Contact Center Solutions Featured Article

Q&A On Training with the Call Center School

February 25, 2010

Contact center training is one of those vital functions that always seem to be under the CFOs’ cleavers. Much like the contact centers that depend on well-trained agents, training is a cost, and therefore subject to cutting, unless clear returns on investments can be demonstrated. At the same time agent and supervisor training is facing new challenges with the move to home agents, while training solutions are being called on to make offshoring more viable.

To ascertain contact center training trends and options that can achieve ROI ContactCenterSolutions recently interviewed Maggie Klenke, a founding partner of The Call Center School, which since 2001 has been providing a comprehensive array of contact center training services.
ContactCenterSolutions: What are the top contact center training issues and trends?
MK: We are seeing an increase in demand for effective but lower cost options to achieve training objectives. This includes more web delivery including both instructor-led and self-paced e-learning. In addition, the e-learning options need to be simpler, faster, and less expensive to develop and deliver. While a fully featured flashy program with games and simulations might have been considered necessary a couple of years ago (at a development cost in the thousands of dollars), now a simple slide show with audio will get the job done – 90 percent of the value for 5 percent of the cost.
We also see a strong trend of companies asking for demonstrations of ROI. The simple “how did you like the training” or even the quiz for retention of the key points at the end of class just isn’t enough anymore. Managers want to see the attendees demonstrate the skills on the job and an analysis of the benefits that added to the bottom line. These level 3 and 4 analyses require more “before” studies as well as management or projects and other activities that can assess the “after”. So a training department or vendor that is only tracking how many students went to the training and their satisfaction with the experience will find themselves under the gun.
We also see more demand for sales training than ever before. Centers that have focused almost entirely on customer service or technical support are being asked to produce revenue through up-selling, cross-selling, and add-ons such as maintenance agreements. Many have not recruited for sales skills and find themselves struggling to get agents to embrace the idea of selling. So we have added sales training options to our curriculum and will be adding more through this year.

ContactCenterSolutions: Outline the trend of home agents on training needs. Are the agent profiles i.e. education, maturity different from those who work in bricks-and-mortar sites and if so does that change the training and how? What is the best means of training them?
MK: There are really two types of home agent programs in place in the call centers we visit. Some have programs for successful in-office agents to have the option to work at home, while other companies are specifically recruiting staff for home agent positions that may never come into a traditional brick and mortar center. For those with agents who have transitioned from in-office positions, the initial training and socialization of the agents took place when they worked in the center and now it is a matter of ongoing training and supervision and keeping them connected to their teams. While these agents tend to be the high performers, most senior and more mature staff, they still need access to ongoing training and interaction with their managers. So they are typically included by web seminar and conference calls or are required to come to the site on a regular basis since they typically live within commuting distance.
For those companies who recruit agents for home working positions, they tend to have staff at substantial distances from any center that exists or there may be no center at all. This creates a somewhat different challenge. Web-based training, CBTs, and other self-paced options have become bigger portion of the training offerings. There might be a requirement to travel to a central location for initial training, but generally ongoing training is done remotely. Recruiting for these people needs to consider their ability to take responsibility for their own learning to a large extent and not require the “spoon feeding” that a classroom environment provides. Supervision is also handled remotely. With modern technology options, the same kinds of data and reports are available for these workers as for those who are working on a different floor in the same building as the supervisor, so the key is learning to handle interactions and communications via email and phone. Many have made this transition successfully so it is no longer a “bleeding edge” opportunity.

ContactCenterSolutions: Offshoring contacts have been criticized for resulting in longer call times, increased escalations and dissatisfied customers. Can you train offshore agents to be as effective as domestic agents and if so how and if so is the ROI worth it?

MK: The primary incentive for using offshore staff is cost savings. When the contact centers in other parts of the world pay 10 percent to 15 percent of the salaries that U.S./Canadian companies pay, there can be a fair amount of added handle time and other challenges and the net will still appear to be a lower cost.
However, the trends in places like India show that salaries are going up, infrastructure costs are increasing, turnover of staff is soaring, and US/Canadian customer satisfaction with a call handled off-shore is very low. The margins that were possible 7 or 8 years ago have dropped significantly. By and large the complaint is “we don’t understand one another”. Part of challenge is accents, but part is cultural. Slang and local jokes and politics are just lost on people on the other side of the globe so the side conversations that create the relationships beyond the requirements of the transaction are also lost. So now is the ROI really worth it when a company takes into account all the costs including potential customer defections? Some are saying yes and others no. It also appears that with the high unemployment at home, governments here are beginning to see the need to incent companies to bring and keep jobs on this continent and that will further erode the ROI of offshoring.
As to the question of whether these offshore agents can be taught to effectively communicate with U.S., Canadian or European customers, our experience suggests that the answer is “maybe”. Accent neutralization training is available and can be somewhat effective for some people. Training on culture and localization can be offered but we live in such a fast-changing world, it would take a substantial investment ongoing to keep it current. Imagine having to learn enough remotely to appreciate Jay Leno’s monologue every day! Part is bridging the gap between affluent and subsistence life styles. It is difficult for a $12 per hour worker to effectively communicate with an affluent customer even in the same town, let alone when that agent earns $2 per hour and lives in a very different kind of community. When turnover in these offshore centers is 10 percent to 15 percent annually, these kinds of training can pay off, but when it approaches 40 percent (as is the case in some of the offshore markets today), then it cannot be effectively sustained.
As for product and service training, many of the offshore agents are highly educated and capable of effectively executing the roles they are placed in technically. Training for them on knowledge and skills is really no different than it is for onshore personnel in our experience.
ContactCenterSolutions: How have you altered, if you have done so, your training program to meet changing environments?
MK: We are offering more pre-training assessments to set the “before” stage, followed by more thorough post-training processes to ensure the ROI is really there. More of our clients are finding that adding post-training projects to demonstrate the new skills on the job are an integral part of the whole project. We still do the standard “how did you like it” surveys and the knowledge tests to ensure the knowledge transfer has taken place, but we find that adding the demonstration that the training has accrued to the benefit of the company’s bottom line is the necessary element that management is demanding.
We have also nearly completed the conversion of all of our training content into all forms of media so that students can access it any way that is appropriate. Everything is available for classroom delivery, instructor-led web seminar, and we have nearly everything in self-paced elearning. We also have text books to support the major content elements as well and are in the process of writing two more books.
As mentioned earlier, we have responded to the demand for sales training as well by adding more options to our curriculum and delivering a number of highly-customized sales training programs. We find this is an area that really doesn’t work well with “standard off the shelf” training. It really needs to reflect the sales environment of the specific company to be effective.


Brendan B. Read is ContactCenterSolutions’s Senior Contributing Editor. To read more of Brendan’s articles, please visit his columnist page.

Edited by Marisa Torrieri