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Calling for dedicated agents

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13th Sep 2007
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The contact centre industry has been plagued by poor customer service levels and staff who couldn’t care less. But is it all the agents’ fault or could better training and recruitment be the answer to achieving lower turnover and higher standards? Louise Druce finds out.

photo of call centre agent

By Louise Druce, features editor

Call centres are synonymous with high turnover rates, angry customers and a person at the end of the phone who frankly couldn’t give a damn. But are agents getting a fair rap or simply lacking the tools and training to help improve things?

A growing training and support gap in the UK’s nearly 6,000 contact centres, exacerbated by staff churn and the need to bring new staff up to speed with the job, is costing the industry a massive £2.53 billion in unnecessary time and resources, according to figures from knowledge transfer provider Knowledge Solutions.

Further more, studies from Blue Sky Consulting, which specialises in the optimisation of sales and service performance, show each of the estimated 960,000 agents spends 24 hours on training per year, with an average induction day of nine days for new recruits. Around three hours is also spent on ad hoc queries each week, which often ties up team leader and management time as well.

“The contact centre is at the front line of delivering customer service for the majority of organisations, meaning that agents must be equipped with the knowledge and support to meet customer needs,” says Adrian Palmer-Geaves, CEO of Knowledge Solutions.

"The contact centre is at the front line of delivering customer service for the majority of organisations, meaning that agents must be equipped with the knowledge and support to meet customer needs." Adrian Palmer-Geaves, CEO of Knowledge Solutions

“Simply running overlong training sessions that aren’t tailored to agent roles leads to a colossal waste of resources - and often doesn’t improve customer service levels. Contact managers need to think differently when it comes to training and support, and look at how they can reduce this overhead – given the rising levels of agent churn in the industry, this problem is only going to get worse.”

Neville Upton, CEO of contact centre agency The Listening Company, agrees that in 90 percent of cases the agent isn’t to blame for poor customer service. “The processes are wrong, the technology is wrong, the training is wrong. The agents are almost set up to fail,” he says.

It’s no wonder then, he points out, that customers are at best annoyed when they have spent 20 minutes listening to a repetitive loop of hold music only to find the person they finally get through to hasn’t got the right information to resolve their problem.

Added to the agent’s woes is the fact that, on average, they are using five IT systems to carry out the job, all requiring ongoing training and support that often has to be fitted in around changing shift patterns and also dramatically reducing staff availability.

“If you feel you can solve something or make someone happy then you feel good about it. If you feel you are working with one hand tied behind your back, the enjoyment is less strong,” says Upton. "It is impossible to quantify the damage to brand when agents are unable to navigate applications and provide fast answers to customers,” adds Palmer-Geaves. “Simply blaming IT will not help.”

Raising the calibre

However, Upton also recognises that while the policies and processes might be impeccable in a call centre, there are always going to be some agents who couldn’t care less about the job or are only using it as a stop gap until something better comes along. That’s why it’s important to get the right staff in the first place.

He believes training and recruitment should be linked together to reflect the brand as well as the company they work for. Initially, it’s about finding people who actually want to work in the call centre, rather than employing people who haven’t got anything else in the pipeline or just need some easy cash. Next, it’s about matching the personality to the brand they are going to represent.

"It is impossible to quantify the damage to brand when agents are unable to navigate applications and provide fast answers to customers." Neville Upton, CEO, The Listening Company

The length of training will depend on the skills needed but should comprise a mix of product knowledge, customer service, brand knowledge and coaching and mentoring. His company also puts new agents into a ‘nursery’ team so they can receive intensive coaching on the phones before joining the pros.

As a further incentive, each agent has access to a reward scheme tailored to the client they are working for that is based around quality and productivity. But Upton argues that motivation can also be spurred on by management being more visible.

“The call centre is so pivotal too many companies and it’s often the first point of contact between the company and the customer database. But, ironically, they often don’t get board level attention,” he says. “You might have the head office in Thames Valley and the call centre in another part of the country, and probably half the directors haven’t been there. Yet, it’s so critical to the success of the company.

“If you talk about motivation and attrition, people need to feel they are part of something – they have to feel that people care.”

Making light of hard work

Linda Holden, group HR director of contact centre company tsc, also believes in making training more vibrant to keep staff engaged. The first step for her company was moving away from the ‘schoolroom’ mentality. “We have to give staff the basic skills and train them to be an ambassador for that brand but the training has to be fun,” she says. “You can’t train someone on systems, products and customer service for 12 weeks if they’re not enjoying it.”

"The most important thing is our staff enjoy the experience of training and coming to work, and that they’re happy. A smile travels." Linda Holden, group HR director, tsc

Rather than tests, trainees have check points and participate in quizzes. The training is also completed in groups so it is more interactive. For Holden, it’s all about building up comfort levels and confidence so new recruits don’t feel as if they have been thrown straight into the lion’s den of live calls.

The working environment itself is just as much about the staff as the client and customer. For example, the company devises themed days, such as the rugby world cup, where agents are encouraged to decorate their team space. The tsc centre in Kilmarnock is also equipped with a bistro, internet café and hair and nail salon where staff can go during breaks or around their shifts.

“The most important thing is our staff enjoy the experience of training and coming to work, and that they’re happy. A smile travels,” says Holden. “It’s about creating an environment where people are confident in their ability and have had the training to resolve the problems they come across.

“If we can pass on that lightness, happiness and empathy with the customers, the advisors better relate and don’t have as many difficult calls. The whole experience is better for them and they don’t see coming to work as a drudge.”

The business bill

5,935 call contact centres with 960,000 agents
£15 per hour to employ agent
£360 training per agent, per year
220,800 agents replace lost staff
£1,012 lost productivity for nine-day induction
£2,340 lost on ad-hoc support requests

Wasted costs per year
= £2,520 per existing agent
= £3,026 per new agent

Annual total bill: £2,530,980,000

Source: Knowledge Solutions


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