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Call Centre Representatives
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Call Centre Representatives
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Expert Opinion

Customer Service Representatives (CSR) Skill-sets:

CSRs are commonly the employees who possess the most direct knowledge of the organisation's customers. This is because front line staff CSRs are the first to learn of the attitudes, needs, and concerns of customers. In many cases the CSR is the sole contact point, or the "front door" of the company, and therefore plays a very important role in the formation of customer perceptions, and of their satisfaction with the services offered by the company.

Hillmer et al, (2004) describe the key role of CSRs and note that "call centres, by design, are the primary point of entry for customers. With this mission-critical role, enormous demands are placed on CSRs and their management. CSRs must handle elevated customer expectations, understand complex products and services, explain creative pricing strategies, navigate sophisticated technology, operate within regulatory limitations, and meet or exceed challenging individual performance expectations for variables such as talk time and sales quotas."

The skill sets required by Customer Service Representatives are increasingly expanding, particularly as multiple channels are being employed to communicate with Call Centres, e.g. e-mail contact via web pages requires writing skills, and web-based contact sessions require technical and product knowledge skills. Jeffries & Sells (2004) measured the following correlation between customer satisfaction and CSR skills:

  • Knowledge 95% correlation
  • Accuracy 90%
  • Communicating 60%
  • Attitude 50%
  • Availability of Services 50%
  • Promptness 36%
  • Personalised Services 20%

Reiners (2001), of Customer Interface magazine cites a ProSci Benchmarking Report which outlines the following qualities found in top performing CSRs:

  • Customer service skills and experience, including an ability to work well with the public and an ability to adopt a customer's perspective
  • Technical skills, including proficiency with computers and support systems
  • Strong verbal communications skills, including good voice quality, diction and articulation. Additionally CSRs should exhibit a demeanour that is:
    • Positive
    • Enthusiastic
    • Friendly and cheerful
    • Non-confrontational
    • Good-humoured
    • Professional
    • Agents should demonstrate a willingness to learn
    • Ability to work under pressure and multitask
    • Able to manage conflicts and to solve problems (troubleshooting skills)
    • Possess good time management skills
    • Demonstrate good listening skills
    • Able to empathise with customers
    • Displays good phone etiquette
    • Able to work well in a team environment

CSR Training:

Read (2002) of Call Center Magazine outlines two aspects of training that are important for CSR effectiveness:

  • Soft Skills; which involve customer relationship training, and ultimately lead to customer acquisition and retention.
  • Hard Skills; which relate to functional matters required for carrying out the CSR's role.

The training given to CSRs may involve using live facilitators, or technology enabled methods, e.g. web based, or streaming video. A blend of technology based training and personal coaching is often found to be effective. Some positions in the Call Centre may require channel specific training e.g. email handling, while other positions may require specialist training to deal with high value customers or complex products.

Read cites Response Design Corporation's (RDC's) LeapFrog Benchmarking which reported that 13% more Call Centres in 2000-2001 than those in 1997-1999 expected their training budget to increase substantially in the following fiscal year.

RDC also reported the following range of hours spent on training CSRs:

  • 4-80 hours (12%)
  • 81-120 hours (11%)
  • 121-160 hours (15%)
  • 161 hours and greater (27%)

A Yankee Group survey on Call Centre manager spending priorities, released January 2002 was also cited by Read in which 62% of managers identified agent training as "highest" priority and 25% identified training as one of the "biggest" challenges that they faced.

Read also cites training consultants Elizabeth Ahearn, president of The Radclyffe Group who stated that training new hires costs US$2,000 per agent, per year, and refresher training costs between US$800 and US$1,000 per course.

CSR Motivation and Incentives:

O'Herron (2003), of Call Center Magazine, states that Call Centres often create intense demands on their representatives and as a result of this incentives and recreational activities are often employed to enhance morale and to keep agents interested and motivated. Incentives used may include awards, gift certificates, special employee acknowledgement days/theme days to create an atmosphere of fun and a sense of community.

Recognised career paths, specialisation, and acknowledgement by high level executives of Call Centres represent some key motivational elements for CSRs. Call Centre careers may be used as part of an "apprenticeship" training scheme for employees to learn about the workings of organisations and their customers. This scheme may also form a recognised path to promotion. The status of the Call Centre may also be raised by acknowledging its role as a shop window for the company.

Cleveland (2004), president of Incoming Calls Management Institute (ICMI) writes that "for leaders, the challenge is less a matter of "motivating people" and more one of creating an environment in which the motivation already resident in each person can flourish". Widely accepted principles of effective motivation include:

  • Creating a clear vision
  • Establishing effective communication
  • Believing in the capabilities of people, and
  • Leading by example

These are as appropriate to Call Centre environments as they are to any other in the business.

Cleveland also comments on Call Centre strategic contribution and standing and believes that the perceived value of a Call Centre within an organisation is a powerful motivational factor which affects the CSR personnel. If the Call Centre is viewed simply as the department handling problems, or perhaps as a cost centre, this will create an ongoing drain upon morale. Alternatively by lifting the Call Centre's standing within the organisation and focussing upon its strategic contribution to the business CSR staff will experience heightened ongoing motivation.

Measuring performance also has a key influence on motivation says Cleveland. Precise measurements are very important in the operation of Call Centres, however, the undiscerning use of this data for staff motivation purposes can have the opposite effect and become a de-motivating influence. Regardless of the type of measurement used e.g. averages or relative performance data, some CSRs will be at the top, some will be at the bottom, and many will be below average. This is simply the nature of data; hence it is better to avoid potential demoralising situations through setting minimum acceptable standards or by establishing a good range of performance levels.

Resource planning can be vital to stabilise Call Centre morale. Cleveland explains how because CSRs often operate in a queuing environment they can never catch up, or get ahead of schedule, and hence staffing levels are of critical importance in regard to motivation and morale. If the staffing levels are not correctly balanced the CSRs can be over committed creating long queues, or conversely under committed creating a sense of boredom. Effective resource planning is probably the single greatest factor influencing staff motivation and for improving the economics/efficiency of the Call Centre environment.

Because of the importance of Optimising the Call Centre Workforce many workforce optimization software applications have been developed. Bob Furniss, president of Call Center Ideas Inc, and Kathy Kuehne, director of product management for etalk Corporation, state that "the key benefit of workforce optimization applications is that they allow the contact center managers and corporate executives to measure performance at both a micro (agent) and macro (center) level and to analyze the meaning of these findings to plan accordingly". Further, Furniss & Kuehne (2003) outline three central areas associated with the powerful workforce optimisation software suites that have recently become available:

  • Customer experience optimisation; monitoring the improvement by agents in the way they service customer needs.
  • Enterprise optimisation; which involves the interoperation of technologies. This requirement has become all the more relevant with the proliferation of various electronic systems. To enable the optimisation of enterprise-wide services it is required to integrate all key reporting systems so that these can share information across systems, and possibly also across multiple Call Centre locations.
  • CSR Optimisation; which involves fine-tuning operations making them more effective and efficient, empowering agents to make the correct choices, and providing CSRs with tools to gauge their own performance and for making continuous improvements. With the information provided from the CSR optimisation systems it is possible to reward staff appropriately for their efforts in serving customers.


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