How to drive customer experience through effective agent training

Posted: August 12, 2019

Picture this. 

You’re managing a contact center where your agent team has received all of the information they need to serve customers perfectly. New starter training helps your agents start taking queries at precisely the point they feel confident to, armed with the skills and knowledge needed to serve customers efficiently. Training on new products or services is completely effective, and afterward, agents immediately start delivering the right information to customers. As a result, your first contact resolution (FCR) stands at 100%, as agents are always sure to give out complete, correct, and concise information to your customers so they can get their issues solved on the first try, with no hassle.

If that sounds like a dream to you, that’s because achieving this standard of service is almost impossible.

The joy of customer experiences delivered by people is that those experiences can be full of wisdom, empathy, and the human touch that makes customer relationships feel really special.

On the flip-side, though, humans are complicated. We all have our own lenses and ways of interpreting the world, and we’re all individuals with different preferences.

In the example above, that means it’s just not possible for every agent to react the same way to the information that you give them during training. Whether your contact center is onboarding new starters or updating existing staff on upcoming changes, the learning that agents need to undertake is almost always a more complicated process than passively soaking up information and perfectly parroting it back to customers. 

effective contact center training

I’ve spent my career trying to understand what makes for really great learning, and there aren’t any simple answers. Learning is complicated and is influenced by our emotions, our culture, our environment, and a myriad of other factors. 

We can, however, look to some established theories on what makes for great learning, and compare them with what we often see in contact center training. In doing so, we can see where the gaps are and how we can fix them.

I can’t promise you 100% FCR. But I can guarantee that by augmenting what you do currently with what we know makes for effective learning, you can improve information retention, training quality, and ultimately, create better customer experiences.

What makes for effective learning?

Let’s take a brief look at some of the main theories on how people learn well and compare them with how learning in contact centers works.

Learning should happen in the environment in which the knowledge gets used

We’ve all been there. You attend a training course and hear some excellent ideas that you feel sure will change the way you work for the better.

Then you get back to your desk, and those good intentions fade. Those ideas might have sounded great in the training room. But faced with the reality of day-to-day work, the frustrations and barriers that prevent you from applying your new learning are all too apparent and difficult to conquer.

Training programs around the world suffer from this problem – that learning received in an environment away from the workplace is often difficult to apply when back at your desk. 
The idea that learning should happen in the environment the knowledge gets used in makes sense when you apply it to hands-on skills. Imagine trying to learn to play the guitar by merely reading a book, and never actually playing a guitar. 

However, in agent training, our goal is generally for agents to change their behavior when interacting with customers. The environment is then one they interact with customers in – at their desks, on the phone, or taking live chats. The problem with this, though, is we can’t easily simulate this environment in a training context. 

Many agent training programs recognize this and build in other training methods to try and shift learning into an environment that better mirrors an agent’s work. Role plays are one way to do this. But role plays can make many agents want to die from embarrassment. The anxiety can interfere with effective learning, either burning a negative experience into the agent’s mind or causing them to want to forget about the activity entirely. 

How to fix this: I’m excited about the potential for Virtual Reality to simulate an agent’s environment in a training setting. But this technology isn’t exactly widespread or achievable for most.

Instead, focus on how you can bring real-life elements into your agent training program. Shadowing is a great way to do this. Pair up newer agents with more experienced ones so that newbies can learn in context. This allows them to see how more experienced staff members react to the customer curveballs that don’t often get covered in theory-focused training. You can also have agents listen to old phone calls or analyze live chats, and encourage discussion about the nuances of each case.

Learners should receive reinforcement

If you’ve ever owned and trained a dog, you’ll have used reinforcement theory to help your dog learn what behaviors are desirable and undesirable. When your dog sits on command, you give them a treat. The treat becomes positive reinforcement for the behavior you want them to learn, increasing the likelihood that they will repeat it. 

Humans also respond to reinforcement in helping us to learn, and words of encouragement or constructive criticism are how that’s done. Feedback serves as validation that a learner has interpreted the information they’ve learned correctly. Or if they haven’t done so well, the input should reinforce what they should do instead. When a person does do well, a healthy dose of validation and encouragement also serves to strengthen the new behavior simply through the feedback feeling nice.

Even the worst of contact centers employ some form of feedback mechanisms that serve as reinforcement for behavior. More specifically, you tend to see that when a customer complains about something an agent has done, that feedback will get relayed to the agent, and they’re told to buck up.

But there’s a world of difference between that kind of feedback and truly useful feedback that effectively reinforces both good and bad behavior.

How to fix this: Quality assurance is an excellent way to get started with reinforcing agent behavior. Ensure that agents are given specific and timely feedback, on both the good and the bad, to allow them to keep improving their skills. But a better way to do this is by building a feedback culture that lets your entire team learn and create best practices together. You can get started by sharing when things have gone well, and (anonymously) discussing the cases where things haven’t gone right. Whichever way you choose to give feedback, involving your team in the process ensures that feedback feels like something that’s for them – not done to them.

Learning should be social

Since the dawn of time, humans have learned new skills from other people. Rarely are we struck with inspiration that comes from nowhere. Figuring out an elegant and effective solution to a problem is often best done by talking to someone who has had similar experiences.

And the very nature of customer experience means that it can often take a team effort to change things up at a touchpoint in ways that enhance the entire journey. CX is subjective, so it can take more than one person to come up with great solutions.

It’s also important to recognize that learning doesn’t always occur in ways that are neat and formalized. Learning happens in conversation all the time. By the water cooler, chatting with your desk neighbor, and in meetings where education isn’t the intended outcome at all, learning still occurs. 

But the very nature of contact center targets means that learning from others is often a luxury. It’s usually tough to take an entire agent team away from the queues to be able to attend a training session together. Their days are on a timer, and if your entire team took extended breaks to talk about the finer points of customer service, you’d have a problem.

Contact center work can be isolating. If you’ve experienced life as an agent, you know that sometimes you might spend your entire day talking to customers but barely speak to your colleagues. 

That setup might be great for productivity, but it’s rarely good for quality. For the trickiest cases, it can take a range of ideas and perspectives to decide what makes for the best customer outcomes. As the adage goes, two heads are better than one – so relying on individual agents to have all the answers rarely results in quality outcomes.

How to fix this: Build opportunities for your team to learn together in both formal and informal settings. Part of that should come through a workforce management (WFM) strategy that provides agents with down-time to learn. And don’t forget to give them the ability to learn from other teams. Another tactic is to improve resource opportunities by implementing AI, whether on the agent side in the form of agent assistance tools, or on the customer side in the form of chatbots. Both tools hold the potential to cut the time that agents spend responding to routine queries – allowing you to double down on quality and boost your training time provision.

Agent training shouldn’t come at a cost

If you’re a manager looking to implement more effective agent training strategies, it’s tempting to think of those interventions as coming at a cost.

That’s a dangerous perspective, for a couple of reasons. Training can take many forms that don’t have to drain resource levels – from implementing tech solutions that make learning on the job easier, to simply improving the processes you have. 

This perspective also assumes that a lack of training results in outcomes that are just fine. But when agents haven’t received effective training, you’ll pay the price in repeat contacts and low customer satisfaction.

Looking at the frequency with which customers have to repeatedly contact companies to try and get the correct information or satisfactory resolutions, research suggests that around 30% of customers have to call or chat more than once. That means that there’s a lot of room for contact centers give their agents more of the training they need to deliver the right information, the first time.

Of course, great customer experiences aren’t about dispensing the right information. They’re also about responding with an appropriate tone, sensitivity, and tact. Training should focus on these more emotional aspects of customer service, too.

Finally, investing in training is an investment in your agent experience, especially if your agent team sits in a younger demographic. Gallup recently found that 60% of millennial employees say that the opportunity to learn on the job is extremely important. There is a  growing expectation for companies to offer not just a job, but a job with the potential for skill growth and improvement.

Improving CSat, reducing repeat contacts, while also making agents happier are goals that can all be met with agent training. And in 2019, the possibilities for technology and cleverer processes to make a difference (even for resource-pressed contact centers) are more tangible than ever.

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