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Call center 'soft skill' training pays off for Motorola

Putting engineers through customer service training has paid off in higher customer satisfaction and faster call handle times for one Motorola division.

When Mike Horton told executives at Motorola's home and networks mobility division that his team of engineers and managers in the call center needed customer service training, he was not exactly met with open arms.

"When I first got the leadership team in, there was a little apprehension or push back," said Horton, the senior director of technical services for the division. "They were probably a little disbelieving of the benefit or value."

Yet Horton convinced management to put his technicians through the customer service skills training, and he's glad he did -- as are the technicians and the executives. Since the training, the division has seen a 10% rise in customer satisfaction and a 56% improvement in resolution rates, according to surveys conducted before and after the training.

Motorola's initial reluctance to invest in customer service or "soft skills" training is far from unique. While call centers tend to provide plenty of technical training each year, soft skills typically get short shrift. According to recent benchmarking data from the Service and Support Professionals Association (SSPA), new hires (reps with less than one year of service) get on average 18.8 days of technical training for consumer support positions and 23.1 days of technical training for enterprise support positions. In contrast, they receive only 5.2 days of customer service skills training for consumer support and 8.1 days for enterprise support. The contrast is equally stark with experienced reps.

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Despite a heavy focus on improving the customer experience over the years, many organizations still do not see the need for soft skills training.

"It does bear repeating -- the general consumer public is becoming much more difficult to deal with and has much higher expectations," said John Ragsdale, vice president of research with the SSPA. "That gives us a greater responsibility to provide more customer skills training. Even the best agents with the best attitude can get a really tough customer on the phone, and that can really shift the way they treat customers the rest of the day. It's easy for friendly, motivated agents to forget that skills training."

Though the value of customer service skills training should be evident by now, it can be a tough sell to management, Ragsdale admitted.

"It's an especially tough sell in the B2B world, where agents are hired because they're degreed engineers," he said. "But we don't account that these highly degreed engineers can be extremely gruff on the phone."

An emphasis on customer service

Motorola already emphasizes customer satisfaction and customer loyalty metrics within its service operation, and Horton was able to make the case for customer service skills training using the company's existing metrics and benchmarking data from the SSPA.

"We continuously measure customer satisfaction and customer loyalty on a number of fronts across greater Motorola," Horton said. "Specifically to our group, we measure on a monthly basis."

That takes the form of customer feedback forms as well as "verbatims" -- feedback given directly to the agent.

Ragsdale and the SSPA also recommend using quality monitoring software to identify agents who may need "refresher" courses and benchmarking against the industry.

"Look at what your competitors are doing -- technical vs. skills training," Ragsdale said. "See what other people are doing as far as how many days they're budgeting. If you're below that, clearly there's a problem. Second, benchmark your customer satisfaction scores. If you're doing surveys correctly, there are questions that rate the skills of the agent you work with. You can't find an easier way than that to find problem people or problem departments."

Finding customer service training help

Once the home and networks mobility division had established a baseline, it contracted with Impact Learning Systems International, a San Luis Obispo, Calif.-based training call center firm, to develop a customer service skills training program.

Motorola's home and networks mobility division runs a national, 24/7 call center for the U.S. in Schaumburg, Ill., as well as a call center in the Czech Republic that handles Europe, Asia and the Middle East. Calls needing in-depth technical support are transferred to Horton's technical response centers. There are also seven engineering locations where various technical response teams are co-located with development engineers.

Over a three-month period with Impact Learning Systems, Motorola developed a 10-week training course that included pre-class exercises, hands-on training, post-class coaching and agent-initiated exercises to keep their skills fresh, Horton said. The program was complicated by the distributed model of the operation and the need to involve field technicians.

"A lot of the lessons are fairly simple etiquette on a tech-to-tech level or agent-to-agent level, simple call handling techniques, empathy, and understanding appropriate ways to call transfer," Horton said. "The real issue I was looking to solve was how to reduce call handling time so we can get information from the customer as fast as possible and get all parties working together."

Organizations don't necessarily need to look outside for training, Ragsdale said. If it's not a core competency, however, it makes sense for a business to seek consultants.

Measuring results

Horton said his division has historically performed well on time-to-answer metrics and with the new training program has focused on first-call resolution within 15 minutes. They have achieved roughly 95% success on that.

Motorola has reduced call handling time and has also received high marks for professionalism in feedback from customers since the training program. The program's success has attracted interest from other call center operations within the Motorola enterprise as well.

"I couldn't be happier with the results," Horton said. "The technical organization needs to understand business is about relationships and creating that positive interaction between those two parties."

Management is likewise happy with the results, and now Horton is reluctant to even use the term "soft skills."

"I'm not sure this isn't really a hard skill," he said. "Empathy, tone and more effective communications serve the customer quicker. The bottom line is it solved my problems faster."

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