The human and technical sides of agent training – Expert insights

March 05, 2024

It’s no secret that outbound campaigns can get hectic sometimes – especially from a new agent’s perspective.

They spend many hours a day talking on the phone with people who most probably didn’t want to be called in the first place. If they’re on a project that uses some form of auto dialer, agents may end up speaking for 45 minutes an hour without any breaks.

As high turnover rates remain to be one of the main challenges of contact centers, the question arises: How do you train and retain talent without compromising on productivity and quality of service?

To find some answers, we talked to two industry experts about the human and technical sides of agent training – specifically, how call center supervisors and the right software can help.

The human side of agent training

After working for many years as a call center agent himself, Levente Uy shifted towards mentoring and training agents to help them do their best. Today, he has held more than 350 contact center training sessions with about 3500 participants altogether.

In this section, he gives advice for contact center leaders and supervisors on training and retaining their outbound agents.

Helping agents see the value of their role

Levente emphasizes that having agents who enjoy and value what they do is crucial. However, with call center work often having a negative reputation, some agents find it challenging to take pride in their work.

“Most people associate call center work with stress, angry customers and making lots of unwanted calls. In reality, if you work in a call center, you’re helping a lot of people every day. You might offer someone a better deal on a product they would have bought in the first place, or remind them of a debt so they don’t have to pay late fees.

As call center leaders and supervisors, we must help agents see the value their role brings.”

Additionally, working in a contact center has some underrated personal benefits. Agents – especially those who work in BPOs with lots of different clients – pick up valuable information that they can and will use in real life. One day, they learn about all sorts of bank accounts and their unique perks, then the next day, they memorize what types of documents someone needs to present if they want to take out a loan (and the consequences of not paying said loan back). Being an agent prepares people for these situations, and they’ll make more informed decisions as a result.

Skills to teach your agents

When it comes to training, Levente emphasizes three fundamental topics that new agents should definitely learn about:

  • flexibility (especially if they have to switch between inbound and outbound projects),
  • growth mindset
  • change management.

Once these areas are covered, you can focus on improving your agents’ hard and soft skills, such as communication and people skills or stress management.

Communication and people skills

Levente stresses that building rapport with contacts is a must for great conversations:

Once agents master the art of building trust over the phone, it’s a lot easier to make successful calls. The truth is, it’s very difficult to build trust in less than a minute, but it’s possible. What we must teach agents is that even their tone of voice while greeting the customer contributes to the rest of the conversation.”

Stress management

An important – and very liberating – fact all outbound agents must remember is that they don’t have to make decisions for anyone. People don’t like to be imposed on, so trying to push your agenda or making commands in an outbound call is a terrible strategy.

Once agents let go of their own expectations that they have to convince people, the atmosphere of their calls will change, and it’ll be a lot easier to approach campaigns with a positive attitude.

Of course, awkward or tough situations may still arise. You need to prepare your agents and give them techniques to handle their emotions properly, because getting angry or audibly frustrated on a call certainly won’t help anyone. Levente suggests multiple ways to handle stressful calls:

“Some agents find it useful to just close their eyes and count to ten before answering. Others may want to keep a notepad at their desk and just scribble whenever they want. When I worked with a particular team of agents, I didn’t keep a document shredder in the office on purpose; if my agents needed a break, they could just grab those papers and tear them into tiny pieces to blow off some steam.

Addressing other potentially frustrating situations beforehand is also important. Leaders need to prepare agents that they may receive questions they don’t know the answer to, or one day, they might even get an invalid list filled with contacts who have nothing to do with the campaign. These instances can be stressful enough on their own even for seasoned agents, let alone a new joiner who has never experienced the scenario before.The safest bet is to plan ahead and give your team a few sentences that help them get out of these situations as smoothly as possible.

Agent retention

Levente strongly believes that increasing productivity and motivating agents go hand-in-hand:

It all boils down to emotions. Generally, you can keep an agent motivated and productive if they enjoy what they do. If someone likes their job, they’ll want to be better at it.

Every contact center’s incentives are a bit different, but ultimately, when agents feel that their work is valuable, they receive positive feedback and see a clear improvement path, it’s a good place to start.

Some internal competitions can also be motivating, although you must be careful when organizing them. The criteria should be different each time, so everyone has a chance to win once. If you have the same contest over and over, and the same 5 people win every time, it’ll discourage everyone else, and their performance might get worse.

Giving feedback the right way

To make sure your feedback has an impact, it’s a good idea to switch up the content and your delivery from time to time – if an agent receives the exact same compliment three days in a row, it won’t make much difference by day four.

Don’t forget to consider the agent on the receiving end. Levente points out that the popular saying “Praise in public, criticize in private.” isn’t the best approach for many reasons.

Some people like to be praised in public, others will get extremely shy, so you must adjust your delivery accordingly. Also, if you only give constructive feedback in private, others won’t have the chance to learn from their teammate’s mistake. If you don’t want to put someone on the spot, you can just talk about the situation and correct it in front of the whole group without mentioning anyone in particular.

The technical side of agent training

With 20+ years of experience in the contact center industry, Péter Málhai focuses on building customer relationships, creating value for clients and advising VCC Live users how to best structure their operations to enhance efficiency.

In this section, he shares a few ways how contact center software can help new outbound agents in their training and day-to-day tasks.

Which dialer should agents train on

Initially, we might think that manual dialing mode is the easiest, as it gives agents more control over how much prep and afterwork time they have between calls. The assumption is that agents should familiarize themselves with manual calling first before moving on to an auto dialer, because starting off with a predictive dialer will lead to burnout early on.

Péter disagrees:

We must remember that the first dialer type agents use is the one they’ll get used to.  If you have a dishwasher, you probably prefer to load it instead of washing the dishes by hand, because that’s what you’re accustomed to.

When using a predictive dialer, managing voicemails, callbacks and invalid numbers are all up to the system, so the agent can focus on learning about the campaign and handling phone calls. Although setting up everything manually has its benefits, most agents would rather have these things automated – especially if they are on commission and want to maximize their productivity.

The worst scenario is if your agents are used to manual dialing projects, and they suddenly have to switch to predictive. Péter explains:

Based on what I’ve seen in the industry, a considerable percentage of agents (15-50%) won’t be able to adapt to the new model, no matter what. It’ll be just too drastic of a change, going from about 10-15 minutes of talk time to 30-45 minutes. Some will view this as a negative experience, since now they have to do three times as much work for the same salary.

In summary, you may want to introduce agents to predictive dialing first. They’ll be able to focus on calls a lot more, and a potential shift to manual dialing won’t affect team morale negatively. However, in case you have a team using a manual dialer who now need to jump on a predictive dialing project, there are still things you can do to make this transition easier.

For example, with the right contact center software, you can finetune your predictive dialer’s settings so that the first weeks are less intense. You can also set the minimum number of agents – if someone needs to go on an unexpected break or faces technical issues, the system will immediately switch to power dialer, so your remaining agents won’t be overwhelmed with too many calls. It’s also possible to use a dialing strategy that maintains agent motivation throughout the day – for example, calls can be initiated in a sequence where potentially successful and unsuccessful calls rotate.

Taking all these possibilities into account, it’s safe to say that a well set-up predictive dialer doesn’t discourage but rather supports agents. Péter adds:

Predictive dialer doesn’t have to immediately lead to burnout. Last year, I bumped into an ex-colleague. We were call center agents in the same company 22 years ago. He, in fact, still works as a call center agent using a predictive dialer in his day-to-day job.

Scripts to minimize prep time

Agents – especially if they’re relatively new or are used to manual dialing – tend to overestimate the prep time they need before each call. In reality, if their software has enough customer data and well-made scripts, there’s no need for long preparations. As Péter states:

In most outbound campaigns, the moment where you greet the person, introduce yourself and state the reason for your call gives you enough time to look at the information you need.

A call center scripting tool can smoothly guide agents through the rest of the conversation. It helps them access dynamic step-by-step guides that can be customized to each contact, ensuring that the offer is as personalized as possible. Having a separate objection handling module or being able to access external websites (such as the campaign’s landing page or even Google Maps) through the script boosts agents’ confidence while also impressing contacts.

Giving feedback

Péter highlights the importance of giving feedback regularly:

Ideally, agents should receive continuous feedback about their performance with recent examples. The best way is to have supervisors and agents listen to previous phone calls together. Some contact center solutions have features that allow users to do this even in a remote setting.

For example, in VCC Live, supervisors can listen to their agents’ conversations and rate how they went. Once they finalize the review, agents immediately receive their ratings, so they can understand what they did well and what needs to be improved through some very recent examples of their work.

The right contact center software can also allow agents to check their own performance through built-in statistics. Thanks to shared dashboards, they can also access group statistics to see how they’re doing compared to teammates. To maintain good morale and celebrate successes, supervisors should be able to send group messages, so they can congratulate agents on their recent achievements.

Empower agents to do their best

There are many potential pitfalls when it comes to training and retaining agents. From approaching contact center work the wrong way to starting with the wrong dialer, there are many things that can hinder your success in building a team of committed and skilled agents.

However, with the right mindset, supportive leadership and proper tools, outbound agents can excel in their job and take pride in helping people – sometimes for 45 minutes an hour.

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