An Advice Column Only for
Contact Center Managers
This month our guest expert is Ronnell Lovings, Senior Market Business Support, Call Strategy Facilitator and Coach from Florida Blue – a GuideWell Company and member of the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association. Ronnell brings to our advice column a unique blend of perspectives with his extensive experience and proven track record in both learning and development, as well as business and call center customer service operations. Ronnell holds a Six Sigma Black Belt certification and is a recipient of the University of North Florida Excellence in Employee Development award that recognizes companies, organizations, departments, teams, and individuals whose outstanding achievements have significantly advanced workplace learning and performance.
And thank you to our reader who submitted this month’s question!
Q: Our call center training tends to be very technically focused. We train people when there is a policy, procedure, or system update; however, our customer surveys tell us that our reps lack confidence, aren’t problem solving correctly, and give wrong answers. How do you address these other skills in your training and what are some best practices around helping reps just sound better in their calls? Help!
A:(Ronnell Lovings, Florida Blue)
When engaging with our members (customers), an important tip that I share with the Service Advocates (representatives), as well as their leaders, is that the level of service the member receives is essential to a favorable outcome. It’s important to understand that at the end of the day, the experience with the Service Advocate and the company will be the topic of discussion at that member’s dinner table. Therefore, it’s within the Service Advocate’s control of what experience the member will share with others.
In my view, this statement represents an excellent starting point for exploring the needed training described in your question. For our company, that type of training is focused on creating a world-class service experience for our members and it starts by having customer relationship-oriented strategies and related training – for Service Advocates and leaders. Based on my experience, I’ll share with you four specific areas which I believe are essential. The first two areas are compatible and should be done concurrently – a call strategy and a coaching model that supports the effective, accurate, and consistent application of the call strategy. It is very challenging to produce the desired results for your call center without both of these essential elements. Coaching is the way to improve or enhance your representatives’ application of the call strategy as it relates to issue resolution, customer satisfaction, time management and, ultimately, all the metrics that matter to your call center. The other two areas include training and development around listening skills and voice tone.
Regarding the first area of development, it’s important that the call strategy is promoted and viewed by your leaders and customer service representatives as a customer relationship-oriented tool. You want to make sure that the strategy you have is not just a checklist or series of tasks you want your representatives to perform when they interact with your customers. It must be all about your representatives’ ability to deliver a world-class experience when customers engage with your business. At Florida Blue, our focus is on delivering a world-class experience for our customers every time they interact with us. We know customers are judging us based on that interaction and we care about the experience our Service Advocates create for our customers.
It’s important that your call strategy helps your representatives view your customers as people versus transactions. Equally important is that the strategy needs to help your representatives focus on the customer’s story and not just his or her issue. I have found that stories lead to real conversations, real conversations lead to member connections, member connections lead to issue resolution, and issue resolution leads to member satisfaction.
Regarding the second area of training focus – your coaching model – make sure you incorporate plenty of opportunities for your representatives to listen to and calibrate their calls along with their leaders (who also serve as their coaches). This gives your representatives the opportunity to identify areas for their improvement. The key is that you allow your representatives the experience of stepping outside of themselves to become that customer and hear how their word choices, voice tone, etc. impact the overall customer experience. You also give representatives an opportunity to take ownership of their performance by placing them in the role of a coach. You want to help them select one or maybe two pivotal aspects or behaviors they demonstrated on the call, focusing on the behaviors that had the greatest impact on member engagement. These behaviors could have made the call a “wow” call or a not-so-favorable call.
Another key component from my experience, is for your training and coaching to take root, it’s important to establish a culture of Collaboration, Education, Escalation, and Communication.
Collaboration: It’s essential that your representatives view you as a partner in their development. This will help you effectively coach, mentor, and facilitate all the areas of their performance.
Education: Encourage continuous learning that supports your representatives in meeting their performance goals.
Escalation: Break barriers to resolution so your representatives can offer your customers a favorable experience.
Communication: Communicate best practices so they are shared and duplicated cross- functionally in your organization. This is essential in building a consistent and outstanding customer experience.
The third area of training I’d recommend is to help your representatives further develop their listening skills. Listening is far more involved than hearing. It requires that you not only hear the words, but listen to the message. We provide this training in addition to our call strategy training and we reinforce it regularly through additional training and coaching. We want our Service Advocates to understand the four types of listening and to be aware of which type of listening they are demonstrating and the results it produces.
There is “avoidance” or “distracted” listening. As the name implies, this is when advocates lose focus, for any number of reasons, causing the member to repeat himself or herself. When this occurs, the customer does not feel engaged. Next there is “defensive” listening. This occurs when advocates are listening with the intent to respond rather than listening with the intent to understand so they can respond appropriately. The third type is “problem solving” listening. This is the most common for advocates and occurs when they think they already understand the customer’s problem and they jump ahead to resolve it. The result is that most members do not feel a connection with the advocate and that their issue or problem was actually heard. The last type of listening we discuss is the type of listening we strive for, which is “connective” or “empathetic” listening. This is when advocates are listening with the intent to engage with our members. Advocates begin to ask probing questions to get to the customer’s story…which ultimately leads to the resolution of the customer’s issue.
Finally, you asked about what can be done to help your representatives just “sound better” and more confident. While the three areas I’ve discussed will all positively impact how your representatives present themselves to your customers, I would also recommend that you provide focused and ongoing training and coaching around voice tone and word choices. I believe these are very key elements to customer engagement!
Again, we discuss the impact of voice tone and word choices in our call strategy training and then we regularly reinforce it through coaching. The acronym “VOICE” is used to help our Service Advocates remember what they can do with their voice to create world-class service. “V” is for “volume”. This is all about how they sound – loud, soft, or just right. “O” stands for “output rate”. We help them to understand the impact their rate or speed of speaking has in conveying effective messages to customers. “I” is for “inflection”. This is all about understanding when you adjust your voice tone up or down to convey emotion or emphasize a key point. “C” stands for “clarity”. A number of items factor into clarity such as good enunciation, pronunciation, and product knowledge. Finally, “E” stands for “emphasis”.
It’s important for our Service Advocates to know which words to emphasize to make sure customers know what action to take and when to take it, as well as help them retain other types of critical information. The “E” is also for “enthusiasm”. We want the representative to sound excited, engaged, and focused on the subject that is important to the customer. The representative’s voice will sound strong when he or she focuses on the customer’s experience.
Word choice and voice tone are equal to each other. They are important elements for all of our Service Advocates who engage with customers on a daily basis. Words begin to establish a foundation for building confidence in member interactions. Word choices can have a positive impact, as well as an adverse impact on the image of your company. Word choices (along with tone) can undermine your image and your message; therefore, it is very important to understand how your word choices and phrases impact the customer’s experience. The right words show professionalism and can help to reduce any frustration or anger your customers might be experiencing during the call.
In summary, these are the four key areas of development I’d recommend – initial and ongoing training around a customer relationship-oriented call strategy and coaching model, in addition to training to improve listening skills, voice tone, and word choices. I’ll leave you with one last thought. In business, technical training seems to be easier for companies to deliver and easier for employees to learn because the measures are objective, which makes it easier to gauge success. I see technical training as the engine for your business – while necessary and important, it will not typically lead to real performance improvement on its own. As previously discussed in this response, to optimize your training “engine”, you need the subjective type or interpersonal skills training (“soft skills”, “people skills”, etc.) that teaches representatives how to communicate and interact with your customers. You want to make sure your customers, your representatives, and their experiences are at the core of your training and coaching. And finally, you want to coach, coach, coach to ensure effective, accurate, and consistent performance that truly supports your business goals and objectives.
This month’s featured expert is….
Ronnell Lovings, Senior Market Business Support, Call Strategy Facilitator and Coach,
Ronnell Lovings has 25 years’ business and technical experience working with Florida Blue. In his current role, he is responsible for developing and facilitating cross-functional communications across all Senior Market teams, business partners, and vendors. He is also responsible for identifying and recommending solutions to improve Service Advocate & customer interactions to enhance the customer service experience by using a clear, step-by-step process called the Florida Blue Conversation Strategy that applies behavioral psychology to help Service Advocates predict member behavior and maintain control of their calls.Ronnell has provided leadership and management of Florida Blue’s Center for Organizational Excellence (CORE), which was implemented in 2011 as an innovative approach to help the organization focus on the member’s experience and to accomplish its goal of achieving Work Class Service. As a certified facilitator and coach, he has facilitated ServiceMentor training to front line Service Advocates and CoachingMentor training to the Service Organization leadership. Ronnell received his Bachelor’s Degree in Adult Education, Training, and Development from Southern Illinois University, Carbondale; dual Master’s Degree in Human Resource Management and Development from Webster University, St. Louis; and certification as a Six Sigma Black Belt process analyst and facilitator.
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