Training & Development

New-Hire Training: Simulate a Real-World Experience

Jay Blasing
Jay Blasing

Prepare new-hires for life in the call center by replicating the true work environment during the initial training phase.

I watched with an air of confidence as our newest contact center agents sat at their desks for the first time since completing six weeks of training. I had become the training manager one week earlier, and I was impressed with our trainers, the training materials and the quality of our newly hired agents. After a bit of confusion about logging into the phone system, the new agents were all ready to take calls and begin taking care of our customers… or so we all thought.

Within the first hour, I watched as agents accidentally (and possibly purposely) hung up on customers, struggled to navigate the systems effectively, forgot to verify basic customer information and failed at a host of other “basic” tasks. They stumbled through the simple questions and became flustered with the more complex. Then my lead trainer explained to me that this was “normal” for the first day, and that I “shouldn’t worry about it.”

That experience got me thinking. How many new employees do we put on the phones for the first time thinking that we have prepared them, only to find out that we have missed terribly on the preparation? How many agents hit the floor for the first time with management expectations that they will stumble, fail and hang up on customers?

At what point did we decide it was OK to provide poor service to some of our customers as we bring new employees onto the floor?

The 80/20 Training Model: Still a Valid Foundation

I first became involved in training when I was in the Navy. In the function that I trained, students had to have 100% of the knowledge down before they left the classroom. Lives were at stake if our students weren’t perfect from the moment that they left the classroom and sat down at their “desks.” We spent months, and sometimes years, training for a specific task before our students had their first day on the job. Costs were extremely high, but there was no room for errors, so it was worth it. Plus, since the government was paying the bill, a return on investment calculation was not necessary. Anything less than 100% prepared was unacceptable.

Back in the “real world,” we typically don’t have the luxury of training staff until expert levels are reached before we see any return on the investment. We’re usually ramping for an increase in expected volume that is coming “too soon,” or we’re training replacement agents to compensate for turnover and we need “bodies” on the floor ASAP. These types of scenarios leave trainers with the challenge of getting “enough” training in before turning agents over to the center for some good, old-fashioned OJT.

In the corporate world, I’ve always bought into the training policy that we should concentrate training on the 80% of knowledge and scenarios the agents would face, and give enough background and management support to get them through the remaining 20% as the issues came up. After years of seeing the positive results of this model, I still think it’s the right approach, but there are techniques that we can add to it that will help to eliminate the other costs typically associated with the model.

The Real Costs of Poor New-Hire Training

Many organizations measure the cost of training by calculating their investment to develop, produce and deliver the training, including the cost of the facilities, training materials, trainer salaries, etc. Whether you get a good return on that investment depends on the effectiveness of the training. I’ve found that the impact of poor or inadequate new-hire training can reach far beyond the tangible costs.

In the new-hire training experience that I mentioned before, the star pupil from that graduating class didn’t return to work after her first day on the phones. It wasn’t until I saw her a few months later that I found out why. She told me that she was so embarrassed by her performance the first day that she decided to resign and look for a job somewhere else.

Besides losing new-hires who have the potential to become top performers, the lack of preparation also negatively impacted the rest of the call center. The tenured agents came to me with complaints about the mistakes that the new-hires were making, as some of the errors resulted in call-backs and management escalations.

We ended up with poor employee morale, additional workload for tenured staff and management, poor customer experiences — all from a training program that was acceptable to us and even bragged upon. It became obvious to me that the real cost of our training program was not going to be measured solely in dollars spent in the classroom, and it was not going to be improved simply by extending the training period. We decided to debrief our employees and begin thinking a little more tactically about how to produce agents who would be an asset from the moment that they walked out of training.

Start by Creating a “Natural” Environment

Upon review of our training system, one of the first things we recognized was that we were not training in a “natural” environment. We realized that we could have avoided the firstday confusion if we had put our agents in this very environment before. We asked ourselves, how can we simulate the job experience during initial training? Part of the answer was pretty simple: Since most of an agent’s time on the job is spent listening to customers with a headset on, we decided to make this a natural state for our agents by conducting most of the training through headsets. Our training room was already equipped with phones and computers, so the only expense was the additional headsets and a small cost to bridge the phones. The impact of training through headsets was amazing, and in some cases, the side benefits ended up outweighing the main goal. The opportunity to get comfortable with the headsets during training allowed the new-hires to hit the floor without any reservations about that aspect of the job. They also became accustomed to LISTENING for long periods of time so that it became second nature to them. In the past, this was not an easy transition for many new agents, no matter how many times we preached about having “one mouth, two ears.”

An unexpected big win came when we began to notice that we had additional training time available. At first we weren’t sure what was happening, but eventually we realized that there were fewer side conversations taking place among agents to interrupt training delivery. Wearing the headsets also helped agents to focus more closely on the information, and their standard test scores increased dramatically. The training “message” was getting through to our new-hires loud and clear.

Another unforeseen benefit was that the new-hires who were a bad fit quit the program early on once they realized that they were not going to be happy in a job that required them to wear a headset all day. While the attrition rate for new-hires stayed the same, the average point of turnover moved from around week 9 to week 2. Since our initial training period lasted six weeks, this improvement was a big relief to our floor managers who didn’t have to invest time in agents who would quit within a short time.

All Hands on Deck: Training Is a Team Effort

While rethinking our new-hire training model, we also realized that we were not taking advantage of one of our greatest assets: the expertise available to us from our experienced agents. So we began to incorporate them into the training.

At first, we brought a few tenured agents into class to share their experiences. This turned out to be a REALLY BAD IDEA. Using unscripted floor agents is NOT something I would ever recommend. However, we realized that the stories they told could be very valuable. We began having the tenured reps “call” into the training room during the role-playing portion of our training. Using the headsets and the bridge, everyone listened as one agent handled the call. Afterward, the trainer and the tenured agent joined the class in a discussion of what went right and wrong.

Senior management loved the idea. They also volunteered to make mock calls into the classroom, typically using examples of issues that had become escalations. After awhile, we had volunteers from across the organization helping out. The agents never knew to whom they were speaking until we introduced the “customer” afterward. Imagine the impact when the CEO walked in after a call and said how pleased she was with the responses she received from the new-hire! In addition to dramatically improving our new agents’ preparation for taking live calls, our    tenured agents began to take pride in their role in training and ensuring that their new-hire class was successful when they hit the floor. Senior agents paired up with the new class and made sure that their desks were set up correctly for their first day, gave them insights into the best places to eat, and touched on just about every other area to help them feel welcomed and comfortable.

Train on Live Calls

I once asked a new agent if she thought she was ready to take calls. She replied, “I won’t know if I can do it until I DO IT.” We took that to heart and decided to have the new-hires take customer calls while in training.

We set up a separate call queue that would only allow one call to come in at a time. Then we followed the same process as with role-playing: One new agent, with a trainer and tenured agent close by, would field a live customer call. Afterward, we dissected it with the entire class. By the time our new agents hit the floor, they had already taken live customer calls. We saw a significant improvement in new agents’ preparedness to take calls by simply having them do it while in training. The first day on the floor became just another day, and we no longer had the chaos that I had witnessed that first week.

An Easier Transition Is a Win for Everyone

Obviously not every company can put all of these ideas into practice. However, over the past 10 years, I’ve helped to implement at least one or two in every organization that I have built or inherited, and the results and improvement have always been dramatic. I’m also comforted by knowing that I haven’t sent anyone to the floor who may be so embarrassed by their performance that they would quit in shame. I’m even more pleased that EVERY customer is treated to the same wonderful experience.

A Note about Training Bays

Some contact centers use “training bays,” in which students come out of the classroom and are put into a designated area of the floor. While in the bay, they’re usually limited to particular types of calls and receive special attention from management and trainers until they are fully comfortable handling calls. When using a training bay, it’s important to ensure that the quality monitoring team gives a high number of timely feedback sessions, along with the feedback that the new agents receive from the management team. I’ve seen various versions of the training bay and all seem to be successful to different extents. I’ve even used them in my organizations on occasion. However, since implementing processes to simulate a real-world experience during training, such as those outlined in this article, I’ve eliminated the need for a training bay in my new-hire programs.

– Reprinted with permission from Contact Center Pipeline,

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