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Three Ways to Train for Call-Center Success

For many organizations, call-center representatives are the only human contact that customers ever have with the company.

August 8, 2002
Related Topics: HR Services and Administration, Behavioral Training, Basic Skills Training

Customer satisfaction determines success in this economy, where hundreds ofbuying options are available at the click of a mouse. For many organizations,call-center representatives are the only human contact that customers ever havewith the company.

"Call-center representatives are the company to the customer because theyare the only employees your customers have contact with," says Richard Gerson,primary consultant at Gerson Goodson, Inc., a relationship marketing andretention management firm in Clearwater, Florida. How reps handle theseinteraction opportunities shapes the entire customer experience. Yet call-centerreps are typically the most underpaid, undertrained, overworked employees in acompany.

To manage the increasing service expectations of fickle buyers, call-centerreps require training far beyond product knowledge and basic phone skills.Complex customer relationship management software compels reps to attend tocustomers’ emotional states while compiling detailed information about theiraccounts.

"CRM technology completely changes the way reps do their jobs," saysMarijo Puleo, director at Peppers and Rogers Group, a CRM consulting firm inStamford, Connecticut. They need to know how to react to customer behavior, whatthey can promise, how to log customer information, and how to multi-task. Theyare using new computer interfaces and data-collection processes while handlingcontacts from multiple touch points -- phone, e-mail, fax, live online chat.They may have four conversations going at once in separate chat windows, each ofwhich requires them to answer different questions efficiently while loggingspecific pieces of customer data, she says. "They need to know how to managethat."

Pairing new hires with expert associates is a critical part of training. It gives rookies a glimpse of the real thing.

It requires a certain skill set that not every applicant can demonstrate,Gerson says. "You can’t train people to be nice. You have to hire people whocommunicate well and who will function successfully in that setting."

To guarantee that you employ the right type of person, you should auditionpotential reps during the hiring process to see them in action. And, ifpossible, offer pre-hire training that teaches candidates basic skills such asappropriate phone greetings and language usage. This gives them a taste of whatit means to be a service rep.

Not everyone is capable of sitting at a desk for eight hours straightinteracting pleasantly with customers, Puleo says. Extensive pre-hire screeningensures that you’ve made the right choice and that candidates understand thejob they are agreeing to -- before official hiring takes place.

Once candidates have been chosen, the caliber of new-hire training determinestheir success and satisfaction in the job. Along with product and companyknowledge, it should be an intensive process that covers communication skills,call-center technology, and how to manage multiple channels of customercommunication. They have to be up to speed on all of the customer touch pointseven if they intend to handle only one channel, Puleo says. If a customer callsin because of problems with the Web site, the rep has to be able to answerquestions about the site, or risk further frustrating that caller.

Finally, they need training in customer psychology, Gerson says. They mustlearn how to recognize and diffuse high-stress situations, build trust, and makethe experience pleasurable for the customer. "Every service call is anemotional situation. When reps treat the customers as if they are just atransaction to be completed in a certain amount of time, satisfaction decreases,loyalty suffers, and repurchase behavior declines."

Once they’ve learned the basics in a classroom, customer reps need time towatch seasoned veterans in action. Pairing new hires with expert associates is acritical part of training. It gives rookies a glimpse of the real thing, andwhen they begin fielding calls, they have a pro to guide them until they havethe confidence to manage on their own.

This all takes time, Gerson says. "When you train service reps too quickly,they screw up and you risk losing your customers."

The backlash of that can be enormous.

Consumer-complaint Web sites give irate customers forums to share badexperiences with thousands of people -- all of whom you lose as new customers.

You also lose service reps, who quickly succumb to the stress and anxiety ofthe job, Puleo adds. "Reps will be hard-pressed to make customers feel specialif they feel unprepared and unappreciated. You have to treat them the way youwant them to treat customers." That means giving them the mentor support,training, and encouragement they need to do their jobs with as little stress aspossible.

Workforce, March 2002, pp. 64-67 -- Subscribe Now!


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