3 Call Center Soft Skills Your Representatives Need
As call center professionals moving forward into the Digital Age, we are keenly aware of the impact of automation on our industry. One of the biggest concerns we’ve heard is the effect automation may have on the labor pool. With lightning fast development in robotics process automation and machine learning, will customer service reps (CSRs) eventually become obsolete?
A report from the National Board of Economic Research offers strong evidence to the contrary. The Growing Importance of Social Skills in the Labor Market points out that occupations that require a high degree of social or soft skills have been growing steadily since the 1980s.
The paper’s author, David J. Deming, explains. “Social skills are important in the modern labor market because computers are still very poor at simulating human interaction. Skill in social settings has evolved in humans over thousands of years,” he writes. “Human interaction in the workplace involves team production, with workers playing off of each other's strengths and adapting flexibly to changing circumstances. Such non-routine interaction is at the heart of the human advantage over machines.”
While there may come a time machines will be agile enough to adapt to the kinds of rapidly changing social circumstances we face in call centers, we’ve got a long way to go before we get there. The human ability to sense changes in voice tone, attention, and other physical cues can’t be replaced by algorithms – for now. But it is the time to make sure that the skills CSRs will need to succeed tomorrow are being taught, reinforced, and applied today.
Let’s start with emotional intelligence. Although our early childhood experiences greatly influence our ability to be aware of our emotions and their impact on others, emotional intelligence is not set in stone and can be refined as we grow older. Like all human behavior, it can be changed with enough time and dedication – and coaching is the key.
The Harvard Business Review’s (HBRs) examination of Deming’s research notes, “Good coaching programs do work … while no program can get someone from 0 to 100%, a well-designed coaching intervention can easily achieve improvements of 25%,” writes HBR assistant editor, Nicole Torres. “Various meta-analyses (quantitative reviews that synthesize the findings from many published studies) suggest that the most coachable element of EQ is interpersonal skills — with average short-term improvements of 50%.”
Torres emphasizes three influences that managers, trainers and coaches need to be aware of when attempting to strengthen workers’ emotional quotients (EQ):
1) Accurate feedback. “While many ingredients are required for a good coaching program, the most important aspect of effective EQ-coaching is giving people accurate feedback. Most of us are generally unaware of how others see us — and this especially true for managers,” she writes.
2) Choosing effective techniques. “The most effective coaching techniques fall under the realm of cognitive-behavioral therapy. Attempts to enhance psychological flexibility — the ability to accept and deal with (as opposed to avoid) unpleasant situations — are also effective,” Torres notes. “Contrary to popular belief, interventions designed to enhance self-esteem or confidence are rarely effective and often counterproductive.”
3) Being aware that some people are more “coachable” than others. Sometimes the best coach and most effective techniques fail because the person on the receiving end just isn’t receptive. “On the one hand, EQ may enhance coachability — clients with better people skills, more empathy, and greater self-awareness are better equipped to improve. On the other hand, if you are sensitive to criticism, insecure, and worry about failure (all characteristics of people with a lower EQ) you should be more willing to change. Although there is not much research on coachability, a recent study showed that evaluating clients’ coachability levels at the start of the sessions can increase the effectiveness of coaching,” Torres writes.
There’s no question that high emotional intelligence is the platform for building other critical call center soft skills. It’s the starting point for the hiring assessment and development of your representatives.
3 Soft Skills Your Call Center Representatives Need
1) Focus. Staying cool, calm and collected can be difficult in high-pressure situations, and your reps will be tackling these situations head-on multiple times during their shift. Customers will show the range of human emotion, often with a bare minimum of patience, so coaching your agents to stay grounded, interested and attentive (without being judgmental) is essential.
2) Listening. This can be a tricky skill to build because we are in listening mode for most of our waking hours. Listening in distracting environments complicates the matter, as do competing objectives that arise in the call center environment. Pressure to complete a certain number of calls in a particular timeframe, for instance, can affect the CSRs ability to connect with what the caller is trying to say. Training CSRs to be present in the moment can include repeating what the customer is saying to better understand the issue that needs addressing, listening for gaps and pauses, and…
3) Questioning. While listening will help representatives identify the customer’s needs, the process moves much more efficiently when the questions are relevant, clear, and open-ended. Leading questions may solve issues for a rep looking to shortcut to an easy answer, but the far more sophisticated open-ended approach gives the customer the chance to describe the reason for their call in detail – and relevant details will help your reps solve problems more efficiently.
Soft Skills Training
There is a positive, practical aspect to soft skills training -- employability. Deming’s study indicates that individuals with well-developed soft skills (as measured by his survey) earn more money than those with poor soft skills. That’s after controlling for education, cognitive skills measured by standardize testing, and the type of work the study subjects did. “There seems to be a positive return to social skills in the labor market, according to the data, and that return is relatively greater when people are in jobs that require more interaction with others,” Torres points out.
She concludes her analysis with this caveat: “this measure of social skills is not perfect, but Deming argues that a better measure would likely make the results stronger. Regardless, more work needs to be done in order to understand what it is about people skills that makes one more valuable in the labor market.”
True. But any way you slice it, that’s great news for our industry. And it’s why we invest so much of our efforts at GCS in training and coaching skills that no machine can replicate – yet. Our management and supervisory teams focus on consistency of education and coaching throughout the life of a client’s program. The measured goals are to improve agent performance, increase user satisfaction and maintain a focus on constant improvement.
During onboarding of new clients, our training staff creates a custom training program that meets the needs of the specific situation and industry. The specific client information is merged with our soft skills, communication and process material to develop a structured training program. The material is integrated into our management plan so it is reinforced daily through both structured learning and informal coaching experiences.
Much of our core soft skills training has been incorporated into our new online soft skills training program, Say This…Not That. It provides a critical, base layer of soft skills training that for many call center managers can be challenging and time-consuming to pursue. For employee interaction via phone, chat, in writing or face to face, this program provides the tactics and common language for managers and supervisors to use in bringing out the best in their employees. Employees gain confidence in their communication skills and decision making, including the handling of difficult customers. Probably most importantly, customers receive improved service and a higher satisfaction from each interaction. See Say This…Not That in action with this video: