Create a Culture of Learning in Today’s Contact Centers

By Oscar Alban

Training and coaching are critical to improving workforce performance, encouraging both short- and long-term employee engagements, bringing the best out of individual agents, and increasing retention rates. While these are not new objectives, they are core focus areas that have significantly evolved in recent years. As coaching and training technology has matured, organizations that exploit such solutions have experienced great gains in the ability to more effectively schedule and deliver agent coaching, and then track and identify how training impacts performance. However, the biggest challenge in today’s customer service operations has less to do with technology limitations, and more to do with cultural differences and related business processes.

Establish a Lifelong Learning Environment: The biggest hurdle contact centers face when it comes to agent performance and retention involves overcoming the fragmented learning environment currently in place in many organizations. In today’s typical center, managers and supervisors are promoted within the ranks based on their superior customer service skills and performance at the agent level. Often, they are under-trained when it comes to employee engagement, development, and management. As a result, supervisors may be adept at using technology – such as workforce optimization (WFO) solutions – but know very little about managing, motivating, and coaching people. Herein lies the challenge – and the opportunity.

Now more than ever, it’s critical that contact centers get back to the basics, where an emphasis and focus on training can grow and become a consistent and integral part of the culture. Encouraging lifelong learners should be part of a contact center’s bible, where both agents and managers are equipped with the tools to improve skills: team management, multichannel interactions, cross-selling and up-selling, and problem solving and crisis management. In doing so, supervisors acquire the dexterity to realize individual strength and weakness areas.

By embracing and implementing a “learning” environment, a coaching ecosystem can grow where teaching takes place from the director to the manager and from the manager to the supervisor, not just between the supervisor and agent. The complexity of the contact center – and the fact that it is a fast-paced environment with time at a premium – dictates the fundamental need for employees at all levels to be fully prepared to address changing customer service requirements and challenges. Coaching can play a key role in individual agent and broader center performance.

The customer service industry typically comes with high turnover rates. Turnover in the contact center can be perceived as both positive and negative. Negative turnover is when an employee leaves the company, forcing the contact center to make another investment in hiring and training a new candidate. However, positive turnover occurs when an employee builds on his/her existing skills, acquires new ones, executes on career goals, and moves up in the organization. Coaching is a critical component of maximizing positive turnover.

In many organizations, the most expensive fixed-cost area is personnel. In the contact center, the cost of hiring and training is in the range of $5,000 to $15,000 per agent – a high price to pay if agents are not properly engaged at the onset of employment and if the company is not fostering a learning environment that supports growth. Contact centers that are successful in this area view their people as significant assets and put the processes in place to protect their most valued investments.

Invest in the Right Coaching Technology: Once the cultural and management challenges are overcome, organizations can get down to the business of choosing the right technology tools to meet their training and coaching needs. There are many eLearning and Learning Management Systems (LMS) available on the market, but few fit the fast-paced, unique environment of the contact center. Coaching tools must be developed specifically for this multifaceted environment, which means that software must be agile and possess such qualities as being easily and quickly deployed (in hours, rather than days), able to integrate with workforce management scheduling software, and able to effectively track metrics through custom KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) to better understand how training affects skill acquisition and subsequent agent performance.

Technology should help centers make agent coaching a part of daily operations. By tying agent coaching together with scorecards and training — and making this information available directly on the desktop – the right technology can help organizations provide employees with better guidance on how to develop and enhance their skills. Using predefined thresholds for acceptable performance, effective coaching tools come with the ability to automatically send email or pop-up alerts to the appropriate manager if scores drop below the threshold. The software should make it easy to set up meetings and attach relevant information to online coaching forms, such as recorded interactions, KPIs, or evaluations. During the sessions, coaches should be able to provide one-on-one feedback that is substantiated by the documents or recordings attached to the coaching form. Following each session, both coaches and agents should provide specific feedback on the process, and use that data to improve future sessions.

Until recently, coaching has been a largely subjective practice. But as the latest contact center technology has evolved, it has shifted to both objective and tangible, adding a previously missing prioritization and consistency dynamic to the mix. Facilitated by software automation, there also are tested coaching processes that can be put into place. The time is right to embrace a culture of learning across our customer service operations – one that fosters enthusiastic, proficient staff that grow with our organizations and excel in their sales, service, and customer experience roles.

Oscar Alban is a principal global solutions consultant for Verint Witness Actionable Solutions.

[From Connection Magazine April 2010]

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