Off Center
It’s one thing to have coaching and training in place for your contact center agents; it’s quite another to cultivate and sustain a strong culture of continuous learning. Asda, a large supermarket chain and online grocer based in the UK, has done a bang-up job of accomplishing the latter.

In 2010, Asda implemented its Customer Service Academy – a highly dynamic and progressive learning and development initiative that enables agents to transform themselves into customer care gurus. The Customer Service Academy provides agents with ample training autonomy and accountability, and embraces a wide array of learning methods and styles.

I recently caught up with Nathan Dring, Customer Service Academy Manager at Asda, who was kind enough to share his experiences and insight regarding the highly successful learning initiative.   

What is the difference between the Customer Service Academy and a traditional contact center training program? Do all agents “enroll” in the Academy, or is it optional?

Almost all of the learning is optional, though there are, inevitably, certain things that need to be trained out – for legal compliance or to support the HR agenda. As much as possible, outside of this, ‘training’ is not a term that is used that much here. ‘Training’ tends to create a state of passivity in the learner (conscious or otherwise) – usually coupled with images of a classroom and death-by-PowerPoint!

‘Learning’, on the other hand, can be done at any point in the day. Yes, in the classroom, and yes, using PowerPoint…but not exclusively. The program of learning in the contact center is under the title of ‘Step On’. As a learning function, we will avail all kinds of development opportunities to you, but you are not forced to take them. If you want to develop, then you take the proactive steps yourself. No one will march you to a classroom!

In doing this, a culture of learning is created, where different-style learners can benefit and peer-to-peer learning is promoted – with no stigma attached to the word ‘training’.

Through mid-year and year-end reviews, as well as a robust coaching program, colleague strengths and opportunities are highlighted – behavioral or technical – and then there is the opportunity to get some learning support…training, coaching, mentoring…on the job or in a classroom.

Please describe some of the modules/programs offered as part of the Customer Service Academy.

Among the programs and courses delivered by the Academy are:

  • Candidate assessment – a group of 12 or so candidates are invited to a two-hour evening session (always on evenings to make it easier for people who are in a different job to attend, as well as to check the commitment of those applying!). The assessment includes a group activity, a grammar & spelling test, a telephone role-play, and an interview. and observe candidates. A group of managers, coaches and trainers observe each candidate to see if they have the attitude and personality to fit – we can teach them the skills.
  • Induction – new-hire training/orientation.
  • The Asda Quality Framework – how we live and breathe quality in all our customer interactions.
  • Management assessment – this is run to see which of the existing colleagues have the aptitude and attitude to be future leaders. We use it to identify potential team managers or quality coaches. It features a series of interviews, role-plays, team activities, and some quality monitoring.
  • English writing course – this course was a runner-up in the National Training Awards.

All of these have elements of interaction, review, video, game and story. We firmly believe that we cannot write engaging training material/learning activities. Instead, we must design things that are attractive – so that colleagues choose to engage. Therefore, the different elements of training intentionally tap into the things that we know colleagues find attractive – the things they choose to do in their spare time – and then we link them to learning points and weave them through the fabric of what we do.

Have you actively involved your agents in the development of the Customer Service Academy?

Yes, we actively take feedback from colleagues on what they think of learning activities they have completed. In addition, we listen to what they do with their spare time, what things they choose to engage with outside of work, to see what principles we can include.

Who provides the actual training and instruction? What types of training are used?

The training in the classroom is facilitated by one of the Academy trainers, but as much as possible learners lead themselves. We encourage questions to come from the colleagues and where possible, answered by them too. During things such as inductions, we bring other managers and teams into the training environment, but our focus is always around who is the best communicator. Subject matter experts do not always communicate in a way that colleagues can engage with, and seniority does not necessarily mean that a manager can ‘present’. With anything trained in a classroom, powerful communication skills is foremost – subject knowledge can much more easily be learned by our communicators, rather than communication skills learned by our SMEs.

Story continues to be one of the most powerful ways of communicating a message – and a way that helps knowledge retention significantly. In some ways this is not a surprise…people engage in story almost every day of their lives through magazines, tabloids, soap operas, etc.

We do use role-play for some scenarios, but we never use that term as there are too many preconceived ideas about what it will involve and colleagues often disengage at that point. We use e-learning for a number of modules – particularly those that are compulsory/legal and need to be revisited and refreshed on an annual basis. More recently we have started to use apps on android devices – again, this uses a medium that colleagues regularly use in their downtime and therefore does not create a barrier between the training environment and the rest of what they do with their time.

Is there a testing or certification process involved to show that agents have successfully completed a module or program?

We have an electronic system to log colleague training and also have paper files to show what colleagues have attended…though attendance does not always equate to learning! As such there are a couple of different activities that we do. We rarely do a ‘test’ at the end of a module – this tends to simply check the short-term memory of the learners…little more. Instead, we ask colleagues to write pledges to say what they will do differently as a result of what they have learned and then these are given to their manager for review at a future one-to-one. There is also an element of performance – are the colleagues now putting into practice what they have learned?

What impact (if any) has the Customer Service Academy had on…

Agent performance and development? The only metric that we hold colleagues to account for is their quality. They are not given any other operational metrics to hit. To support this quality agenda, the Academy wrote and delivered the Asda Quality Framework – now used in all 32 sites across 24 partner companies. The result of this has been a marked improvement in quality scores. Whilst this is an internal measure, there have been benefits in terms of competition and external benchmarking, in which Asda’s Home Office Contact Center has for the last two years been the Best Contact Center in the Retail sector, Most Improved Contact Center in 2010 and 2011, and Top 10 for both voice and non-voice service – all part of the Top 50 Companies for Customer Service scheme.

Agent engagement and retention? As members of the Institute of Customer Service (ISC), in 2012 we took part in their ServCheck program, which surveys colleagues on their level of engagement with Asda and the how ‘happy’ they are to work here. (Again, this was done for the Home Office Contact Center in Leeds). The survey showed that we had the best score in the Retail sector, the highest score of any UK Contact Center, and the second highest score of any business that the ICS has surveyed in the UK.

What has been the biggest challenge in implementing and managing the Customer Service Academy? How have you overcome this challenge?

One of the biggest challenges that we face is offline time for colleagues. As long as there are operational issues or constraints, then dealing with the immediate can become the focus and therefore time set aside for learning can be one of the first things dropped. This was a challenge in 2012, as Asda operates ‘lean’ and so there was not capacity for a lot of offline time. Since the start of the year, with some team restructure and after lengthy discussion of benefits etc., offline time has become more readily available and there has been a significant increase in the amount of time invested in colleague development.

What do you feel are the biggest benefits of the Customer Service Academy?

Having the Academy signifies an intent to invest in colleagues. This shows colleagues that they matter and that they are more than a just a body. As a result, colleagues will invest back into the business – they will go above and beyond for their colleagues, managers and the customer…often with no further incentive or offer of reward.

Anything new or notable in store for the CSA you’d like to mention?

The launch of a 2014 graduate scheme is very exciting. Elements of this have been piloted in the first quarter of 2013 and a new recruitment drive will start in September.

Is there anything else you would like to add?    

One of the things that we are very proud of is that last year we achieved ‘Gold Investors In People’ status…and were invited to be champions. This put the site in the top 0.4% of IIP companies in the UK. We are the only UK retail contact center to have achieved this.

Asda – The Big Picture
Contact center locations: Leeds and Cape Town (plus 30 other sites around the UK working with 24 partner companies)
Hours of operation: 8am-8pm; Home shopping 7:30am – 10:30pm
Number of agents employed: 250 at Leeds center; approx. 6000 across all sites
Products/services supported/provided: Store support, general customer support, home shopping support, and direct sales and after sales.
Channels handled: Phone, IVR, Email

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