Chapter 4: Selecting and Training Call Center Staff

Chapter 4: Selecting and Training Call Center Staff

This chapter describes recommended selection criteria for call center CSRs, supervisors, and managers as well as training course content and syllabus topics for all three categories of staff. The number of personnel in each of these categories and the training requirements in a given call center will obviously depend on the size of the call center, that is, how many "seats" there are in the center.

Staff selection and training are important aspects of every call/contact center operation and can be significant determining factors in their effectiveness and productivity. CSRs are the prime human resource focus of the call center, as they should be, because they are the first point of contact with the customer. Supervisors are usually responsible for managing a certain number of CSRs, and managers may have the overall responsibility for the call center operation. Managers and supervisors responsible for operating the sophisticated environment of the modern call center need to be knowledgeable in many areas, including business, team leadership, motivation, counseling, mentoring, scheduling, complaint handling, and incentive programs, as well as being able to communicate an organization's business and objectives. Most centers do not train their supervisors in these skills, nor do they evaluate candidates for these skills during the candidate selection process. This situation has to change if the call center operation is to be successful in meeting an organization's business objectives and its customer relationship strategy. This chapter provides recommended evaluation criteria for new call center employees, as well as specific course outlines for staff training sessions.

4.1 Overview

The type of training that most successful centers provide to CSRs, supervisors, and managers heavily emphasizes business training and handling a wide range of call situations. Supervisor and management training programs should not be the extent of the learning process, however. Ongoing learning should also include attending industry conferences and reading trade publications. Networking with other call center supervisors and managers is also a good source of learning and acquiring useful knowledge.

Testing the waters

It is easier for CSRs to make the transition to supervise if they have been well prepared during their time on the front lines. CSRs who exceed performance objectives, demonstrate leadership abilities, communicate well, are technically competent, and have high-level customer service skills should be offered the opportunity to learn other functions and to move into management positions. Call center managers should continually seek out CSRs who are interested in learning and should find learning opportunities for those CSRs who express an interest in a particular area. For example, for CSRs who express the desire to become trainers, managers should provide opportunities for these individuals to help out with the training group, either by assisting in training development or even conducting a training session. Other occasions for these CSRs to try out their management or training skills occur, for example, when a supervisor is out of the center for an extended period of time (e.g., on maternity or medical leave or holidays). On such occasions, a senior-level agent could be asked to be an interim team leader. CSRs aspiring to management roles can also be encouraged to represent their call centers in organizationwide, cross-functional project meetings.

Developing formal and informal methods of nurturing and growing aspiring CSRs into call center supervisors and managers may be time-intensive, but it is also necessary to ensure a successful transition into management. It is difficult for people to be placed in a leadership situation when they are not prepared for the role, either formally or informally.

Motivating call center employees

The aspects of the work environment that motivate call center employees are the same ones that motivate employees in any other work environment, plus some that take into account the special responsibilities of call center staff. These motivational factors, not necessarily in order of significance, can be summarized as follows:

  • Wages

  • Working conditions

  • Work challenges

  • Management appreciation

  • Job security

  • Promotion and career path opportunities

  • Involvement in planning

  • Employer loyalty

  • Tactful human resource policies

  • Coaching and training

Training provides CSRs, supervisors, and managers with the critical knowledge and skills to make a measurable contribution to strategic goals. Appropriate training for center staff can improve productivity and service levels by more than 15%. A training and development plan for the next 12- to 18-month period should be established and should include ongoing training programs for all staff in areas of customer service, sales, and systems/ processes. Additional training requirements will be dictated by what business system/applications are in place—customer service, sales, and help desk, among others.

Some general training issues

In general, it is important to develop a knowledge and skills matrix and curricula that identify the initial and ongoing training needs of CSRs, supervisors, and managers. A reevaluation of skills should be done on a regular schedule to ensure that adequate training is being provided and that there are reference points for defining "subject expertise." It is also important to ensure that call-handling guidelines and other procedures be well documented and available at the CSR's desktop for quick reference. Specific training requirements may differ from one organization to another; however, there are a number of common, key elements that should be incorporated into any initial training program, including

  • Knowledge of the organization, including its mission, vision and core values, key performance objectives, office values, and business strategies

  • Product knowledge—products and services of the organization, including key use, benefits, and pricing (if appropriate)

  • Customer knowledge, including customer profiles

  • Communication skills, including voice skills and call-handling strategies, use of voice mail and e-mail

  • Guidelines for procedures, escalations, quality calls, and monitoring

  • Customer escalation procedures

  • Computer systems

  • Office procedures and hours of operation

An induction and training manual should be developed and should document the entire training program, including lesson plan, facilitator's guide, overhead transparencies, and workshop manuals.

Managers and supervisors/team leaders should undergo management training to provide them with an in-depth understanding of call center management principles. This knowledge is essential for effective day-to-day management of a well-run center and should cover the following topics:

  • Performance management

  • Service-level management

  • Cost of call management

  • Monitoring, analyzing, and coaching

In addition, all call center staff, including supervisors, managers, and support staff, should undergo customer service and sales skills training as part of their initial training programs.

Training strategies

A wide variety of training methods can be employed to facilitate training: classroom activities, call observation, product knowledge tests, one-on-one coaching, and on-line tutorials. Self-paced training aids should be provided for individual reference and self-learning; some training aids, often referred to as tool kits, (described later in this chapter) are specifically designed for the call center environment and written in the form of modules with workbooks and audiotapes. Most centers employ several or all of these methods, depending on the training curriculum.

Supervisors and managers are promoted from within in many call centers, being selected from among the best agents and those who demonstrate leadership qualities. These leaders will provide CSR staff with the "voice" of the organization. They need to be well trained and brought up-to-date frequently. It is therefore important, as an investment in the future of the organization, to provide ongoing training to both new and upcoming supervisors. This training should include a thorough grounding in how to run an effective and efficient call center—from communication skills and workforce measurement techniques to using tools such as Erlang C for measuring service levels, as well as the range of technologies available.

The following sections describe recommended selection criteria for call center staff as well as training guidelines for each level.