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The Complete Guide to Call Center Training

Everything You Need to Know about Improving Call Center Performance with Training

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Introduction

Call centers keep you connected to your customers. They exist as a way for people who buy your products or services to ask questions and get answers. Depending on your industry, call centers may also ENABLE you to be in business. For instance, if you own a campground, you may want to have people call in to reserve tent sites. They may also need to ask questions about your facility (e.g., the distance from a site to the showers, when you open for the season, if you offer discounted rates).

In order to be successful, call centers will need equipment that can handle your call volume, systems that integrate with your existing customer relationship management (CRM) software, and agents who have the soft skills to make your customers feel appreciated when they call in. However, that’s like saying to get to California from New York, you need a car, the ability to drive, and fuel in your tank.

As in our road trip example, developing a call center is much more nuanced than putting phones on desks and hiring people to answer them. It is going to take work to transform your call center facility into an asset. You need to teach or train your people to provide your company’s standard of care. The right call center training will help your contact center team function as an extension of your brand across communication channels as diverse as phone support and email, live chat, and social media. With call center training, your customers will also be better served and happier with you as a company.

Let’s start by exploring what we mean when we say, “call center training.”

What is Call Center Training?

Call center training does not stop with the agents. Many people hear “call center training” and they think of a one-time training program that helps customer service agents learn how to answer phones, use the system, and record information. While this is an essential TYPE of call center training, it is the tip of the iceberg of a much larger effort.

Call center training involves everyone from management down.

We take an upside-down org chart view in our organization. We believe the front-line agents are the MOST important people in the organization because they interact DIRECTLY with the customers on a one-on-one basis. Their interaction is a great DETERMINER of how the customer views your organization. But every person in your call center needs to be on the same page. The agents’ direct supervisors are the next level of our org chart. They have the biggest INFLUENCE on the agent. They MUST  know how the call center works and what it takes to be a good agent so that they can effectively coach existing customer service representatives and train new ones. The manager's role is to SUPPORT the agents and their supervisors. They need to have a deep understanding of the skills required so they can hold the call center supervisors accountable and oversee actions that IMPROVE agent performance.

What are the Best Call Center Training Techniques?

The best call center training is hands-on. Agents learn best when they have a chance to participate and practice activities instead of listening to a teacher lecture or just watching a video. Soft skill training is also essential for excellent customer service. Key elements like the tone of voice, empathy, and attitude separate good agents from the great ones. The take-away is that those skills can be practiced with each interaction. Both inside and out of the center.

We all learn differently. The best call center group training includes a blend of teaching and training methods. Good training does more than teach. It transfers important information, like your company’s culture and its expectations, in a way that allows the associate to internalize the meaning. Beliefs lead to action. By helping the associate to adopt a belief in your culture makes it much more likely they will take the right action in any circumstance.

Continuous Improvement

Call center training is actually very wide-reaching, and it doesn’t stop with the initial training. Your agents need to have periodic refresher courses to help keep their skills fresh and make sure that everyone is on the same page. Some agents may also find that this gives them a chance to improve areas that may have been a struggle. Supervisors and managers can benefit from reminder training sessions as well. They help them be more effective in their roles too.

However, refresher courses may only happen a couple of times a year.

Continuous improvement is a much more effective strategy. By increasing the frequency of training initiatives, you can present the material in smaller, more digestible pieces. Instead of offering a training session once a month or every few weeks, you should consider a weekly refresher training.

Elite call centers, like those we run at GCS, take regular training a step further. We operate our facilities under a philosophy we call F.E.E.D. – Feedback to Everyone Every Day. We find that daily coaching sessions for each agent and supervisor results in superior customer service to the customer as well as continuous improvement in technical performance.

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Why Should You Include Training in your Call Center?

Call center training is as beneficial as it is far-reaching. By making sure all agents, supervisors, and managers are all on the same page, some powerful things can happen. Good customer service is an important differentiator in modern business, especially in an environment where your customers have the entire world to shop.

Here are just some of the reasons why you should include training in your call center.

Enhanced Customer Experience

Better trained agents provide better customer service. When your customers call in, they are connected with someone who sounds like they care about THEM and in helping that customer find a resolution. This is the overall goal. While enhancing the customer experience is in many ways qualitative, the end results are a quantitative increase in business for your company, our client.

Improved Call Center Agents

If 99% of your calls were easy, simple issues like answering questions or confirming a shipment, enhancing the customer experience may be your only concern. The problem is that when your customers call in, odds are they don’t want to know just what hours you are open. They have the Internet for that. Instead, they have some type of issue or question that needs a resolution. The agent is the lifeline, and customers need their help.

Agents need to have the skills to quickly connect with the customer, to relieve them of worry,  and smoothly take care of any problems. You significantly help your agents by providing training to help them become more attuned to reading the customer’s situation and skilled with techniques and approaches to respond.  

Associates become comfortable in tough situations and escalations are reduced while call quality improves. They will know how to respond to all customers, and they will do it with empathy and kindness. They will stay calm and find solutions or answers with minimal delay. Even more, the tenured agents now have the tools to help coach the newer team members.

The great thing about mastering soft skills is it is a life-long pursuit. We all can get better. When done in a supportive way, teams can have fun while helping each other improve.

Ongoing Education

Call center training also has benefits outside of the everyday. When you look at a trained call center versus one with little teaching and support, you are going to see that employees are genuinely happier and that makes them more productive.

Remember, call center training doesn’t stop after an employee is onboarded. It is ongoing and continual.

In this way, you as a company have the ability to work towards performance goals as a team instead of training agents and supervisors to have just enough knowledge to get going and never coaching them again. When you coach employees regularly and consistently, you are empowering them to improve. You can help them learn more about your products or services so that first call resolution continuously improves.

Your agents need to know what they are talking about; it makes it easier for them to do their jobs. The more they know about the product or service the better they can find a solution for EVERY call that comes in. Knowledge builds confidence. Each time you increase the agent knowledge, you grow their confidence to handle situations. Customers sense the confidence and that builds trust. It is a fantastic cycle.

Certification of Agents

Call center training also helps with the certification of agents. In the case of industry-specific knowledge, training helps to impart knowledge, particularly for highly regulated or technical industries that have specialized training or strict compliance issues. For example, companies in the health industry, insurance industry, or financial industry have specific concerns that can only be addressed through training. Tech support might also have required or specialized training. Much of the training for these areas require passing an assessment or apprenticeship to gain certification in the subject.

Maintaining certification often requires continuing education credits, seminars or additional hours to maintain Call centers must plan for both the initial training and the ongoing requirements to maintain the agent standard.

Even when certification is not required, the process of “sharpening the ax” through scheduled training ensures your staff keeps their skill level high.  Call center training can provide agent certification while ongoing training helps you reinforce those concepts for the best compliance possible.

Soft Skills and Empathy Certification

Call center training helps your employees build soft skills as well, or at least it can. While some call center outsourcing companies are content to tell employees to be friendly, we take soft skills more serious at GCS. We believe this skillset is needed across the board for all customer-facing employees, so we developed empathy and soft skill program that, along with customer service, are the core l elements of our call center training. Our agents completing the course are certified in these areas. It is a fun day when certificates are handed out to our new associates. We even offer the course to other organizations and call centers to use with their staff.  

GCS agents are trained to “Say This, Not That.”(TM)

We like to train our agents to recognize words and phrases that could unintentionally leave a negative impression with customers. We coach them to replace those phrases with better ones. For example, when an agent tells a customer, “I’m sorry you had to hold,” it starts the conversation off on a negative tone. Instead, if the agent says, “Thank you for holding,” that is going to show the customer that the agent appreciates that he or she had to wait. It may sound like a small change, but it can be the difference between good customer service and great customer service.

To streamline good soft skills development in our agents, we provide in-person soft skills training as well as online, interactive training. It is that important.

Improved Agent Confidence

One of the hardest things in managing a call center is instilling a certain amount of confidence in agents, new and old. Answering phones is a deceptively hard job because so many of the people you will speak to in a given day are having some type of issue. They are worried, they are scared, and they are angry. In order for a customer service agent to effectively resolve their issues and deliver a good customer experience, that agent needs to have confidence that he or she can actually provide a resolution.

At GCS, we find that practice builds confidence, so we include hands-on experiences as part of our call center training. We also provide refresher trainings, daily coaching, client clinics, lunch and learns, MBWA (Management by Walking Around) and other means of spreading the knowledge. Existing agents feel empowered to help and, when new agents come in, they feel a sense of accomplishment as they move through the training. Overall, increased agent confidence increases morale as well as team performance.

Self-coaching

This is one of the most important parts of training, self-coaching. Self-coaching is a powerful tool. It helps employees internalize what they need to change and what they do well in a way that just doesn’t happen in a traditional coaching situation. When you ask an agent what he or she heard on a call -- explaining what they liked and what they didn’t like -- that agent is usually t harder on themselves than if someone else critiqued the call for quality. The agent is also going to be more receptive because it is their own criticism. It gives them the control to ask for help in correcting the situation, instead of being “told” what to do. Self-coaching trains them to listen to themselves as they talk and to self-correct.

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Which Training Option is Right for You?

At this point, you probably are thinking of ways to improve your own call center training. Maybe you’ve even started to think about the training methods you’ve considered or used in the past. If you are looking for help,  there are several different training options available to your company.

On-site training

On-site training is training is conducted at your call center. Many agents learn better when they have the chance to explore training at their job site.

On-site call center training has some important benefits. Keep in mind that many people thrive in a hands-on situation. In this environment, training is very interactive and that can make it a team-building exercise. Agents and Supervisors can get to know each other during the course of their training. This can help them build strong working relationships.

Onsite training also lets agents interact by asking questions on specific points and get immediate answers while the concepts are still fresh in mind. Further, agents have the ability to try out some of the things they are learning in a controlled and supervised environment. Instructors can give direct feedback and correct any misunderstandings about the material immediately. You can more easily instill the concept of team members helping each other improve. Associates can practice how to correct and improve by their words as well as their body language.

Online Training

Online training is call center training that happens via computer. It may be on-site or outside of the center. It is convenient. Employees could complete their training via mobile phone or a laptop from home just as easily as at work. It may also be self-directed. This means that employees would be tasked with completing the training in their own time. In some cases, this type of call center training is used to help agents who are struggling on a particular concept or skill.

On-line training is great for smaller centers where the manager or supervisors are often tasked with the trainer. The online courses can provide the baseline concepts and teach the expectations to a new agent. That frees the manager or leads to focus on the subject matter material, once the basic concepts of soft skills, communications, and customer service are complete.

Normally, there is some level of gamification involved in the training. Features like scoring and screens that say “well done” help keep trainees more engaged. The learning is rarely in a lecture format. A good training video is often accompanied by worksheets, quizzes, and assessments. Our online courses even provide coaching tips for the team leaders to use with their group to re-enforce the learned concepts.

Blended Options

Generally speaking, a bit of both on-site and online training often works best, especially for continuous education. This is called “blended training” and is ideal for centers large and small.

Online call center training is a good way to reinforce live training. Agents can be reminded of previous sessions while working through concepts at their own unique paces. It can also work in the opposite direction, with agents preparing for a live training session by completing online training. This way, all the time spent with the instructor is interactive and live practice of the concepts. The online training essentially completes the lecture part of the training and makes it more engaging.

Most of our clients -- our most successful clients, in fact -- find that using a combination of blended call center training techniques works best. For example, our soft skills training is online, but we also work with our agents on those concepts in a classroom setting as well as with daily coaching. It is a powerful call center training model.

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What is the Process to Start a Training Program in your Call Center?

For many of our clients, understanding the best practices for call center training is only the first step. It is also important to understand how to make a training program in your call center a credible reality. There are several steps you will want to have in place to ensure smooth sailing through the setup process.

Establish a Game Plan

Ultimately, you want a call center training program that makes sure the agent is certified on the program before they go on the call center floor. To make that happen, you are going to need a detailed game plan that outlines all of the ground you need to cover and specifies where to touch base throughout the training to verify that your agents are getting it.

Know What Training Materials are Available

If you go it alone, without the help of a call center training expert, you are going to have to create all the material from scratch. You may already have some material, especially if a portion of your business is already customer-facing. That’s a great start, but remember that this is a highly involved process. If you choose a company like GCS to help you get set up, you get the benefit of the best practices, processes, and materials we already have prepared in addition to our industry knowledge in adapting those items for your business or industry.

Make Sure You Have the Proper Resources

Next, consider what resources you have available. Training materials on your company, brand identity, and products or services sold will help your agents become better informed about your company and how you want to be represented. You might also have information about the types of customer service issues you tend to experience, such as a return policy that changed recently or a new website that is confusing some users. This information can help you create specific scenarios for your call center training that your agents will likely experience. In addition, think about who you have on your team. A good, effective trainer who has the knowledge and skill set on our specific materials is going to be invaluable as you set up your training.

Having the Correct Tools for your Agents

Consider the tools you have available to your agents as well. You are going to want to do everything possible to create a professional training environment that mirrors the atmosphere and conditions they will experience when they are on the floor not just a large room with a lot of chairs. Technology for all your trainees is important as well. Your agents need to become comfortable using the software system you selected, the telephone system, the CRM, and so on. Providing these items for your agents to use from day one of the training will help them focus more on content like helping customers than trying to navigate your systems.

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Test and Train the Trainers with the Supervisors

Before you try to implement your training program on a broad scale, take a smaller group through what you have and make sure you cover everything. A small first class of Supervisors, experienced Agents, and even new Agents can help you make sure that your training content is complete and clearly understood by newcomers.

Often on new projects, the client will hold a  trainer-the-trainer session where your trainers are in the audience while they teach the subject to them. Then the client will observe the first time the trainer teaches your agents.

Don’t forget to coach the trainer. If your staffing allows, have a different trainer sit in on important sections of content to make sure that you are covering everything and answering any questions thoroughly. Also coach their approach, technique, and style. Video the class and have the trainer review their work and see areas for improvement.

Similar to this is the model where you pay a flat fee for each agent or FTE on a weekly or monthly basis. Sometimes known as “rent an agent.”

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How Much Does It Cost to Include Training in your Call Center?

As you plan out what call center training is going to look like for your company, the cost is going to be a factor. Good customer service may be priceless, but you have budget constraints and cost-benefit analyses to do. Before you start coming up with a number, keep in mind that with your call center, you have the opportunity to build loyalty and convert customers like never before.

The cost of including training in your call center is going to depend on several factors.

Initial Training

Your first cost in implementing call center training is the initial training. For most organization, this training phase takes anywhere from hours to several days. That is the time it takes to explain the phone and computer systems, explain how to find and record information. At the end of those initial days, agents are capable of call handling. They know how to transfer calls and answer questions. They have started to learn a little about your company, but at first, it is only the basics.

Client Specific Training

Next, we come into client-specific training. The duration of this phase of the call center training could last anywhere from two hours to two years, depending on the complexity of the information. Expect that it will take at a minimum a couple of days to a couple of weeks to explain your products or services, your company culture, and your policies for doing business.

In general, we like to break this up into sections wherever we can. If it’s more than a couple weeks, we break it up into different sections. We might have the training group learn one part for two weeks, then send them back out to the phones. Two weeks later, we pull them back in for more training. With each section, they become proficient and experts before moving to the next one. We don’t want to risk the erosion of earlier knowledge. We also use this process to cross train multiple roles or call types.

Ongoing Training

We like to do two types of ongoing training. The first is our F.E.E.D. program of continuous coaching. We provide each of our agents feedback every day. We find it helps improve the customer experience and productivity while keeping the entire team focused on improvement as an expected, positive goal.

Keep in mind, ANY training pulls the agent away from production to learn something. During a training period, agents will have productivity that is lower than the typical production rate. Depending on the type of training required, agent productivity could dip to as low as 50% of the production rate. This training time should be budgeted into the overall cost of the call center operation.

At GCS, we also like to do refresher training. This is where you have agents in refresher training for a certain number of hours each quarter or a percentage of the time. Refresher courses help reinforce the agents’ knowledge of the client, products, and policies. Plus, this is a useful time to train agents on new developments, like a change to the system, a new sales initiative, or a change in policy. Refresher training also impacts production time and should be budgeted as well.

Remember, the training should increase production, reduce errors and escalation, and other benefits that typically outweigh the cost. Plus, the employee is often energized by the training. They see it as the organization making an investment in their career and it reinforces their understanding of the customer relationship as important to the organization.

Cost Considerations

You will have other cost considerations as you setup your call center training program as well. Make sure you know and understand your options. For instance, the more specialized you need your training content to be, the more expensive it will be. Complex subjects simply take longer to prepare and teach. In addition, travel for training or consulting help adds costs. You’ll have to carefully evaluate what your needs are as accompany and decide what is worth your investment.

Certification Required

Another potential cost factor is certification. For example, insurance agents may need to be licensed in a certain state or tech support may need to become Microsoft-certified. Often training, testing, and applications for these certifications are a cost. Often you can send agents to certification classes. Larger centers may bring in the instructors or license the training material. These options should be investigated and often are negotiable. Just remember to factor the cost of certification into your training plans.

Expansion Required Additional Training

Finally, keep in mind that even if you were to avoid refresher training, you will still need to train agents periodically. Call centers have a high attrition rate. You can expect that you will need to backfill employees who have left. Losing a trained agent is a sunk cost you can’t recoup. Taking steps to keep agents is also a worthy goal and an entire subject on its own. In fact, providing ongoing training and the opportunity to achieve certification can often help improve retention.

You will also need additional training when you want to expand in scope or scale in your center. Training new hires will be fairly straight-forward, you already have the material, but you will need to secure the trainer. Also, if you want to expand on the knowledge your agents already have, formal or hands-on training is always best. However, small changes can be done through emails and memos. Just be sure to have a feedback loop that validates the new information was reviewed and changes were made.

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How Can I Make the Most Out of my Call Center Training?

Call center training is not an area you can skimp on. You get what you pay for. If you make the training sessions too short or casual, you run the risk much of what you teach your agents is not going to stick. It’s going to be one big, useless blur. While you don’t need to go overboard, here are some of our best practices for making the most of your call center training.

Agent Feedback

After your agents have been on the floor for a few days, ask them what they liked and didn’t like about your training. You want to gauge whether you adequately prepared them for the calls they are experiencing. You should also ask what they would have liked more of in the training. This helps you tweak it for the future so your training can be more effective.

Empowering the Agents

Whether or not an agent is empowered will show in his or her performance and production. See whether your agents are following your policies and whether they feel they are able to resolve issues. This is less about being technically able and more about feeling prepared, confident and empowered.

Be the Customer

Next, see if your agents are performing as well as they can, by being the customer. You have probably seen the show, Undercover Boss, well our CEO Greg, likes to be the Undercover Customer. He will call in to see how fast his call is answered and assess the customer experience he receives, and he requires other senior managers to do the same.

This works well for two reasons. First, when the CEO is taking time to call, it demonstrates to the agent how important their role is in the organization. It goes a long way with agents. Second, it provides opportunities for praise from senior management. Senior management recognizes the employees and gives a shout out by name. This makes the employee feel special with the 1:1 relationship.

F.E.E.D Program

The F.E.E.D. program is another checks and balances to your call center training system. In your daily coaching sessions, you can see what areas are problematic for your agents. Have your quality team tracks areas for improvement by type. If several of the same shortcomings occur frequently, the root of the issue might be in your training. Take that to heart and see what you can do to improve the training for next time. Conversely, if most of the agents have one particular skill down really well, you can trust that your training was what prepared them.

Measure the Results

Similarly, you should be measuring how agent performance changes after training. Key performance indicators are a good place to start. First call resolution and average handle time will let you know if your call center training is on track or not. Also, keep track of the customer experience score. If it is high, the training is going well.

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Conclusion

Call center training is one of the best things you can do for your company. Whether you need to train new agents, refresh the skills of existing ones, or prepare your people for new programs and processes, call center training is how you get there – and become productive.

This demonstrates how developing a call center training can be complicated. It takes know-how and experience to understand how long training should take and which skills should be emphasized. At GCS, we know that your best bet is going to be training that doesn’t stop once the agent reaches the floor. Coaching and feedback should happen daily (Remember F.E.E.D. – Feedback for Everyone Every Day) and agents should get periodic refresher courses. Plus, agents need to have the ability to learn on their own time. A combination of on-site and online training seems to work best, but it could depend on your company or industry.

Cost considerations come into play too. Then, there are the resources you have in-house and all the ways you can leverage them into an effective call center training. And don’t forget all the ways you will need to measure your progress to evaluate how well your training program is working for you.

Choose GCS

Creating a call center training program is highly-involved. Luckily, there is help available. If you are working with call center experts like GCS, we can help you quantify the differences between your various options. Our goal is to help you build a call center training program that will deliver your highest return on investment. Regardless of whether you outsource your center to us, use our online soft-skills training program, or hire us to consult with you on your center training. See what GCS can do for you.

Contact GCS About Your Training Needs