The Challenge of Remote Agent Training

By Lindsay Gibson

Remote agent training can be one of the most challenging aspects of the hiring process for a virtual call center. There are many aspects involved in any call center agent training program: educating new agents on technology, processes, procedures (how to answer phone, e-mail, and chat; how to work with customers), and all of the intricacies that go along with being the voice of the brand that they represent. This can be a tough task to handle in any call center, whether centrally located or remote.

Training agents who work from home adds extra challenges. These challenges must be overcome, given the increasing visibility in the industry of home-based agents. Developing training programs for agents working – and training – outside of a traditional call center setting is a necessity. The following tips are designed to help anyone confronted with the challenges of training a remote workforce.

A Lot Can Be Said for Interpersonal Interaction: The majority of every interaction is made up of primarily nonverbal communication, with only a small percentage of the interaction consisting of what is actually being said. This fact is easily proven in a traditional classroom setting; if a student is confused, frustrated, or just not paying attention, the instructor can easily tell by observing his or her posture, facial expressions, and other nonverbal signs. However, in a remote agent setting, when the instructor can’t actually see the student, it can be much more difficult to understand that student’s mindset.

There are two ways to overcome this vital obstacle:

1.   Utilizing technology

2.   Going the extra mile to ensure that a lack of face-to-face communication doesn’t lead to a lack of person-to-person communication

Many new technologies allow the remote learning experience to be interactive. Used in conjunction with the old technology standby – the telephone – these new tools can make learning in a virtual environment much easier. Utilizing a learning management system (LMS) can streamline the learning process, making it easier for the student and instructor to work in tandem. For instance, while a remote instructor can’t physically look over the shoulder of his or her students, they can virtually look at what a student is doing on their screen, or share theirs with the student as needed. Combining the visual learning that happens online with the auditory learning that happens via a simultaneous conference call, with the instant feedback one gets from a tool such as chat or instant messenger, can ensure that students are not lacking the means to communicate with their instructor or classmates.

Size Matters: The next step in the virtual learning process is making it as interactive as possible. I believe strongly that virtual training requires smaller classrooms, which results in more personalized attention. The instructor-to-student ratio should be no more than 1:15, and smaller if possible.

Smaller classes make it easier to emphasize engagement and participation, which is a key aspect to any successful virtual training program. Students should be encouraged by instructors to participate in class, such as by raising their hands (which they can do virtually in a LMS), asking questions, “staying after class” to talk to the instructor, and generally interacting as much as they would if they were attending class in a physical classroom. Instructors also need to set an example by taking attendance at regular intervals during class, calling on students to role-play or answer questions, and generally requiring a great deal of interaction and participation during class.

Self-Study versus Instructor-Led: A Fine Line: A proven way to ensure that remote certification is as effective as “traditional” certification is through utilization of instructor-led courses. However, not all course content necessitates being led by an instructor; much of it can easily be taught using self-study.

Make sure not to rely too heavily on self-study content, though, for several reasons. First, if an agent “graduates” from their certification course without ever speaking to an instructor, it is impossible to know what they will be like on the phone. If an instructor has spent a good deal of “in-person” time with them, that instructor can determine what aspects of the agent’s interaction need to be worked on before the agent  can take calls from customers. Another problem with self-study is that giving a student too many self-study modules can become overwhelming – and, quite honestly, boring – leaving a struggling student feeling even more frustrated.

I have found that the best solution is a combination of the two. Ideally, an instructor will start allowing students to begin with self-study modules, followed by assessments to determine their level of learning and retention. Assessments, however, should be a barometer of a student’s learning, not a be-all and end-all as to whether they will make it through training and onto the phones. If a student doesn’t do well on his or her assessments, it is vital for instructors to spend individual time with that student to help them master the subject matter and allow them to take the assessments again.

An opportunity that instructors have in both traditional and virtual learning environments is tailoring course material to students with different learning styles. The “share, show, do” method is a great way to ensure success no matter what the student’s level is or what they are learning. Using this model, the instructor first “shares” a new topic with students.  Then the instructor “shows” how to accomplish this new task, followed by the students demonstrating that they can “do” it themselves. A student can easily say that they have grasped material, but it is much more effective if they prove it via a scenario similar to those they will encounter with real callers.

Don’t Throw New Agents to the Wolves: It is critical that after the training is complete, instructors do not throw new agents into the live calling environment without a plan they can follow. A “soft live” is an integral component of effective training. During a soft live, students nearing the end of their class take calls from real customers, while instructors listen to their calls. If there are any hiccups along the way, the instructor can immediately send an instant message to the student with suggestions of how to get the call back on track. Once the call is over, the student goes back to class and reviews the call with their instructor and classmates. Oftentimes, a student has a successful call and is excited to share with the class how, for instance, they made a large up-sell.  In other situations, students may have made mistakes from which both they and their classmates can learn.

A post-certification plan will also help new work-at-home agents stay on track. So much information is given to them in a short learning period during the certification process that it can be overwhelming. Keeping newly certified agents on track and on the phones is vital to agent retention and program success.

Properly training anyone in a customer-facing position is the backbone to a remarkable customer experience. The tips outlined above will help trainers who are new to a remote or home-based agent model develop the best training program possible.

Lindsay Gibson, a member of ASTD (American Society of Training Development), is VIPdesk’s director of training. VIPdesk is a provider of premium virtual contact center solutions serving Fortune 1000 clients.

[From Connection Magazine April 2008]