Soft Skills Training your Contact Center Representatives Need

The most important technology in your call center isn’t hardware or software. It’s your people.  As the originators of technology, we human beings demonstrate thousands of years of development, invention and progress in uncountable ways every day. Despite the widespread belief that we humans despise change, we learn and adapt without really noticing it. We are constantly adjusting to new demands and circumstances as they emerge.

The right combination of hardware, software and process technology will equip any contact center for success, but people drive the results. And people, as we’ve said in previous posts, are experts at learning and relearning. Relearning needs to go along with retooling. Organizations that ignore the capacity for ongoing learning in the call center fail at getting optimum results, and then wonder why expensive hardware and complex forecasting algorithms let them down.

In my 20-plus years in the industry, I’ve heard this excuse a thousand times: “We’ve tried to teach our agents to have better soft skills, but it doesn’t work. Soft skills can’t be taught.” Yet our teams have done exactly that. So the question really becomes, “how do you know your agents can’t or won’t learn?” Are managers objectively assessing soft skills training development based on performance, or simply assuming staff members don’t want to learn new things or improve? Or put another way, have you ever met someone that really didn’t want to learn better ways to work with other people?

Contact Center Soft Skills Training Experts

Writing in EE Times, news analyst Keith Dawson interviewed a number of training experts to identify best practices in contact center soft skills training. In that article, the CEO of Aslan Training and Development, Tom Stanfill, presented an interesting and useful alternative to measuring performance alone as an indicator of an employee’s willingness to learn and change.

Stanfill suggests that managers and coaches should divide their team into four quadrants based on performance and demonstrated willingness to change. They are categorized as:

  • Independents – these agents perform adequately but show little or no desire to change
  • Detractors – these agents perform below the expected standard and show no interest in changing
  • Strivers – these agents aren’t meeting their expected or required performance levels, but they show a strong desire for improvement and growth
  • Achievers – your dream agents, who meet or exceed performance demands and have a strong desire to improve and grow

Showing your employees how growth and change is not just necessary but absolutely possible is the first step on the path to soft skills training improvement. Poor performers, given appropriate attention and proper feedback, can benefit from managerial attention, but how much time is too much time to spend on someone who doesn’t seem to want to learn?

Management in a Contact Center

“Once the team is categorized, the coach can now implement the appropriate strategy and determine where to spend their time,” Stanfill said. Here are his recommendations on how much time managers should dedicate to the staffers in each category.

  • Independents require the minimum amount of time with soft skills training. Stanfill recommends approximately five percent of allotted coaching time. “They are meeting their performance requirements and don’t want to change, leave them alone. The key is to raise the average level of performance for the entire team and they will most likely be motivated to elevate their performance.”
  • Detractors are a managerial burden, eating up valuable time. “If the desire to change is low or non-existent, all coaching and development efforts will fail. Therefore, the time invested in the Detractor should be minimal (~ five percent) until they demonstrate a willingness to learn and grow. Simply communicate the desired level of performance, the time frame required to reach acceptable level, and a willingness to support if their desire changes suddenly emerges.” Be careful not to go too far. As Stanfill warns, showing a rep they are not valued – even a poor performer – will sink your coaching efforts.
  • Strivers deserve a much greater investment of managerial time in soft skills training, with Stanfill suggesting approximately 75 percent. “This is your greatest opportunity to enhance the overall performance of your team. They embrace the idea that they need to improve and are open to input and ideas for improvement. Specific performance requirements should be communicated, but a bit more grace should be granted if they are committed to the development plan mapped out by the manager.”
  • Achievers should also get a significant amount of dedicated change management, about 15 percent. “These are the stars of the team who also have a desire to continually improve. Here the strategy should be to grow, challenge, and retain.”

Make no mistake about it: performance metrics are invaluable, even if they are not the ultimate measurements of your customer service representatives’ success in soft skills training.

The Importance of Feedback in Soft Skills Training 

A cornerstone of effective, lasting workplace education is for managers to give feedback designed to center their employees and give them the reinforcement, tools, and support needed to excel. However, in our industry the definition of feedback varies from company to company, and often, manager to manager.  Essentially, feedback is data. And the old computer adage, “garbage in, garbage out” applies to feedback quality also. If the input is bad, the output will be, too – even from your highly ranked employees.

The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) defines feedback as information that tells how we are progressing in our efforts to reach a goal. Feedback is not advice. Advice is guidance meant to help a person improve. For improvement suggestions to have meaning and relevance to their employees, managers must first give objective feedback that is related strictly to the task being performed.

“The ability to improve one’s result depends on the ability to adjust one’s pace in light of ongoing feedback that measures performance against a concrete, long-term goal,” writes ASCD educator Grant Wiggins.

According to Wiggins, truly helpful feedback has several clear characteristics, including:

  • Goal-referenced: “Effective feedback requires that a person has a goal, takes action to achieve the goal, and receives goal-related information about his or her actions,” Wiggins noted. In the call center, feedback should relate to a specific goal, such as the successful execution of key performance indicators (KPIs).
  • Actionable: Feedback that can be successfully acted upon requires the manager to observe keenly, then comment on their observations based on a clear statement of goals.
  • User-friendly (specific and personalized): “Even if feedback is specific and accurate in the eyes of experts or bystanders, it is not of much value if the user cannot understand it or is overwhelmed by it.” In our online soft skills training program, “Say THIS, Not That…Most of the Time,” we stress the importance of word choice, especially avoiding the use of too technical or “insider” language in customer interactions. It’s equally important for managers and coaches to use care with the words they use when giving feedback. Clarity and simplicity are powerful communications tools.

As for the effect of high pressure environments on the ability to give feedback, Wiggins writes, “Remember that “no time to give and use feedback” actually means “no time to cause learning.” As we have seen, research shows that less teaching plus more feedback is the key to achieving greater learning.”

Now that your managers have categorized the team, worked out how much time to devote to each individual, and have learned how to give feedback that reinforces soft skills training, lets consider four “substantial but insubstantial” soft skills that managers can (and must) teach their employees.

Great Customer Service

The “four C’s” are quite substantial – they are the foundation for great customer service experiences on both sides of the desk, phone or screen. However, their “insubstantial” nature (hard concepts to articulate) may give trainers pause.

  • Clarity: the ability to understand and articulate the point of the matter
  • Connection: self-awareness and the ability to relate to others
  • Composure: staying calm in high-pressure or difficult situations
  • Closure: the ability to complete all or most of the tasks related to a customer service issue and move calls along at the appropriate pace

Here are some helpful questions for trainers and managers to have team members answer to show their grasp of the 4 C’s:

  • Clarity: what do you know about the situation? What are the facts?
  • Connection: what is your customer feeling? What is the customer’s tone of voice telling you?
  • Composure: what can you do to positively influence the situation and stay grounded and impartial?
  • Closure: have you met all of your internal requirements for completing the call?

As experts in call center optimization, GCS is committed to helping you improve your call center. We’ve developed an online soft skills training program named “Say THIS, Not That…Most of the Time.” It provides an essential baseline of communication skills and understanding of the customer service role in both spoken and written encounters. It is delivered in 30 minute segments to make it easy for the supervisor or trainer to schedule and the trainee to absorb and practice. Perfect for new employees and a great retool for the experienced ones.

The Complete Guide to Call Center Training

Everything You Need to Know about Improving Call Center Performance with Training


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