Training: Your First, Best & Last Chance to Develop and Retain Agents

John-Cockerill By: John Cockerill

Everyone talks about training, the need for it, and the value of it: for you personally, professionally and for the corporation or organization. From the line staff, agents, supervisors, and managers all say they want and need more training.

However, almost without exception, there is a limited understanding about what should be expected from ‘training’. Note how few of the people discussing ‘training’ talk about ‘learning’. Too many believe in the passive view of training. It is something that is done to me. I am trained. Few say “I’ve learned” or even more important, few ask “what do I need to know?”.

Yet in today’s world each of us is required to learn more than generations before. Many years ago someone coined the phrase, “continuous learning”. Now Doctors and others talk about the need for each of us to continue learning as a way to avoid aging. No longer do we finish high school or college and can put the learning behind us.

Learning versus Training
We are awash in materials and things to learn. No where else more so than in call and contact centers. Everyday more is sent: from vendors about new items, technologies or some unique approach; from marketing or sales about new or changed offerings; from management about changes or new policies, procedures and practices that are now in force; for new staff just coming into the job they have to learn new language, tools, techniques and how to deal with their new supervisors and the new corporate practices. To use a new cliché “It’s like drinking from a fire hose.”

The question then how to drink from the fire hose or fountain of knowledge without drowning? This is a not an easy question to answer. One way not to learn is to have it forced upon you or anyone. To learn the student needs to be engaged in the subject and why of the learning.

Let’s focus this article on the call and contact centers that we all know. From a professional point of view there are a limited number of parties to the learning. The students: agents, supervisors, managers, sometimes trainers and senior managers. The rest consist of people who direct or influence the subjects that require learning. These include trainers, management and staff; specifically those concerned with how callers and customers are dealt with. For example marketing and operations consume much of the curriculum but not all of it. Professional development, trade and unique operational knowledge make up the rest.

New tools and technology have made assembly and presentation of call center knowledge easier and faster. They have also created another layer of knowledge that was not required before. Learning Management Systems, Knowledge Bases, eLearning, Instructional Tools, are replacing the “read this to them” Power Point approach.

Why Do We Train?
Why do we train? Why do you want the agents, supervisors, managers and directors to learn? Give this some thought,don’t jump to the easy answer of helping them to perform better. The ”why” will vary by position, tenure with the company, their overall career goals and the likely assignments they will get opportunities at in the next 6 to 18 months. This latter one is the one that is most often overlooked due to its obviousness. If someone is trained and learns a particular task or activity AND they don’t use it, they forget and the training effort and expense is wasted. So thinking about what they need and timing of that training close to the task or activity is critical to learning success and is a good use of effort.

This is of course easy for new recruits. Many contact centers are familiar with the on-boarding process and the initial training that must be provided to new staff. Here familiar does not mean that it is good training, nor effective, nor does it necessarily meet the needs of the organization, agent, or management.

Knowing what is wanted as the end objective is the most important part of starting. Then gather whatever materials are available. The process maps if there are any are a good place to begin. The process maps describe visually what happens and in what sequence during a process interaction. One professional tip is to rank order all the transactions by volume and complexity, into a simple two value table. Then organize the learning from the most frequent and easy to the least frequent and complex. Addressing the frequent and challenging processes first will provide the highest benefit to the organization. Here is why: as they learn, you can ensure that they can get practice and prove the learning. As they put the knowledge into practice, their confidence in what they are taught will rise quickly. Therefore their learning and the teaching are progressive and ensures that they get to apply what is learned is as soon as is practicable. With the transactions ranked, it is also easier to identify the systems, policies, and other supportive tools or policies that are needed to support each process.

Lesson plans, additional materials, learning aids, exercises, tests and quizzes are then developed using the process maps and existing lessons to identify any gaps or updates needed in the training.
Proprofs™, and other learning management tool vendors provide the means so that organizations without large budgets can quickly start:
• assemble of the material that is needed to be learned;
• manage the students through the in-take;
• provide learning both in person or e-Learning formats;
• post tests and quizzes to ensure and evidence that the students are learning the subject;
• track students over time to recognize achievements and experience so that the matter learnt is used;
• ensure that the student continues to learn and repeating the cycle above as they develop in the work and job.

Training is Expensive, So do it Right
If this seems a lot of work, it is. And it is an expense. One that is all to frequently cut. ‘Oh, we did the training last year, 2 years ago.’ or ‘that’s the way we always done it and then we fix it on the floor.’ are common comments heard in many centers. However, let’s briefly consider the costs.

Costs for many CSR/agents to be hired, trained and deployed, range for a low $2,000 to a median of about $6,000. Some pharmaceutical firms take six month to train and deploy some of their nurse support staff. For most firms however with a 2 to 4 week training the costs quoted will suffice for this example. With a starting class of 10, that means the training cost ranges from $20,000 to $60,000. One or two dropouts quickly increase the expense. Turnover in the first six months raise it yet again. Cost of errors and supervisor time raise it yet again.

When looking at these added costs, oft repeated comments from exit interviews are ‘They didn’t train me well enough’, ‘I wasn’t confident I could do the job.’, ‘It was sink or swim training.’, ‘That wasn’t covered in the training.’ These comments all indicate that despite what we in management believe about the ‘quality of hires’ the quality and depth of training matters in the overall performance of the center.

Being Cheap can be Very Expensive
One company discovered that there was a huge difference between retention by classes or cohorts and training completeness. A 100% of their first class was retained after 3 years. Thereafter none of the following seven classes retained more than 55% with some only retaining 25% of the starting students after 2 years. In viewing the training retention by class, they were able to realize and identify cause. The first class had a week longer in training. More time to embed the desired knowledge, and behaviours, practice and to understand the company culture. Saving the money by shortening the training by a week cost the company a lot more.

staff Retention

The cost of the extra week was saved but at the expense of higher turnover, more supervision, mistakes, and angst of needing to find yet more replacements. Investigating and judging the quality and depth of training is a regular part of management’s responsibilities.
The new recruit training issues are common to many companies and organizations. Even more common is the train them and forget them approach. Little thought is given to on-going training.

One & Done is a Strategy Failure Not for Training
Ask yourself if there is a clear well communicated course of study within your organization for staff with more than 12 to 18 months experience? Eighteen months is usual length of time that it takes someone to become reasonable competent in a role. Too often the answer is that no ongoing or developmental training is formally offered to these employees.

In business thing change almost constantly, this includes training curriculum. When was the last time experience staff was tested on what is the current training content? Remember the change rate of information discussed earlier. There is a chance that the knowledge learnt so long ago has changed. You need to ensure that it has been updated or replaced with the new changed information, and that it is retained and employed. While the QA monitoring may, catch and identify training knowledge gaps or variances. It is far from certain. As the QA team monitors only a small sample of all contacts and most monitor programs do not check for completeness and accuracy to the current material. This often occurs because often the QA, training, and change management are disconnected processes. A best practice is that all three have to feed and verify with each other regularly. Each month checking for changes or updates in these processes is ideal, but once a quarter should be the minimum.

Studies often cite lack of career opportunities or vision as a major cause of turnover. In many cases in our experience this may not be structural, but rather due to limited thinking by the center management. Think for a moment about the roles and functions in your center. Management, supervisory, QA, workforce management, subject matter experts, inbound and outbound operations, phone or IVR, email and other correspondence tools are just a few of areas. Each requires training, knowledge and most importantly practice. An excellent practice is to train a cadre of people in each of these areas routinely. Then move them into functions to practice, even if only part-time. Rotate these opportunities amongst the staff that have demonstrated effort and competency in their agent roles. A best practice is to make these functions part of the agents competency profile for senior agents. This approach ensures broad competency of agents across many skills, improves the center’s reaction time to shift and changes in volumes and channels, improves redundancy for all positions and engages and better equips the agents for future growth.

All this training does beg the question how to organize, manage and record what and how each agent is progressing. Records of training, evidence of that knowledge and it’s use and practice are important. In the rush of getting the agents trained, the important task of recording the experience and results is a key function of training and management and too often overlooked. Your staffs knowledge, training history, results and overall organizational gaps are important to know and understand.

These training records provide insight into where the organization can improve and change. It is a low cost effort. Keeping records is a clerical function. Reviewing and deciding what they mean and how they can leveraged is a management function.
Take a few minutes now and review your training plan. Here is a quick checklist to help you:

New Hire – Training
1. Is the objective clearly spelled out?
2. Detailed lesson plans and tests for every day of training?
3. Rigorous exams (written or side by side) for major elements?
4. Records of attendance, and exam results
5. Date of subject and material reviewed and vetted for currency and accuracy
6. Has the objective been achieved?

Seasoned Staff – On-going Training
1. Curriculum – major elements and subjects for the next two years
2. Rigorous exams (written or side by side) for major elements?
3. Records of attendance, and exam results
4. Record of use and practice either in training record or in HR file
5. Schedule of sessions and participants planned for next quarter
6. Rotation of duties to ensure practice opportunities
7. Monthly or quarterly review of curriculum accuracy and relevance

2 thoughts on “Training: Your First, Best & Last Chance to Develop and Retain Agents

  1. Trish Voskovitch says:

    The thing to remember is that just because you were trained on something once that doesn’t mean you “got it” completely. You could also be doing it wrong and not even know it because no one has ever bothered to check up on you! There is always something new to learn.

  2. Susan McDonald Osborn says:

    John – thanks for sharing your comments on the value of investing in learning. We are of like minds!

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