By: Ben Stephens, Service Strategies
Do you know the skills and knowledge staff members require to meet and exceed your customers’ support expectations? Do you know the skill level of each member of your staff? Have you defined a skill attainment process that ensures skill levels have been reached by your staff before advancing them or placing them on the front line with customers? Well you’re not alone. Many support centers lack a clearly defined skill attainment and certification process. Some centers have a list of skills but they are frequently just a list of product names or modules leaving the details up for interpretation. Many times the assessment process for skill attainment is simply a declaration of someone being ‘ready’ by their supervisor or manager, there is no formal process. Does this sound like your organization? An ill defined skill attainment process can contribute to serious issues for today’s support center, including:
- Inconsistent performance between support representatives
- Poor customer satisfaction levels
- Longer case closure times
- Low employee satisfaction resulting in a lack of enthusiasm and turnover
- High level of escalations
These issues continue to plague today’s technical support centers. When the managers are asked if they have development programs in place they frequently reply, ‘Of course we do, we train our people!’ So what is the problem? It’s the lack of understanding that training is just a step in a much larger process. This process includes documenting what skills staff need, how skill attainment can be measured, delivering the training and development that match the skills, linking skill attainment to the career advancement and reward systems and monitoring the support and product environment for future skill requirements.
Many times managers focus their attention on developing a training plan from only a product perspective, not based on the needs of the entire support process. In addition the focus is frequently on the delivery of training with little if any focus on did the training actually provide the desired affect, skill attainment. Many organizations assess skill attainment anecdotally with questions like ‘How was the class?” or “Did you learn anything?” The manager gets what they want from the newly trained employees, “Great class!” “Thanks for the training we needed it”. Everyone’s happy, the manager meets their objective of delivering training, and the staff go to class and feel they are more valuable as a result. All may seem well, but when the time comes to use the new skills many staffers may not quite have absorbed everything in class. We tend forget that skill attainment varies from individual to individual, but we as mangers are persuaded to believe that all attendees have attained the same skill from a training class. So the less trained perform poorly, which affects customer satisfaction, employee satisfaction and the cycle starts again… What needs to be done to fix this cycle?
Support organizations need to develop and deploy a Skills and Knowledge Attainment process. This is a closed loop structured approach to identifying, attaining, certifying and maintaining the necessary skills to meet the demands of the support organization. Such a process is necessary to consistently deliver service and drive both customer satisfaction and employee job satisfaction.
Skill and Knowledge Attainment Process
Define Skills and Knowledge Requirements – The first step in the skill and knowledge attainment process is the definition of what skills and knowledge are required to meet your support organization’s service and employee satisfaction objectives. This step involves building a skill and knowledge profile for the support organization. The resulting profile will consist of a skill and knowledge list, a ranking system, and a matrix of skills by organizational role. The skill and knowledge list will include a short definition of each skill or knowledge item. The ranking system is simply the method by which a skill or knowledge item is ranked in level of attainment. For example, none, novice, expert, trainer is a ranking system. Each rank or level should have a short definition of the skill level along with a few examples. The matrix defines the skills, knowledge and ranking for each role within the support organization. For example, level 1 staff may only require novice or diagnostic skills for some products and collaborate with more experiences staff with more difficult questions.
Skills also should be weighted based on demand. Skills needed to resolve a low volume of issues are not as important as those needed to resolve the highest volume of calls. Some organizations focus on topics that may be difficult to understand, but do not result in high volumes of cases. The weighting of skills is a critical variable when sequencing training delivery programs.
This information is key in communicating to the support staff the skills necessary to advance within the organization. It provides a guideline for support management in hiring practices, career discussions and in developing individual development plans. Finally it serves as an excellent vehicle in communicating training and staffing needs to management during the budget process.
Skill and Knowledge Assessment – Once the skill and knowledge matrix is completed the development needs of staff members can be determined using the definitions as an initial assessment. The organizational shortfalls can then be used to sequence the training development and deployment within the organization. The assessment process need not be an overwhelming one. It can be accomplished initially by simply having the staff and managers complete a self-assessment using the definitions and rankings. Once completed the support leaders would review the self-assessment, discuss the differences with the staff and agree on a ranking for each skill with each staff member. Once the assessment is completed the methods for attaining and certifying the skills and knowledge needs to be identified. At this point in the process it is important that the staff understand the assessment is part of an overall development plan for the organization. That it will be used as the foundation for the development plans for the entire organization and the results are not going to be used in individual performance reviews. The importance of an honest baseline skill assessment in developing and delivering the right professional development program must be understood by everyone.
Determine Skill Attainment and Certification Methods – Skill attainment methods include formalized training, industry certification, academic training, on the job training and just plain job experience. This is familiar territory for most support managers. However, developing certification beyond industry certifications like Microsoft, Oracle and A+ is new ground for many support organizations. Developing an internal certification program for proprietary software, hardware and process is important to ensuring that the skill and knowledge training delivered meets the required level of skill attainment for the role in the organization. The level of assessment needed to determine certification could be as simple as an expert interview or as extensive as transcript review, testing, skill demonstration and technical interviews. This will vary widely based on the importance of the skill or knowledge in the delivery of the service. For example, a support center providing support for modems may require no industry or product certification just a two or three day class in common modem problems, process and tool training and training in customer service. However, support centers that provide support to hospital lab systems may require a science degree in the appropriate field, lab certification, lab experience and specific product certification before they can handle customer issues directly. Once the methods for delivery and certification of the skills and knowledge are determined the organizational development plan can be developed. The plan will include a curriculum of skill/knowledge modules, certification processes and a budget. With the plan developed the delivery phase of the process can begin.
Deliver Training and Certification – This phase of the Skill and Knowledge Attainment process involves the delivery of skills outlined in the development plan. Once this phase begins it becomes a continuous process within the support center as new staff are hired, or promoted or move laterally within the organization. To be successful at deploying the development plan its accomplishment must be tied to both the manager and support representative’s performance metrics. Skill and knowledge attainment must be a key performance component of everyone in the support organization, from the director to the latest new hire. A support center’s development program must be a continuous process. To ensure the plan is kept in synch with the business it must be reviewed on a regular basis through a monitoring process.
Monitor Environment – The final phase of the Skill and Knowledge Attainment process is the monitoring phase. This can be broken into several components. First the skill and knowledge matrix must be maintained. To accomplish this, support leaders must regularly review the skill matrix in light of new product releases and changes in the industry. The support industry is changing rapidly. New virtual platforms and e-Service channels are changing the skills required by successful support organizations. Support managers need to be constantly looking at the marketplace through attending industry events to keep in touch with new industry practices.
Second the performance appraisal process must reinforce the skill attainment and development in the regular review of each individual in the support organization. The skill and knowledge matrix should be the foundation for the performance discussion. The ranking criteria can be used for both career advancement and in developing plans to address performance shortfalls.
Finally the training curriculum, materials and instruction methods should be reviewed on a regular basis to ensure the material is current and meeting its objectives. All training modules should provide the attendees the opportunity to evaluate the instructional content, delivery mechanism and instructor. These evaluations can provide excellent insights into how courses can be improved.
When product, process and customer service skills vary between staff members, the customer receives inconsistent service. This leads to customer dissatisfaction and operational inefficiency. When staff recognize that their peers in the same job do not possess the same skills and process knowledge but are receiving the same recognition and salary they become dissatisfied with their job. This results in both poor customer service and employee job dissatisfaction.
Understanding the skills necessary to deliver quality customer service in a support center is key to avoiding poor customer satisfaction and low job satisfaction. The best approach to avoid and exit this cycle is to deploy a structured method to identifying, assessing, and delivering support skills and knowledge continuously to the organization.
The Skill and Knowledge Attainment process provides a structured process to identify, assess, deliver and monitor support skills necessary to attain and maintain both high customer service levels and employee job satisfaction.