How to introduce professional qualifications in to your contact centre


Agents + professional qualifications = more capable, customer-oriented staff. It’s not a difficult equation. And, what’s more, there are six simple steps you can take to introduce these professional qualifications in to your business and implement them effectively.

Here, Natalie Calvert, managing director of the consultancy Calcom Group, puts it all in basic terms.

How ‘professional’ is your call centre? Sadly, call centres are in general still suffering from the same old problems: poor image; average customer service (at best); high levels of staff turnover (an average of 25%, depending on which report you read); struggling to balance demand with resources; and all of this in a climate of cost control or, should I say, cost reduction (and therefore headcount reduction) and increased customer demand. As a core service industry sector we have to turn this around and look inward to stop the rot. The fundamental solution has got to be in becoming more ‘professional’.

The benefits of professional qualificationsThe agent will:

  • Recognise a career development path
  • Undertake objective assessment
  • Have a reason to stay
  • Feel more loyal towards the company
  • Be motivated

The customer will:

  • Have a positive experience
  • Experience consistency
  • Experience helpfulness
  • Experience friendliness and professionalism
  • Experience great customer service
  • Start to see your company as their supplier of choice

The organisation will:

  • Set standards and deliver against standards
  • Experience higher levels of staff retention
  • Experience higher levels of employee engagement
  • Enjoy increased customer satisfaction
  • Develop common ways of working and language
  • Become compliant with sector best practice
  • Will enjoy improved risk and fraud management
  • Be able to support change and culture transformation
  • Eventually become an employer of choice

When 60-70% of the average call centre’s budget lies in its human resource, there is really only one solution, and that is to get this resource working in the right way, with the right attitude, right skill, and with a highly capable leadership team (and this means from team leader right up to the board) so there is a strong management team that can lead, manage, build and plan effectively.

I see a future where we work in an industry that is recognised for its professionalism, for its great levels of customer service and its outstanding contribution to society. Bad press and the media bandwagon aren’t doing us any favours, but the call centre is an integral part of life that isn’t going to go away. Just think about the phone services provided by local authorities or the emergency services and just how much of day-to-day life is serviced via the phone. Your bank, your IT provider, box-office or catalogue, airline, TV quiz show, product helpline – the list goes on.

It’s time to set standards, to be professional and to provide call centres – or more appropriately customer service staff and managers – with the tools to do their jobs not only effectively but successfully. This is where qualifications play a crucial role.

Introducing qualifications brings benefits

There are win-win benefits for all parties, be they the individual, the customer or the organisation, in introducing professional qualifications to the call centre business. The individual finds a recognised career development path with objective assessment, which in itself acts as a massive motivator and provides a very good reason to stay with an employer that wants to help them progress.

The benefits to the customer, meanwhile, are all around the development of a great service experience and customer satisfaction. Consistent professionalism, helpfulness and friendliness, backed up by good product knowledge, all make for meeting the customer’s needs and expectations. If a customer has a great experience with your frontline team, it stands to reason they are more likely to come back, continue their relationship and make the organisation their supplier of choice.

Finally, for the organisation, the benefits far outweigh any investment. Not only will you be setting a framework of standards, but you will also have a way of constantly working towards delivering against those standards and continually maximising performance. A caring, sharing culture within an organisation that invests in the individual and offers a career path aids the recruitment strategy and dramatically reduces staff attrition. In fact, one of our clients saw customer satisfaction increased by 5% while staff turnover was reduced from 44% to 9% as they became an employer of choice. In another example, absenteeism was reduced by 50% and the organisation climbed to the number one position in its sector league tables for customer satisfaction. This is in comparison to previous ratings where it had sat at number three for five consecutive years.

Success for introducing qualifications

In my opinion, there are six fundamentals to introducing and implementing qualifications in to the call centre.

1) Planning

Firstly you must develop the scope requirement in order to really understand what it will take, plus what resources and costs will be involved. Consider the number of employees and the staffing levels. Think about the range of qualifications that might be of interest and that will fit the core competencies needed by agents now and for the future.

Look at the customers’ requirements, too. What are they asking for? What do they need most from you? And at the higher level, tie in business objectives and any key transition that is required, such as moving from a transactional call centre model to a relationship-based model. Alternatively, it can be about building skill and capability.

2) Skills profiling

To identify the skills requirement, you need to clearly understand the conversational and contact step changes going forward. How does customer contact differ as the relationship moves forward? Are you cross-selling or up-selling? Does the customer want written confirmation or contact via e-mail? Do they want ongoing feedback?

Match these core competencies to the skills you need to instil and then take it further by linking skills to performance results and skills-based routing to workforce planning.

I should point out at this juncture that most skills based-routing is actually knowledge-based routing or directing a caller to the agents best equipped with the right knowledge. In other words, if a customer speaks French, the call can be routed to an agent that speaks French. However, do bear in mind that this is not the skill; rather, it’s the knowledge of how to speak French. The real skill lies in how your customer service advisor handles the call while speaking French.

3) Mapping skills to qualifications

Once you have a clear skills profile you can cluster the skills required to match the most appropriate qualifications. This is where it can get tricky – especially if you end up looking in to a whole mixed bag of required skills that need sorting and clustering for best practice delivery.

There is a lot of confusion around the types of qualifications, funding and which ones to choose. The question to ask is: what do you want to achieve?

National vocational qualifications (NVQs), for example, are regarded with mixed emotions around their suitability and generic nature, but some are endorsed by leading industry bodies like the Institute of Customer Service (ICS). And NVQs are more likely to be supported by Government funding. Do consider, though, that grants tend to be region specific and not every organisation will qualify.

In truth, setting up a qualification programme that will have far-reaching and underlying impact on the fabric of your organisation is not something that can be done on the reliance of a grant. It should be a committed business investment that should come from board level to back serious business objectives and should be written in to ongoing essential operational budgets.

There are numerous alternative routes to qualifications available, of course. For example, the ICS has recently launched its FirstImpressions certificate, which is a great foundation course for new entrants in to customer service. As part of the offering, candidates get a free year’s membership of the ICS as an added benefit.

In addition, there are a number of specialist organisations that offer very specific qualification frameworks for career progression. Whatever route you take, however, it really is advisable to consult an expert in the early stages of planning – especially when it comes to strategically mapping and setting out your qualifications requirement. This is a vital point in your investment and getting it right here is absolutely crucial.

4) Launching your professional programme

Now you must launch your professional programme, and this should be done with a BANG. Think about why you are doing this – to make a better world for your staff, your customers and the company. Don’t just slip it in as an administrative whisper, just something else to worry about or simply more red tape. Rather, get out there and shout about it, grab the interest of your staff, communicate the all-round benefits, build some pride, engage minds and get people excited.

Communicate in fun and funky ways, be innovative, and make it special both verbally and visually. This means communicating over the intranet as well as by taking staff out of the normal environment to tell them all about the new programme. Doing these two things will give the programme some gravitas.

Aside from that, give your programme a theme and get staff to nominate colleagues for the pilot scheme. However you decide to introduce your programme, it’s vital to get staff to buy-in.

5) Implementation and ongoing activity

I’m not talking about a long-term project here. By investing in your people and building a professional qualification programme, you are effectively bringing about a change for the better. It’s important to realise that although the programme may be tweaked and could evolve over time, this is something that should affect and alter the fundamental fabric of your organisation going forward. It should become a part of how your call centre works and can tie in with any bigger culture change or transformation programme going on. As such, it needs management and maintenance. Some pointers for this include the following:

  • Communication

Continually champion your professional programme. Don’t let the BANG simply fizzle away. Think about communication, keep it continuous, innovative and thoroughly planned.

  • Career path

Make your programme clearly map career progression, show staff what steps are involved and the options they have to move upwards or sideways down different routes. If it’s too difficult to link it in to a pay structure in your organisation, then look at it as a learning pathway. And plan how it can be combined with a range of other interventions, for instance, induction appraisals, work-based projects or performance management.

  • Call centre specific

Ensure that the qualifications you offer are absolutely relevant to the role. It continues to amaze me that people are still being trained in a generic way. We have to recognise the uniqueness for call centres working in real-time management with high demands and pressures, and the functional skills required – for example, performance management, resource forecasting, adherence, and service levels. At the front line level, those skills should naturally include listening, verbal, language, click and call, complaint management escalation, service and sales skills.

  • Learning balance

Make sure at team leader and the levels above that there is a strong balance of learning so that the juggling act that managers need to do around staff, customers, technology, operations and commerciality is really understood by the management team.

  • Brilliant basics

This relates to understanding core competences for fulfilling a role: getting the right fundamentals and skills in place for people to perform their roles well. For example, induction processes are often out of date and need working on to re-energise product knowledge, systems knowledge and an understanding of the soft skills that are needed to really do the job well. Now, too, we need to consider e-skills so that they include written skills as well. Fundamental click and call skills also need to be borne in mind. In other words, agents need to have the ability to write and speak at the same time. It goes without saying that you must walk before you can fly, so get the basics right.

  • Ownership

This is really important. There has to be responsibility and accountability between the customer contact centre operation, human resources (HR) and the learning and development departments. There has to be senior level sponsorship and it should be a two-year plan at the very minimum – preferably permanent, as I’ve highlighted above, so that the programme becomes woven in to the fabric of the organisation. Remember: you are creating a true career path for a profession that links staff in for longer and gives them a reason to stay with the organisation.

  • Range of learning tools

Qualifications should be able to provide a whole spectrum for learning for the variety of individuals in your workforce. Consider how these individuals will respond to e-learning, distance learning, workplace, assessments and class room set-ups. Just remember that call centres have a high level of human interaction. This cannot simply be learned from a book or a CD.

6) Evaluation and return on investment (ROI)

Make sure there is a closed loop for feedback that includes senior level right up to the board. Map and chart individual progress as well as team progress, and constantly review your programmes and the qualifications within them to make sure they are fit for purpose.

And remember: people pass, fail, and fall border-line in any kind of learning and testing, so don’t make your programme too rigid or so scary people don’t turn up for work. This is aimed at helping people, not striking fear in to their souls. Manage your people as they come through the programme. Some may need another bash at it, second chances, or a change of direction because a talent has been identified as more appropriate in another area – say, complaint management instead of customer enquiries. Others, conversely, may be able to be fast-tracked. Perhaps you have a graduate scheme or have staff entering the programme on secondment from other departments?

Finally you must be able to evaluate your programme to prove and ensure that qualifications clearly deliver a payback to the organisation: an ROI that is clearly linked to the bottom line and the organisation’s business objectives.

You should start to see results by three to six months from launch. Be careful to record, chart and analyse your feedback, and that means both soft feedback – how people feel about the programme, engagement, excitement – as well as hard feedback that appears in the form of achievement levels, performance, staff retention and, importantly, the impact on customer loyalty and value.

I cannot stress enough the importance of committing to improving professionalism in the call centre. We should be using qualifications to greatest effect to value our people and to build career paths and frameworks throughout the centre. Ultimately, frameworks should include all levels from advisor to team leaders, and from managers to directors at board level. Remember: the idea is to empower staff, nurture talent, motivate and encourage confidence, to value our profession, to radically reduce a lot of the old problems around recruitment and retention, to positively impact the bottom line and, critically, to provide great customer service.

Natalie Calvert is managing director of Calcom Group

Author: Natalie Calvert
Reviewed by: Jonty Pearce

Published On: 29th Dec 2006 - Last modified: 16th May 2024
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