It’s an unfortunate reality in many companies that, anytime the budget needs to be tightened, staff development becomes an easy target. Once training resources are cut, they’re often among the last to recover. Because of the fluctuating economy, organizations continue to maintain rigorous controls on spending. Those that are beginning to see their financial health improve are proceeding cautiously, and many are opting to upgrade technology before people.
The reason is simple: Technology can produce an undeniable impact on a company’s business performance by automating or streamlining workflow. The effect of staff development is not always as clear-cut, so training continues to be largely viewed as an expense, and not an investment that will pay off.
Does that mean that you have to deny your staff the opportunity to develop their skills and knowledge for the foreseeable future? Absolutely not. By connecting contact center training goals to organizational objectives, you can demonstrate the impact that learning and development delivers, and make it easier for your senior execs to view training as a solid investment.
Before attempting to change top-level perceptions about the value of call center training, a good place to start is with your management team’s views. Do they have a vision for the performance levels the center could achieve with higher skilled agents? Is there a long-term skills-progression plan in place for agents?
These are the types of strategic questions that center management and the training function need to consider, says workplace learning and performance expert Rebecca Gibson, a contact center solutions consultant with Interactive Intelligence. “Most call centers still focus 90% of their resources on new-hire training; they don’t look at performance holistically,” she points out. “They focus on what the agent’s level of proficiency should be at the end of the orientation period, but they don’t think about what that person’s skill level should be in a year or in two years.”
It’s not surprising that Gibson often sees agents who are fresh out of new-hire training performing at a higher level than those who have been working at a center for a while. The new agent’s learning is fresh and current while staff who have been on the job typically get updates and new information passed along to them in a piecemeal fashion through email bulletins and website updates.
Another consideration is the management team’s commitment to training. Is the management team willing to put in the time and effort necessary to effect behavioral change? Liz Ahearn is president and CEO of Radclyffe Partners, a contact center training and performance improvement firm. She is often contacted by managers who are looking for training for their staff, and who are mostly concerned with two criteria: What does it cost, and can it take place in a one-hour class?
“That’s just not enough time to effect behavioral change,” she says. “Your ROI is when you actually see tangible behavioral change and you can tie that to the customer experience.”
Ahearn believes that the management team should be held accountable for delivering training that shows an impact on specific business goals. Managers’ performance objectives need to be tied to a clear metric, she says. For instance, instead of: “I will provide my reps with two hours of training this quarter,” a more robust objective would be: “I’m going to provide my reps with customer interaction skills training, and as a result, call quality scores will improve by X percent.”
Training Needs to Reflect Changes in the Work Environment
It will be difficult to defend your budget if your training programs are not keeping pace with changes in the business environment. For instance, are you simply providing off-the-shelf, generic customer service skills training, or are you looking to provide professional development programs designed to help agents thrive in today’s fast-paced business environment of rapid change, continuous improvement, instant access to information, multiple communication channels and Internet-savvy, knowledgeable customers?
Training hasn’t changed that much over the years, says contact center industry analyst Dick Bucci of Pelorus Associates. “We’re seeing more emphasis on sales skills than we would have five or 10 years ago, but most of the training taking place is process- driven—how to handle difficult customers, how to speak clearly and concisely, how to collect and enter information, how to compose emails and how to control the conversation. That’s essential, it always will be. But the real contribution of the contact center is achieving revenue growth from strengthening product loyalty so that the customer retention rate increases, and by selling more product to new and existing customers,” he says.
First-contact resolution is key to improving the customer experience and growing revenues, so frontline training should emphasize problem solving and information gathering, Bucci says, adding that “agents need to be given more authority and power. Anything that can help close that call on the first attempt is a positive in terms of stimulating customer loyalty and satisfaction.”
Training staff to handle new forms of communication effectively should also be on the training radar. The growth of social media has been phenomenal, says Bucci. “Few people anticipated the force with which it accumulated. The industry needs to do more on the social media side,” he says. “But the problem is, we’re still working on tools to capture that data, and until there’s some way to capture it and allocate it to agents, it’s going to be tough for the centers to train on it. However, there is a very sharp and growing demand for agents who have chat skills.”
Practical Pointer: Incorporating social media into team-based learning activities is a cost-effective way to familiarize your staff with using these types of tools before going live with customers. “Some call centers have done a great job of integrating social media channels such as Twitter into their training,” says Mike Aoki, president of contact center training firm Reflective Keynotes (see his column on hiring team managers, CCP March 2012). “For example, they allow home-based agents to use Twitter to make real-time comments about web broadcast training sessions.”
Align Training with Corporate Goals and Initiatives
Many senior executives would be hard-pressed to say whether call center training resources are being spent wisely. There is an opportunity for contact center leadership to educate execs by showing the types of performance improvements that can be accomplished by applying various types of training (and spending). Yet many centers don’t measure the impact of their training. Why? Putting a monetary value on the effectiveness of training can be a complex task. Many of the benefits are intangible and difficult to gauge using traditional ROI measures.
“ROI and training are very problematic,” says Gibson. “If you have a customer service skills training program and it results in a skill change or skill improvement, how do you measure the impact of better customer service skills? Some of us might expect to see a change in customer satisfaction or higher first-call resolution, but training doesn’t take place in isolation while the rest of the call center stands still. The center isn’t a lab. Often, customer service training is implemented as part of a larger initaitive, which makes it difficult to isolate the effects of the training and attach a dollar amount to it.”
Emphasizing the business impact of training is a more effective way to get your CEO’s attention, Gibson says. “Tie your training initiatives to your company’s mission and your annual strategic objectives,” she says. “A senior executive is much more likely to invest in training programs that align with corporate initiatives and will help the staff to achieve the strategic objectives.”
Ahearn recently took this approach with a client in the financial services industry. After conducting a needs assessment with the client’s customer service staff, her team decided to train the staff on how to fix a business process that was broken. At that time, the company’s credit dispute process was backlogged by several years, creating a cash-flow deficit of $12 million. Ahearn’s team trained the reps in business process mapping, the basic elements of lean Six Sigma, how to create questionnaires and conduct interviews, documentation and how to create a business case. The training was hands-on—reps learned by forming a taskforce and reengineering the credit dispute process. In addition to fixing the process and turning around the cash-flow deficit, the training helped to empower and motivate the customer service staff. It also provided them with skills and knowledge that they could apply to other processes for a continuing payback.
Communicating with the C-suite in terms that they can relate to is always a good practice when vying for corporate support. “Try to identify the priorities of your senior management, because in the end, that’s what’s going to drive investments in the center,” says Bucci. “We’re seeing a very notable and demonstrable emphasis on customer satisfaction, which is now one of the top metrics that businesses evaluate themselves on. To retain or possibly increase their investments, contact center leaders need to connect with senior management on that level. Make the case that you are the first point of contact, and an important contributor to customer loyalty and retention. Don’t let it degrade to an ROI-only argument.”
Evaluating Training Effectiveness
Executives are not the only group that you should seek approval from regarding training. Make sure that the frontline has a way to provide feedback about your programs. “Staff retention and job satisfaction are the two metrics that everyone misses when it comes to agent training,” says Aoki. “Does the training program help the agent feel more in control of his or her job? Does it help them feel successful in their role? If it does, then agents will want to stay with the company. Since hiring and training agents takes time and money, retaining your best agents is a great cost-saving measure.”
Bucci agrees, adding: “I think it’s very important that agents evaluate training programs on specific parameters, such as content, applicability to their jobs and the effectiveness of the presentation. Agents should also be asked what types of training that they need and perhaps even contribute to the curriculum.”
In addition to customer-centric measures, employee satisfaction and business impact, don’t forget that knowledge retention is the most immediate measurement of training effectiveness, Bucci says. There are many traditional ways of measuring it, such as quizzes and observation, but importantly, “knowledge retention needs to be reinforced over the long term, so the measurement has to be retention over time, not just once.”
Whichever metrics you use, it’s important to evaluate performance before the training, as well as afterward.
“There should be a baseline measurement before, and a benchmark measurement after,” says Ahearn. “It should be tied in to tangible metrics, with specific quantifiable results. You’re looking for specific performance improvement that can be linked into your customer satisfaction process. You will also need to provide coaching as a followup to the training, because that is really the only way you’re going to get the results you’re looking for.”
– Reprinted with permission from Contact Center Pipeline, www.contactcenterpipeline.com