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Training and Managing the Customer-Centric Way with Hotwire: Webinar Recap

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Kindra Cooper

Brian Johnson, talent management leader at Hotwire

Online travel booking site Hotwire cut agent training time in half with an innovative, agent-led curriculum called Hotstart, which prepares call center associates to reach full proficiency in just 22 days.

When management set the goal of slashing path to proficiency by 50 percent earlier this year, the company started by re-evaluating its recruitment strategy.

Hire the smile, train the skill

“For us, the selection process is critical,” said Brian Johnson, talent management leader at Hotwire, who elaborated on the booking portal’s approach to training agents in a recent Online Event for CCW Austin. “The person needs to come to the role already with the right personality.”

Although soft skills like active listening and empathy can be taught, he says, belief in the company mission is intrinsic – hence why “Hire the smile, train the skill” is a hackneyed yet accurate refrain in the realm of customer contact management. But hiring an agent with the requisite skills and personality traits doesn’t guarantee that they will vouch for your company through thick and thin.

To cultivate buy-in, Johnson designed Hotstart to be hands-on, where non-chronological learning modules are followed by a practical exercise to test the agent’s grasp of what was taught in the classroom. “They have an opportunity to practice what they just learned, sometimes with a partner or with a system,” said Johnson.

At the end of Week 2, the halfway mark, team leaders conduct a “milestone check-in” with agents. Throughout the training process, the QA team evaluates and scores calls as standard procedure, but supervisors also sit with agents individually to conduct one-on-one call evaluations together, explains Johnson. “At this point we’ll say to the agent: ‘Well, where do you think you need to grow?’”

The agent proposes one to two specific goals they wish to achieve over the next two weeks and creates a corresponding learning action plan. Familiarizing agents with setting their own goals prepares them to follow a similar goal-oriented program once tenured full-time.

By the halfway mark, mindset is just as important as familiarity with Hotwire’s product and systems.

“We really want [agents] to have the mindset of being customer-focused, show attention to detail, and to have developed their listening skills to really hear what our customers are saying,” says Johnson.

However, even the friendliest, most customer-obsessed agents can’t perform without the right tools to succeed, such as an adequate knowledge management system, a CMS that provides them with useful customer data, and a thorough understanding of company policy.

Managing customer dissatisfaction

Hotwire’s cost leadership business model calls for agents who can explain and uphold its policies even when customers are disgruntled. An online booking site offering deep discounts on hotels, flights, car rentals and vacation packages, Hotwire’s appetizing flash sales come with a catch: the name of the hotel, airline or rental provider is hidden until after the customer finalizes a purchase, which is non-refundable and unalterable.

Although the website makes its policies explicit, some customers still demand refunds, and the most taxing part of an agent’s day-to-day is managing customer dissatisfaction from having to say no.

As a workaround to these built-in pain points, Hotwire’s call center is more vested in measuring and minimizing DSAT (dissatisfaction analysis) metrics than typical CSAT (customer satisfaction). When agents are taught to say “no” with empathy and clarity, they have more control over customer dissatisfaction. For this reason, agents are not beholden to a script. Instead, the company provides a knowledge management system with key talking points for agents in response to policy-related questions – but agents have discretion over how to phrase it for a more authentic experience for both customer and agent.

“We give the agents flexibility to communicate in a way that is meaningful to them,” said Johnson.

Checking in with agents on a regular basis

From being on the frontlines with customers everyday, Hotwire sees its agents as a potential fountain of information on what customers want – hence why the company spends so much time on a tailored, one-to-one training program.

From “smile sheet”-type surveys administered at the end of every course to gauge agent satisfaction to the post-learning self assessment given upon completion of the training program, agents are given numerous opportunities to voice their opinions, says Johnson.

“We also hold regular agent roundtable discussions to ask, What our customers saying? What are ways that we could be better? So it’s not just about the call center environment but also our policies -- how can we make them more customer-centric?”