Training for Fluency in the Call Center

By Penny Reynolds

I had two years of French in college, and while I can construct a few sentences and recognize menu items, there’s no way I could carry on a conversation in this second language. Despite much study and acquisition of vocabulary and sentence structure, I never practiced it enough to become fluent. I never “thought” in French. Rather it was a conscious translation of words and phrases from English to the French in my brain before the words were spoken. I never became fluent where the words automatically and unconsciously rolled off the tongue.

I see this same lack of fluency in call centers today as I listen to frontline staff respond to difficult service situations or offer a logical upsale in a selling scenario. While they may have had training in service and sales techniques, there is not a comfortable, natural conversation when they find themselves in certain service or sales scenarios. While they may be aware of some of the vocabulary and mechanics, they are not fluent in service and sales. There has not been enough practice, either in training or on-the-job work, for the right words to come naturally.

fluency

noun flu·en·cy ˈflü-ən(t)-sē

: the ability to speak easily and smoothly; especially : the ability to speak a foreign language easily and effectively
 : the ability to do something in a way that seems very easy

Getting to Fluency

The dictionary defines fluency as “the ability to speak easily and smoothly and/or the ability to do something in a way that seems very easy.” For true fluency, there is an assumption of unconscious effort, as if the action or the words come easily. But just as there is tremendous effort in learning a new language, there is significant effort in taking on any new skill and practicing it enough until it becomes unconscious or seemingly easy.

Whether learning a language or acquiring specialized sales skills, there is a learning curve and a progression through four phases moving toward full competency or fluency. These are the four phases of new skill acquisition:

  1. Unconscious Incompetence. This is the initial phase where learners really don’t know what they don’t know. There is a general unawareness of the skill and the need for it.
  2. Conscious Incompetence. This stage is where the learner now knows the expectations and is beginning to acquire skills, but still not competent in using them.
  3. Conscious Competence. During this phase, the learner has acquired the skills and has begun to use them, but is still having to devote effort and active mindshare to their correct use.
  4. Unconscious Competence. During this final phase, the learner has acquired the skill and has practiced it enough so that it comes naturally. This is the fluency stage.

There are all kinds of examples of this learning process. Think about a tennis player hitting thousands of balls with a coach. The idea is to repeat a movement over and over the right way until that player no longer has to think much about it, but rather develops “muscle memory” where the shots are automatic. In the midst of an important match, the player can focus on strategy and adjusting to the opponent, rather than thinking about the mechanics of hitting each shot.

Another example of exhibiting a desired behavior is one in which a person knows what to do, but simply needs repetition to make it automatic. Think about teeth brushing and flossing. Most people don’t actively think about brushing their teeth as part of a bedtime routine. Brushing one’s teeth is an automatic, almost unconscious activity we do without really thinking about it. However, there are many people that don’t floss regularly. Most know how to do it and most know it’s a good thing to do, but don’t do it regularly. For many people, acquiring this habit involves the discipline of actively thinking about it and doing it for a month or so (conscious competence), and before you know it, the flossing happens as part of the routine without even thinking about it (unconscious competence). Simply repeating the behavior over and over as part of another routine can result in the action becoming automatic.

Whether it’s the learning of a specialized skill like a tennis backhand shot or an easy skill like flossing that simply needs to become a habit, the key is repetition, repetition, repetition.

Call Center Training

This “practice makes perfect” strategy applies to call center training as well. There are some skills that will be difficult to learn and perfect, while others are learned easily but still need to be repeated over and over in order to become automatic behaviors. Getting to the last phase of unconscious competence or fluency involves defining the behavior, training for it, and then repeating it over and over. There should be enough training and then practice and coaching so that the agent becomes comfortable with the words and process (unconscious competence) and can instead devote mindshare to listening and focusing on customer needs one-on-one to enhance service or the sale.

Unfortunately, in many call centers, there is often not enough time allotted for the practice stage to allow learners to acquire a new skill and practice it until it becomes second nature. There must be adequate time and a safe atmosphere for practicing the skill, along with frequent enough coaching to reinforce the skill as it develops. Without this practice, repetition, and coaching to fine-tune, the learner may never develop fluency in some important skills.

There are several techniques to make sure this practice happens. For example, consider the scenario where frontline staff are faced with delivering negative information. Let the staff come up with various ways to relay the information in the most positive way possible, including some scripting options for what to say. Let the agents select from approved statements or scripts and then practice saying the right words. For the majority of people who are visual learners, it can be beneficial to simply write or type the statement over and over, and then to repeat it over and over again out loud. This repetition will help cement the response in the agent’s brain, so there is not as much conscious thought going into the formation of the words, but rather an automatic positive reply with mindshare devoted to the unique aspects of the call.

While self-initiated practice and repetition can be beneficial, the ideal learning environment is one in which the learner can practice and receive feedback and reinforcement. There may need to be fine-tuning of a behavior, so practice in a nurturing training environment with a coach is the best way to develop competency. Not only can the trainer or coach fine-tune behavior, but can offer positive reinforcement, further strengthening the likelihood the desired behavior will occur again.

The e-Learning Dilemma

As call centers evolve and look for ways to minimize training expense and deliver one-to-many training messages, there is more and more use of e-learning. Whether you are training new hires or developing the skills of veteran employees, the methods and systems you select to train these skills can make or break the success of these training efforts.

Many of the commercially available e-learning programs, as well as those developed by the in-house development team, focus on providing large amounts of information, with limited opportunities for learner responding and even fewer opportunities for ongoing practice and immediate feedback specific to each response.

According to e-learning consultant Nic Weatherly, “At most, these training programs might train to a level of mastery where the end result is simply a demonstration of accuracy. However, research has shown that using feedback and frequent reinforcement to train performance to fluency results in faster acquisition, better accuracy, and higher retention.”

One of the key ways to ensure repetition and fluency training is to add a speed criterion to an established mastery requirement to ensure the learner can respond accurately and without hesitation. Research has demonstrated that training a skill to fluency will not only impact the acquisition of these initial skills, but it will increase the rate of learning for more complex skills as well.

As Weatherly states, “Identifying the essential skills that will benefit the participants will not only add value to the program for the participants but will also help ensure that the training will effectively transfer to the workplace. If the behaviors being demonstrated and acknowledged during training are similar to the behaviors performed in the workplace then the participants will see the impact of their learning efforts. A learner should be able to demonstrate learning in a meaningful way that increases the chances that this new learned behavior will also occur when actually on the job.”

The key to successful design and implementation is centered around how a participant can demonstrate learning by a response within the training program. This design issue is central to evidence-based fluency programs. Generally speaking, in order to demonstrate learning, an individual must make a correct response when presented with a contrived scenario that contains correct and incorrect options. Fluent responding occurs when correct selections are made to established accuracy as well as speed criteria. The purpose here is to demonstrate a fluent level of responding that helps ensure that the learner can tell the difference between a correct option and an incorrect option when presented with this situation in the workplace.

It should be noted that this type of fluency can be tested when the behavior in question is choosing one course of action versus another or following a set of steps. Advancements in e-learning design allow for the type of responding made during a training program to be generally matched to the type of responding in the workplace. Training content can be developed using realistic work situations that will occur in the learner’s workplace.

However, it is much more difficult when the behavior that is desired is not selection from a list of possibilities, or following a set of steps. If the behavior needed in a service situation is choosing the right set of words to alleviate a caller’s frustration or anger, the agent needs to be fluent in assessing the situation and responding with the right words and tone to address the situation effectively. Likewise, when the call scenario involves listening to customer needs and then formulating an appropriate proposal of services for an upsell, it’s difficult to provide suitable training and enough ways to demonstrate the appropriate communications techniques within a computer-based training program.

There are simply times when nothing replaces the traditional classroom model for learning these people (not process) skills. There should be time to practice and then ongoing one-on-one interaction with a coach to fine-tune and reinforce the desired behaviors.

In order to get your frontline staff to be competent and fluent in service and sales behaviors, you must consider how to train and test for fluency. For aspects of training like processes or knowledge acquisition that lend themselves to e-learning, it is important to test not just for accuracy, but also for speed to better ascertain whether fluency has been achieved. And for those highly desirable service and sales communications skills, there’s really no replacement for traditional classroom and on-the-job training with plenty of time for practice, coaching, and repetition if the staff are ever to become fluent in those skills.

Penny Reynolds is the former Co-Founder of The Call Center School and serves as an Educational Advisor to QATC. She can be reached at pennyreynolds00@gmail.com.