June 1, 2022

How to encourage professional development opportunities for support agents (and why you should)

Adrien Seldon
Workforce Management, Assembled

Trying to find new ways to empower your support agents and improve their workplace experience? Look no further than learning and development. Gallup reports that nearly three-quarters of employees say professional development opportunities increase their job satisfaction. As a workforce manager, increasing job satisfaction should be one of your top priorities. 

Below, we’ll lay out some of the best ways to make learning and development a part of your team’s daily routine without sacrificing productivity. But first, let's see what all the fuss is about. 

The importance of prioritizing professional development opportunities

Before we dive into the details of providing call center career growth opportunities to your agents, let's take a quick look at how supporting learning and development opportunities pays off for you, your agents, and your customers ​​.

  • Improves engagement: Providing professional development and growth opportunities is a proven way to increase your team’s engagement. According to a report from Better Buys, employees who are offered learning and development opportunities are 15% more engaged at work than those who aren’t afforded those opportunities. When you invest time and company resources in your team members, they’ll feel valued and respond with quality work. 
  • Boosts knowledge and productivity: Providing growth opportunities can help boost productivity and knowledge retention. For instance, a study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology found that participants who underwent leadership training improved their performance by 20% and their learning capacity by 25%!  Providing your agents with learning opportunities means they may be able to answer questions and offer solutions that much more quickly.
Pie chart graphic with a white background that reads "94% of employees would stay with their company longer if it invested in their learning and development."
  • Benefits talent retention: Harvard Business Review estimates call center attrition rates are roughly 45%, meaning you’ll be losing just shy of half your team every year — if you’re average. Focusing on learning and development can drastically reduce attrition rates on your team, which reduces the headaches associated with hiring new candidates. The 2022 Workplace Learning Report from LinkedIn shows a whopping 94% of employees would stay with their company longer if it invested in their learning and development. Since hiring replacements can cost up to one-third of an employee’s salary, prioritizing customer service professional development can really pay off. 
  • Supports talent acquisition: Offering professional development opportunities is a great way to staff your team with the best agents available. SHRM found that 48% of HR professionals ranked good training and education programs as their most effective tool to bring in top talent. If you offer better training and growth opportunities, make sure you’re using them to recruit! You stand to benefit tremendously if you offer opportunities that your competitors don’t. 
  •  Enhances the customer experience: Knowledgeable, highly engaged support agents mean the difference between a great customer interaction and a bad one. Learning and development opportunities will help you attract quality support agents and keep your best agents on your team, meaning you’ll always be well-staffed with qualified team members to take even the most difficult calls. Plus, giving your team professional growth opportunities increases their engagement and productivity—both of which will increase your service outcomes.  

It’s worth noting that employees are demanding learning and development opportunities today. Gallup recently found that 87% of millennials view professional development and career growth as an “important” part of a job — that’s significantly higher than previous generations. As millennials and Gen-Z candidates begin to fill more and more roles in customer service, making sure you meet their needs will be key to maintaining a successful support team. 

Our customers are already discovering the truth in that statistic. 

“The prevailing theme was a want for more career options and for time to be able to flex outside of the queue and for growth in your role,” says Jake Alster, a Senior Project Support Manager at Patreon. 

“Growth opportunities and more flexibility is something that agents are now definitely expecting and something we’re working with them to ensure,” agrees Hannah Santisi, a Support Team Lead at Care/Of. 

If prioritizing customer service career development is so important, how can you make it happen? Don’t worry — we’ve got you covered! ✅

How to prioritize professional development opportunities for support agents

Start by identifying what strengths your agents have and finding out how they want to grow their careers. It’s your job to guide your team members to success on their career journeys, and it helps to start with a plan. 

1. Help your support agents build a career path

Everyone’s professional development trajectory will be a bit different. Avoid the friction caused by “square peg, round hole” problems by learning what each team member hopes to achieve. Once you have a good idea of their aspirations, you can give them the tools they need to make those dreams a reality. Here are a few ways to help create personalized professional development goals for call center agents.

A graphic titled "Creating a career path". Graphic contains a dotted line with four text boxes placed at various points. The text boxes read: "1. Ask your agents about their career goals." "2. Identify their skills." "3. Let them shadow team members" "4. Build a career path with actionable goals."
  • Ask about their goals: Your agents probably have a good idea of what they like and don’t like. Finding out their preferences will help you narrow down the kinds of opportunities and positions they’re best suited for. Actively listening to your agents and acting on their feedback is also a great way to boost their engagement.

    Start by scheduling a one-on-one with each of your agents dedicated to uncovering what they want to do and how they think you can help them achieve their goals. Once you have a solid outline, make sure you check in on their professional development frequently to work through any potential blockers and keep them on track. 
  • Identify their skills: Identifying each agent’s strengths and weaknesses will make creating a personalized career path significantly easier. Many of the skills that make your agents successful in customer support — like creative problem solving and active listening — transfer well into leadership roles. However, that doesn’t mean you should pigeonhole them into specific leadership tracks. Instead, consider informal roles that may help their career growth and let them further hone those skills. 

    For instance, if one of your agents knows everything there is to know about your products, their career path may lie in the product development process, not customer support. Think about the training and skill development they might need to move into that division and suggest including that in their career path. 
  • Implement a shadow program: Your support agents may not know exactly where they want to end up, and that’s fine. Not everyone has an ideal career in mind. Help your agents discover what they’re most interested in by letting them shadow various team members across all sectors of your organization. Your goal here is to keep them within the organization, even if that means they eventually migrate away from customer support. 

    If you have agents who want to stay in the customer support realm, that’s great! Give them call center management training and have them shadow experienced agents and support team leads to understand what a career in support entails. 
  • Create a customized plan: Once you’ve worked with your agents to discover their strengths and what they want to do, you should create personalized career paths. This path is a roadmap for their career development, starting with their current role and ending with their desired professional outcomes. Set manageable goals for your agents, and use check-ins to make sure they meet them. 

    Agents that hope to become workforce managers will need call center leadership training. Their career path should be aligned around mentoring newer agents, leading support teams, and understanding key parts of the job — like forecasting, scheduling, and reporting. Agents who want to work in work in product development, on the other hand, may need to set goals around learning programming languages or taking product design classes. 

Once you’ve worked with your agents to define their career goals, they’ll need time and resources to achieve their goals. While customer support is still their top priority, there are many ways to add learning and development to their workdays. 

2. Foster a culture of learning

One of the best ways to help your agents grow is to foster a culture of learning in your support workplace. Let them know you want them to grow and that you’re a valuable resource they can tap into as they begin their professional development journey. Creating personalized career paths is a great way to show you’re serious about career growth, as are the follow-up meetings we’ve recommended you implement. 

Leading by example is another great way to foster a learning culture on your team. We hope we don’t need to tell you that you should also be taking on professional development opportunities. If you are, share that with your agents! 

Taking this even further, let your agents showcase what they’ve been learning to one another. Consider setting aside time once a week or month for knowledge sharing sessions. This lets your agents learn about the opportunities available to them and see that professional development is part of their role. 

Your agents should feel empowered to seek out opportunities, not afraid.

3. Adjust schedules and productivity expectations

According to LinkedIn, 68% of employees want to learn at work. It’s frankly unreasonable to expect your agents to use their personal time to focus on career growth. 

A graphic with a purple pie chart that reads "68% of employees want to learn at work."

Use flexible scheduling practices to let your agents pursue their professional development goals during the workday while still having enough time to support customers. Jake from Patreon helped institute a scheduling policy that involves directly supporting customers for six hours out of every eight-hour shift. The other two hours are left open for career development opportunities — signaling to his agents that he supports their professional growth. 

If you give your agents time to develop during their shifts, you’ll need to align your productivity goals to reflect that change. Just as it’s unrealistic to expect them to work on career development at home or on the weekend, it’s also unreasonable to assume they’ll be able to close eight hours' worth of tickets in less than eight hours. 

You may need to schedule more agents for peak contact times or hire additional agents to meet demand. Creating realistic expectations will help inform your workforce planning needs and it will signal to your team that you are taking steps to encourage their professional development goals. 

4. Leverage education tools and assistance

Prioritizing professional development doesn’t mean you’ll be the one doing the teaching, especially if your agents’ career paths take them outside of the customer support realm. Consider using educational tools like e-learning platforms to help your agents grow. These courses are well-structured and often come with certificates of completion, which are great milestones to include in your agents’ career paths. 

Spend some time looking through the catalogs of these platforms to identify helpful lessons. 54% of employees nationwide said they would spend more time on professional development if they had course recommendations to assist their learning

Some of the best online learning platforms include: 

📚 LinkedIn Learning (formerly Lynda): LinkedIn Learning offers thousands of courses focusing on almost every aspect of professional development. Their courses range from fifteen minutes to many hours, letting your agents break their learning up into chunks that fit their schedule. 

✏️ edX: While edX is more geared towards academics, they offer more than 100 professional certifications on various topics like leadership, finance, IT, and everything in between. 

💻 Codeacademy: Codecademy is geared specifically towards coding and software development, but if you have agents looking to grow these skillsets, look no further. 

👩‍🎓 Coursera: Coursera partners with higher learning institutions worldwide to offer a huge selection of fully-online degrees that your agents can work towards on a timeframe that works for you and them. 

Remember, start small: buy tickets for webinars agents are interested in, give them time to go to events that can help their growth, and ask them what else your company can do the support their growth from a monetary standpoint. 

A purple graphic that reads "Internal hires are 3.5x more likely to be engaged than external hires."

5. Advocate for more professional development opportunities 

It’s your responsibility to advocate for growth opportunities for your team. Since prioritizing professional development will take buy-in from your company’s leadership, you’ll need to convince them of its importance and benefits. There is a wealth of information about the benefits of learning and development (like this blog post 🙃), so come armed with arguments and facts to back up your request. 

Think specifically about what it costs your company to not invest in learning and development. You can focus on increased engagement and productivity (both of which increase revenue), the learning and professional development initiatives your competitors have created, or the benefits of employee retention and hiring internally. LinkedIn’s annual Workplace Learning Report is full of great tidbits to entice management into expanding professional development opportunities. For example, employees who are promoted internally are 3.5x more likely to be engaged in the workplace than their externally hired counterparts. 

If you’re wondering where to start, try advocating for a tuition reimbursement program. It’s a relatively easy lift from a managerial standpoint and can make a huge difference for your agents. This program can cover the costs of online courses as well as community colleges or state universities in your area that provide part-time degrees. Not only is tuition reimbursement a great selling point to potential hires, but it will also promote loyalty among your agents and show you and your company’s management are taking their professional development seriously. 

Sometimes advocating for your agents will mean letting them go. While that might be sad, it’s a healthy part of career development. To this end, keep an eye on job postings your company sends out and refer your agents if you think they’d be a good fit. If your support team is expanding, tap one of your best and brightest for that new team lead role, even if that means losing their expertise on the phone lines.

The upside of call center attrition 

Even if you run the greatest support team in the world (and we’re sure it’s pretty close), attrition is inevitable. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. If your agents are growing professionally under your leadership and gaining promotions in the support department or even other departments, you’ve still done your job. By prioritizing customer service career growth, you’ve made their time on your team more valuable. You’ve also ensured that your agents are happier, more engaged, and better prepared for the challenges of customer support. 

Focusing on professional development is just one of many ways to empower your agents and improve their employee experience. For more ideas, check out our recent blog post “How to improve the employee experience without sacrificing workforce planning needs.”

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