Interview with Richard Kozma, CEO of United Call Centers
Persuasive communication techniques combined with credible presence? Find out what learning opportunities a company can offer to ensure the preparedness of its customer service colleagues. Richárd Kozma, CEO of United Call Centers, shared his thoughts as part of Q&A series during a thematic week focusing on workplace learning in the Hungarian and German EPALE National Support Services. An edited version of the earlier article is now available in the United Call Centers Press Room.
The Hungarian and German EPALE National Support Services have launched a joint thematic week. with a focus on workplace learning. EPALE Ambassador in Hungary Annamária Kiss conducted a series of interviews with five organizations that make great efforts to train their employees.
United Call Centers has nearly 20 years of experience in providing customer service solutions to multinational enterprises. Headquartered in Miskolc, the company has Hungarian and international divisions in call center operations and telesales and permanent placement and temporary staffing division in Budapest. During the interview, Richárd Kozma, CEO of the Hungarian division, described how they implement workplace learning within the company.
How does the notion of workplace learning fit with the company mindset?
It’s about service; we always say that our product, bearing in mind that we do not produce anything, is people, namely customer service operators. This sector has seen a major transformation over the last decade, with fierce competition among call centers. We consider high-quality service a key factor to stand out from our competitors. To this end, it is essential for call center operators to have all the necessary knowledge to perform their jobs to a high standard.
We divide knowledge into segments. One is a professional training, with training courses on our clients’ professional requirements. We always get these requirements as is and we must learn to comply with them. We have one client where professional training takes several months and, in general, it can be said for almost all of our clients that professional information is updated up on a daily basis. The other segment involves soft skill training courses that are about upskilling.
We established our own in-house training academy four years ago. We christened it USE, an acronym of UCC’s Standard of Excellence. We chose this name because we wanted to provide training courses that are actually useful for employees during their daily work. Our training academy currently comprises ten modules covering the entire range of customer service operations and we constantly update their content to match current trends. We start with self-awareness training, then move on to customer typology, so that call center operators will eventually be able to recognize customers’ personality types in the first 15 seconds of calls and conduct a personalized conversation. We believe that this is the key to high-quality calls, be it sales, complaint management, or any other types of calls that are the focus of our soft skills.
In addition, we keep a keen eye on opportunities to apply for grants; GINOP Section 6.1.6 provided such an opportunity. As an exception, we used the services of a third-party training company because we wanted to update our knowledge and define management training modules in the training plan that had been given less focus in the previous period.
Were members of the training team the only ones who attended training courses in order to update training techniques?
GINOP 6.1.6 was a nine-month project that involved our 35-strong management team and key account managers undergoing training, and was, of course, also attended by our in-house team of soft skill trainers, of course. We received the following types of training:
- effective partner communication training
- team building and cooperation development
- change management training
- team-building training
- management team building and cooperation development
- digital upskilling – basic and
- digital upskilling – advanced.
What positive changes did attending training courses bring for the company?
The biggest dividends from this series of training courses were perhaps the uniform approach that employees working on different accounts managed to embrace and the managerial guidelines we consider an important part of UCC’s corporate culture.
Line managers of call center operators have a pivotal role in terms of employee satisfaction as our metrics show in many cases, that the relationship with managers is even more important than financial considerations. Thus, it was very valuable to raise awareness of the techniques and behavior that determine the atmosphere in each team and communication with our clients.
What role do an initial assessment and the training plan play in employee development?
We perform a job analysis for each of our customer service operations as the basis for establishing what competencies are needed to effectively carry out the responsibilities involved. During recruitment, we use the relevant competence catalog to assess candidates’ skills. We have a competence catalog for each client based on the type of work we do for that client. It requires different skills to have a conversation with CEOs and sell them a service and other competencies to perform a more administrative function. We assess who is good at what and which competencies need improvement for each individual.
The same methodology is applied to support staff and the selection of managers. We believe that the management teams should primarily be built in-house. We also have a training plan for employees participating in our career program, whose main focus is on upskilling.
So, the company constantly has in-house training, and using the grant provided a little extra for you…
Absolutely! It was further management training where we felt the most need for new impulses and there is a rapid change in employees’ expectations requiring our response. It is important for us to understand and properly manage the factors that affect employees’ performance and ways of maintaining their level of motivation. Thus, it was of great help here that we were able to work with professionals within the tender who introduced us to the latest professional principles and guidelines.
How are call center operators informed of training opportunities?
Our team leaders and quality assurance managers continuously monitor the performance of operators and teams. They automatically observe employees from this aspect, considering who needs to improve and in what. Our quality assurance personnel spend 80% of their working hours listening in on calls, looking for any recurring mistakes and shortcomings within an organizational unit that need improvement. When enough is gathered from these for relevant training material, we take call center operators out of work and give them the training. Manager development is much more personalized and takes place in much smaller groups; in this case, it is more like coaching than training.
Do employees get personal feedback from quality managers?
They can get instant feedback, meaning side-by-side feedback, that is effectively provided on a daily basis for certain situations. Furthermore, we have regular monthly feedback which is an hour-long discussion with a manager, as well as the quality manager when needed. This involves the analysis of some calls, which serves as the basis for the monthly call assessment.
To what extent does the employee bear the costs of training courses?
We finance training courses during working hours. It is in our interest as an employer to train people. Otherwise, they would be reluctant to attend training and that would miss the point. For us, it is a motivational tool. Employees are very open-minded, both at the managerial and the call center level; they are hungry for knowledge and like training. We have training courses not only to develop competencies but also because we consider our line of work very monotonous and sometimes you need to get away from it. Training provides a great opportunity to take employees out of work and have them develop their competencies in a somewhat more informal environment once a month.
Does this also affect staff turnover?
Of course! In Budapest, there is 45 to 50% staff turnover in our sector. With us, in Miskolc, it is always under 15%; we are very proud of this and are making a great effort to keep it this way. In fact, employees need to be retained, and training is a great driver for retention. It is worth paying attention to this as it will prevent people from leaving after six months. Being able to work with the same people is exactly why our partners like us.
Besides preventing staff turnover, what advantages could you mention in relation to workplace learning?
In my opinion, training can be very motivating if it is really about meeting employee needs. What I mean by that is that our employees like the training courses they are attending as they can learn a lot about themselves and their co-workers and this makes it very attractive. We talk to people; an average call center operator communicates with 60 different types of people a day and wants to achieve something in that three or four minutes. It is crucial for us to quickly find out who, what type of person, is on the other end of the line.
There is a business benefit to employees doing their jobs with confidence because they feel that they are experts in their fields. If they like what they do because they see the challenge in it, in each and every call, they will do their jobs well, and if they do their jobs well, our partners will show their gratitude, for example, by entering into a long-term contract.
Is it possible to gain support for individual studies?
Yes, we support taking language courses, as a confident command of English is very important to us in terms of business, given that we have an international service division. Currently, we provide native-language customer service in 20 different countries and English is the common denominator. In addition, there are other inquiries, particularly from the management team, relating to further training or retraining in higher education, which we support in most cases because UCC benefits from the knowledge and experience gained.
Is training always face-to-face?
In our Hungarian division, yes; however, for the international organizational unit, we have employees, from Japan to Brazil, whom we will never meet. Working from home, they offer their native-language knowledge to provide service to our partners; we organize online training courses for them. Providing professional training and testing knowledge gained has not been a challenge for a long time, but providing soft skill training online raises other types of challenges. The reason for this is that this training often builds on team cohesion and interpersonal interactions; thus, sitting in the same room offers a more efficient way to achieve the specific objective of these sessions. In the online space, we had to look for other solutions, placing a stronger emphasis on individual development.
In your opinion, what learning opportunity will be in focus at the corporate level in the future?
We have many plans. Views differ with regard to the direction in which our sector is headed, but we are trying to prepare for every eventuality. We have been engaged in software development for two years with the aim of devising solutions capable of coordinating automatisms with human work in customer service processes. Preparations in this field will be a focus area in the coming period.
Another prominent area of improvement concerns how we will be able to stand out even more in sales. Sales trends are rapidly changing as customers are bombarded with stimuli. We continuously research and develop sales-related solutions and training courses, because what we considered right yesterday may seem obsolete tomorrow. For us, it is obvious that continuous training and development will remain the cornerstone of our success in the future too.
Richard Kozma, CEO of United Call Centers, added the following:
“At the time of the interview, we won a very successful on-the-job training competition, which attracted the interest of EPALE, a member organization of the NSZFH, the National Vocational, and Adult Education Office. After that, we took part in several presentations, where we presented our program to the companies wishing to apply. The interview was conducted in this context, shortly before the outbreak of the COVID epidemic. Many of the improvements discussed at the end of the conversation have taken place since then. We have been actively using automation softwares since then, but it’s a never-ending process.
The same is true in the area of sales, where it’s also important to respond to market trends, the changing needs of customers in relation to a product, and the related customer services, as these are also constantly changing. A telesales campaign is very different today than it was just three years ago, and we need to incorporate these experiences into the related workflows on a daily basis.”
The interview was originally published on the website of EPALE in February 2020. Original text by Annamária Kiss. Reposted edition was published with the kind permission of the author.