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The Science of Developing New Agents in Off-Shore Contact Centers

As was discussed in the article, The Art of Hiring English-Speaking Agents in Off-Shore Contact Centers, attrition is one of the biggest challenges in contact center operations. Just the nature of the program can affect attrition rates. One example is the difference between inbound and outbound programs. Outbound voice can raise attrition to as high as 80%-100% annualized.
Attrition can also work as a positive influence for operations. Outlier performance management can aggressively weed out non-performers as a means of keeping performance high. Underperformers can tarnish an otherwise well-performing team. Therefore, attrition rates alone will never tell the whole story. In the last article, we also discussed the rapid, high-volume rate of hiring necessary to ensure the ability to meet the capacity and tier-level needs our client’s programs require.

Reducing attrition depends on several factors. The first is an operational model and infrastructure that enables us to excel at agent development and manage all the moving parts necessary to drive performance. The second is the level of confidence that this operational model and infrastructure brings to both leadership and the agents, as well as to our clients. The third is the components that the infrastructure supports, including specialized training, six sigma processes, and employee satisfaction.

Specialized Training

All of our training, quality assurance, and core work report into operations. While it looks like we have a centralized operation, everyone involved holds themselves accountable to the end result, taking a more decentralized approach. In other words, it’s an ongoing process punctuated with continuous improvement. Training is not once and done. With the trainers reporting into operations they all have the same mindset and understanding about how closed loop feedback equalizes accountability. Team leads work in tandem with the trainers after agents go live to decide which agents get endorsed to move up. By taking a team approach to developing agents, if we lose a trainer, the entire process isn’t derailed; we still have people in place to carry the program forward.

Industry Familiarization

Industry familiarization training is a key aspect of how Sykes ramps up new agent proficiency. We look for industry issues with a wide variance from the Philippine culture. One example is the credit card industry. Sixty percent of newly hired agents are new graduates. Many have never owned or used a credit card. Therefore, first-hand experience is non-existent and we need to provide training that familiarizes them with the types of calls they may receive, such as declined transaction, balance transfers and credit limit increases. Industry familiarization training is driven by asking the question, “What are the practices in the Philippines that are different from the U.S. practices?”

Interest rates are fixed in the Philippines, but variable in the U.S., and that changes the computation. Another example is credit rating. Americans are very conscious about their credit standing, but the concept doesn’t exist in the Philippines. To help people manage their use of financial products, agents must understand how these concepts affect the way customers approach them.

Another example is the concept of a retirement plan. This concept also doesn’t exist in the Philippines. Instead, people receive pensions from their employers based on their tenure. The cost of the pension is shouldered by the employer. Agents need to be educated to help them understand things such as 401Ks and employer matching of contributions.
Cultural Immersion

While industry familiarization is focused on helping agents understand products, policies and call drivers; cultural immersion is about behaviors. Agents need to learn and adapt to the difference in expectations from the customers they are servicing because of cultural differences. It’s not only about demonstrating client favored behaviors but also managing their own Filipino tendencies that may impact calls negatively. Three examples include:

  • Where Filipinos value niceties and pleasantries, Americans place a high value on their time and expect expediency.
  • In the Philippines, people are commonly addressed as “sir” or “ma’am,” but this approach doesn’t resonate with Americans, therefore agents need to adapt to calling them by name.
  • Filipinos, by nature, have a hard time saying no. They will spend a lot of time explaining why they can’t do something before they get to actually saying “no.” Cultural immersion training helps agents to become more direct with their answers to lessen the effort for customers.

Emotion-Based Probing

We train our agents to use the first 15 seconds of the call to listen to the emotions of the customer. The agents are taught to identify situational context by evaluating tone and voice in relation to:

  • Are they irate and need empathy?
  • Do they mean business and want to complete the call quickly?
  • Are they confused and want education to help them understand something?

This approach is not for scripted calls, but rather based on the mood of the customer. We’ve developed an emotional scorecard to help our agents discern mood so that they can take command of the conversation in a way that matches how customers want to be handled. We facilitated this training with data derived from call segmentation.

Six Sigma is Foundational

Once a new contact center is operational for a client, performance must be optimized. As operations works to up-level performance and is then able to demonstrate proficiency at sustaining that level, the client expects to see additional improvements. To drive consistency and continuous improvement, Sykes applies Six Sigma principles to incorporate the success formula into processes and workflows. Rather than relying on individuals for success, it’s about trusting the process to help replicate it as the site is able to reach new levels of performance.
For Sykes, managing performance isn’t solely focused on coaching or training agents but based on the analysis of quality analytics. We use the data to understand if there’s something we need to improve. This could include modifying a training course, the way we profile new hires, or a new input for leadership development. We use statistics to provide a correlation to the value of an improvement. These outcomes are what allow our clients to prioritize improvements they choose to make toward developing agents. Six Sigma principles are also what enable us to formulate recommendations to our clients that allow them to make the best decisions about contact center operations based on their goals and business objectives.

Closing the Loop with Employee Satisfaction

Building a team of high-performance agents requires that we know what works, what doesn’t and what actions can be taken for continuous improvement. A sophisticated closed-loop operational model built around training and quality analytics helps us implement changes based on the results of our employee satisfaction surveys.

One challenge in the Philippines is that Filipinos are naturally reserved and not open to criticism. But, as we’ve developed this informational exchange over time, we’ve seen great improvement. One of the forums that helps us do this is the general assembly meeting where leadership shares what needs to be addressed and what topics have been raised most often. We share the action plans and commitments we’ve made to create improvements. It is critical that improvements are made before issues can become dis-satisfiers that lead to agent attrition.
In addition to the employee satisfaction survey, we also conduct a 180 degree leadership effectiveness survey with the agents. Questions such as, “Does your team leader understand your strengths and provide opportunities for your growth?” and “Does your team lead motivate you?” and “Does your team lead show you ways to improve your skills?” are designed to help us discover areas for leadership improvement. We allow people to write their answers and then use their input to measure a leader’s effectiveness.

We also have career planning and other development programs to invest in our people and to develop them to higher levels. This eases the continuous need for trainers and people with the skills to coach new agents or near-hires to develop them into successful agents.

Replicating Success is Based on Data and Process Improvements

There are a lot of moving parts in developing agents to successfully serve customers from off-shore contact centers. Not only are the products the agents must know foreign to them, but also the culture of the customers they will be serving. Analyzing data, gathering feedback, and learning from what works and what doesn’t is the basis for continuous improvement. Applying Six Sigma principles to formalize process improvements is at the core of what enables Sykes to consistently replicate the development of agents to a level of proficiency that brings successful outcomes for our clients.