challenge turned out to be adjusting the role of the existing training staff after star Trainer took them out of the live practice equation. "They thought they could just turn on star Trainer and have a cigarette, but it's not an electronic babysitter," Pollock says. Rather than leading the role play personally, trainers now observe the performance of the classroom during simulation time and pull aside struggling students for personal coaching as needed. "That's where I want them to be. That's a more efficient use of their time."

Make no mistake: star Trainer is not a super-sophisticated artificial intelligence program. The training call scripts take cues from the agent's speech patterns, which means star Trainer knows when an agent has stopped talking, but doesn't know what he has said. Therefore, the call and the agent's behavior must be tightly defined, and the trainee must know which question to ask next in sequence. "It does have to be a logical flow," Pollock says. If a Hilton trainee asks about the customer's arrival date when he should be asking about smoking preference, the answer "no smoking" will come back in either case. However, the simulated caller can take cues from the computer activity and try to guide or chastise the agent back to the right path if it seems the agent has called up the wrong screen or is trying to enter an inappropriate piece of information.

Fees for star Trainer vary, depending on the size of the call center and the complexity of customization and course design work Simtrex undertakes. A call center with 200 agents should expect to pay roughly $150,000 for the system, the CRM application simulation and a small number of instructional calls.

Gartner research director James Lundy says that while Simtrex has "found their niche," the company faces challenges breaking through institutional resistance to make serious investments in cutting-edge learning solutions in a cluttered marketplace. "Companies are typically not willing to pay a lot for [new media] training, and there's just so much crowding of this whole [e-learning] space, it's very easy to get lost in the noise," Lundy says.

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