Using Emerging Technology for Acquiring, Training and Retaining CSRs

This article is based on the following premises:

The CSR is key to customer retention both for current customers and, by word of mouth, winning potential and future customers. As we all know yet is well worth repeating, in those first few moments it is determined whether the customer has a good or a bad impression of your product, service or company. If they are not listened to, heard or responded to in an appropriate way, regardless if their issue, concern, complaint or question can be answered or resolved to their satisfaction, they form an opinion, or even a judgment, of your company, perhaps all companies in your industry in general - from those first few sentences. Crucial, critical front line interaction. The bottom line? Your front line people are the driver of customer service, customer sales, and customer loyalty.

Second, one of the keys is hiring the right person for the job from the outset.

Third, key is the positive impact of soft skills, what we call customer service or people skills training. After all, when you have new hardware or software, you are first taught it, you practice it over and over until you get good at it. Yet, soft skills are not seen in the same light. Sometimes it's a 'been there, done that' or 'one and done'mentality. "We had a program on communication and listening in 1992 and that's that." Or the really limited vision people who say, "the people who answer the phone, they're not so important!!"

Fourth, competition is the most significant force heightening the demand for better customer service. Because products and/or services in almost every area of our economy today differ from one another in only minor ways, what really makes the difference, what gives one company an edge over another, is its relationship with the customer.

Fifth, training is a continuous ongoing process, not an event. Training is essential because the skills required to handle upset customers are counterintuitive; that is, they go against natural instincts.

What does the industry look like currently? The latest statistics include:

  • 95-98% of customer contact is still by telephone
  • In 1993 companies using call centers equaled 41%. In 1995, just two years later, it nearly doubled at 81%.
  • In 1995 $100 billion dollars was spent on call centers, with the largest growth being 50 or fewer seats.
  • Today there are 60,000 US call centers employing 3 million CSRs. They account for a $200 billion segment of total US business and consumer telephone sales.
  • CALL CENTER PRODUCT NEWS calculated it would take annual revenues of a company 11 times larger than General Motors, or 17 times larger than Microsoft just to match the telephone and on line sales that US call centers helped achieve last year!
  • Serving customers is, of course, crucial to all organizations. Yet, us companies satisfied their customers less well in '95 and '96 and stats are down again for '97. Services continues to top the list in terms of consumer dissatisfaction.

More complex products, software, hardware, and broadening customer bases are forcing companies to re-evaluate how they do business, and highlighting the need to see service as a highly strategic part of every organization. Service has become a key factor in purchase and repurchase decisions, and therefore, directly impacts costs, revenues, and profits. The traditional expense-based model of customer service has evolved into the revenue-generating model.

  • A Forum Corporation study reported that 70% of the customers lost by thirteen big service and manufacturing companies were lost due to lack of attention from front-line employees.

This is not surprising. Services are essentially intangible processes. Customers are frequently searching for cues to help determine a company's capabilities. Oftentimes the only cues available are from its front-line employees. To the customer, people are inseparable from the services they provide. It is no wonder, then, that companies with superior people management, invest heavily in training and retraining.

One of the biggest issues facing call centers today is high turnover.

  • 30 - 60% nationwide, with one quarter leaving within the first year. When each new hire costs between $8 and $12,000, this has quite an impact on the bottom line.

These statistics have brought a new focus on better recruitment and screening of job applicants to insure there is the right attitude and aptitude for the job, and to minimize this expensive turnover. Why do people leave?:

  • more money
  • high stress/burnout -- The CSR is ranked one of the ten most stressful jobs in America today
  • better conditions
  • move within company
  • mixed messages
  • entry level position
  • work at home

To find out why they leave at your particular company, ask them! Many companies have exit interviews upon employee termination. If this is so for your company, use this as an opportunity to determine why they are leaving. Look for any patterns in the responses.

Today's hiring problems are many. First, the job searcher is passive. The current response systems whereby they send or fax a resume, or come and visit requires the respondent to work. We all live in a busy society. We have families and usually lots of responsibilities. The current process no longer meets the lifestyle.

Today's generation wants what they want when they want it and they want it now (also known as instant gratification)!

By the same token, to extract good employees - someone who already has a job and can't call during the day - requires alternate methods.

Employee job markets are tight. Competition has never been greater. Therefore, you must have a response system that meets the respondent's needs and is user friendly.

Everyone has a telephone. It can be used 24/7. All they have to do is pick up the phone and make a call. This is much friendlier to use than mailing a resume, going to Staples, or faxing a resume. Let us not forget about the person who doesnąt have a resume, or who has to take time off work, or away from family to visit a potential employer.

Does your current recruitment process look like this? First, you advertise the opening. Then you receive resumes. You sort them into good and bad piles. You call the good candidates for an interview. You interview them, do background and reference checks. Besides resumes, you also might allow walk ins. You assess potential candidates and send rejection letters. Does this seem familiar?

This is very labor intense and does not provide good feedback to the respondent. At the same time, there are wide variations in the process, depending on who is involved and how busy they may be at the time. Sometimes there is no consistency in the pre screening. I may describe the job very differently than you would. Or the candidate may have selective hearing. Then they get hired and when they are on the phone come back to you with, 'I didnąt know Iąd be on the phone all day?!'

One alternative is combining recruitment advertising with an automated response system that gives instant feedback, and allows candidates to schedule an interview when it meets their needs.

By making the response management system more user friendly, you have significant opportunities to improve the process and most importantly, reduce the cost. What does that look like? Cost savings and process improvement opportunities can reduce recruitment advertising dollars, usually between 20 - 40%. Some of the advantages are:

  • Improves ad response. Respondents can call at night after work
  • Shortens hiring cycles. You are not waiting for resumes
  • Pre-qualifies and schedules candidates
  • Allows you to ask specific questions you want answers to: availability, work history, objective standards
  • Eliminates internal labor

It is easy for the candidate to schedule an appointment. This is done all in one call by your inputting your schedule prior to the candidateąs call. Within 5 minutes, a candidate is scheduled for an interview. It's quick, easy, and all at their convenience. Notice that at this point you've invested no time, no labor, and there is no telephone tag.

Design Strategy

The goal is to make it easier for the respondent to find the ad and respond. They do not have to search throughout the paper as the ad "jumps" out at them. See figure 2 The design strategy includes:

  • Maximizing the visibility of your ad
  • Incorporating a very strong call to action
  • Allowing interested candidates to respond at their convenience
  • Presenting a style consistent with your corporate image

Since it is so much easier for them to respond, and because the ad has higher visual impact, response rates are much greater, and more interested and qualified candidates respond.

Response Report

A report is sent to you the day following the call, highlighting those scheduled for an appointment with you. You can arrange telephone or face to face interviews.

Management Report

Controlling cost and managing this process is impossible today unless it is automated. Management reporting allows you to control cost and manage the process. Called Recruitment Investment Management (RIM), it tracks the cost of the ad and the media placement. You know where you received your best responses from - be it radio, tv, kiosks - as well as what specific papers in what specific cities were most cost effective for future advertising and media placement. In other words, you track your ROI.

Impact of Soft Skills Training

Recent studies in the Harvard Business Review reinforce the link between increased training and decreased employee turnover.

For instance, Ryder Truck Rental employees who participated in training programs had a turnover rate of 19%. For employees who did not participate, the rate soared to 41%.

Guest Quarters Suite Hotel's low turnover rate is one indication of employee satisfaction, and not surprising, there is a positive correlation between training, employee satisfaction and guest satisfaction.

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics released results of a 1995 survey of employer provided training: the size of an organization has a significance effect on employer provided training. 98% of all firms with 100+ employees had formal training programs, compared with 69% of small employers.

Further, that high levels of employee turnover is correlated with low spending and less employee training time. Companies with low rates of turnover, high rates of employment growth provided more training per employee than contrasting organizations.

American businesses spend about 1% of their payroll costs on training, but closer to 3% is needed in order to succeed in the next millennium in competitive industries according to Nation's Business. Why is training so important?

Mainly because it has been disregarded for so long. The qualities that you seek in your front-line personnel--enthusiasm, empathy, and tolerance for stress--are not on the curriculum in most schools. There is no Listening 101 or Communication 202 on the roster. Somehow in the hierarchical management style, front-line workers weren't encouraged to think about customer's or co-worker's needs. They just had to get the job done.

Recent research has demonstrated that Conflict Management Training can significantly reduce stress, improve employee performance, increase customer satisfaction, and do so in a timely fashion, thus having a positive impact on the bottom line.

Case Study:

This study focused on the mushrooming population of Call Center CSRs and their interactions with customers at Connecticut Light & Power, a subsidiary of Northeast Utilities, a holding company, that furnishes electric service areas of the northeast. High Bill Complaints were the primary focus of the study--calls that represented between 10%-13% of the 2.5 million annual calls received. These specific call types have historically been their hardest to handle, and traditionally the lengthiest.

The purpose of the study was to investigate the impact of Conflict Management Training (CMT) on customer service delivery. Specifically, it asked the broad question: What impact does CMT have on job performance and customer satisfaction in the delivery of customer service?

The expenditure for customer service is a huge one and is becoming larger and larger. This call center costs are approximately $9.1 million:

  1. Labor accounted for 82% of total costs; Operations/equipment/capital represented the additional 18%.
  2. Labor cost per call averages $2.25.


Sixty people volunteered to participate in this study--17 male and 43 female CSRs. Using the Solomon Four Group Design, they were divided into four groups of 15 to eliminate instrument bias.

Conflict Management Training

Conflict Management Training, the independent variable, was delivered to the Treatment Group (Groups 1 and 3) in one four-hour session. Within the Treatment Group, one group had been pre-tested, the other had not. The other two groups (Groups 2 and 4) had no training. Included in the training were modules that addressed:

  • Acknowledgment of front-line employees' critical importance to the company
  • Anger and problem solving techniques to defuse customers and move onto a more productive interaction
  • Job tension/stress management taking daily stressors and converting them to positive energy
  • Empathetic responsiveness
  • Listening/communication skills

To assess the impact of CMT, baseline post-training data were collected and analyzed before and after the training from a variety of sources, including:

  1. Written point-of-view questionnaires for CSRs
  2. Monitor/record high bill inquiry calls
  3. Captured/measured/analyzed wave form [the customer's range of speech (fundamental frequency) and tone of voice (intensity)] using sophisticated software
  4. Customer Satisfaction Surveys
  5. Agent Performance Reports (length of call, CSR productivity)


CMT reduced job tension, improved communications skills, improved empathetic responsiveness, improved job satisfaction, and increased customer satisfaction (See Figure 3 for statistical significance), as well as significantly shortening the length of call.

Specifically, CMT:

  • Reduced the length of High Bill Complaint calls by 22.3 seconds. For Northeast Utilities, this represented a savings of approximately $335,000 per year or seven employees.
  • Improved customer satisfaction 9.3% for High Bill calls and 7% overall.
  • Reduced CSR job tension/stress.
  • Improved communication, empathetic responsiveness, and job performance.


These results afford management the opportunity to view CSRs as part of their organization's income producing marketing strategies, as opposed to viewing them as a cost that needs to be minimized, or the first to go in a crunch. Properly managed, service is an important revenue generator.

Companies need to shift how they perceive CSR's importance, and provide them with the necessary training so they can do their jobs effectively.

Many companies continue to train new hires as before. Feedback and experience confirm that most new hires are given a minimum of 24 hrs of training before ever speaking to an actual customer. Most of this training, however, is content:

  • Operating systems
  • Software
  • Hardware
  • Telephone systems
  • Product or service offered or supported
  • Procedures and protocol for the job and at the bottom of the list lie
  • People skills.

The assumption is if you can speak, you know how to relate to people. Bad assumption. Just as hard skills need to be taught, the same holds true for soft skills.

By having ongoing training you benefit by:

  1. minimizing service disruption
  2. acknowledging the importance of your people,
  3. demonstrating they are held high in administration's priorities and
  4. increasing overall efficacy.

We suggest a minimum of 12-16 hours per year per employee spread out over 3 or 4 sessions.

Lastly, substantially boost your quality, productivity, and overall efficiency by hiring the right person and supporting them with soft-skills training.

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