Note: This article originally appeared on ICMI.com. It focuses on new hire training for call centers, but the principles can be adapted to many other environments.
New hire training represents a significant investment for many call centers with typical training times ranging from two to six weeks or even more. It can also require a delicate balance. Train too little and employees will underperform, require too much supervision, or even quit in frustration. Train too much and you waste valuable time and money.
Scenario-based training is an accelerated learning technique that has the potential to deliver the best of both worlds. It allows you to train new hires faster and get better performance once they’re on the job. It works by solving some of the biggest limitations of the traditional approach to call center training.
The Traditional Approach
Many call centers currently train their new hires using what’s called the building block method. It works by breaking down various job-related tasks into smaller learning blocks that are relatively easy for employees to learn. For example, a new employee might first learn to use the company’s CRM system, next learn about the company’s products, and finally learn how to interact with customers in a positive manner.
It’s relatively easy to design training using the building block approach, but there are also some substantial limitations.
The first is integration. Individual skills are trained separately, but they are used together on the job. Employees often experience a sort of mental gridlock, known as cognitive overload, when they first put all of these new skills together while taking live or simulated calls. This slows them down and makes them more prone to errors.
The second limitation is timing. New skills must be repeated frequently in order to become second nature. The building block approach can prevent this from happening because some skills are trained early on in the program and then not revisited until days or even weeks later when the employee prepares to take live calls. This often requires additional training or coaching to remind employees of previous lessons.
Scenario-based training works by structuring training to mirror how the job is actually performed. Each lesson is introduced via a realistic scenario that requires employees to utilize a variety of skills simultaneously. For example, one scenario might be a customer calling to check on an order. A new hire must look-up the customer’s order in the CRM system while applying their product knowledge to answer questions and using appropriate customer service skills to role-play the conversation. The scenarios are all modeled after the call center’s quality assurance guidelines so new hires practice handling calls correctly from Day 1.
The scenarios are arranged in order of increasing complexity so that each one introduces a new skill while building on what has already been learned. After learning to respond to a simple “Where’s my order?” scenario, a new hire might be asked to tackle a situation where a customer received the wrong item. The added advantage is the skills that are used most often, such as answering the phone properly, are drilled to perfection throughout the training.
The initial pace of a scenario-based training program is very slow. The first few scenarios take a long time because the new hire must learn a lot of basic skills such as the proper phone greeting and how to look up customer records in the CRM. The pace improves with each successive scenario as employees become proficient with the basic skills. Eventually, the training becomes very fast-paced as employees master the ability to quickly handle new scenarios.
Scenario-based training can often reduce new hire training time by 25 to 50 percent. I first discovered this concept as a call center training supervisor in the late 90s when I was given a mandate to cut down new hire training time. One of our new hire training programs took 15 days; 10 classroom days plus up to 5 more days taking live calls with a coach present to provide intensive support. The scenario-based training approach allowed us to reduce the training to just 10 days; 6 classroom days plus 4 days taking live calls with a coach. This created a substantial savings for the call center but also enabled it to be more nimble when staffing up to meet rising call volumes.
Performance also improves with scenario-based training because it eliminates the waste inherent the building block approach while still improving the learning process. One call center implementing this method found their first group of new hires exceeded the call center’s QA score average within a week after training. Another call center reduced average handle time by 10% after implementing scenario-based training.
Moving to a scenario-based learning approach requires a little bit of upfront effort, but the savings and improved performance is more than worthwhile in the long run.
Step 1: Identify performance requirements
Start by identifying the performance required of a fully trained employee. The training program should focus on helping new hires meet these targets. If you don’t already have a clear standard for a fully trained employee, you can look to your quality assurance standards for guidance.
Step 2: Create Scenarios
Outline a list of progressively difficult scenarios that cover at least 90 percent of the calls agents are likely to receive. You can learn this information by reviewing call-type reports, listening to calls, and enlisting the help of your most experienced agents.
The sequencing is especially important since you want to introduce new skills in each scenario, but also use scenarios to build on skills that were previously learned. Be sure to vary the customer’s demeanor in each scenario too, since not all customers will be happy and easy to assist.
Step 3: Develop Materials
Now it’s time to develop your training materials. Here are a few of the basics:
- Create a trainer’s manual with instructions for each of the scenario
- Add data for each scenario to your CRM’s sandbox.
- Develop self-paced scenarios to allow learners to practice on their own.