Friday, September 30, 2011


Spoken communication requires a number of elements to make it effective and successful. One of these is fluency, which helps the communication to flow through the correct choice of words and avoiding unnecessary and ‘deafening’ silences.
Another important aspect of spoken communication is for a voice to have intonation. This is the melodic rise and fall of a sentence and if a person doesn’t have this in his or her spoken voice then it can become very boring to a listener.
Pitch is the level or frequency at which a person speaks. A deeper pitch is considered to communicate authority, which is why many news-readers have deep voices to convey the gravitas of what they are saying. Yet voices that are higher in pitch are often more accessible and may explain why women are particularly successful in call centres.
It is important to communicate certain key points during the call. The English language is stress-timed ie, we emphasize certain key words at regular intervals while the less important ones are spoken more quickly and with less emphasis. Compare this to languages that are syllable-timed such as French or Italian where there is o en equal emphasis placed on each syllable.

Neuro-linguistic programming

It is becoming increasingly common for aspects of neuro-linguistic programming principles to be incorporated in training. NLP, developed by Bandler and Grinder (1976), is an interpersonal communication model that draws on a wide range of sources to inform its practices.
The particular elements that are useful in call centres (and which, incidentally, have been used by people in the distant past, long before NLP) are to encourage employees to mirror the speed, tone and volume of a caller, and to adjust their vocabulary to suit the caller. In this way it is possible to quickly develop empathy with the caller and thus encourage a productive interaction.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011


It is taken for granted in call centres that advisers should be able to speak clearly and this ability is looked for during recruitment and selection. ‘Sounding right’ is a very important component of the image an organization wishes to transmit to callers:
In relation to customers’ aural aesthetic, the voice and accent of employees was important. In the hotel, the personnel manager was adamant: ‘We don’t want someone who spoke in a very gu ural manner.’ In the banks, again, one respondent claimed that having a ‘clear accent’ was an absolute essential. 
So, because it is o en very difficult to change the way in which a person speaks (which is o en an important part of their personality and therefore is very difficult to change) people are frequently selected who already possess the language qualities required. It would appear that some employers are prioritizing aesthetic ‘sense knowledge’ over ‘intellectual knowledge’ and seek to recruit workers with ‘embodied capacities’ that they can ‘commodify’ and thus create a specific type of service experience.
It is argued that some employers select staff who already possess the qualities needed to work as advisers and just style and polish these surface features:
This, arguably, would be a more accurate description than ‘skilling’ of what goes on in many regimes of customer care, where there is little engagement with the underlying purposes and principles of verbal interaction, but rather an intense concern to manage what might be called its aesthetics. 
Of course, where only styling happens, employees may not fully understand what they are doing nor be able to improve their performance without guidance. It is essential that training involves providing the conceptual understanding to make sense of what is happening. Without this, advisers may know what to do but don’t know why – it is the essential difference between training and education.
Traditionally, English grammar was based on Latin structures, which are not fully suited to explain the various grammatical forms that have developed over the centuries. These traditional grammars have now been partly replaced by descriptive grammars that illustrate structures with examples of language taken from everyday situations.
This approach to grammar, which recognizes that language is dynamic and cannot always be shoe-horned into a particular structure, is enlightening. Communicative competence is more than just understanding the grammatical rules: it is also about knowing when to use them. ‘There are rules of use without which the rules of grammar would be useless’.
Such a short-term styling approach by employers, where it occurs, is strongly discouraged. Instructing people from scratch about the nuances of language is difficult, and even linguistics specialists find it difficult to fully describe all the interacting aspects of language. So it is understandable that people with life experience, perhaps raising children, are actively sought because they o en have the innate language skills required for successful communication. But, if contact centres wish to raise their skills levels and raise the public’s perception then deeper knowledge and understanding have to be developed.

Scripts and prompts

Scripts, or prompt sheets, are commonly used in call centres because they allow a consistency of approach and maintain a level of quality that may not be the case if people are allowed to go in any direction they choose. However, the extent to which they are helpful depends very much on the circumstances, for example, a telephone directory enquiry is a brief transaction that only lasts a short period of time and needs standardized procedures. On the other hand, a call to an advice line may require much more flexibility, particularly if the caller is emotional.
If advisers are constrained too much then the spontaneity of conversational language is lost and monotony and boredom can set in. Normal everyday conversations tend to be relaxed and informal and it is these elements that many organizations try to replicate so that they can build a relationship with the customer. It is therefore a balancing act between allowing flexibility and ensuring consistency and quality of service.
Although scripts can be helpful they cannot fully anticipate the response of the caller. There is a grammar of consequences in which ‘Speakers are free to make any choices, but how their choices will be interpreted is not free’. Where there is an unanticipated response the strategy encouraged in many call centres is to repeat the question in the hope that a more suitable response is obtained. This sometimes works but the overall conclusion is that the customer should not and o en cannot be constrained by pre-judged questioning.
Where scripts are too tightly enforced they may inhibit the adviser, and this verbal straitjacket may then have repercussions for a caller requiring an individualized response. The scripts used by Lloyds Bank overseas call centre so annoyed customers that it abandoned them.
Some call centres do not require linguistic uniformity and allow a considerable amount of flexibility. At one centre that focused on technical telecommunication enquiries, there is little enforcement of protocols. It ‘hardly regulated employees’ communication strategies at all, nor did it record or systematically monitor calls (a manager told me he believed that would be “devastating for morale”)’.
So what can be learnt about the use of scripts? Essentially, scripts provide a guide for the adviser, and for probationers and novices they are an important tool that gives confidence and support, helping to improve the interaction. As advisers become more experienced they internalize the language structure, making it more fluent and natural, allowing them more scope to personalize their communication with the customer.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Words, tones and gestures | COMMUNICATING EFFECTIVELY

To counter the barriers to communication it is necessary to adopt a number of strategies, which can be seen in Figure 1, and among these are timing, trust, empathy, repetition, feedback, etc. To help customer service representatives operate effectively it is valuable to inform them about the communication processes described here and to practise each of the elements. Many of these elements will be discussed in detail below.

Figure 1: Communicating effectively

Words, tones and gestures

In face-to-face communications it is not the words alone that convey meaning: it is also how we say them, eg the loudness, intonation or stress. Even though the words are the same the meaning of a sentence can differ enormously depending on the stress placed on particular words. Try speaking aloud the following sentences with emphasis on the italicized words:
  • I didn’t say you stole that purse. (But someone else said that you did.)
  • didn’t say you stole that purse. (I agree with you.)
  • I didn’t say you stole that purse. (I might have implied or written that you did.)
  • I didn’t say you stole that purse. (I said someone else stole it.)
  • I didn’t say you stole that purse. (I said you might have borrowed it.)
  • I didn’t say you stole that purse. (But you might have stolen another purse.)
  • I didn’t say you stole that purse. (I might have implied you stole something else.)
In addition to the impact of tone, loudness, etc on the meaning of what is said, there is also the effect of gestures and body language. How a person physically communicates can convey very strong messages too. Research conducted by Mehrabian (2007) into communication suggested that of the whole communication:
  • 7 per cent of meaning is conveyed in spoken words;
  • 38 per cent of meaning is conveyed in paralinguistic features: tones, loudness, stress, etc;
  • 55 per cent of meaning is conveyed in gestures, facial expressions, etc. Based on this research, telephone communications can only use less than half of the communication channel compared with face-to-face interactions. Of course, Mehrabian referred to specific circumstances that don’t fully translate across to telephone interactions. However, what this research does indicate is that extra attention needs to be given so that the potential for miscommunication and misunderstandings is minimized.
The importance of tone was illustrated by research by Reed Employment Services, which revealed that the main reason for ‘phone rage’ was a perceived ‘insincere tone of voice from the person handling the query’ 
The actress Jenny Agutter, who appeared in ‘The Railway Children’ and other films, once acknowledged that conversations with her parents on the telephone were more challenging than when she was face-to-face with them. She explained that if she was in their company and they asked, ‘How are you?’ she could respond, ‘Oh, just fine.’ Even if she was unhappy her acting skills and body language could mask and hide her unhappiness. She admitted that this was much harder to do on the telephone because it is challenging to remove all underlying emotions from one’s voice.
The structure of the communication process will depend on its purpose; however, there do appear to be a number of standard elements that are included in most interactions. In this section we will consider three interactions that increase in order of complexity: directory enquiries, telephone enquiries, and a medical advice line. In each of these organizations the agent is expected to learn the general process of the conversation and use it achieve a satisfactory conclusion.
With directory enquiries there would appear to be three main considerations. The first stage is to obtain the required name and location of the person. The second is to correctly input the information into the computer in order to get the right information. The final consideration does not involve practical information but instead pays attention to the interpersonal nature of the call. Customer care training documents include a section on ‘salutations’, which are concerned with politeness and treating the customer with respect.
In the telecommunications company, Telco stated that agents had to adhere to a detailed procedure, which consisted of five tasks: ‘greet and build rapport with the customer, fact find, provide solutions, close conversation, and follow (or wrap) up’. The agents were allowed 600 seconds to complete the transaction and were monitored to ensure that this operational target was achieved; however, they were not evaluated on the quality of the call.
The third example of a call structure comes from medical help lines in Quebec. These centres were largely staffed by experienced nurses who consulted with the patient. This process followed regular nursing procedures and had four stages: assessment, planning, intervention and evaluation.
In each of these different organizations the structure of the interaction is dependent on the function required by the caller and the organization. In all the circumstances, both hard and so considerations are taken into account.
Providing a mechanical description of the communication process tends to remove some of the vibrancy and dynamic nature of an interaction between the customer and the agent. The requirements in a financial services company listed below provide a greater feeling of intimacy with the customer and there is an almost equal split between the use of the voice and managing the interpersonal nature of the call:

Call structure

  • Smiling: The adviser has a smile in his or her voice.
  • Pitch: A deeper pitch of voice conveys sincerity and confidence.
  • Energy: There should be energy in the voice to make it interesting and a ractive.
  • Volume: A balance is required to ensure that advisers are neither too loud nor too quiet.
  • Pace: The adviser’s speed of speech should be neither too fast nor too slow.
  • Idea: Simple words and short sentences with brief pauses in between increase understanding.
  • Rapport: Building rapport with the customer will encourage the caller to listen, follow directions and stay loyal to the organization.
  • Vias: This indicates where the adviser’s words say they will do something but perhaps tone or some other parallel message communicates that they won’t.
  • Attention: Advisers should get and hold the attention of the caller.
  • Understanding: The adviser needs to carefully listen to understand the caller’s message.
  • Acknowledge: Advisers should indicate they understand the caller’s message by making acknowledgement noises. If this doesn’t happen the caller may think they were not understood.
  • Space: The caller should be encouraged to enter the conversation by giving them space or asking questions. Talking over callers and completing sentences for them is impolite.
  • Direction: The call has direction and the adviser and caller have a balanced exchange of information.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011


One of the earliest models of communication was developed to describe mass communication and can be seen in Figure 1. Essentially, it can be summed up as: who. . . says what. . . in what way. . . to whom. . . with what effect.

Figure 1: A model of communication 
In a similar approach, Shannon, a research scientist at Bell Telephone Company, developed another communication model to describe how the capacity of a telephone line might be improved without the signal being distorted. This model was then successfully adapted by Weaver to describe the concept of information loss during interpersonal communication. Figure 2 illustrates the communication process and is divided into a number of stages.

 Figure 2: The Shannon-Weaver model of communication
The information source might be an idea in our head that we wish to communicate, eg the fact that we feel dry and thirsty. We then put this idea into a message to be transmitted eg, ‘I’m going to make a cup of tea. Would you like one?’ Of course, this encoding of ideas in our head into language presupposes that the choice of language, in this case
English, will be understood by the receiver. The most likely channel for this signal is face-to-face, but it could be by telephone, le er, e-mail or some other means. The signal is received and the person understands it and responds, ‘Yes, I would like one, thanks.’ This transmission model of communication provides many insights into the communication process.
Figure 3 is a model of one-way communication in which the communicator has ideas or information they wish to impart. These ideas are encoded into words (either spoken or written) which are then conveyed through a medium or channel eg, the telephone or e-mail message. The message is then decoded and interpreted by the receiver. Types of one-way communication might be a message on a website, a television programme, an announcement at a railway station, etc.

 Figure 3: One-way communication
One-way communication is limited because it does not allow the receiver to respond and ask questions to clarify matters, the result of which is that messages may not be understood or be misinterpreted. More effective communication involves two-way communication, as shown in Figure 4, which has a feedback loop that allows the receiver to ask supplementary questions and so gain a better understanding of what the communicator really meant.

 Figure 4: Two-way communication

Monday, September 12, 2011

SOCIALIZATION | Recruiting, Inducting and Socializing New Employees

It may appear a little unusual that organizations invest significant amounts of time and money recruiting and selecting employees for highly routinized systematic work that they may leave after a relatively short period of time. The main reason for this is that even a highly structured work environment does not guarantee a good quality of service. For this to be achieved it is necessary to socialize all employees and develop a culture of customer service and discretionary effort.
During induction much of the time is spent developing an understanding of systems, products, etc. It is also used to develop values and norms that represent the organization. This is o en done by story telling and recounting events, eg where an adviser went out of her way to solve a problem for a customer that was much more than would be expected. These norms and values are o en printed on cards and given to advisers as well as being printed onto posters and placed on walls throughout the workplace.
Developing a positive ownership of corporate values is sometimes encouraged by specific workshops, eg Servo had a two-day workshop called the Servo Challenge. It had a popularist theme; a welcoming video message from the CEO, and a song: ‘One Team One Goal’. Motivational sessions such as these can buoy up delegates and inspire them to own the corporate values. One employee described how working for Servo was ‘an extreme privilege and only a select few would receive such an opportunity’.
Approaches such as these motivational sessions can have a very positive effect on motivation and morale. However, they are not enough if they are just isolated events, and if this ‘hype’ is not backed up by matching actions in the workplace there will be a disconnect. Employees uplifted by the motivational training and speeches may well return rapidly to earth if the rest of their work experience does not match the training event.
These motivational sessions need to be carefully orchestrated so that they represent reality and appeal to a wide audience. It can be quite easy to disenchant employees if the event is interpreted as superficial or just an import from a culturally distant headquarters. One employee stated that the Servo Challenge was:
A mass brainwashing session where new employees are blinded by the hype that is Servo. Servo was portrayed as a non-conflict company where nobody had differences with each other and all problems could be resolved through discussion. Employees were filled with extravagant hype and expectations of their future with the company. 
In reality, most employees are aware of the nature of these motivational events and evaluate them carefully. While they may feel some of the style is excessive, few have problems with the idea that good customer service is key to success.
Developing a shared identity and values, and encouraging a sociable atmosphere encourages employees to work towards organizational objectives. It also encourages them to ‘walk the extra mile’ with the customer and deliver a service beyond expectations. It is clear that, ‘Organizations that depend on the decision making of employees are likely to pay more attention to their hearts and minds’.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

INDUCTION | Recruiting, Inducting and Socializing New Employees

Most organizations deliver in-house initial basic training for advisers for three reasons:
  1. No external solutions appear to be available.
  2. It is the most cost-effective solution.
  3. It enables employees to be trained in systems, products/offerings and customer service approach
In 2003 the average duration for the induction of agents was 36 working days; however, this reduced significantly to 21 days in 2004. Dimension Data suggested that this might have contributed to the decreases in customer satisfaction and first-contact resolution, and increases in call abandonment and staff attrition during the same period.
The reduction in induction training can be attributed to three main reasons. First, there is pressure to minimize costs and when people are being trained they are not available to generate income for the organization. Secondly, many employees leave before the contact centre has financially recouped its investment in recruitment, training and development. The third reason for reducing the period of induction is that this speeds up the provision of new agents into the workplace.
The average length of induction training for new supervisors and managers is 14 to 15 days. However, many key competency areas are not strongly included, eg management skills, coaching, telephone communication skills, team building skills, call analysis skills, and monitoring/use of statistics.
However, training is not just a cost, it is also an investment in the future production potential of the person. Dimension Data observed that contact centre complexity was increasing with multiple channels, different functions, processes and systems, and increased demands for improved performance. To achieve this it argued that 21 days induction was insufficient for all but the simplest contact centre and suggested a minimum of six weeks induction plus ongoing support in the form of an apprenticeship or buddying system.
To be a nurse adviser in NHS Direct, nurses are required to have five years’ post-qualification experience. To assist nurses to take on their new roles they undergo a fairly lengthy period of training, for example, in the early days of NHS Direct induction training for nurse advisers varied between five and 12 weeks depending on the region. The areas covered included clinical assessment, clinical protocols, ethical issues, accountability, IT skills and telephony. However, at Health-Info CLSC in Quebec, the duration of training was only five or six days and this was believed to be because, ‘The practice of nursing over the phone is therefore a continuity of pre-existing lines and embedded in a nursing methodology central to the education of Quebecois nurses.
In an Australian telecommunications company, new employees had a 10-week full-time training programme followed by up to six months of support at the end of which they were expected to be fully competent. Similarly, in Flightco, an airline booking organization, induction training lasted between eight and 10 weeks and focused on computer and technical skills, products and services, and customer service areas. Following this there were two-monthly performance reviews, which continued for about six to eight months until the agents reached the desired level of proficiency.
Market analysts ContactBabel, also identified that induction courses in most industries lasted approximately three to four weeks. In the utilities sector induction training tends to be approximately five weeks because of the cross-selling and up-selling that are expected.
There would also appear to be a degree of correlation between the size of the contact centre and the length of training. Larger centres tend to have a dedicated training department and the average length of induction is four weeks. Those contact centres with less than 50 agent positions average only 14 days.
Some agents receive only a minimum degree of training. Research by CallNorthWest described a situation where the training was rushed, there were no hand-outs and no opportunities to ask questions, which resulted in one agent feeling like she knew very li le. Furthermore, one agent who had not received induction training and had to teach herself, contemplated resigning and stated, ‘I actually walked out at one point after three days because it was so bad. I used to dread coming in, but they came after me and persuaded me to stay’.
The ability of the trainer also has an impact on the motivation of the agents and the perception of the organization: ‘If you have a bad trainer, especially at induction, it puts you off. Especially the induction phase, you can gauge the quality of the organization through that first induction period’.
In larger organizations with high attrition there can be a permanent demand for new agents, leading to a continuous flow of people passing through induction. In general, there appears to be a common structure for induction training:
  • classroom training on skills, systems, knowledge, etc;
  • practice on systems/computers, etc;
  • listening in on calls;
  • answering calls under supervision;
  • a ‘paddling pool’ or ‘nursery’ where people are under close supervision;
  • placement close to an experienced member of staff or a buddy;
  • regular supervision and frequent checks;
  • normal supervision and assessment.
After induction, training is usually less frequent or even voluntary; however, where there is poor performance training is compulsory. Also, induction training is largely the responsibility of the training department, but after that it is largely the responsibility of the team leader or supervisor.

Induction as assessment

The induction period is used to develop the knowledge, skills and attitudes necessary to work in the contact centre. During this period close attention is given to the inductees so that any areas of weakness can be addressed and improved. Those whose abilities match the necessary standards will be signed off and work alongside more experienced colleagues or buddies. Where people do not come up to standard they may be given additional support and training or, if this is not effective, they may be released. Contracts of employment normally contain the specification that permanent contracts will only be issued to those who reach certain standards during induction or the probationary period.

Induction programme content

A number of guidelines have been published to support the public sector in establishing contact centres. The Scottish Executive recommended that comprehensive induction programmes should address at a minimum level:
  • aims and structure of the organization and the role and purpose of the contact centre;
  • relevant work processes;
  • knowledge of the particular services;
  • customer service techniques across appropriate channels, in other words, telephone, letter, e-mail, etc;
  • IT systems;
  • health and safety;
  • organizational policies and procedures;
  • team building.
Similar guidelines by the Central Office of Information advised government call centres to include the following in induction programmes:
  • aims and structure of the department/organization as a whole, and the role and purpose of the contact centre and how it fits into the rest of the organization;
  • knowledge of particular service(s) as appropriate, the subject matter and the business process of the service;
  • customer service skills, in general terms and specific techniques that can be used across all channels eg, telephone, letter, e-mail;
  • familiarity with IT systems;
  • health and safety;
  • organizational policies and procedures;
  • team building
  • stress management;
  • management training for team leaders.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

ATTITUDE | New Employees

In some cases qualifications are a requirement as in the case of those working in the insurance industry or nursing. In many other situations qualifications are less prized because there is o en no clear correlation between them and the ability to successfully undertake the work.
As the call centre sector develops and matures, traditional industry indicators such as industry bodies, recognized skills and competencies, qualifications, etc will provide structure and shape. These developments will make the industry more formalized and transparent; however, in the interim, recruitment, induction and training processes o en have a greater significance in identifying suitable candidates.
To add complexity to the situation many of the skills used in contact centres are tacit ones hidden deep within people, making it hard for them and observers to describe what skills are being used. For this reason recruitment is o en based on identifying people possessing these inner skills and then selecting them.
Developing broader social knowledge and the ability to recognize a nuance in the voice of a customer and respond appropriately is not something that can be trained in a few weeks of induction. It is possible that some of these tacit skills may only be developed over a very long period of time. It is for these reasons that many employers seek people who possess a wide experience of life, eg running a household and bringing up children.
In addition, managers also seek well motivated individuals who possess a caring attitude, high levels of confidence; are ‘bubbly’ or lively; have a natural ability to talk, develop rapport and smile down the phone. For people who work in technical support, communication skills are less highly valued. Instead, the ability to problem solve is considered more important. In fact, the people in these roles are considered less likely to possess the ‘bubbly’ personalities.
Time and again there would appear to be a consistent message from employers – personality and particularly attitude are the most sought after attributes in job applicants. What is most remarkable is that many of them consider attitude to be something that is very difficult to train. One hotel manager stated that:
We didn’t actually look for people with experience. . . because we felt that wasn’t particularly important. We wanted people that had a personality more than skills, because we felt we could train people to do the job.
Managers at Telebank expressed similar feelings about the innateness of personality, motivation and enthusiasm:
Customer service, that’s not a skill. That’s in you. It’s the attitude towards customer service.
I firmly believe that if you have a CSR who has the right attitude and approach, so long as you’ve got somebody who’s willing to learn, who will be receptive to their feedback and sees it as an opportunity to develop themselves, then I believe that you can get them to where they need to be. 
This emphasis on attitude is also valued in other industries:
The US’s only consistently profitable airline, Southwest Airlines, has been known to turn down a brilliant pilot because he or she was rude to a receptionist. Its mo o is summed up by the phrase, ‘you can train skills, you cannot train attitude’. 
This emphasis on recruiting attitude might be interpreted as meaning that there is little room for training; however, this is not the case. While there may be rough diamonds with a positive attitude in the job market there is still a considerable need for developing these talents and shaping them so that they can be effectively applied in call centres. The remark by the woman entering hospital for a neurological condition sums up this perspective: ‘I don’t want to be operated on by a natural born surgeon, I want someone who has received all the training and has many successful years of experience!’
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...