How to Train Active Listening in the Contact Centre – With Four Exercises


Young smiling experienced operator of call center answering the question of his client

We share four exercises to help train active listening in the contact centre, after defining what it is and why it’s so important.

What Is Active Listening?

Active listening involves listening to not only what is being said, but the vocabulary and tone that is being used as well.

Contact centre advisors should use active listening to fully engage with and support customers. In this sense, it also means thinking about what’s not being said.

A thumbnail picture of Caroline Cooper

Caroline Cooper

A key element, according to Caroline Cooper, a trainer and consultant at Naturally Loyal, is “letting the customer know that you’re listening and, of course, on the phone that’s much more difficult than in a face-to-face situation.”

“To do this on the phone, mirror the caller’s vocabulary and interject with lots of ‘yes’s’ and ‘uh-huh’s’, to signal to the customer that they are being listened to and supported.”

Why Is Active Listening Important?

Active listening is important as it allows advisors to check their understanding about something while also allowing them to get to the heart of the matter.

From a customer’s perspective, active listening also helps to build trust, which prompts them to be much more honest and open with the advisor.

In addition, if the advisor uses active listening, they can ask more relevant questions and thereby lower call handling times, as well as offering a better customer experience.

Find out more about lowering handling times without negatively impacting the customer experience in our article: 49 Tips for Reducing Average Handling Time (AHT)

Four Training Exercises to Improve Active Listening

Here are four training activities, suggested by Caroline Cooper, that will help you to develop active listening in your contact centre.

Exercise 1: Questions and Answers

This exercise involves simply asking a group of advisors to write down the answers to two questions.

But, before you do so, it’s important to make sure that the team don’t know that this is an exercise specifically designed to improve listening skills.

The two questions to ask your advisors are as follows:

  1. How many of each species did Moses take into the ark?
  2. You are driving a bus, which leaves Stoke at 8.30 with 23 people on board. It stops in Leicester, dropping off ten and picking up a further four passengers.  It travels further south to Milton Keynes, dropping off another five passengers and picking up a further six. It arrives in London two hours later.  What was the driver’s name?

Quite a simple task, right? Well, you may be surprised by the answers…

Answers

  1. None, it was Noah
  2. You

Once the advisors have given their answers, review how many got both questions correct – it’s unlikely to be many!

If this is the case, ask what made them get the answers wrong? And then share the following messages:

Key Take-Aways  

  • We hear what we expect to hear so we assumed it was Moses, when it was in fact Noah.
  • We don’t always catch the most important part of the question (the first word in the bus example) and get side-tracked by irrelevant information.
  • So when communicating with customers we need to listen carefully and check our understanding.

Exercise 2: The Debate

To play this game, you need a group of at least five advisors, who should sit facing away from the rest of the group, and then go through the following seven steps.

1. Elect a chairman (volunteer works best).

2. As a group, choose a contentious topic which is likely to provoke argument or strong debate with views on both/several sides.

3. Explain that anyone can speak (including the chairman) but first they must:

  • Raise their hand
  • Wait for permission from the chairman
  • Summarise what the last person said before they speak

Brief the chairman that he/she can withdraw permission if the summary is not accurate.

4. Ask delegates to consider how they feel and observe/listen out for tonality.

5. Allow the debate to continue for 10 minutes (aim to allow everyone to speak at least once and take part yourself if needed to get things going).

6. Tutor to observe body language (particularly when someone is waiting to speak), accuracy of summaries (including matching of words or phrases, tone of voice).

7. Ask delegates:

  • How they felt
  • How easy it was to summarise
  • What happened once they wanted to speak

Key Take-Aways 

  • We need to discipline ourselves to listen and not to be selective and only hear what we want to hear.
  • We realise how body language gives away when we have stopped listening, and even when people can’t see you, how your body language affects your tonality.
  • We recognise what it’s like to feel as though we aren’t being listened to, so we need to think about how we can avoid our customers feeling like that.

Exercise 3: A Cottage in Devon

You, as in the entire training group, want to rent a holiday cottage in Devon (or any other location you choose).

With this being the case, the group brainstorms a long list of their requirements, i.e. how many rooms you’d like, parking etc.

Once you have created the list, you find one advert for a cottage in Devon, stating merely: “Holiday Cottage For Rent” and a phone number.

Role-play your phone call to discover if the cottage is what you want, using closed questions only.

Then, ask for suggestions for open questions which will reveal the information they want.

If time permits, you can run this exercise in pairs, splitting the group into two, like below:

  • Group 1 are the cottage owners and decide what the cottage is like
  • Group 2 are the potential holidaymakers and agree their criteria

You can run the exercise again with a slightly different brief, e.g. buying a house, car, etc and swap the groups round so everyone gets a chance to ask questions.

Key Take-Aways

  • We have practised our active listening skills in a role-play environment.
  • Through the benefits of active listening, we have practised our questioning technique.
  • We have role-played a scenario so that advisors can empathise with customers who phone in regarding similar queries.

Exercise 4: Good Learn

Sharing example call recordings of when an anonymous advisor failed to use active listening correctly helps other advisors to avoid making the same mistakes.

So, in training, treat service mishaps as a learning opportunity and ensure that the advisor who made the mistake isn’t “looked down upon”, as well as keeping their identity quiet.

Ask the team to reflect on what happened and what led to the mishap. Then, ask everyone to contribute one idea that could have prevented it happening.

Finish by asking each team member to share with a partner one thing they’ve learned and one thing they’ll remember or focus on to avoid it happening again.

Key Take-Aways

  • We know what “bad” looks like and how to avoid it.
  • We recognise how a failure to use active listening can negatively impact the customer experience.
  • We understand that mistakes do happen, and the important thing is to learn from them.

The first exercise was also shared by Caroline in another of our articles: 9 Fun Customer Service Training Exercises

What Are the Barriers to Good Active Listening?

There are lots of hurdles that prevent us from using active listening well in the contact centre, and advisors need to guard against them.

So, when training active listening, warn advisors not to do any of the following:

  • Wait for gaps and pauses to “jump” in with a response
  • Interrupt the customer before they have finished (sometimes they need to just get things off their chest)
  • Feel nervous about getting something wrong, knowing that calls are being monitored
  • Get defensive over the customer’s view of the company
  • Give in to a willingness to talk rather than listen
  • Think that you’re right and they’re wrong
  • Being too hell bent on a script that simply doesn’t answer the customer’s issue

If the advisor gives in to any one of these impulses, their ability to listen really suffers. But there are other barriers too.

For example, sometimes advisors feel embarrassed to ask the customer to repeat themselves, but it’s far better to check that you’ve understood the customer’s query correctly and repeat that back to them, than to miss potentially key information.

Also, Caroline Cooper says: Distractions are of course a big issue and this includes the obvious examples – such as the people around the advisor, noise and clutter – as well as emotional clutter.”

Distractions are of course a big issue and this includes the obvious examples – such as the people around the advisor, noise and clutter – as well as emotional clutter.

Caroline Cooper

“This is something that team leaders need to be aware of – whether it’s physical pain or discomfort such as hunger, feeling cold, a headache or fatigue or emotional clutter.

“Examples of emotional clutter can include frustration with the customer, system or processes, taking things personally, or simply having a bad day – each of these things will impact the advisor’s ability to keep up with the customer.”

To help reduce this emotional clutter, team leaders need to be trained to have difficult conversations with advisors and get to know their teams personally, to pick up on any signals of discontent.

Finally, the last barrier is making assumptions. This involves the advisor hearing the problem and assuming that they have the right solution as they may have come across a similar issue before. But what if that fix isn’t right for this particular customer?

As Caroline says: “If you’ve handled the same query three or four times that day already, it’s very easy to fall into assumptions. You just need to remember that one size doesn’t fit all!”

3 Tips to Better Train Active Listening

Here are three tips to help advisors move beyond the barriers listed above and help them to better use active listening.

1. Encourage Note-Taking

Having a pen and paper at the ready to make notes to key references that the customer makes while talking can help you to remember key points that you may need to reflect on later.

Caroline Cooper says: “One thing that really helps me to listen is to take copious notes, not typing but actually writing stuff down, because as you’re writing it can become a lot easier to realise what’s missing.”

Once the customer has finished speaking, refer back to your notes to move the conversation forward.

Once the customer has finished speaking, refer back to your notes to move the conversation forward. If you were focused on keeping these key points in your head as the customer was speaking, you were not listening closely enough to what the customer was saying.

2. Reflect Back the Customer’s Query

You, as the advisor, shouldn’t feel embarrassed to make comments such as “let me just check that I’ve got all the information I need” or “what I’m hearing is…”, as they can improve the experience, not harm it!

When you use comments like this, you confirm your understanding of the problem and, in doing so, take the “weight” of the issue away from the customer.

Clarifying also has another benefit in that it’s not good to point out any contradictions in what a customer has told you, so, instead of pointing a contradiction out to them, say that you just want to double check, so you’re not accusing them.

3. Use the Word “And” and Not “But”

To get the most value out of active listening, you need to set up the right kind of conversations, and there are lots of tips and tricks to doing this well.

For example, Caroline says: “It’s quite common for advisors to start a sentence with a positive to ‘set up’ a negative and use ‘but’ as the link word. However, when you say the word ‘but’ the customer will forget the positive and focus on the negative.”

“So, swap the word ‘but’ with ‘and’ as it is a softer link, which will help to create a more positive conversation, from which better insights can be drawn from the customer.”

For more tips like these three, read our article: Top Tips to Improve Listening Skills on the Phone

What Else Can You Do to Improve Advisor Listening Skills

The obvious answer to this question is to make more time for running training exercises like those above, but it is often just as valuable to give the advisor positive feedback.

Caroline says: “Giving feedback when the advisor has done something really well reinforces the good behaviours that you want from the team. This can be just as important as corrective coaching.”

“Having said that, picking up very quickly where advisors have struggled and asking the team member to identify what made that conversation difficult – highlighting some of the words and phrases that they have used which signal they weren’t using active listening – is very important.” 

Some examples of words and phrases which often indicate that the advisor is not using active listening in their calls are included in the graphic below:

Phrases That Signal Advisors Aren’t Using Active Listening

  1. “It’s company policy”
  2. “If you check our website…”
  3. “As I’ve already said…”
  4. “There is nothing I can do”
  5. “I’m sorry you feel that way”

Also, we’ve discussed how emotional clutter can influence an advisor’s ability to listen, so giving team leaders training to have the difficult conversations is key, as well as giving them the space to get to know their team and identify the warning signs.

Other pieces of advice for helping to improve the listening skills in your contact centre include:

  • Remove time-based metrics (e.g. Average Handling Time (AHT)] from advisor targets)
  • Reduce background noise
  • Improve resource planning

There is also technology that can help to improve listening skills, with speech analytics being one option that more and more contact centres are choosing to employ.

Niels Sören Richthof, a product manager at Enghouse Interactive, says: “Real-time speech analytics can give advisors feedback as they’re talking to help improve performance, but the technology can also feedback data to quality analysts, to suggest the calls that will be most beneficial to monitor.”

A thumbnail picture of Niels Richthof

Niels Sören Richthof

According to Niels, this data will provide information on:

  • Cross-talking – Does the agent interrupt the customer. Or vice versa?
  • Pause – How long are the pauses and spoken passages?
  • Speaking rate – Is the agent speaking at a moderate tempo?
  • Speech ratio – How much of a call is the agent speaking and how much the customer?
  • Stress level – What are the emotions of agent and customers?
  • Volume – How well can the voice of the agent be heard?

This information will help analysts to highlight any calls where advisors may have struggled and where the most can be learned, in terms of listening.

In Summary

Active listening goes beyond just listening to what is being said, but involves thinking about the vocabulary choices, tone and what isn’t being said by the speaker.

If your contact centre advisors are skilled in active listening, they can better build rapport with customers and improve their experience, while lowering handling times.

So, it’s an important skill, but how can you train someone to listen better? The three training exercises listed in this article are a good start, as well as warning advisors about the blockers to their listening, i.e. making assumptions, distractions and various other emotional blockers.

Finally, think about what you can do to better support advisor listening skills. This may include eliminating background noise, making more time for training and/or using advanced tools like speech analytics to really go the extra mile for your team.

For more on the topic of improving listening in the contact centre, read our articles:

Published On: 1st May 2019 - Last modified: 17th Sep 2019
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