Call centre training: Holding the line

There are few sectors that have more HR issues than the call centre industry. It is difficult to motivate staff to do a job that is low paid, monotonous and stressful, and consequently staff turnover is regularly above 20% in most call centres.

Effective training has a significant role to play in stemming this turnover and enhancing agent skills. As a result, more call centre managers are moving away from traditional models of training. They are finding that by taking a fresh, innovative approach they can become more effective as customer service, sales, and technical support providers.

“We receive a wide variety of calls,” says Christopher Tellegen, project and development manager at Enterprise Rent-A-Car, a vehicle rental firm that operates a fleet of more than 700,000 vehicles across five countries and has a 160-seat contact centre in Aldershot. “Our agents must be highly trained to deal with customers who may be in stressful circumstances, such as a vehicle theft or an accident.”

From a distance

To help achieve this level of competence, the company has recently introduced call recording technology. This captures a selection of the 80,000 inbound, outbound and internal calls the centre makes and receives every month. It also captures screenshots. Tellegen says: “Using screen capture and voice together, we can identify where the agent can improve and what they are doing well. Since introducing call recording, we’ve seen staff turnover fall significantly.”

Richard Leech, head of learning at training consultancy The Grass Roots Group, says: “One of the greatest challenges facing trainers in call centres is that staff resourcing is rarely planned to free up time for training. One solution to this is distance learning, which agents can do during quieter times.”

In summer 2005, mobile services provider O2 hired Grass Roots to deliver a distance learning programme for its call centre in Bury. Following a workshop at the call centre for line managers and team coaches, agents started an eight-week distance learning programme, where they learned about a different aspect of customer retention each week. The learning was reinforced with an interactive telephone quiz.

At the end of the training, the centre recorded the highest ever agent satisfaction score, and the customer retention rate improved by 9% during the learning programme.

Peter Gale, UK manager at Data Base Factory, a call centre specialising in partwork publishing, believes professional development within the call centre industry is, in comparison to other industries, extremely limited. To tackle this he provides his staff with training in neuro-linguistic programming (NLP).

Encourage older workers

NLP is a method for understanding how people represent the world, be that visually, aurally or kinaesthetically, and then relating to them in that way. Gale explains: “By using the three main communication types appropriately, agents can quickly build rapport with callers.”

“For example, a caller contacted us with a payment problem. He was anxious to make sure we had the new details recorded properly. He said: ‘I’ll feel much more comfortable when this is all sorted out’. The agent replied: ‘I understand what you are saying’, and the subsequent rapport was good.”

For many, the most important factor in call centre training is to provide agents with a career path supported by relevant training. Prolog Connect, a call centre with clients such as the Department of Health, Department of Education and Skills, and Tiscali Broadband, employs 570 agents across four centres in the UK, and has been trying to improve its induction training to do just that.

Paul Miller, contact centre director, explains: “For many, working in a call centre is an alternative to bar work. By offering a week-long induction, which covers skills like handling difficult customers and using new technology, we hope to encourage older workers onto our staff, and also give all our employees some sense of their future. We want our staff to build a career with us, and we do all we can to help them do this by providing high-quality training.”

Case study: QVC

Sandra Nixon is the training manager for home shopping channel QVC’s call centre in Liverpool. It has 900 agents providing a range of services, including order taking, customer services, product information and online responses.

She says: “Our biggest challenge is imparting a large amount of information to trainees in a short space of time. As time is at such a premium, all of our training has to be extremely effective.”

All training is delivered in-house. Induction and initial job-specific training lasts one or two weeks and is a mixture of classroom work and ‘buddying-up’ with experienced agents in the call centre. Trainees then move on to the incubator area for another one to two weeks, where they are coached to ensure they reach the required quality standards before they are signed off as full employees.

Nixon says: “Our buddying system helps trainees learn and integrate well.It also gives our more experienced staff some variety in their jobs. All the surveys we’ve run indicate that our staff feel well trained. We proved the effectiveness of our training team last year when we took over running the incubator fromthe quality team. We introduced standard competency measures there, and this resulted in a reduction in call handling times from 200 seconds to160 seconds.”

She concludes: “We’re keen to show our staff that, although they’re joining a call centre, there is a career path for them, and training is vitally important.”

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