Three years ago, very few of us could have imagined a world where most contact center agents would be working from home.
While some centers were dabbling with at-home agents before the COVID-19 pandemic, the unprecedented shift to remote work in early 2020 looks like it could be here to stay. For most companies, it has proven to be very successful. While most organizations will likely opt for a hybrid working model, research is clear about the value employees place on flexibility and fulfillment in the workplace.
Keeping pace with change is not new to contact centers. What is new is that the rate of change is growing exponentially, and it’s affecting organizations and the people who work in them in a massive way.
...research is clear about the value employees place on flexibility...
Not only is there a need to manage the change itself, but most importantly, the impact constant change has on our employees. Dealing successfully with a never-ending barrage of new systems, new products, new types of customers, and a revolving door of management is not a skill people are born with. It requires our ongoing support.
Equally challenging is that, as self-serve continues to remove routine transactions from the queue, contact center agents are left with more complex, high emotion interactions – interactions that they are often not well-prepared for. It may have been common to receive one or two challenging interactions a week, but most agents now receive more than two a day.
These are just three of the many high-impact conditions contact center leaders must contend within the coming years:
- Hybrid work models
- Never-ending, exponential change
- The growing rate of high-emotion customer interactions
Amid this new environment, learning and development (L&D) leaders have a vital (and urgent) role. Here are five common mistakes organizations make when designing their contact center training – and how you can avoid making them too.
Mistake #1: Not Mixing up the Delivery Approach
Given the rate of change that contact centers must contend with, it is essential to recognize that learning can no longer be thought of as a “one-and-done” approach.
Rather it should be a critical part of an agent’s daily work. Learning must adapt to the agent’s workflow and schedule.
While technology-based learning has been growing in popularity over the last few years, it exploded with the need to move agents home. While some companies have been managing by leveraging Webex or Zoom to deliver content as they have historically in a classroom, others have embraced all that learning management systems (LMS) offer.
Best practice learning environments have adopted a “blended” learning approach that combines online learning and online interaction opportunities with traditional, leader-led classroom methods (classroom or via webinar). It is not only more adaptable to the reality of the environment but also has a greater chance of fully engaging the learner.
Importantly, in a blended learning environment, classroom instruction and remote learning can each play to their strengths, as seen in this example.
The key to creating a successful learning journey is to leverage a wide variety of channels and techniques that gives the learner a view into the actual job experience. For example, your new hire training may look something like this:
- Welcome / Intro to Company – Live Webinar or In-Person Classroom
- Soft Skills – eLearning
- Product Knowledge (Basic) – eLearning
- Roleplaying - Telephone
- Spend time in the field (branch, clinic, store)
- Spend time on the phones (simple queue)
- Product Knowledge (Advanced) – Classroom or Webinar
- Policies, Procedures, Advanced Systems – Classroom or Webinar
- Final Comprehension Testing – eLearning
- Final Competency Testing / Roleplaying – Telephone
When designing content, it’s much more efficient to do it in a way that addresses both online learning and classroom instruction.
For example, you may have a group of 20 new hires that you will want to train all at once (blended learning). Two weeks later, you may need to train just three individuals, and you can’t wait for the next training session (predominantly online learning with a peer coach).
Or, you may have a classroom of in-person learners with one or two virtual agents (present in-person while live-streaming to remote learners). Flexibility in learning delivery will become even more critical over time.
Mistake #2: Using Generic Content
Many organizations have purchased off-the-shelf learning that leverages generic content and examples to bring online learning into contact centers on a tight budget and even tighter timeline.
While this is better than having no online learning at all, it can derail your learning efforts. If you want agents to retain the knowledge, then the learning content needs to align as closely as possible with the actual environment they will be working in.
Contact center agents have a lot to remember and learn. Introducing customer service skills that may work well in a face-to-face retail setting won’t always translate well into a contact center. Likewise, hearing examples from a banking environment can only confuse an agent who works in healthcare or home services.
Customizing learning content doesn’t mean that you have to spend the time and money to develop everything from scratch.
There are off-the-shelf contact center learning modules that can be customized to include examples from your actual environment – at a fraction of the cost and time associated with custom development. Ongoing, these same modules can be easily updated as products and the customer environment shift over time.
Mistake #3: Not Testing for Competency
Many contact center courses test only for comprehension. For example, agents may leave the course with an understanding of why empathy is essential and be able to recite the key steps to introducing it into a conversation. Still, they may struggle to transition from theory to practical by appropriately empathizing with an upset caller in a real-life situation.
On the other hand, competency-based learning focuses on the agent’s ability to demonstrate the skill. And so, without competency testing, contact center agents are practicing their skills on real, live customers!
Many contact center courses test only for comprehension.
Robust roleplaying, coupled with real-time coaching, is an excellent way for agents to flex their skills and feel comfortable making mistakes.
You may want to start with peer-to-peer roleplaying, but it always helps to raise the bar by engaging a third party (potentially using actors) to give them a real sense of what they will be facing. Safely practicing via roleplaying is particularly important when mastering high-emotion scenarios like managing irate callers or complex problem-solving.
Mistake #4: Failing to Reinforce Learning
We all share the frustration of completing a training session with our teams only to hear agents revert to their old ways within hours!
We have found that there are three reasons why an agent doesn’t demonstrate the behaviors that we ask of them: (1) They don’t know how, (2) They have forgotten, and (3) They don’t want to! Reinforcing training and the skills agents learn addresses the most common reason we see in contact centers – they have forgotten.
The Forgetting Curve, developed by psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus in the 1800s, demonstrates how quickly memory retention drops after learning new information. His research suggests that people forget approximately 50% of what they have learned within just one hour and 70% within 24 hours. Within 30 days, that amount of forgetting increases to 90%.
Ensuring learning content is both engaging and relevant goes hand-in-hand with reinforcement in helping learners retain knowledge after training. Here are some things to consider:
- Expand your new hire learning curriculum over a more extended period, enabling learners to more readily absorb the information.
- Introduce a “nesting” period in the middle of training where agents have the opportunity to use what they have learned in a live (albeit controlled) environment.
- Repetition. Use the language, models, and approaches consistently and frequently.
- Leverage microlearning for reinforcing, reminding, and re-engaging agents. Microlearning modules are designed for immediate consumption, typically from 3 to 10 minutes in length. These brief and direct modules reinforce and remind what has been learned at the moment an issue has been detected (e.g., when a shortfall is detected in QA or following a coaching session). They are short enough to be reviewed during periods of lower volume and provide a simple reminder that lifts performance immediately.
Mistake #5: Failing to Monitor Behavior after Training
The key to reinforcing training over the long term, is ongoing and regular quality monitoring and coaching.
We often compare contact center agent skills to a game of “whac-a-mole”. No sooner do we feel that an agent has learned the skill and is consistently demonstrating it than when another poor behavior pops up. We address that, and then the initial issue rears its head again!
The reality is that nothing short of regular and ongoing quality monitoring followed up with coaching will address consistency. And without consistency, it won’t be easy to progress to more sophisticated skills and reliably deliver a great customer experience.
Many organizations heavy-up quality monitoring, feedback, and coaching for new hires, following formal training, and whenever there is a critical policy/procedure change. The key is to detect the behavior that needs to be corrected as soon as possible before it becomes an embedded habit that is more difficult to correct.
As the future of work changes how we all work, how we support contact center agents must also change. Like most things, the most successful approach will not be all or nothing. Instead, it will be a blend of the best of human engagement and technology support.
The pace of change and increased uncertainty have caused many contact center agents to struggle. For many, without the support of their peer sitting at the desk next to them, they feel isolated and bewildered. It is no surprise that contact center employees keep their eyes open for other opportunities that may be better aligned with their wellbeing and purpose.
Given all this, the role of learning and development within the contact center must evolve at a rapid pace.
While L&D professionals may be primarily responsible for developing and delivering great learning content, there is a need for a more significant leadership role to play in shaping the future of the contact center:
- From helping agents master the skills they need to manage complex customer relationships to introducing skills to help them be more adaptable and flexible.
- From critical thinking and complex problem-solving to coaching and management development.
Learning and development must be at the foundation of every contact center’s strategic plan and help to lead the way.