CustomerCare News, Ross Vance, Fall 2013 Edition

People learn together, but different people learn differently. The preceding phrase outlines two concepts in learning theory that are paramount to understanding how people learn.

The first concept, people learn together, implies that learning is inherently a collaborative activity. This can occur organically throughout someone’s life, such as school, work, church, extracurricular clubs, or other social activities.Research suggests that being social and learning are two aspects of a singular event. To put it another way, social environments are also learning environments and there are few contexts as social as the call center environment.

SupportSeven, a 200-seat call center in Chattanooga, Tenn., knows this all too well. Since 2007, SupportSeven has been growing dramatically. Each new year has brought additional clients, more contact center agents, and a greater need for effective training and development — a task few people would argue can be done without social learning. Even fewer people would argue that learning is not essential to being successful in a call center. Some would even suggest that learning is simply a byproduct of individuals working together to accomplish a singular goal. SupportSeven’s goal was to create a culture where agents were continuously developed through training.

This involves focusing on the needs of its members in a social learning environment. First, it cut the agent-to-trainer ratio in half, which allowed trainers to use more means to reach the agents, including:

  • More time to develop formal learning workshops,
  • More time to develop merchant service transaction and billing systems (Advanced Payments)
  • More one-on-one attention for non-formal job coaching, and
  • More expertise to develop informal eLearning modules.

The second concept, different people learn differently,explains that individuals learn in a variety of different ways. For example, an individual has the capacity to retain just as much from a lecture as they would a video or hands-on activity. A study in 2000 found that learning is more enjoyable and effective when trying various methodologies, or means, until the information is learned, regardless of the learner’s comfort level.

However, trainers tend to follow a preferred method of teaching, regardless of how well it helps students learn, and they’re unlikely to change their means significantly.

One commonly cited reason is the need for the same training to be consistent across multiple classes. Unfortunately, consistency across training delivery only furthers the learning disconnect as it assumes that the background, competency and learning styles of the trainees themselves are also “consistent.” The need for organizations to be flexible, creative and diverse in their methods is not only something that can be witnessed by having a conversation with a newlyhired call center representative, it’s also rooted in hard science.

The process of thinking is essentially our ability to process information. The process of storing and recalling data, however, is much more complex. Shown through the colloquial expressions of being “deep in thought” or having “shallow thinking,” we can see that different types of information require different levels of processing. For instance, when a call center agent sees the name “Albuquerque,” it takes a different level of processing to recognize the letter combinations for spelling it correctly on a customer’s account than it does to pronounce it verbally to the customer, and even more so to recognize that it is the name of a city. One’s ability to process information on each level is directly related to how well the information was learned, practiced and synthesized.

The need for call centers to understand their approach to training is essential for improving their learning outcomes, however, this is only one factor that drives call center success. A dichotomy between the means of how students learn and how educators teach can create a need for learners to supplement their training by relying on modeling the performance of others. In short, the less effective a training program is, the greater the need for agents to be highly motivated and self-aware in order to be successful, which carries the added effects of shrinking the pool of possible candidates, raising wage expectations, increasing demands on human resources, as well as others.

This is the greatest detriment to training in a call center environment because most organizational development programs do not see this happening in real-time. Instead, organizations that do not successfully achieve learning outcomes assume that they were unable to gather the right candidates for the job, thinking that motivation and self-awareness should already be qualifications required for call center employment. In actuality, a training program focused on creating a diversity of learning contexts and methodologies may have provided the tools for those candidates to be productive and prosperous employees for the company.

SupportSeven found that by focusing more on creativity, diversity and flexibility in its training, it was possible to develop each agent to be an excellent person rather than just an excellent employee. Not only does this build value for each employee in the workplace that endeavors to develop them personally, but also the aforementioned intrinsic characteristics of motivation and self-awareness are fostered as a result.

The good news is that improving training and development upstream is not difficult. In fact, it is as easy as remembering that people learn together, but different people learn differently. Organizations must first begin to recognize the social contexts they create in their training. By realizing these contexts exist, one can begin to incorporate aspects of other contexts with the goal of making learning more collaborative. Second, organizations need to clearly define their learning outcomes and aim to accomplish those outcomes by constantly switching up training methods. Creating a flexible, creative and diverse training curricula will help learners retain and synthesize more fully, and therefore process information more effectively. Focusing on these improvements is the evolution of turning the call center into a learning center.

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