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Call center training for communication skills in sensitive customer situations

Donna Fluss offers advice on call center training programs for dealing with all types of customer situations in this call center tip.

I'm researching call center behaviors, in particular how to deal with customers when discussing sensitive issues...

such as death of a partner or family member, divorce or registration as blind or disabled. Can you suggest any training programs, research material, sources of information about processes or scripts that have been generated to help call center managers deal with such calls?

I've seen some materials for handling sensitive customer situations, but none that I recommend. There are, however, many excellent call center training programs for communication skills for dealing with all types of customer situations. At DMG Consulting, we believe the best approach is to document your own customer service policies, procedures and options for handling sensitive customer situations and incorporate them into a communications training program. (We've critiqued procedures for handling deaths and military situations and found that some enterprises had onerous and inappropriate policies that forced call center agents to sound uncaring.)

Throughout a typical work day, call center agents deal with a wide variety of customer issues and emotions. And while most call center agents are trained to apologize for any inconvenience caused by a billing error or service interruption, many call center agents are uncomfortable handling highly sensitive and personal issues. (Many customers are also embarrassed and uncomfortable with these kinds of disclosures.) Regardless of the problem or situation the customer is calling about, the call center agent must first address and acknowledge the "human element," whether a death, divorce, or physical challenge, before moving on to address the "business issue." The ability to communicate sincere empathy for a customer situation is an art that requires training, role playing and practice.

While there are many excellent call center training programs for communication skills, this is only half of the challenge. No matter how empathetic a call center agent is, if your business processes for dealing with sensitive customer issues are "unfriendly," your customers will be insulted and hurt by your company's apparent lack of understanding.

Here are a few suggestions to help your call center agents handle sensitive customer issues:

1. Ask call center agents or quality monitoring managers to flag calls that involve sensitive customer situations. Then monitor the calls from the customer's perspective. Conduct focus groups with agents to obtain feedback about how they feel when dealing with sensitive calls so that you can identify communication or business process obstacles they may encounter. Solicit and discuss examples of what works and what doesn't based on their experiences. Identify effective empathy techniques and create a communications training module that includes role playing. Give your agents guidelines and suggested phrases (rather than scripts) to assist them in dealing with a variety of sensitive situations.
2. Ensure call center agents are informed about all options and services available to accommodate customers with special needs, such as TDD lines for the hearing impaired, large print statements, Braille ATMs and statements, special branch services, online options, etc. Make sure agents know how to identify special needs customers on their system or screens.
3. Make sure that the communication skills section of your quality monitoring form includes the ability to evaluate the understanding/empathy demonstrated by an agent during a call.

This was last published in March 2007

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