Continuous Learning in an Age of Continuous Turnover

WRITTEN BY CAROL LEAMAN

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Remember your driver’s exam?

It’s been a while, but it likely went something like this: You read the driver’s handbook and memorized the rules of the road. Then you took your written test and aced it (or retook it and squeezed by). Either way, you walked away with your learner’s permit in hand.

But if someone were to ask you today what an oversize load sign on a truck looks like, how to identify different accessible parking permits or what you should pack in your car’s emergency kit, would you be able to remember? Probably not.

Onboarding in contact centers isn’t too different from preparing for that test. Like new drivers, we expect new agents to absorb a mountain of information at the beginning of the process. Then, once the training period is over, we unleash them onto the road.

And like a new driver, they don’t find the information in their handbook very interesting or relevant. They forget a large chunk of what they learned shortly after the exam. They develop bad habits. And while we don’t quit driving because of these reasons, we do quit our jobs over similar things.

It’s not news that turnover is a big issue in contact centers. In fact, attrition and engagement top the list of challenges in this year’s Contact Center Challenges & Priorities survey. Here’s another thing we know: Employees want to work and feel engaged. We’re just not giving them the right learning support to get there.

So what is the right approach? We need to move the conversation about learning away from its role in onboarding and instead focus on support throughout the entire agent experience, from their first day forward, so our people get up to speed faster, feel more confident and stick around longer.

Take a Walk in an Agent’s Shoes

Most training gets handled as a program. There’s a set list of material to cover and a set amount of time in which to do it. Then, when the program is over, we send new agents out to their workstations to take calls, answer social media customer inquiries or customer email inquiries.

But let’s take a look at this from an agent’s perspective.

DAY 1: Excitement is high! They have a job, they’re part of a new team, in a new company, with lots of opportunities to contribute and grow. They know there’s a lot to learn, but they’re ready to jump in and get started.

DAY 2: That excitement from their first day wanes as they spend their time in a classroom, role-playing calls or answering mock customer email inquiries or tackling e-learning modules. They notice some of the other new recruits have no contact center experience while others have years of experience on the phones. Still, everyone gets assigned the same material—challenging for those starting from scratch, but old hat (and boring) for the veterans of the group.

DAY 30: Their head is swimming as the information keeps on coming. They’ve passed their first tests, but they’re forgetting things as fast as they’re learning them. It feels like this training is coming at them from a firehose, covering everything from product information they’ll use every day to the small details they’ll only need once a year.

DAY 60: Training is over! But out on the floor, our new agent suddenly finds themselves on their own. Their instructors and trainers are gone, replaced by busy colleagues, supervisors and managers. When an issue comes up, they’ve forgotten how to deal with it—and they aren’t likely to go hunting for that one e-learning module with the answer when the pressure’s on to keep taking calls. Feeling unsupported, they wing it… and get things wrong which can lead to dissatisfied customers, escalations and lost revenue.

DAY 90: By now, they’ve lost a great deal of confidence. Without ongoing support, they’ve forgotten most of what they learned. As their performance drops, they start taking more absences, and a week later they quit.

In a field where 88% of employees feel that good workplace training positively impacts their job engagement, it’s no wonder 7 in 10 have mentally checked out of their work—and one in three agents will leave within a year.

That’s a problem, and not just because we spend so much on hiring new recruits and putting them through training programs. The ripples reach far and wide, impacting customer satisfaction, call quality, absenteeism, morale, brand perception, healthcare costs and even corporate share prices.

We Can Do Better Than That, Right?

Here’s the good news: Engaged employees perform better and stick around longer. Highly engaged teams see a 41% reduction in absenteeism, a 17% boost in productivity and 25% less turnover according to a recent Gallup study.

So the big question becomes, how can we engage new agents—and keep that momentum going? It turns out, training is critical. More and more, employees want to be empowered, to expand their knowledge, to develop new skills, to feel useful and to find meaning through their work. They want to know their team—and their company—is behind them on that journey through continued investment in their development.

Yesterday’s learning program just won’t cut it. After all, employee development doesn’t look the same for everyone, and it doesn’t end after 60 days. Your training support shouldn’t, either.

With that in mind, let’s think about how a different approach to learning can do better for that agent who quit a few paragraphs up:

  • Personalize learning. What does each agent really need to learn? Rather than putting everyone on the same program at the same pace, they get only the information they need to fill in gaps in their knowledge. That way, they don’t waste time (or get bored) relearning material they already know. They can jump straight to learning the stuff they don’t.
  • Prioritize critical topics. It’s tempting to front-load formal training with every bit of information that could potentially be useful, but not all of that will help a new agent during a typical day. Focusing on the mission-critical topics first will prepare agents for calls quicker. The nice-to-know stuff that pops up once a year can come later when they need it.
  • Invest in a resource base. When reps do need that nice-to-know, once-a-year info, they should be able to self-serve quickly in their moment of need. A central shared resource base lets agents find relevant answers in context of their work without searching through mountains of materials.
  • Make learning bite-sized. Imagine if learning could happen in hyper-focused 3-5 minute bursts at their desk between calls. Microlearning is a tested approach that delivers only what our short-term memory can handle at a time. It helps agents remember more effectively without pulling them away from the phones.
  • Reinforce lessons old and new. Practicing retrieval and recall at the right moments in time further strengthens those knowledge pathways so new concepts get cemented faster and old ones don’t gather dust in the back of agents’ minds.
  • Make it fun. A little gamification can go a long way. Introducing points, leaderboards and rewards encourages agents to do a little learning every day, forming habits that will last throughout their time with your team. Plus, a little friendly competition can help form a positive culture and a shared sense of belonging.
  • Support coaching. Seeing learning results in real-time, team-wide, lets supervisors and managers pinpoint the topics where agents fall short, either individually or as a team, and address them in an effective way.
  • Never stop. Post-onboarding, agents should feel supported in their journey. Time for a little learning every day gives agents opportunities to pick up new information remember information they’ve learned before, so they’re always developing toward 100%.

Put this together and you have a system that not only keeps agents engaged throughout their ramp-up period, but also gets them through the learning curve faster so they can be productive sooner.

First Steps to Support Agents’ Next Steps

Ready to roll out better training in your contact center? Here are three steps you can start taking right now to support every agent, from day one onward.

Prioritize

Take stock of all the information you cover in your training program today. Move anything that falls into the “absolutely must know” category to the front of the line. This is the information about how to start, steer and stop your car, not the stuff about how to maintain the engine. If it’s critical to get them on the phones faster, it belongs here. Everything else comes later or lives outside of your formal onboarding sessions.

Adapt

Start your training by establishing a baseline of knowledge for each new agent. Figure out what they already know before you teach them anything new. After all, there’s no point in wasting time and resources teaching a mechanic how to change a flat tire or walking through basic call strategies with someone who’s been working in contact centers for 30-plus years.

Stretch

Learning doesn’t have to take place in the classroom during a limited period of time. Take a peek at what a day-in-the-life really looks like for your agents, and you’ll find there are moments throughout the day when they could fit in a short lesson or refresher. A few feet a day, spaced out over weeks and months and even years, adds up to a lot of miles.

Ensure that Training Never Ends… for the Right Reason

Training never ends in a contact center—but it’s not for the right reasons. Attrition and lack of engagement mean there’s an almost constant stream of people quitting, new people joining, and ramping up at any given moment in time. We already think of learning as something that’s always happening, but in this case, it’s a bad thing.

If training never ends, it should be for the right reason: namely, that there’s always knowledge to support our agents in their development toward being great contributors to our team, drivers of happy customers, and setting our businesses up for success. So let’s put our efforts toward that instead.

Carol Leaman is an award-winning thought leader with an impressive track record of successfully leading tech companies. She is a disruptor in the corporate learning space, and is also the brains behind the Axonify Microlearning Platform. Carol is a celebrated entrepreneur and trailblazer (Sarah Kirke Award 2010, Waterloo Region Entrepreneur Hall of Fame Intrepid Award 2011 and the Profit500 Award for Canada’s Leading Female Entrepreneur 2017) whose articles appear in leading learning, business and technology publications.