If all the world's a stage, the call center employees at Northern Trust Co. are definitely stars. But just what does professional acting have to do with call center training? Quite a bit, according to Darlene Allen-Nichols, second vice president of worldwide operations and technology for Northern Trust Co., a Chicago-based multi-bank holding company.
As part of the company's continuous improvement program, customer satisfaction surveys are used to identify how well call center associates are performing. While recent results showed the Investor Services Division associates keeping up with industry averages, Northern Trust hoped to exceed those standards on the 55,000-plus inbound phone calls received each month.
Enter VoiceScape, a Chicago-based voice and presentation skills training company that specializes in applying professional acting techniques to business communication and presentation situations. The two companies collaborated on the development of Vocal Image Enhancement Training, a customized, 13-hour program that spanned two weeks.
The first 12 hours of the program were held in two-hour blocks, three days a week, for two weeks. In the final hour of training, VoiceScape trainers shadowed the agents on actual calls to help them apply the learned skills. The training addressed key call center skills such as clear pronunciation, flexible speaking pace, courteous language, and the stressors that come from what can often be a full day of high-pressure, troubleshooting phone conversations.
"There's an enormous amount of vocal fatigue created in using your voice for eight hours straight," says Kirsten D'Aurelio, CEO of VoiceScape. "We needed to help the associates sound as interested on the 115th call of the day as they did on the first. There's also a lot of stress involved in conversations about high-stakes financial transactions, so we were able to offer on-the-spot relaxation techniques that agents can use right at their workstations."
But what made the training unique was the use of voice and speech exercises commonly used by actors before a performance. For example, Stephanie Mathis, a customer service associate, now starts breathing exercises to prepare for the next call as soon as her phone rings. "I used to run out of breath trying to get a whole line in, and the breathing techniques we learned help me overcome that," she says. "They also help calm me down, so I am less nervous on the phone and even when I'm talking to someone face-to-face."
Another technique, a melody exercise, helps encourage the associates to eliminate monotone delivery by exploring their entire vocal ranges, adding more depth and warmth to their conversations. The training, which included recording associates' conversations before and after the sessions, produced noticeable improvements immediately, says Allen-Nichols. "Through internal call monitoring and external surveys, our associates showed a 5 percent improvement in our already above-industry-average scores," she explains.
To best leverage the techniques, the division modified its call monitoring score sheets to reflect the concepts used in the training, such as breathing and vocal pitch. It also continues to record associates and allow them to hear how they sound to customers.
An obvious side benefit of the training was the impact it made in other areas of associates' daily lives. "They showed us how to apply the different exercises in any situation," says Cheryl Mitchell, operations manager of the call center. "You always have to talk to someone, whether it's on the phone in the call center, personal business or even at the grocery store. But particularly when the other person cannot see you, what you say and how you say it is very important."
VoiceScape's D'Aurelio wanted to make sure that the training was fun for the associates, and the theatrical metaphor certainly helped. "The call center associates at Northern Trust put on very sincere performances every time they pick up the phone," she says. "Just like actors work hard rehearsing and preparing to go on stage, phone representatives can learn to prepare their voices and mindsets each time they pick up the phone." —T.G.