Can competency tests create service stars from your advisors?

17th Oct 2011

Mary Clarke looks at the role of assessments in improving the behaviour and performance of customer service advisors.

There’s no doubt about it, the average British customer has become more demanding in recent years, with the growth in UK retail sales flat year-on-year for July.
For many companies, particularly those in industries such as insurance, energy, banking and telecoms – where there is often little face to face customer interaction, winning and retaining customers is becoming increasingly challenging. This situation has been exacerbated lately by the growth in 'comparison' websites; ensuring customers are better informed about products and prices and able to drive a harder bargain. 
Frequently, it is the quality of call centre staff that wins the orders. These advisors act as ambassadors for a company’s brand and uphold its reputation and, they are often the only interaction a company has with its customers so it is critical they perform well.
But in a highly pressurised call centre environment, how do managers ensure their advisors provide a consistently good level of customer service? More importantly, how do they develop ‘outstanding’ advisors that will provide a superior level of customer service that could differentiate a company from its competitors?
Making call centres the hub of service excellence
Advisors are often under a great deal of pressure. Inbound call-waiting targets are posted up on team ‘scoreboards’, diverse enquiries have to be answered promptly, the advisors need in-depth knowledge about a range of products and services and be able to handle difficult customers in a consistently professional and calm manner.
The consequences of this kind of working environment can be low employee morale and high employee turnover and it is down to managers to tackle these issues, while maintaining a high quality level of customer service. The problems of advisor retention in call centres are well known in the sector, and past winners of The European Call Centre and Customer Service Awards have dealt with this issue by investing in robust HR systems for measuring and managing performance and engagement.
Competency-based employee assessments
There is little doubt that HR programmes, which include regular training and development for advisors on how to handle customers in the correct way, will have a positive impact on performance and boost morale. However, even with regular advisor training, managers can’t be certain that customers receive the ‘desired’ level of service consistently. To tackle this issue, many companies have introduced observational assessments of advisors on customer calls in addition to training, but even this does not guarantee the behaviour of advisors when unobserved.
Most managers want to have greater confidence in their advisors and one way of achieving this it through the introduction of intelligent employee assessments that test and measure the skills, knowledge and confidence of advisors in work-based scenarios. Such assessments will reveal how they perform and how they behave when handling customers.
The assessments test and measure advisors in realistic ‘on the job’ scenarios by taking them through a series of situational judgement questions and asking them what they would do in certain situations, such as handling a customer complaint. The answers will reveal the likely decisions and actions of an employee, as well as how they apply their knowledge when performing their jobs. The assessments measure a combination of the advisors’ skills, knowledge, confidence and behaviour and the results will highlight knowledge gaps and any unacceptable behaviour, giving managers a clear picture of the strengths and weaknesses of every individual.
This information is like gold dust, as it enables managers to direct employees to specific, targeted training and coaching interventions that will address their weak areas and improve their performance quickly. They find out who are their star performers, who should be promoted and who is ready for more responsibility.  If advisors are given the right training when they need it and promoted when ready, their morale and performance will improve. Additionally, by introducing personalised training programmes in place of ‘one size fits all’ training, companies are likely to reduce their training budget and ‘up-skill’ their employees more quickly.
Recently, Cognisco partnered with Huthwaite International, a training company specialising in call centre advisor training, to launch a new assessment to improve advisor performance and behaviour when handling customers. Based around 12 key behavioural competencies, the assessment focuses on key areas such as how customer services advisors present themselves to customers, how they listen and respond to customers, customer objections and complaints and how they listen and respond to customers and address their needs.
The assessment’s design was mapped against ‘ideal’ behavioural competencies of customer services advisers; those competencies which have been identified as ‘outstanding’ and ‘good’ by Huthwaite International. This new assessment is designed to supplement and enhance existing training and assessment programs for advisors, as it will accurately identify skills gaps and specific training needs and give managers a true insight into the performance and behaviour of their advisors. This will ensure the right training and coaching interventions are in place for each advisor, help eradicate any unacceptable behaviour and improve performance. 
Cultivating ‘outstanding’ call centre advisors is challenging however, it is not impossible. The key to winning and keeping customers is by delivering a consistently high performance of service to customers that will turn them into loyal fans. Companies will always encounter the difficult customer, whether through an online relationship or a face-to-face one, but the winners are going to be those that have staff who are equipped to deal with every situation – both positive and negative.  The transformation of an unhappy customer into a loyal repeat spender takes skill and experience – but it also takes training and assessments.


Mary Clarke is CEO of Cognisco.

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