Agent Cross Training May Not be the Answer

By Katie Lemaire

Conventional wisdom says that if you want to boost revenues at your call center, you simply cross-train your high-performing customer service reps and, magically, sales will rise. In this case, not only is the conventional wisdom wrong, it can be risky business.

The skills and competencies needed to provide excellent customer service are not the same as those needed to sell successfully; both are critical. Both have a direct impact on the success of the organization, but trying to meld sales and service reps into “super agents” can create more problems than it solves. This is especially true for complex and sophisticated customer transactions.

No amount of sales training will turn a first-rate customer service rep into a top-notch sales rep, even with prepared scripts. Customer service reps are, by nature, problem solvers, troubleshooters, and strong customer advocates. When customers have issues, outstanding service reps dig deep to help. The last thing they want to do is feel as if they are being asked to “push product.” The better reps become at customer service, the worse they become at sales.

Conversely, sales people definitely are not service people. And, this is an interesting twist, the more their sales skills improve, the more their service skills decline. Sales reps are eager to move on to the next opportunity. Customer service reps need to take the time to ensure that they prevent any future problems. When you directly compare cross-trained customer service reps against others who are specially selected and trained for sales, the difference in results is stark; the performance gap is eye opening.

If your organization is grappling with the sales and service question, our advice is to do some research. We believe you’ll find that the better investment will be to create a separate sales organization that ties closely with your call center’s customer service rep front lines.

It may sound, at first blush, counter-intuitive. But today, technology in the form of warm transfers – a “wait free,” person-to-person handoff for the customer – exists to create that seamless environment. Passing a prospect directly to a highly qualified sales rep actually results in higher customer satisfaction.

If the cross-training route fails, it will directly cost your organization much wasted time and money. The biggest cost may not be immediately apparent: your customer service reps can suffer potentially disastrous morale issues, because now their jobs are not what they signed up for. The ripple effect across the enterprise will be undeniable and ultimately expensive.

However, you can create a sales organization without endorsing a sales-service hierarchy. We believe that people should be doing what they do best. Of course, specialization is not always the answer on the job front. In the case of many call centers, given the nature of the jobs and objectives involved, designing jobs and selecting the right people to do those jobs calls for a specialized solution.

Wayne O’Melia, President of T. Rowe Price Investment Services agrees, “In partnership with Hay Group, we identified the critical competencies required for sales associates and selected these candidates against a very different model than our service associates. Equally, we built an infrastructure comprised of tools, training, and intelligent call routing, which enables our associates to proactively facilitate our investor’s desired actions and exceed their expectations. We have received very favorable feedback from our investors and we continuously measure their satisfaction levels to ensure a positive investor experience.”

In the sales and service challenge, conventional wisdom says one thing. Experience tells quite a different story.

Katie Lemaire is Vice President and General Manager of Hay Group. Hay Group is a global organizational and human resources consulting firm. They conduct an annual study of call center compensation specific to the investment management industry.

[From Connection Magazine May 2007]