Developing soft skills in call centre agents
Dick Bourke shares how to identify important soft skills to develop in the contact centre and adapt training to advance them further.
Soft skills are the people skills that allow your call centre agents to effectively interact with customers, supervisors, and other employees. They are things like communication skills, adaptability, and integrity.
Most of the time, people hiring call centre employees do not have a good way to evaluate the soft skills of applicants. While there are things you can do to improve the interviewing process, floor managers still need a way to develop the soft skills of their workers.
How to Identify the Important Soft Skills to Develop
As Lewis Carroll said, “Any road will get you there if you don’t know where you’re going.” So, the first step in developing soft skills in your call centre agents is identifying and prioritising what skills you want to teach.
We previously listed the five soft skills we think are most important for call centre agents. To recap, they are:
The Ability to Gain the Trust of Customers
You might not even want to start with a list of general soft skills and work backwards. Instead, look at specific goals and work forward. For instance, it is not enough to say, “we want to develop communications skills”, you need to say “we want to improve call closure rates from 52 percent to 75 percent”.
Once you have that goal, you can look at the soft skills that influence achieving the objective. If improving call closure rates is important for your centre, you can then look at the specific communication, problem solving, and product knowledge skills to develop.
Blended Learning to Develop Soft Skills in Call Centre Agents
There are two main ways that skills training is delivered – self-study (these days done largely through video) and live training.
Self-study has the advantage of being targeted. A single employee (such as a new worker) can be onboarded at any time. Additionally, if one employee needs development but most of your team has the skill, self-study through books, audio, or online methods can suit your purpose.
Live training, on the other hand, has the benefit of instant feedback. When trainers role-play with call centre agents, trainers can praise them, correct them, and help them develop strategies for improvement.
But if you are trying to develop a centre-wide training effort, the ultimate solution may be blended learning. Blended learning is defined as having some online self-study components combined with live training.
For instance, if you want to develop a problem-solving skill, have your employees watch videos where other call centre agents or actors posing as call centre agents work through problems in skits. These videos should have an explanation of what went right and wrong in the scenario and help them apply the lesson to their own situation.
Often, the self-study component of blended learning will include interactive quizzes and a final test that can be graded on the spot. The agent must master the information as demonstrated by achievement of a minimum score before they can move on or complete the study.
The self-study portion of the programme can be done on any employee’s schedule. This is especially nice if you have multiple shifts. The employees can complete their training whenever they are on the job. You may also consider making the training mandatory overtime and paying the employees to take the course in their own time and at home so as not to disrupt the call centre schedule.
The live portion of the course is either done after the entire self-study portion is completed or is interspersed with segments of the self-study sections.
The live portion of the course may summarise what went on in the self-study sections, but it does not reteach these lessons. Instead, this is an opportunity for the call centre agents to ask questions, get feedback, and role-play their new skills.
When students have previously completed the self-study component of the course, the live training can be done in a few hours or a single day. This minimises disruption to your calling time.
By combining self-study with a live component, you also allow slow learners to master the material at a different pace than fast learners. The information that would have had to be delivered at a single pace by a live trainer can be done with videos or written material. This leaves the live training time for reinforcement, practice, and feedback.
What Should Soft Skills Training Include?
While IQ is largely considered to be static, EQ – which is another way to describe soft skills – can be developed. So, how do you lay the groundwork for effective soft skills training? Here are 6 ways to train and develop soft skills:
1. Prepare your call centre agents to accept change and development. Presenting the training as remedial may make employees feel that they are being punished or that, while other people need improvement, they do not. Present your company as a place of growth and position the training as a way to engage in the always necessary process of learning.
2. Provide the education as listed above. Make the resources available, including time or extra pay, for employees to fully engage with it.
3. Have an evaluation mechanism. Whether this is a written test or successful completion of a group exercise, you should not end training without an understanding of whether your agents learned what you wanted them to.
4. Provide room for self-reflection and reinforcement. When the training programme is over, people should have a way to think about implementing it day to day going forward. A great way to do this is to incorporate reminders and your centre’s specific success stories into staff meetings.
5. Training needs to include setting specific goals for execution. These should be actual improvement metrics on the floor.
6. Practise the skill from time to time. People will get rusty or forget what they learned if they do not have an opportunity to refresh the skill.