As a call center coach and trainer, I have had the honor of meeting, talking to, and sharing insights with and learning from many other industry professionals.
No matter what type, function, size, or vertical of the call center we work or have worked for, we share the same issues but also the opportunities to improve our service to customers.
Coaches and trainers seek the very best from the people – our agents - that provide it. Almost all of us started out on the call floor. That enables us to see where they are coming from, which allows us to communicate and carry out the objectives set out by senior management and meet (but ideally exceed) their goals.
I recently had the privilege of having a virtual conversation with Rob Dwyer. For over a decade, Rob has successfully trained, coached, and developed agents and contact center leaders throughout the world to provide superior customer service and increase agent retention rates.
Today, Rob leads client engagement at Happitu, which is a robust agent-enablement and CX (customer experience) analysis platform. He is also the host of Next in Queue, a podcast about people in the contact center and CX industries.
Here are several questions I posed to Rob, followed by my comments.
Q. What are the top trends that you are seeing with coaching and training agents and their drivers?
There are three recent trends that are changing how we coach and train agents. They also involve AI (artificial intelligence).
The first is post-interaction transcription (for voice) and sentiment analysis, both post-call and in real-time.
Being able to analyze 100% of customer interactions means we no longer need to rely on a small sample of quality monitored interactions to determine agent skill gaps. Instead, we can see those gaps in the aggregate, and we can identify specific phrasing that drives both positive and negative sentiment so we can reinforce strengths and refine the opportunities.
“...it’s still critical that leaders listen to calls (and read written channel communications) to understand both current CXs and agent performance...” —Rob Dwyer
The second is real-time agent guidance. This can be in the form of a workflow or an AI “bot” that’s analyzing the conversation in real-time.
Both of these can reduce training time because the edge cases can be dealt with as they come up rather than during training. While the AI “bot” can be incredibly powerful, it can also add cognitive load on the agent if it’s constantly taking their attention away from the customer interaction, particularly during voice calls.
The third is gamification. While this isn’t a particularly new concept, in the past it’s often been poorly implemented as an afterthought or “bolt-on” feature. New AI-driven platforms that focus on delivering a true gamified experience can help drive retention rates and accelerate learning for agents.
One of the biggest cons for all of these solutions has been price, but as the market matures, competition and economies of scale have driven pricing down so far that now, even small businesses can implement some of these tools without a significant change to their technology budgets.
This suite of technologies is reaching a maturation point where it is both effective in providing insights and cost-effective for organizations big and small. These technologies can eliminate the sample size issue present in most quality assurance programs (QA) while providing business intelligence to business leaders enabling them to make faster, more informed decisions.
That said, it’s still critical that leaders listen to calls (and read written channel communications) to understand both current CXs and agent performance so they can affect positive change going forward.
The call and contact center landscape constantly evolves, emphasizing AI and growing customer expectations. Here are a few trends that seem to be popping up, like trending reels:
- Emphasis on soft skills. Agents often find themselves in challenging situations where they must rely on their soft skills, such as empathy, emotional intelligence (EI), conflict management, and active listening.
- Personalized coaching and training can be highly beneficial in sharpening these skills and improving the CX. Moreover, when agents realize that when their company invests in their growth, it boosts employee retention and, in turn, enhances the CX.
- Microlearning. Microlearning involves breaking down training into bite-sized pieces that are easy to digest and retain. This trend is driven by increasing agent knowledge retention and reducing training time. Further, such courses need to be distributed to agents at least every two weeks to create an atmosphere of continuous learning.
- Gamification. With dwindling attention spans and the need for small wins, I’ve noticed gamification elements being subtly added to several call and contact center applications, such as receiving a reward or points for completing a computer-based training before its deadline.
- This trend is to make training more engaging and enjoyable for agents, which can increase their motivation to learn and improve their skills.
- Data-driven coaching and training. To piggyback on Rob’s take on this piece, leadership or your QA team can’t evaluate every call. However, with today’s technology, the software can analyze data on agent performance; centers can identify areas where coaching is needed and tailor their coaching to specific agents’ strengths and weaknesses.
- This data-driven approach can help ensure that coaching is targeted and effective, leading to better performance and higher customer satisfaction.
- Scenario-based virtual reality (VR) training. VR will revolutionize agents’ training by offering simulated scenarios that closely replicate real-life situations. This immersive and realistic training experience enhances agent preparedness and confidence, enabling them to handle complex situations better and increasing agent confidence and performance.
Q. Are you seeing the Great Resignation/staffing shortages affect the quality of contact center agents? Are these matters creating challenges in their coaching, adherence, performance, AND quality?
The biggest thing I’m seeing is that employee expectations are changing. Expectations regarding wages, schedule flexibility, the ability to work-from-home (WFH), their relationship with their supervisor and peers, and opportunities for development/promotions are all changing.
What that has exposed is that some contact centers weren’t doing a good job executing on development to begin with, but now agents have more choices.
With a tight labor market (unemployment is at a 50-year low in the U.S.) and gig options abounding, filling roles is more challenging, and agents are quick to jump ship if their experiences are not up to their expectations.
Those companies that are struggling in meeting employee expectations are finding they are struggling in many other areas, including employee reliability, retention, and performance. If this is your contact center, the turnover means starting from scratch more and more with agent performance.
I agree expectations are shifting, but I feel we need to ask why we are seeing these shortages; from what I’ve noticed, here are some contributing factors:
- Onboarding and training. I’ve heard and seen trainees rush through training to place warm bodies into seats, but this leads to several issues. Such as the inability to handle customer inquiries and repeat callbacks from upset callers, agent frustration due to a stirring sense of inadequacy, and missed SLAs because of leadership shortsightedness.
- I recall about a year ago when due to the call center not meeting their SLA for a line of business, they brought in 12 to 14 agents, and trained them in four weeks when it usually took six weeks. Not surprisingly, they had all sorts of issues ranging from high turnover to a decline in call quality.
- Workload and stress. With centers understaffed but with high call volumes, the workload per agent rises significantly. To cope with demand, centers resort to micro-management, mandatory overtime and limited time-off.
- These moves increase stress levels and the agent’s downward spiral to burnout. When agents are nearing the cliff of burnout, they are too tired to be concerned about adherence or overall call quality.
- Challenges for coaches or trainers. Due to increasing quality issues, coaches find themselves using a teaspoon to shovel water out of a sinking cruise liner, making it challenging to review cases and provide personalized coaching and support to agents.
- Further, since most agents lack the foundation to perform the job, coaching interactions are time-consuming, and the centers can’t afford to provide agents with the necessary coaching due to calls waiting in the queue.
Q. Coaching and training requires talented coaches and trainers. Are you seeing any changes in the ability to recruit and promote these individuals and in their performance and productivity?
Coaching and training are skills: and they can be developed like any other skill. If you hire the right people as agents, you’ll have the right people in-house to fill other roles.
But you have to be willing to foster the development of the skills needed to succeed in those roles because they are not innate. If, as an organization, you aren’t willing to do that, then it stands to reason that you would find it difficult to attract and retain people who already have these skills because they won’t see an opportunity to grow.
Talented coaches and trainers are in high demand for their exceptional skills in customer service, adaptability, effective communication, and the ability to guide agents toward excellence.
“...coaching interactions are time-consuming, and the centers can't afford to provide agents with the necessary coaching due to calls waiting in the queue.” —Mark Pereira
I always recommend call and contact centers look inwards before looking for talent outside by allowing current agents to mentor new hires, assist with questions in group chats, and assist with training presentations, to name a few.
By providing these opportunities, leadership can identify potential trainers and coaches who can lead, motivate, and explain tasks to peers. And then mentor and provide them with the necessary education and experiences to take on the roles of coaches or trainers.
Training the Trainers
Call and contact center leadership needs training to be better leaders and stay current on trends. But creating the coach or trainer for your center is like the Build-A-Bear Workshop, where you get what you invest in them.
Here are some tips:
- Provide continuous learning opportunities to enhance their skills. Stay up to date with your industry’s best practices through workshops, conferences, and certifications, to name a few.
- Assess the effectiveness of the leaders through regular surveys and observations to gather valuable feedback and evaluate performance and pass it along to your coaches and mentors with constructive feedback to help them improve.
- Invest in a Toastmasters membership. I’m not saying that because I’m currently the vice president of public relations at our local club, but because of the educational programs offered and the immediate constructive feedback that follows after speaking at a meeting.
Q. Contact centers appear to have settled into a new normal of hybrid working. Has it affected coaching and training, and if so, how?
The new normal of hybrid and/or WFH only impacts performance if the implementation wasn’t well thought out.
WFH has been happening successfully in contact center environments for over two decades. The challenge lies in changing mindsets from an all brick-and-mortar world to one where digital interactions are more common.
To accomplish this requires relying on (and possibly implementing) tools that work regardless of location and using them whether you’re in the office or WFH. It also means being more intentional about your interactions because body language may not be visible.
If we can coach agents to have great interactions over the phone with customers they never see face to face, why do we think we can’t effectively coach and manage performance under the same dynamic?
I agree some challenges are faced, but nothing too significant that technology coupled with learning new skills can’t fix.
Regarding remote or hybrid training, use video conferencing and other virtual communication tools to conduct classes and keep trainees engaged during each course. For coaching, leveraging screen sharing, knowledge management systems (KMSes), and virtual communication tools such as Microsoft Teams (MS Teams) to provide feedback to agents.
Trainee engagement is crucial. It’s essential to incorporate various tools and techniques into training programs. Surveys, videos, call recordings, quizzes, games, and eLearning platforms to effectively reinforce information and promote retention. By presenting information differently and using multiple mediums, trainees are more likely to stay focused and retain what they’ve learned.
Q. Finally, what are your recommendations to contact centers to ensure that their staff are delivering customer-satisfying/expectations-exceeding service and results?
Employees require investment just like technology. Too many contact center leaders are willing to spend money on technology investments while avoiding investing in their employees.
When your employees see that you’re invested in them and their development, they’ll provide the results you’re looking for.
Your frontline representatives must deliver customer-satisfying and expectation-exceeding service, thereby attracting new and retaining existing customers. They must:
- Hire the right people. Like by asking questions that help assess their fit for the roles.
- Provide comprehensive initial and ongoing training. It should cover all aspects of the job, with updates after hiring as things change. Do not cut corners.
- Set clear expectations of the job, including goals and objectives. Provide regular feedback, including from customers, to help them understand where they stand and areas for growth.
- Empower your staff. Enable and equip them to make decisions and resolve customer issues independently.
- Monitor performance. Provide coaching and training to help your staff when needed.
- Reward and recognize. What gets rewarded gets done repeatedly. Offer incentives, such as bonuses or gift cards, for agents that meet or exceed performance targets.
- Foster a supportive team-focused work environment. Offer forums and mentoring programs to encourage knowledge sharing.
By making them truly a part of the organization, with support and encouragement, and by offering career growth and advancement opportunities, talented employees will be motivated and more likely to stay with the company.