Customer service and product training should already be a regular part of your workforce management strategy. Frequently upskilling staff using effective training methods enhances their query resolution abilities, and motivates them to improve the service they deliver. This all results in shorter call times and happier customers.
However, while a standard set of customer service skills still apply, recent world events have brought about changes to customer expectations and service delivery which necessitate new, often specific, skillsets – and this means additional training.
This post examines the forces behind this need to upskill your customer service staff – chiefly an increase in complex enquiries –, what skills and training staff need, and how to support them day-to-day.
Why are customer service teams receiving more complex phone queries?
Improvements in self-service technology and a reduction of in-person interactions to prevent COVID-19 transmission has changed the nature of enquiries: customers are handling more straightforward transactions online and saving complex problems for customer support staff.
A McKinsey article stated that: “…as transactional calls move to digital channels, interactions that are more complex will account for the largest share of volume in traditional call centres.”
Unable to physically visit organisations, customers must use the phone to purchase products and make multi-part enquiries and transactions. Scenarios range from taking out large loans, or buying complex business software packages, to applying for financial support during a crisis. These all require longer call times while staff search for information, use multiple systems and reassure anxious customers.
The increasing use of AI and chatbots, multi-channel customer service journeys and a desire to talk to ‘real people’ during times of crisis is also adding layers of complexity to customer service roles. Staff need to meet people where they are in their journey, create a seamless experience and resolve issues effectively.
Therefore, phone-based customer service staff need rapid upskilling on digital systems and software packages, customer experience, automation, crisis communications and product knowledge.
What skills and knowledge are needed to handle complex customer enquiries?
The skills needed to handle complex customer enquiries fall into two camps: a higher level of proficiency in basic customer service skills and new skills specific to the product and organisation.
Customer service skill requirements:
Staff who handle complex problems need to deepen their capacity for the following:
- Emotional intelligence: Hubspot describe an ability to listen patiently, interpret what callers need, show care and empathise as being at the ‘heart of’ customer service. Fortunately, you can teach and enhance these skills with expert trainers.
- Communication: simplifying complex concepts, explaining processes clearly, and active listening skills such as paraphrasing and questioning are vital for understanding and resolving enquiries. An excellent way to practice these skills is to ask staff to explain a complicated and technical concept in a way that’s appropriate for a less technical staff member.
- Problem-solving: it’s not uncommon for complex customer issues to be unique and require a high level of problem-solving skills and creative thinking to resolve.
- Handling difficult or distressed customers: a customer with a challenging issue will likely feel distressed, angry or frustrated, particularly if they have tried to resolve the problem themselves. Care and compassion are vital in these situations.
It is worth considering which team members are always positive, highly resourceful, great multi-taskers, take the initiative and have the greatest capacity for knowledge retention. You may wish to route complex calls to these people to resolve challenging issues or complete multi-part processes.
New knowledge requirements:
New knowledge covers your products and services, application/purchasing processes and eligibility requirements, data privacy laws, consumer rights, delivery or logistics processes, the software systems you use, and crisis training.
Staff who handle complex enquiries need to know your organisation’s products and services inside out – they must always know more than the customer. It can be time-consuming for staff to keep up their knowledge, but regularly updated knowledge bases and incentives for staying up-to-date (prizes and quizzes) can help.
Additionally, resolving complex issues requires staff to quickly search for information and perform tasks across multiple software systems. Using these tools should be second nature to them – and that requires in-depth training, practice, and fast keyboard skills.
Finally, your team may field enquiries about how your organisation responds (or intends to respond) to a crisis. Regular briefings and complete transparency on your part are essential here to arm staff with all the information they need.
How to upskill your team to handle complex queries
A report by the Manpower Group, found that with increasing automation, soft skills and specialist technical skills are in greater demand but aren’t easy to come by. In fact, 38% of organisations believed it was difficult to train for in-demand technical skills, and 43% said it was even harder to teach soft skills like analytical thinking and communication. It may not be easy, but with various training tools to meet learner’s needs, it is entirely achievable.
Blended learning is an ideal approach for upskilling teams. This approach, favoured by training experts worldwide, is based on the theory that offering multiple in-person and online training methods is the best way to engage people with different learning styles and increase information retention.
The balance of delivery methods can be based on the 70:20:10 framework. This model proposes that people learn best when training comprises:
- 70% experiential (simulations/scenario-based learning, interactive guided training and practice sessions, online games);
- 20% social (lunch-and-learn sessions, mentoring and coaching, role play); and
- 10% formal training experiences (in-person or online instructor-led seminars, self-paced e-learning courses, videos).
Given the diversity of skills required to handle complex enquiries, a mix of channels is a sensible approach. For example, you can deliver soft skills via instructor-led sessions and role-plays followed by an online quiz based on a case study, or provide product knowledge training via videos, lunch-and-learn sessions and guided demonstrations.
Furthermore, training should be highly relevant to the organisation and the types of complex calls customer service staff may receive using real-world case studies. Overly theoretical training with vague examples can disengage your team and make it harder for them to apply their learning.
Planning your training
Product knowledge training sessions should occur well ahead of product updates or price changes to give staff time to ask questions and ensure they can access a ‘refresher’ demonstration session if needed. This is particularly important for large-scale changes like a completely new product, new self-service website or new payment plans or subscription structure (e.g., changes to health insurance bands) are on the cards.
It is also important to offer multiple training sessions to ensure everyone has a chance to attend, regardless of what shift they work, and to ensure there is adequate phone cover.
Finally, consider your colleagues who work from home – they may not be able to attend in-person sessions, so ensure content and support are available online.
After training, knowledge and skills can be reinforced via coaching using recorded calls or role-playing exercises like forum theatre (where a group watches a role play and stops the action to suggest better ways to handle the situation).
Supporting customer service staff beyond the initial upskilling phase
Upskilling your customer service staff to deal with complex enquiries doesn’t stop at training. Providing them with ongoing support and the proper infrastructure gives them the confidence to apply the skills they’ve learnt.
This support may include:
- Using speech analytics tools and call recordings to identify coaching opportunities for staff struggling with complex calls.
- Routing calls to staff who are confident in dealing with complex queries.
- An internal knowledge base or blog where staff can share their experiences or offer tips and scripts for other team members to reference.
- A product or service champion or expert that staff can refer to if they are unsure of anything.
- A clear escalation process for complex queries that can’t be solved by the first point of contact.
A cloud contact-centre platform like Premier Contact Point can integrate with your CRM so that all customer information appears on one screen. Staff then have access to the information and systems they need to process requests without transferring the customer, or putting them on hold while they juggle multiple applications. Despite, and often because, of technological advances, over-the-phone support remains a critical component of the customer support landscape, with customers relying on the channel to resolve difficult problems and complete complex transactions. We can support our teams to deliver an excellent customer experience on even the most challenging calls by frequently upskilling them and giving them the tools to succeed.