Call Center New-Hire Training: Getting Rookie Reps Ready



Greg Levine
09/13/2010

While many contact centers rush through initial training eager to get their new recruits on the phones and attacking the queue – the best centers spend weeks if not months helping agents earn their headsets. The time and money spent on such preparation more than pays off in terms of improved agent performance and retention, increased customer satisfaction, and decreased medical costs associated with poorly trained agents concussing themselves against their computer monitor during peak periods.

Here are the key elements of the best new-hire agent training programs I have seen in my 16 years as a contact center journalist and researcher:

Highly interactive and fun classroom training

Face-to-face classroom instruction will always be a key component of new-hiring training. The problem is that in many contact centers, classroom training is about as compelling and captivating as the Sewing Channel or a conversation with Roger Federer.

In the best contact centers I have seen, when new agents head into the classroom, they aren’t trained; they are entertrained. Critical information, tips and contact-handling methods aren’t communicated merely via static lectures and manuals; they are experienced and embraced via training games, stories, role plays, videos, etc. Making training fun and interactive not only captures attention and reduces stress, it greatly enhances employees’ ability to absorb and remember training material. Studies have shown that, unless fully engaged, adults learn some but don’t necessarily retain information.

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E-learning modules

While a high-touch approach is important in new-hire training, there is certainly a place for high-tech, too.

E-learning modules, when well designed and implemented at the right times, can have a big impact on training effectiveness and efficiency. It adds another level of diversity to the training mix, enables trainees to work at their own pace, and allows them to access the information repeatedly since modules can be stored right on their desktop.

One very effective e-learning tool is call simulation. Specific simulations can be created and used during new-hire training to let agents try out new techniques and apply new information in a realistic setting. Simulations are a great way to uncover trouble spots as well as areas of strength for each trainee, and are invaluable in developing their confidence prior to pushing them out to the phone floor to handle customers who have an actual pulse and, often, attitude.

Call observations/evaluations

This is another tactical and practical training tool to supplement traditional didactic methods. Having trainees listen to actual live or recorded customer-agent interactions is a great way for them to experience up close the types of contacts they will soon be handling and – more importantly – to learn first-hand how best to handle those contacts.

Top contact centers keep a call recording library of both positive and negative (though anonymous) interactions for use in new-hire training, and make those recordings accessible to trainees online. These centers create specific call categories – such as "Call Resolution", "Empathy", etc. – as well as titles for each call recording, like "Complaint-Handling Perfection" or "Look Who Really Sucks at Upselling".

Shadowing

Where listening to live or recorded calls enables trainees to hear how to handle customer contacts, letting trainees sit with agents in action enables them to truly "feel" how to handle customer contacts. There’s nothing like getting right up in it, close enough to smell the sweat and terror of the veteran tackling a challenging call. And following calls, trainees can ask questions and gain insights from their experienced peers.

In some contact centers, trainees not only shadow agents, they assist them on some customer contacts. This may entails handling the data entry aspect of the call while the agent does the talking, looking up key info, providing input while the customer is on hold, or running to get the agent a shot of vodka or a gun to help cope with a difficult caller.

Transition training

Transition training is one of my favorite – and one of the most effective – features of the best new-hire training programs. It involves having trainees take calls in a controlled environment after they have received ample classroom and other types of training. It’s a fantastic way for new-hires to "transition" from training to the official phone floor – enabling them to work out their call-handling kinks and gain confidence before being thrown to the wolves.

To ensure that customer satisfaction doesn’t take a hit from having newbies on the phones, only basic call types are routed to the transition training bay (a.k.a., "nesting area", "incubation room", "torture chamber"). The transition training bay is staffed with several supervisors or experienced agents who are on hand to assist trainees (or even step in if necessary) as the trainees lose their customer contact virginity.

Peer mentoring

Peer mentoring is a potentially powerful new-hire training tool where each trainee (protêgê) is paired up with a skilled and experienced agent (mentor) throughout the mid to latter stages of initial training – and often beyond. Contact centers with such extensive mentoring programs report shorter learning curves, increased performance, lower turnover among new hires, and increased empowerment/morale among the mentors themselves.

When selecting who will serve as mentors, it’s important to note that the most talented and experienced agents don’t necessarily make the best teachers. Contact centers with successful mentoring programs look for mentors who are skilled, dependable, personable, autonomous, and who have never or rarely ever punched an inquisitive colleague in the face.