Off Center
Sending a new agent straight onto the phones following just a couple weeks of classroom training is the equivalent of sending an aspiring boxer to fight Mike Tyson following just a couple weeks with a punching bag.

In both cases, the rookie is going to get knocked out, and their ear chewed off.

Nevertheless, many call centers continue to throw their new-hires into the customer contact ring well before the reps are ready to do battle – then act surprised that their average rep mortality rate is less than two months. These centers have fooled themselves into thinking that a week or two of lectures, role-plays and e-learning exercises is enough to prepare new agents for the unique demands and challenges that come with the frontline territory.

In contrast, most world-class call centers I’ve worked with have built a “transition training” component into their new-hire training program, thus enabling rookie reps to ease into a life of chaos and panic on the phones rather than diving straight into things.

What Is “Transition Training”?

Transition training entails having trainees handle basic calls in a controlled environment after they have woken up from classroom and other types of didactic training. In some centers, new-hires may enter the transition training bay after one week in the classroom; in other centers, they may not enter the bay until after they’ve completed two or three weeks of classroom instruction. Once agents enter the bay, they are routed a small number of calls that – based on the number dialed and/or the IVR menu option selected – should be relatively easy to handle.

Smart call centers ensure that there are plenty of supervisors or team leads on hand in the transition training bay in case a call turns out to be complex or a trainee turns out to be terrified. Where a typical agent-to-supervisor ratio on the official phone floor of a call center is 15:1 or 20:1, the agent-to-supervisor ratio in an effective transition training bay should be in the 3:1 to 5:1 range. Many small call centers that don’t have the luxury of a large number of supervisory staff to assist trainees often turn to their top agents to lend a hand in the transition training bay. Such an approach is great for building peer camaraderie, and for helping experienced agents learn to be bossy.

In most call centers, trainees return to the classroom following the first transition training period (which may last anywhere from a few days to a few weeks). This enables them to close performance gaps uncovered while in action, and to learn new skills and information that will allow them handle more complex call types – which they will get to do during the second transition training period. By the time they complete the second period of hands-on practice, most agents will be ready to graduate to the official phone floor or, if they have shown a particularly high level of talent, to be stolen from the call center by Sales or Marketing.   

It’s a Win-Win-W… It’s a LOT of Wins

With a carefully implemented transition training program in place, everybody wins: New agents’ gain more confidence and lose fewer lunches; veteran agents (who assist in the training bay) enjoy a vast sense of empowerment and superiority; and the call center as a whole saves a ton of money by reducing early turnover and the number of body bags needed on the phone floor.

If your call center uses a transition training component as part of its new-hire training process (or if you’ve ever helped implement such an initiative), feel free to share some of your experiences in the comment box below. If your call center does NOT do transition training, feel free to share some photos of your trainees crying their first day on the phones.

If you are looking for a way to engage your agents and improve performance without having it interfere with your nap time, have I got the solution for you:

Peer mentoring.

It’s one of the most effective and affordable agent development tools around – one that empowers your best and most experienced agents while simultaneously keeping your newer agents from getting laughed at too much by the quality monitoring team.

Most contact centers that have implemented a peer mentoring initiative report shorter learning curves, increased performance, and lower turnover among new hires, as well as a strong sense of "I no longer hate my job" among experienced staff.   

 Agent-on-Agent Education

Peer mentoring typically involves pairing up a rookie rep (protégé or “mentee”) with a veteran one (mentor) for several weeks or months after the former completes their initial training. In some centers, the mentoring relationship begins during training, thus giving the protégé a dedicated shoulder to cry on even before getting screamed at by their first caller.

Protégés sit with their mentor and practice the tactics they have learned in training or on the show Outsourced and receive invaluable feedback and tips from their experienced colleague. In addition to gaining insight and skills from the most knowledgeable people in your contact center, new agents often form a strong bond with their mentor, which helps to cut down on early attrition and assaults on supervisors and schedulers.     

As already alluded to, it isn’t just the new agents (and the contact center) that benefit from mentoring; mentors themselves truly appreciate that management recognizes the value of their skills and knowledge. Mentors also enjoy the job diversity and time offline that mentoring provides, not to mention having somebody to fetch their coffee in the morning. 

The Mentoring Scheduling Conundrum

One of the biggest challenges involved in running a successful mentoring program is scheduling. Since mentors are typically among the center’s best agents (if you’re doing it right), it’s critical not to have too many of them working offline with their respective protégés, or to have any of them offline during peak volume periods.

This problem can often be solved by having a solid workforce management (forecasting/scheduling) process in place, and by instilling a “queue is king” mentality among mentors. Make sure they know to keep an eye on the queue whenever offline, and that it’s okay to knock over even elderly managers or visitors while sprinting back to their workstations whenever certain queue thresholds are reached.

Choosing the Right Mentors

When selecting who will serve as mentors, it’s important to note that the most talented and experienced agents don’t necessarily make the best teachers. For example, studies have shown that many of the highest caliber tech support reps carry knives and collect human teeth.

Contact centers with the most successful mentoring programs have a formal mentor selection process in place. These centers typically have candidates interview for the position, take behavioral tests, or even complete some form of certification program. Each candidate’s results are compared against an “ideal mentor” profile to ensure that those selected are skilled, dependable, personable, autonomous, and have never punched a colleague in the head.

I’d love to hear some of your experiences with peer mentoring, but only the positive ones that support my points. Otherwise, people will start to figure out that I really don’t know what I’m talking about.

I often hear call center managers boast about how extensive their new-hire and continuous training is, but then when I ask them how they formally measure the effectiveness of each method and module delivered, they look at me like I’m drunk or crazy. Often I am both, but that doesn’t make my question any less appropriate or important.   

Developing and delivering training is only half the battle. Call centers need to regularly track training’s impact and success. Doing so not only ensures continuous performance improvement and maximizes the organization’s training investment, it gives call center managers tangible training data they can present at industry events and in publications to make their industry peers feel vastly inferior. And isn’t that the real reason why most of you got into this business in the first place?

Accurately tracking new-hire training effectiveness is not as easy as it sounds, which is why I merely write about top call centers rather than manage one myself. However, in my time snooping around the industry, interviewing experts and analyzing training success, I have seen a host of organizations that do a spot-on job of measuring the impact that training has on immediate and long-term agent performance.

Here are several ways they go about it:

Written training tests. Top call centers develop written tests on training material and administer them… 
  • Before actual training is provided – to measure base-level proficiency prior to training.
  •  Just after training is provided – to measure training comprehension and initial skill/knowledge absorption.
  • Weeks or even months after the training has been provided – to measure the impact of daily headset shocks and customer insults on long-term memory.

On-the-job training assessments. These are focused performance evaluations designed to measure the application of specific skills and knowledge that agents totally ignored during training. As with written tests, many call centers first conduct such assessments (via role-play or simulation exercises) prior to delivering training to gauge skill level before instruction. Soon after training has been delivered, the real on-the-job assessments are carried out – sometimes via role-play/simulations, but usually while agents are panicking on actual calls.

Specific assessments are also conducted periodically well after training has been completed – not just to gauge how well agents have retained and are applying the skills/knowledge in question, but also because many supervisors are sadistic and like to see even their most experienced agents tremble.

Agent feedback. Measuring training success isn’t all about post-training tests and assessment scores. How agents themselves feel about the training received is critical, too – or at least you should make them think that. Soliciting agent feedback after training can shed ample light on why certain elements of training fail while others fail worse.

The best call centers ask agents about: Which training programs and delivery methods they found most impactful and engaging; which programs/methods they found superfluous; and which ones made them throw up a little in their own mouth. Agent input is captured and tracked to help spot common trends in training effectiveness and common problems that detract from agent development – mostly the latter. 

Customer feedback. Customers’ comments on post-call satisfaction surveys, along with their furious rants captured on call recordings, can also be helpful in highlighting training successes and shortcomings.

Sharp managers pay close attention to customer input in areas for which agents have recently received training. For example, if an agent who has just completed a special module on courteousness/professionalism receives numerous comments from customers about how rude and abrupt the agent was on the call, the manager/supervisor then knows that the training was highly ineffective. However, it could also simply be that the agent in question is a sociopath, in which case he or she should be moved into the IT department immediately.