Call Center Training Best Practices: Build a Team of Rockstar Agents

Call center agents have quite a demanding job. Masterful call handling and profound product knowledge don’t happen by itself. Training is essential both for newbies and experienced agents. Let us talk about how to organize the training process as best as possible.

In this article you will find:

Main stages of call center training
  • Stage 1: Product-Specific Training
  • Stage 2: Sales and language training
  • Stage 3: Call Center Basics
  • Stage 4: Shadowing and Nesting
11 most important call center training tips
  • #1. Set clear expectations from the start
  • #2. Develop a knowledge database
  • #3. Gamify training process
  • #4. Keep your trainees engaged
  • #5. Use recorded conversations and real-life examples
  • #6. Use customer feedback as a training material
  • #7. Involve top-performing agents in training. Embrace mentorship
  • #8. Practice ongoing training
  • #9. Give your agents constant and timely feedback
  • #10. Involve trainers in the transitional period
  • #11. Coach your coaches
How to improve agent training program?
  • Leveraging learning styles
  • Use the POPEA structure for training sessions
  • Set clear objectives
  • Take the personality type into account
Conclusion

 

Main stages of call center training

Stage 1: Product-Specific Training

Educate your agents about your business and products

This stage is fundamental to call center training. It is probably the most boring part of it but it is necessary. New agents must have your product off pat before they start to provide customer support or make sales calls. Also, trainers should tell them about company culture, mission, core values, and vision. When agents understand their role in achieving business goals they will be more prepared to interact with customers. At this stage, call center training materials always include a lot of information, so it’s a good idea to provide agents with printed handouts or at least recommend them to bring pen and paper for taking notes. Product-specific training usually ends up with a couple of written tests and a series of mock calls.

Stage 2: Sales and language training

At this stage, agents learn how to interact with potential and existing customers. It is the time when they study various sales techniques and possible ways of overcoming objections. Also, they learn about terminology they will have to use. But the most important part both for call center sales training and customer service is creating an emotional connection with customers.

Teach agents how to show empathy and speak the positive language

Empathy is the ability to put oneself in somebody’s shoes and share the feelings of this person. You can’t teach your agents empathy - it exists or not. But it’s very important to train them to use empathy statements. These are short phrases that help agents build rapport with customers.

Here are some tips for call center employees what these statements should include:

  • Personal pronouns. The words “I” and “you” show customers (especially when they are angry or irritated) that the agent is personally interested in solving their problem.
  • Active verbs. In his book On Writing, Stephen King says, giving a piece of advice to writers: “Avoid passive voice”. It is definitely true not only for book plots but for real-life conversations as well. Compare: “Your problem will be resolved by our experts” and “I will ask our manager to resolve your problem”. The first statement sounds impersonal like nobody takes responsibility for that while the second one makes customers feel that there is a real person who pays attention to their issue and tries to fix it.
  • Authenticity. It is one of the most important tips for call center agents. They must be genuine, honest, and be themselves. If an agent just reads empathy phrases it may only increase the customer's anger or irritation. Natural, calm, and positive tone matters more than exact phrasing. Authenticity also means using less formal language. For example: “hi” instead of “hello”, “thanks” instead of “thank you”, short forms of verbs (can’t, don’t, he’s, etc.). This helps to build empathy in customer service.
  • Your agents should also learn how to speak positive language. Positive statements show customers that the company is eager to help them in different situations.
    For example, if an agent needs to encourage conversation they can use such phrases as “I know exactly what you mean”, “That’s the kind of thing I would do too”. The first one shows the customer that the operator understands them and really listens to them. The second one demonstrates some commonality between the caller and the agent. It is important because people like those who are similar to them. So if the customer seems to be nervous or shy it may help.
    In more difficult situations, positive statements are even more important. For instance, phrases like “I appreciate you telling me this, so I can pass the message on…” may help an agent to take the heat out of a conversation with some angry customer. Impatient callers may calm down if the agent says what they are doing to solve the problem (“What I’m doing right now is…”). Positive statements for making the sale may include such phrases like “It’s a wonderful service where instead of…, you can…” or “This is the best plan/scheme for your requirements…”. Therefore, this topic is an essential one for call center training courses.

Stage 3: Call Center Basics

This stage is all about active learning. It’s time when trainees learn the basics of call flow and develop call handling skills. Such competencies are trained during roleplaying sessions. Candidates practice talking to customers, learn to ask effective questions, and address most frequent customer concerns. It’s a good way to apply and remember all they learned. This stage usually takes no longer than a week. Some call centers skip it and teach candidates to handle calls as they go.

Online training simulations can also be helpful.  PIXELearning has created such a simulation for a major US telecoms company that wanted to train their employees in call handling. Effectively, agents work in almost real conditions. They have sessions approximately 15 minutes long during which they handle “virtual” calls and make decisions based on their “virtual” customers’ responses. When the call is over, an agent receives feedback on their actions and compares their call’s route with the ideal one. This feedback can be printed out so the agent can use it during a similar real call.

It is also the time to train newbies to use call center software. How to use the agent interface? What an operator has to do during the inbound and outbound calls? How to work with a client card, schedule a callback or put a customer on hold? How to use the Workforce Management module? All these things trainees should learn by heart to prevent any problems when they will become agents.

Stage 4: Shadowing and Nesting

This is the 'finish line' of agent training. A trainee is near to become a full-fledged call center agent. They try to work in real conditions with experienced employees.

The first phase of this stage is shadowing. It lasts a couple of days. A trainee follows an experienced agent like a shadow, listens to their calls, asks questions, makes notes, etc. They both use a double jack headset to ensure training in real-time.

The second phase is nesting. Now a candidate works as a real call center operator. They do all the necessary tasks and the mentor listens to their calls. This is a transition stage between training and probation, so an average working day during nesting does not typically last more than six hours.

11 most important call center training tips

#1. Set clear expectations from the start

Your candidates should understand all the pros and cons of their future job. Let them know that working in a call center is no bed of roses. It is not for everybody to spend 6 or 8 hours on the phone and deal with customers who are often not in a good mood. A good idea would be to have them listen to a really good call, a typical call, and a really bad one. This may help your candidates understand if they are ready to work as a call center agent.

Some experts recommend practicing a shadow visit. It is similar to shadowing we’ve mentioned before but a company organizes it during the interview process. Candidates have a chance to see real work conditions in a call center, listen to live calls, and feel the real work atmosphere. Some of them may decide that the agent’s job is not their cup of tea. It will lower attrition rates for the company and save time and money spent on their training. However, not everybody agrees with this point.  In practice, a shadow visit may frighten some candidates off (for example, they may listen to some angry customer’s call and think that all their calls will be the same). So it is up to you to decide whether it is a good idea or not.

#2. Develop a knowledge database

Trainees have to learn a lot of new information. Sometimes it is easy to get lost in this ocean of new facts and terminology. So you should consider creating a knowledge database with all the necessary information. If properly maintained and updated it can become your “corporate Google” not only for trainees but for existing employees as well because they may also need to refresh their memory. The knowledge database can be used after the training sessions or during the 4th stage when a trainee needs to remember what they have learned before. It is even better to configure the knowledge base in your call center software to make it easier for your agents to find the reply on really difficult questions without interrupting the conversation with the customer.

#3. Gamify training process

Gamification is a great strategy that allows you to use different call center training techniques more efficiently. According to TalentLMS’s recent survey, 83% of respondents feel motivated while taking gamified training (compared to 28% during non-gamified one) and only 10% of employees said they felt bored.

TalentLMS Gamification study

Source: TalentLMS Gamification Study

How can you implement game elements in your training process? Start with the simplest things. Call onboarding process a “beginner’s level” and then outline all the ways a new employee can “upgrade” in your company. Also, introduce rewards for achievements. This will make trainees more involved.

Another option is a corporate training platform like AcademyOcean. It allows your trainers to create their own Academies (courses) that may be private or publicly available. Aside from game features this platform has built-in possibilities for testing and generating certificates. It enables companies to make onboarding and training smoother and not invest in their own learning portal.

#4. Keep your trainees engaged

Engagement must be a part of your training strategy. As we already mentioned trainees need to learn a lot of new information and it’s hard for them to stay focused all the time. The best way to keep them engaged is by switching things up. Coaches should mix different forms of training - learning videos, listening to recorded calls, role-playing, etc.

#5. Use recorded conversations and real-life examples

The best way to train is by providing examples from real-world situations. Let your couches tell some success stories. Trainees will be inspired when they hear about some experience of closing a big sale or fixing some customer’s issues successfully. Such examples make the training process closer to reality.

Recorded conversations can also be great training material. That’s when call quality monitoring comes in handy. Your coaches can choose recordings to illustrate some specific points (how to calm down an angry customer, what to do if you don’t know the answer to their question, etc.). These samples from experienced agents will help trainees to understand what they should do in similar situations.

#6. Use customer feedback as a training material

Customer feedback can be used for training courses as well. It may give you some tips on what should be improved in your training program. For example, if your customers think that agents are talking with them too long, you can consider exploring average handling time. Or if re-routing happens too often, it makes sense to pay attention to how the agents are being assigned to different departments.

#7. Involve top-performing agents in training. Embrace mentorship

It is a good idea to bring your best agents to deliver training. They can share their experience and become role models for trainees. Obviously, not everybody has a knack for teaching but it is worth trying. 

Another important training tool is mentorship. Training does not end in the classroom. Even after nesting newbies will need support from someone who is more experienced. Some call and contact centers have so-called “adaptors”- employees whose job is to help new colleagues with onboarding. But in most cases, this role is assigned to the experienced agents.

There are some points you should take into account looking for a mentor:

  • Motivation. What motivates this person to become a mentor? What interests them in this role?
  • Experience. Do they have knowledge and skills for this role? Is their experience enough to provide guidance for new employees?
  • Time. Do they have enough time to be mentors and to meet other commitments?
  • Listening. Can they listen to a mentee without interrupting them?
  • Empathy. Can they put themselves into a newbie’s shoes to work out an objective solution?
  • Patience and supportiveness. Are they ready to support a mentee? Does this person have enough patience not to push too hard? Will they let the mentee reach their own conclusions without imposing their views and suggestions?

Establishing a mentoring program gives your company many benefits. Firstly, you can make the induction of new employees faster. Secondly, staff turnover will become lower. Thirdly, it increases the motivation and engagement of employees. Fourthly, succession planning will be easier. And last but not least, proper mentoring will increase agent productivity and raise your profits.

Mentorship in call center

#8. Practice ongoing training

Training never ends. Market constantly changes and customer expectations change as well. That’s why it is important to make the training process ongoing. There are different ways to ensure that.

Cross-training is one of them. The main point of this strategy is to teach multiple skills, enabling agents to be able to deal with a variety of calls. As a result, employees will be interchangeable. This is especially valuable for contact centers with task capacity imbalance when some agents work more than others. However, be careful, because, in multitasking contact centers, service levels might slightly drop down. If this KPI is a bit flawed, the call center may suffer from excessive congestion.

It is also important to deliver refresher training. Sally Earnshaw, head of learning solutions at Calcom Group, recommends two types of it. The first is to conduct regular “buzz sessions” to inform agents about changes in products and processes. These are short meetings that help to keep agents up to date with changes and avoid the situation when agents get to know about new marketing campaigns only after calls of customers. The second type of training is a “skill pill”. These are sessions designed to develop an agent’s skills in a particular area (call control, sales, impact, etc.).

In our view, making career maps would be also helpful. If your employees have clearly defined paths of professional development it is easier to individualize your training program and make it more effective. It is also important to remember that your agents can be a talent pool for your company when there will be a need to have a new manager or supervisor. A person who knows the working process from inside may be a more effective manager than some outsider. Therefore you should form your talent pool in advance.

#9. Give your agents constant and timely feedback

Everyone performs better knowing that their efforts are noticed and appreciated. Your agents should get continuous feedback in order to know what to improve. It may be done in different ways (including agent assessment cards) but the main point is that the feedback must be constructive and timely.

#10. Involve trainers in the transitional period

The success of training courses often depends on the success of the transition. Even if the trainees experienced “on job” practice during the training this transitional period may be difficult for them. So trainers should be involved in the onboarding process and cooperate with subject matter experts closely. Some experts even propose to hold them accountable for trainees for at least six weeks after completion of training.

#11. Coach your coaches

Trainers need training as well. It is a good idea to bring your best agents to training but it’s not enough if you want them to coach on a regular basis. You have to design a specific training program for them before they start coaching.

Start with a competency framework. Define the skills and knowledge your trainers must have and select candidates. Then design the program that must have the following:

  • learner-centered approach - style and content have to be tailored to the needs of trainees;
  • relevant exercises;
  • training materials with strong learning objectives and measurable outcomes;
  • assessments allow trainees to show all the required competencies;
  • certification process.

Obviously, your coaches should never stop learning as well as agents. They have to keep up with the pace of changes in your business and adjust their training accordingly.

How to improve agent training program?

Leveraging learning styles

Every person has their own style of learning. Back in the early 90s, Honey and Mumford developed an interesting framework that distinguishes the four learning styles based on individual preferences and natural propensities of each person:

  • Activist - someone who learns by doing. Such trainees are most likely to switch off if you make them listen to calls and passively observe the workflow for too long.
  • Theorist - someone who needs credibility during learning for the information to assimilate. If such candidates don’t understand the importance of their job for the company, there’s very little chance they will engage and succeed.
  • Pragmatist - someone who processes information based on its practical significance. In other words, if such trainees are to spend three days listening to calls, make sure they understand why they need it and how it will benefit them later in the working process.
  • Reflector - someone who needs to take their time to process new information in order to understand it. So if such candidates seem quiet and disengaged, it doesn’t mean they are bored. They just need to deal with it on their own.

Therefore, you should define learning styles of your trainees and take them into account both during hiring and onboarding processes.

Use the POPEA structure for training sessions

David Coletrie recommends using the so-called POPEA (Purpose, Objective, Process, Experience, Apply) structure for training sessions. It includes:

  • Purpose. Define the purpose of the session.
  • Objective. Set a smart objective and refer to it during and after the session.
  • Process. Tell the trainees what they are going to do during the session to avoid awkward surprises.
  • Experience. Assess the group’s experience grading it from 1 to 10. Use more experienced trainees to your advantage while paying attention to the less experienced ones to ensure they fully understand. Review the experience after the session and see if they feel the improvement. If not, figure out why and ask for feedback and follow up.
  • Apply. What the trainees are planning to do on the back of the session, how, and when? Do your best to receive a lot of recap questions. It shows that your session went well and everyone understood why they were there and what is expected of them in the future.

Set clear objectives

Your trainees and agents have to understand what they are expected to achieve after the training. It may be increased sales, first call resolution, and so on. The lack of objectives is demotivating. That’s why the training goals should be linked to the KPIs. It will allow trainees and agents to understand why the training sessions are important for their job.

Take the personality type into account

Current COVID-19 crisis showed how important is the ability to work remotely.

During our recent webinar, one of the industry experts, Rod Jones, stated that the productivity of the extroverts being made to work from home “are falling because they like a fish out of water. They need to be in the call center. On the other hand, I'm seeing that the introverts are thriving on the work-from-home model, and in certain cases that are being monitored they are almost doubling their productivity and their effectiveness. So I think that points to what we've got to relook at who we employ and then appropriately place them on-premise in and work from home”.

So the current situation gave us some lessons to learn. Firstly, it is very useful both for extroverts and introverts to have weekly Zoom meetings - for instance, to synchronize their work. For extroverts, it is very important to have informal communication with the team. These small talks motivate and support them in difficult situations. Secondly, your recruiters should take a candidate’s personality type into account and see how successful they were in performing similar duties in the past. Thirdly, the person’s general self-discipline and inner motivation really matter while switching to remote work and this is what your employees also should pay attention to during interviews.

Conclusion

Your call center agents are the face of your business, so you should spend a reasonable amount of time and resources on training and onboarding. Their skills really matter in the current situation so the training process for remote operators has to be thoroughly planned - with clear learning objectives, milestones, stages, and so on. In our guide, we have outlined call center training best practices and sincerely hope that you will take the best of them.

First published on 2019/03/11, updated 2021/06/03

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