Contact centers are the engines of the customer experience (CX). They move the CX forward with skilled agent drivers at the wheels guiding the vehicles and adapting to conditions to help customers get to where they want to go safely, reliably, and yes rapidly on their journeys.
Coaching and training, or as contact center consultant Laura Sikorski put more accurately, “training then coaching”, are kin to driving instructors and mechanics.
To be a professional contact center agent, like being a professional driver, is not a one-off process, but it is instead a journey by itself.
“Whether you side-by-side, silent, real-time, record, or screen-capture monitor, how you approach the results with your staff is imperative.” —Laura Sikorski
Trainers and instructors teach and reinforce the basic skills and have them updated when there are changes. Meanwhile, coaches, and to an extent mechanics, help them get the most performance from their “vehicles”: including listening, alerting, and acting when things begin to go wrong.
The analogy doesn’t end there. Contact centers and commercial transportation companies both face high costs, namely people: and increasingly demanding “must have it now” customers. They are examining and making understandably cautious implementations of new, automated, notably artificial intelligence (AI)-powered, technologies to cope.
To find out what is happening behind the wheel of contact centers, I recently had a virtual conversation with Laura, who is highly familiar with the highways, intersections, detours, the new construction, and yes their hazards facing agents.
Q. What are the top trends in and impacting training then coaching?
Training is an investment and most importantly not a one-time event.
Always keep the following in mind when developing or revamping your training program. People remember:
- 10% of what they READ.
- 20% of what they HEAR.
- 30% of what they SEE.
- 50% of what they HEAR and SEE.
- 70% of what they SAY or WRITE.
- 90% of what they SAY WHEN THEY DO AN ACTIVITY.
James E. Stice, University of Texas, 1987.
Here are the components for a successful program:
- Classroom and/or video instruction
- Lab/reference library/eLearning
- Daily schedule/detailed curriculum/role play/tests
- Performance evaluations
- Soft skills training
- Cross-channel training
- Continuous training
Be sure your training program has timeline markers and tests to record how the trainees are learning and retaining their lessons.
Coaching is one of the best management tools for improving performance. Whether you side-by-side, silent, real-time, record, or screen-capture monitor, how you approach the results with your staff is imperative. Always discuss ways to improve by not focusing on what was wrong.
Here are a few coaching improvement techniques:
- Have the agent and analyst/supervisor listen/view together and score independently.
- Consider “on-the-spot” coaching and guidance.
- Develop an agent improvement plan with realistic timeframes.
- Reinforce listening skills.
- Ask the employee “what you could have done better?”
- Advise that they know your procedures; however, “try saying this [the better wording] next time.”
- Also ask the employee how they would feel if the same matter the customer was contacting them about happened to them, e.g., received damaged order, late flight, etc.
- Additionally, if relevant, ask them how they would feel if they were on hold for three minutes and the agent never came back to let them know that they were still working on getting the answer.
- Look for ways to empower your staff by asking them.
- Increase productivity.
- Decrease employee turnover.
- Allow your staff to become more engaged.
- Improve communications skills.
- Improve procedures.
- Correct undesirable behavior.
When coaching, reinforce “thinking like a customer.” What would they as a customer expect from the agent they are speaking with?
Q. Have these training and coaching issues changed and if so how and why?
Laura Sikorski: The need for training and coaching has not changed. However, it has become more challenging with the increase of remote workers and should be combined with an effective onboarding program.
“While hybrid [working] proclaims worker flexibility, it has brought about an increased demand to keep staff motivated, trained, coached, and feeling part of the corporate culture.”
Here are a few new onboarding elements that can be provided by HR and/or the direct supervisor:
- A virtual tour of the company’s facilities and to introduce their team members.
- Schedule regular check-ins to ensure the agents are adapting to their roles and have the support they need.
- Clearly define expectations in terms of job responsibilities, performance goals, and company culture.
- Assign mentors to provide support, guidance, and feedback.
- Clear communication guidelines around email, instant messaging, and video conferencing.
- Role-specific software tutorials or product demos.
- Professional development opportunities and resources for ongoing learning.
A recent discussion with HR professionals about exit interviews with remote workers highlighted the main reasons they were leaving were due to their initial training not being comprehensive enough and minimal continuous training. Here are several training considerations for remote workers:
- It is crucial to provide regular virtual training sessions, webinars, and recorded videos so that workers can access them at any time to ensure they are up to date with the latest tools, technologies, and best practices.
- Encourage them to take charge of their own learning and development by providing them with access to eBooks, articles, and video tutorials.
- Foster a culture of collaboration and communication. Encourage regular check-ins, set up virtual team-building activities, and create channels for feedback and support.
- Use technology to support training such as video conferencing and screen sharing.
The new hybrid working environment has impacted training, coaching, and hiring practices tremendously. Staffing appropriately has always been a challenge for contact centers. Based on my discussions with HR professionals and my gut instinct, turnover prior to the hybrid work environment was generally around 50%. But, sad to say, remote workers have increased this percentage by 15% - 20%.
It takes a special type of person to work remotely. And, when actually faced with working off-site, many tenured employees and new hires just cannot handle the isolation.
While hybrid [working] proclaims worker flexibility, it has brought about an increased demand to keep staff motivated, trained, coached, and feeling part of the corporate culture.
I feel the remote worker must have a separate work area in their home and the freedom to video their peers and learn independently.
The best way to maintain a skilled workforce - in-house and/or remote - is open communications, career pathing, continuous training, creating task forces that develop ways to improve day-to-day operations and provide a fun place to work atmosphere.
Q. There is a raft of new and refined existing technologies, notably ChatGPT while video continues to develop. Do you see them shaping the ability to train agents?
Laura Sikorski: I do not see any reason why ChatGPT technology should become a mainstay for training staff. However, I do see it helping agents with interactions by providing pop-ups with alternate ways to answer customer queries on live or chat interactions.
This channel will only “work” with good design and must have the ability to provide “human-like” accurate answers and guidance.
“As for video, I think it is the best choice for training remote staff when it is combined with interactive sessions, role playing, and testing.”
I urge all to read the “The CHATGPT Revolution” article in the May 2023 issue of Contact Center Pipeline. This article is a definite read and share with contact center executives!
Nathan Hart, Senior Director of Technology, Solutions & Data Analytics, The Northridge Group, was spot-on with all his answers to your questions. I concur 100% “that ChatGPT technology will be appropriate for contact centers within the next two to five years, but it will require extensive supervision and act as a supplement to human associates.”
My biggest fear is that ChatGPT will become the new IVR customer dilemma and horror story.
IVR was supposed to reduce the need for staff, according to vendors, and that it would create a pleasant and fulfilling customer experience. Instead, it became a source of customer complaints and a nightmare due to horrific phone tree menus with press options that go on forever and no option to speak with a person.
There was an article in my local Long Island newspaper, Newsday, that Wendy’s, a fast-food restaurant, will be using ChatGPT at their company-owned store in Columbus, Ohio. They plan to use this technology to talk to customers and take drive-thru orders.
Their rationale for implementation? “Trying to reduce miscommunication and mistakes by automating the process.”
If anyone lives in Columbus, Ohio we would love to hear from you about how you felt talking to the chatbot and if they got your order right!
Just because AI is currently headlining TV/cable shows and newspapers, it doesn’t mean that it is the right technology for all businesses and contact centers. You need to think about why your customers contact you and provide them with the technology that best suits their needs.
As for video, I think it is the best choice for training remote staff when it is combined with interactive sessions, role playing, and testing. For me, canned video presentations will only benefit trainees if they are 10 minutes long and are professionally done.
Q. What are your recommendations to contact centers in improving their training and coaching, including selecting and screening trainers and coaches?
Laura Sikorski: Trainers are critical to a meaningful and successful training program.
Consider the following traits when hiring your trainers:
- Knowledge of the subjects
- Analytical skills
- High energy level
- Sense of humor
- Good listener
- Organizational skills
- “On-Stage” skills
- Time management
Coaching staff needs to be compassionate and have formal processes and guidelines on how to measure performance.
“...ask for feedback from the newly-hired staff and assure them that criticism will not affect their employment.”
I do think that HR may need to revamp their behavioral interview questions.
Here are a few examples:
- Agent teamwork. “Tell me about a team project that you and other remote workers worked on. What was the most difficult challenge?”
- Agent work ethic. “Keeping up with your schedule – hours, days of the week you work in the office versus at home – is not easy. What tips would you like to share?”
- Supervisor leadership. “How have you been able to delegate effectively to your remote team members?”
- Supervisor problem solving. “What was the most innovative new idea that you implemented with your remote team?”
My final recommendation on training and coaching is to ask for feedback from the newly-hired staff and assure them that criticism will not affect their employment.
Here are possible feedback questions:
- What was the most difficult to understand?
- Was training too short or too long?
- What did you like best, least and why?
- When you took your first telephone call, were you nervous and if so, why?
Yes, you can do this “face-to-face” or give them an online survey form. However, after you review it call and say thank you and discuss some of their points and what you plan to do.
Remember, communication with staff is paramount!