Text: J. Begeman

Being able to conciliate an unsatisfied customer within five minutes, only needing half a word to know what the customer really wants to ask and imperceptibly asking three control questions to check the caller’s identity. Who wouldn’t want to have such an employee?

Yet the interest of employers will be toned down when they hear that this ‘just’ concerns a contact centre employee (or worse: call centre agent). Our field of specialty still has a questionable image. The UWV – one of The Netherlands’ institutions for social security – works hard to change this. And with success. The customer advisors working in the contact centres of UWV see their work as a valuable profession and as a job to learn for.
Customer contact is a field and the development of skills is central! The spin off for UWV is big. As the only in-house contact centre in The Netherlands, the UWV performs in accordance with the COPC performance norms!

Professional training
New UWV customer advisors start with an extensive training where they learn everything about the product, the system and conversation skills. Almost every company offers such a program to its new employees. The difference however is that the new employee only gets a contract when he or she passes the final test. Everyone who, after six weeks of training, is not so good that the customer does not hear the difference between him and an experienced employee, gets excluded from a second chance. After six months, the employee is obliged to follow a one-year professional training: ‘Customer Contact Employee’. The previous education does not matter. Even though the employee has a degree, he will be trained in the field of customer contact.

Working and learning
UWV has experienced that it is essential for the professional training of Customer Contact Employee to be completely integrated in the job of customer advisor. The teaching material can all be put into practise in the company. To this end there is even an own Academy that is certified to hand out diplomas. Team leaders play an important supporting role: they were actively trained so that they can work as study counsellor. They coach the employees with assignments and assess them where needed. The customer advisor can immediately put the learned material into practice. This creates an interaction that is opportune for both parties: excellent customer advisors who understand their job and work at their career with a certified diploma.

Working on an image
The job of customer advisors is important. They are the key to the customer and his satisfaction. Diplomas are awarded with consideration, successes are shared, individual results are discussed monthly. It is logical that the career path is one of the discussion points. Most customer advisors are happy with their job, but those who want to get the opportunity to keep learning and thus growing: for instance to the function of coach, team leader or a staff position as planner or secretary.

Stepping stones
In reality the training level of the starting customer advisor is not always optimal. But the possibilities of circulation and maintaining of people and knowledge are big, if the right training is offered and if there are jobs that can be used as a stepping stone. With these so-called ‘stepping stones’ the customer advisor can move on to another ‘starter’s job’ when he functions well. Jobs are divided into junior positions where the job requirements and tasks are simplified.

Juniors in practice
The trend visible at companies is to strive to as less positions as possible. The employee needs to be able to do as much different tasks as possible and he needs to be employable in a broad way. This can also be done differently if you take into account the offering of perspective to the employees – something that is visible with known positions like secretary and management secretary. These career paths also exist at contact centres. This enables you to divide the coaching position into a monitor who listens to all the conversations and a coach who analyses and discusses the results with the team leader. The position of reporter can be split up into a junior and a senior: one makes the easy reports and one takes care of more complex assignments.

Does it work?
At UWV they have chosen for this approach of positions in different levels. The effect is positive: the circulation at the company is good. Not only to coaching positions and staff positions, but also to management positions. It is a fact though that the size of the company enables it to deal with the splitting up of positions. A smaller organization will benefit more from personnel that is able to turn its hand to anything. Bigger organizations will benefit more from the splitting up of positions. Personnel for the more simple jobs is easier to attract, employees grow to a senior position with more responsibility and human capital is used efficiently. This of course under the condition that there is enough commitment from the organization to give the personnel the time and opportunities to develop themselves. This way a career path comes into being, to learn from and with a real perspective.

Not only employees of UWV benefit from this approach. Their satisfaction and good skills lead to wonderful achievements as far as the customer is concerned. The Customer Contact Centre of UWV is the only state enterprise in the world that can call itself COPC certified. There is no better acknowledgement than that!

Mw. J. Begeman is communication advisor of UWV Customer Contact. This organization handles the telephonic contacts with civilians who receive a benefit or who are looking for a job. About 1,200 employees work at the organization and they handle about nine million calls per year. The organization is COPC certified and has been awarded with several Dutch ‘National Contact Centre Awards’.