In our increasingly virtualized world of 2020, they are probably the first and only human link in the sales or service chain, and therefore become the ‘face’ (ok, voice!)’ of your business. Call center training is therefore essential to get right, in order to maximize the value added across the enterprise.
This wasn’t always the case, because in the past call center agents performed a lot of lower skilled work which is now fully automated. Roles were poorly paid, high-turnover, and frequently boring and repetitive — reading words off a screen, for example to generate quotations for insurance. The main skill needed was the tenacity and consistency to grind through a shift of reading questions and disclaimers out verbatim, and the work was often done by students, temporary workers, or even outsourced to distant continents.
Today so much of that activity is now done by bots and guided self-completion, and customers can gather insurance quotes, complete purchases, file information and solve a wide range of support problems, without human involvement at any point — via self-service apps, knowledge bases, and intelligent algorithms.
This has transformed the role of the agent and the skills they need, in order to effectively serve the exceptions to the automation paths — the edge cases, the complex issues, the unique needs of particular users. Today’s call center agent specializes in particular techniques and roles, developing deep professional expertise — for which the right training in a range of skills is essential. Those interactions which take place through the call center tend to be more complex, niche, and challenging — but far more satisfying to resolve effectively, and a great opportunity to demonstrate the organizations’ values and principles.
In this article we will look at the role of training in a call center, the different areas of training necessary for agents and how to go about developing a training program for your agents. Let’s get started!
Training skills for today’s call center
Planning and delivering call center training means starting from the basics, and beginning with the end in mind. What objective do you want to achieve, and what skills do your agents need to do their work well?
This will enable you to develop a program to meet those needs, considering:
- Past experience and expertise you will require applicants to bring to the job
- Onboarding and induction training
- Ongoing supervision, feedback, and remediation
- Professional development and specialization opportunities.
Technical training for call center agents
Firstly your agents need to know how to handle the software and hardware they will use, because in order to liaise with your customers effectively, it's essential there are no technical hitches. Ringover’s app is straightforward and intuitive to deploy on any device, and training for this aspect of call center activity should proceed smoothly, ensuring that all users are familiar with the various integrations in use (such as with your CRM), and understanding their responsibilities and required actions to successfully handle a call from start to finish.
For example, they need to understand not only how to answer a call with no technical hitches which might detract from your corporate image, they should practice things like:
- transferring calls, when escalation to a higher tier of technical support is required
- finding information from any databases needed to refer to, in order to solve callers’ problems in real-time
- being able to refer to context being served from the CRM (“this customer has called 5 times already, so they are high priority for resolution!”)
- rapidly completing any after-call admin, and being able to move on fast to the next incoming contact
Delivering and assessing technical call center training
These technical skills can be trained centrally, and while in the past this would probably have happened in a group setting face to face, it is quite possible to develop and deliver such programs virtually for self completion asynchronously — pre-recorded video and screenshares, perhaps with quizzes to test understanding and ability to implement effectively in practice.
Assessing and correcting any issues with technical training will not be a one-off induction activity, however, and your call center monitoring will provide a wealth of insight into any deficits which can be corrected.
For example, your data visualization may indicate that agent A spends twice as long on post-call admin and updating as agent B — and as a result, takes significantly fewer calls over a typical shift. This enables you to drill down into exactly where additional coaching may be needed, in a supportive and non-punitive way, to help bring them up to the expected levels of productivity.
Technical training will also be required in the event of any changes, to ensure the entire call center is briefed and working effectively with the latest information and updates.
Training in call center management
Not every agent will progress to become a manager, but they will all benefit from a grounding in how the call center is run and assessed.
By understanding the call center metrics used to evaluate their work, they will be able to develop greater efficiency, and identify with the goals of the department and cost center as a whole — working toward collective goals, and sharing satisfaction in achievement.
This kind of training and information sharing is typical and popular in sales, with competitive and collaborative real-time data frequently being provided for motivational purposes, but can also be very valuable in support environments — how about a training session on what NPS is, why it matters, and how to track how you are doing over time, individually and as a team?
Once again the data will help you work out what is working — and where additional agent training might improve desirable call center metrics.
Product training for call center agents
Whether they are selling your products and services to customers or providing post-purchase support, your agents are the ‘face’ of the product as well as the business. As such they need to understand it inside and out, to be able to field questions, objections, and user issues, professionally and effectively.
Once again you will doubtless provide this training to new hires initially, but it will also have to be regularly updated as your portfolio of offerings develops. It’s important for the agent on the phone to project confidence, and knowledge that goes beyond anything the customer could easily google or find in your own FAQ, and any uncertainty will yield a very negative impression. So, it might be valuable to involve higher level expertise, such as inviting a product manager to record an AMA where they can comment on future directions or underlying intentions, helping your people really understand the bigger picture and not get lost in the weeds of specific functions and error messages.
Managing product information needs in call center training
If your product range is diverse, complex, and fast-moving, it’s not likely to reasonably expect that even your best sales people will keep it all in their own heads. So, they need training in where to look for the right information too — how to quickly navigate a detailed knowledge base and find the information that customers need. Perhaps your top agents will give the impression that they have encyclopedic knowledge of every nuance of product in the range, but instead they will have had detailed training in how to find the right answers fast.
Soft skills training for call center agents
While ever-growing numbers of brand interactions are now taking place without agent intervention, the ones which fall out of this structure are likely to demand ever greater skills in qualities that are uniquely human.
Customer service and brand values
Few organizations would deny that customer service is a core value to them, or suggest that conveying the reputation of their brand effectively was unimportant to them. Every business probably has a flowery mission statement on a wall somewhere at HQ — but how does this manifest in the way people interact with customers?
Call center agents need training in understanding how to deliver those values, how to embody them in every interaction — because there’s no point having a beautiful slogan on a website about how important customers are to your business, if the people they interact with convey a different impression altogether.
This is where a really great agent can differentiate themselves from the ones that are just fine and “OK”, and make the difference by going the extra mile. But to do so will require training in what those values are, and what steps can be taken — what discretion they have, to make things right.
It’s easy for organizations to penny-pinch here and demand escalations and exceptions which cost brand reputation externally, and admin and time resources internally, for no good reason. How about instead trusting and empowering your agents, for example training them to offer no-fuss refunds at their discretion up to a certain level of product price, when they’ve identified that’s what it will take to make the customer happy?
Training call center agents in empathy
Being able to form an emotional bond with callers is essential, for creating a connection with them and helping them to truly believe that you have their interests at heart, and are working hard to solve their problems.
This is particularly the case when someone has communication barriers — you may be dealing with a customer who is struggling in a second language, or who has difficulties using technology. If they are an older person they may be more used to interacting with your brand some other way, such as visiting a high street branch and meeting with an advisor face to face, but now they are forced into using a phone or an app, and they really don’t like it. So, developing skills of emotional intelligence, and the ability to really put yourself in the callers place and see things from their point of view, will be vital.
Such skills have an innate component, but can also be practiced and enhanced. Monitoring and recording will help you surface valuable learning experiences, examples of good and bad practice, which can be very useful in training because they relate directly to emotional issues arising in your own product range — so mind your recordings proactively, for both individual remediation and group education purposes.
Handling unhappy customers
In an organization, someone contacting customer support might be really angry or frustrated that a product has let them down in use, perhaps causing them disadvantage beyond expectation.
Your call center agents will need training in recognizing these people quickly — perhaps because of the way they angrily punch out of the IVR tree and demand human assistance, or because of their opening greeting and tone of voice.
They will need training in how to handle situations like this effectively, because strong emotions are often difficult to deal with. While no staff member should be expect to be on the receiving end of abusive language or aggression, they need to understand how to assess and deal with volatile situations professionally and intelligently, and to do so within parameters of your business’ policies.
This kind of training is challenging to deliver because it tests the individual responses of each agent. As such one-to-one coaching and sensitive debriefing of monitored calls is often very effective here, ensuring the agent feels supported, that they understand the strong emotion is directed at the product or the company rather than them personally, and identifying good strategies for dealing with their own feelings.
At the onboarding stage this kind of training can be delivered by role-playing different scenarios, though bearing in mind that research demonstrates role-play can be a deeply uncomfortable learning style for some. Also, during our socially-isolated days, video could be an excellent tool for this, perhaps with guided group discussion afterwards about what participants learned from each interaction.
Training agents for the call center of the future
As you can see from this article, the old vision of the call center agent robotically reading questions from a screen and typing in the answers, is consigned to history. Instead, your agents need continuous professional development, to enable them to become experts in both products and customers, and how to synthesize a great result for both parties in every interaction.
Indeed, as call centers become increasingly distributed, and the trend to extensive automation increases, it is likely that deep niche expertise will develop. This will mean the provision of highly specialized technical support for different products types, or expertise in complex customer service issues, like travel cancellation and restructuring, where agents work as something between counselors and loss adjusters, bringing unique skills in diplomacy and negotiation to sensitive situations.
As such, call center agent training will become increasingly individualized, important, and meaningful — embodying the best that technology and training theory can combine to offer, to create interesting professional development and career paths for a new generation of customer service professionals.
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