Driving permits, trips abroad, and skydiving are at their best the first time they're experienced. On the other hand, like wine, accepting customer contacts gets better with age. Especially for first-time contact center agents, speaking with that first customer can be a nerve wracking experience. Uncertainty isn't only a problem for the agent. As trainers and coaches, we want our new colleagues to have the necessary confidence and knowledge to successfully help our customers along their journey.
Regardless of the length and rigor of your training program, it's impossible to account for every possible scenario. There will always be surprises, and that can be frightening. Setbacks early on can degrade agent confidence, possibly creating a vicious cycle in which agents feel unprepared and then aren't able to perform under their own pressure. As a seasoned agent myself, I've developed three tips, based on my own experience, to help your agents speed up their time to proficiency and self-confidence.
It's impossible to memorize every facet of a complex operating environment, but there are a handful of things too important to forget. Airline pilots call these "memory items." Memory items are a few pieces of information or procedures that are so critical to safety they must be memorized and acted upon instantly, when there's no time to read the manual. The key is to identify which pieces of information need to be memorized and what information can be referenced as needed to avoid information overload. Instead of training for memorization of everything, pick a couple of memory items for yourself and practice them until they become innate.
The memory items concept can also be applied to the contact center. In fact, there's a good chance you know what they are, even if you don't label them as such. Good candidates for memory items are greetings, closings, answers to your top 2-3 questions, and the process for placing customers on hold. The most basic elements of handling a call should be second-nature before ever picking up a phone. I encourage new agents to practice these memory items to the point that it no longer takes a conscious effort to perform. In my first few weeks on the job, I would rehearse my telephone greeting during my commute until it came out perfectly without giving it a second thought.
When we become nervous and the adrenaline takes over, it's extremely difficult to think clearly and recall knowledge that we've only experienced a few times. It's in these moments that instincts are most helpful; the next steps become automatic rather than deliberate. Even if things go horribly wrong, there will always be one or two small wins in each contact that give agents the courage to keep trying.
There's way more to remember than a select few memory items. Customers expect us to answer easy questions without delay, but it's not always so simple for brand new agents or those who live in a state of constant change. That's most of us! A robust knowledge management practice, like Knowledge Centered Service (KCS), goes a long way toward ensuring agents always have the resources they need, on demand. Advancements in technology, like artificial intelligence (AI), are making knowledge even easier to access on the fly.
However, even the best knowledge bases take time to search and become familiar with. This leaves a gap between memory items and questions where research time is allowable. Operating hours, return policies, or the difference between two popular products may fall into this gap. Even experienced agents sometimes need a reminder when a long standing process has changed.
This is why I like to have a couple of quick reference guides (cheat sheets) hanging around my desk. They shouldn't be comprehensive, the purpose is not to replace a whole knowledge base. Having a few tangible hints and reminders for the most commonly required knowledge helps new agents respond quickly, and it instills a feeling of security and peace of mind. Access to live help from experienced colleagues via instant messaging or call whispering can also help new agents feel better supported. Like the memory items, these can help achieve a couple of early victories that make it easy to persevere.
Many employees are drawn to contact centers, because the random nature of customer requests keeps the job fresh and exciting. Unfortunately, the unpredictability that makes the job enjoyable over the long term can be pretty intimidating in the beginning. The first call always seems to be the most difficult. Without fail, a perfect storm of problems is awaiting every fresh face. It's almost as if new agents are being hazed by the universe.
The first call I took in my most recent position was no exception. I had my first angry customer right out of the gate, and there was no easy solution to be attained. When I thought we were almost done, the customer drops a bombshell. Their spouse had just passed away, and that amplified the pain and inconvenience we had caused. We got through it, together, and the customer hung up as happy as anyone could reasonably expect them to be given the circumstances.
It's impossible to anticipate and prepare agents for curveballs like this one. Sharing stories like this one helps agents to prepare for the unexpected. The best course of action is to remain calm, take your time, and empathize with the customer. Facing the chaos with a clear mind and calm demeanor is some of the best training we can provide.
Starting any new job can be scary, particularly when the work is unpredictable. With the right preparation, encouragement, and coaching, your agents will be on the fast-track to serving your customers with confidence and poise.
About Andrew Gilliam
Andrew Gilliam is an HDI-certified IT Support Center Analyst for a public university, an ICMI Featured Contributor, and was named one of ICMI’s Top 50 Customer Experience Thought Leaders to follow on Twitter. He speaks and writes about Voice of the Customer strategy, employee and customer experience innovation, and contact center best practices. Andrew has developed employee portals, created effective surveys, and built silo-busting collaboration systems. Learn more at andytg.com, follow @ndytg on Twitter, and connect on LinkedIn.com/in/andytg.