Web-based training helps call-centers

Call centers have a turnover rate of around 25 percent. TechRepublic profiles a company that hopes to keep employees longer with a little help from e-learning.
Written by Howard Baldwin, Contributor
Call center operations are plagued by high staff turnover, and even the lowest staffing stats are worrisome--one out of four customer service representatives (CSRs) aiding established clients quit annually, a 25 percent turnover rate.

The numbers spike higher when CSRs are trolling for new business, and when it comes to CSR sales staff, you can expect to replenish the entire staff almost twice a year (a 187 percent turnover rate), according to a 2001 survey by Mercer, an HR consulting firm.

The consistent and increasing turnover means increased recruiting and training costs. At the Atlanta offices of Assurant Group, a division of Fortis financial services, executives are trying to improve retention in their four North American call centers through improved training. Their belief is that the better the agents are trained, the more successful they're likely to be. And the more successful they are, the less likely they'll quit in frustration.

Like many enterprises, Assurant can't afford to pull CSRs off the phone for extended periods of time, especially reps that know the job but need refresher training. That's the problem Assurant's trainer, Patsy Strickland, had when the new agent training effort was initiated. To balance training and staffing needs, the company turned to Knowlagent's e-learning software, which can be customized to a company's needs. The software is designed to train agents on specific programs and then refresh that knowledge during "learning breaks," all at the agents' call-center stations.

"When our new hires come in, they go through a three-week training course when we introduce them to Knowlagent," explained Strickland. "Once they reach the [call center] floor, we assign them courses to take as refreshers."

While Assurant hasn't yet compared staff turnover figures since the software application deployment and training effort, Strickland believes it's improved staff retention efforts and created a more supportive atmosphere for CSRs.

"I see people lasting longer. And it certainly helps because we don't feel like we've dumped people on the floor."

How training is strengthening the business goals
Assurant Group provides insurance services, membership programs, and specialty warranty services. For instance, when you get a new credit card or home loan, you might also be asked to sign up for insurance that will pay off the debt in the event of your death--that is the type of program Assurant markets. One of the newest programs its CSR agents sell is Healthy Paws, a medical insurance program for animals.

The company began deploying the Web-based learning software at its 270-agent Lawton, OK, call center, in the second quarter of last year. By October of 2001, the other three call centers (100 agents in Toronto; 200 in Grand Rapids, MI; and 100 in Miami) had the software installed as well. The application cost, according to Knowlagent, averages about $1,000 per agent.

While there haven't been many issues with deploying the software and getting both trainers and CSRs on board with Knowlagent, the software documentation wasn't terrific.

Brian Koser, an Assurant systems support analyst and former trainer, said it was difficult to implement Knowlagent's Right Content Engine--the part of the software that records and interprets data from the performance measurement tools. "When you're dealing with 600 agents," said Koser, "that kind of performance information is useful. Implementing the RCE has been a trial-and-error endeavor."

Assurant CSRs all need to be able to answer customer questions about any of its services and to boost that knowledge, the software training is product-driven, explained Strickland. Other courses, which are usually taken by agents during "learning breaks," reinforce good customer service skills. During a lull in incoming calls, the agents can review sessions not only on treating customers courteously, but also how to respond and probe if a customer balks at the cost of a service. That way, said Strickland, Assurant can reinforce what staffers have learned.

"When you come back to new associates a month later and ask them what they need, they say, 'more training.' They can only absorb so much at one time. We use Knowlagent to supplement review techniques. It brings it back."

It's not all serious, though. Assurant also uses Knowlagent for company contests to provide breaks from the typical training scenarios. Trainers send clues about how to solve a particular customer issue to the agents via the software, and the agents respond via e-mail. "They have a lot of fun with that," said Strickland.

Software helps track progress
In addition to sharpening CSR skills and product knowledge, Knowlagent is helping Assurant trainers track agents' progress.

"We can track how well they comprehend it, which helps supplement our phone monitoring," said Strickland. The quality assurance staff can report when service reps don't understand a concept or aren't addressing products appropriately over the phone, and then use that information to develop targeted learning breaks.

The tracking capability also provides program feedback to the trainers on their effectiveness.

"We can see that 40 percent of those tested missed a particular question, which means we can go back to the question and see if we didn't cover it properly, or if it's worded ambiguously," noted Strickland. "It's great, because a lot of times when you prepare a test, trainers know what they're looking for, and we think we've worded it correctly, but people interpret things differently. It helps us identify areas to look at differently."

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