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Agent Call Handling Training Guide

For Improving First Call Resolution and Customer Service

February 3, 2022 | 12min read

Call Handling Standards ▶

Call Handling Training

Only 20% of call center agents are very satisfied (e.g., top box rating) with the call handling training they receive to provide high First Call Resolution (FCR) and great customer service. Moreover, for "every 1% improvement in FCR, there is a 1% improvement in customer satisfaction." Therefore, there is a strong business case to train agents to improve FCR in order to provide great customer service.

Furthermore, for the customers who did not get their call resolved on the first call, approximately 40% resulted from the agent being the source of error. One of the main reasons the agent could not resolve the customer's interaction on the first call was due to poor agent call handling training or a lack of call handling training.

This guide will answer the following primary (5) agent call handling training and related questions.


Agent Training Questions

1. Why Provide Call Handling Training?

The following shares the business case for providing focused call handling training to agents and supervisors. As most call center managers know, training is one of the most significant investments made by the call center. Most of the training cost is for new hires. For the average call center, annual agent turnover is 28% which means there is a lot of new hire training. The average cost of a new agent is $7,500, which includes an average of 30 classroom training days.

However, the biggest impact on training new agents is that their FCR performance is 5% lower than agents working in the call center for 12 months or more. Unfortunately, many call centers managers do not understand the financial impact of lower FCR for newer agents. For example, when FCR goes down by 1%, call center operating costs go up by 1%.

Most alarming is customer defections are more than 5 times higher for unresolved calls than when FCR is achieved. Furthermore, 95% of customers expressed intent to continue doing business with an organization when FCR is achieved. However, when a customer's issue was unresolved, 25% of customers expressed their intention not to continue using the organization's products and services.

Suppose an organization decides to embark on an agent call handling training program initiative. In that case, an FCR Charter must be created that outlines employees' fundamental call handling standards, metrics, goals, and rewards of FCR performance. The FCR Charter for the call handling training program should include:

  • Why the organization believes in Voice of the Customer (VoC) to determine FCR, which is based on a post-call survey method
  • The baseline measure for the family of FCR metrics (e.g., FCR, call resolution, Csat, and average calls to resolve)
  • The goals of the call center, management, support personnel, and agents for the above metrics
  • The benefits of achieving the FCR goals
  • The role of each individual for achieving the FCR goals
  • The rewards for achieving the FCR goals (e.g., what’s in it for them?)
  • How the call handling training will help them improve FCR, call resolution, Csat and lower cost

Call Handling Training

The Call Handling FCR Charter for the call center has to be translated so that the individual agent can see how their results impact the entire call center. The relationship between call resolution and FCR has to be made very clear for this to occur.

The reality is that FCR is not a metric that the agent has direct control over. What the agent does control is call resolution. In other words, for the individual agent, it does not matter if the call they are handling is the customer's first, second, third, or fourth call –the buck stops with the agent handling the most recent call.

If an agent resolves the call, the customer does not need to call back; average calls to resolve decrease, and call resolution and FCR increase. As a result, the more the agent can improve the one metric they feel they have control of – call resolution – the greater the benefit to customers, organization, and agents.

FCR family of metrics results worth sharing with agents:

  • Every 1% improvement in FCR, there is a 1% improvement in customer satisfaction
  • 95% of customers expressed intent to continue doing business with an organization when FCR is achieved
  • 30% of customers do not get their call resolved on the first call, 12% of customers have their call go unresolved, and 25% of those customers express intent to defect
  • When a customer initially calls into the call center, and the call goes unresolved, they will have to make, on average, 2.5 calls to the organization to resolve their call
  • Repeat calls represent, on average, 23% of the call center's operating budget
  • FCR increases 2% for every 1% increase in call resolution. In other words, when agents drive up their call resolution rate by 1%, the organization typically enjoys a 2% increase in FCR
  • Csat with the call will drop, on average, 15% for every additional call that a customer has to make
  • Every 1% improvement in FCR, you reduce operating cost by 1%

The above results are for the call center industry average, and the best practice would be to use a call center's specific FCR results. In addition, sharing the call center's vision, mission, and motto statements and the key performance indicators (KPIs) is also beneficial.

World-class FCR call centers have created a business case for focusing on FCR. They have also laid the groundwork to establish call resolution as the dominant metric on an agent's scorecard and create a recognition and bonus program for achieving the call resolution goals.

Share with agents, supervisors, and other call center staff how the call handling training will help them improve FCR, call resolution, and Csat. In addition, it's helpful to discuss the training agenda and the VoC results of the agents who have completed the two-day call handling training program.

2. Who to Train for Call Handling?

Training New Agents

New agents need to be trained for call handling to achieve high FCR in their new hire training period (3-8 weeks). In world-class FCR call centers, agent call handling for FCR delivery is integrated into the initial classroom training in every section of the training material covered. It is not seen as a 'bolt-on' unit; instead, it is elevated to the purpose and mission of the work in the call center. The goal is that once FCR is incorporated into the base expectations and grounding of new agents, it becomes part of the organization's fabric and part of the way business is done. This mindset then stays with the agent through their entire time working in the call center.

Training Existing Agents

Existing agents need to have exposure to the same information on call handling for FCR delivery as new agents. Anyone who has not gone through the new hire agent training needs to have the same building blocks of call handling for FCR delivery as new agents. The training session becomes the initial forum to introduce the FCR Charter, including the key metrics for which the agent will be held accountable and the 'what's in it for me' factors. The training needs to illustrate why FCR and call resolution metrics are important for existing agents.

Training Supervisors

Supervisors also need to be trained in on-call handling for FCR delivery. In most cases, for agents to improve FCR, the supervisor is the most critical ingredient for their success in improving FCR. Therefore, supervisors need to be great coaches for call handling FCR delivery. Supervisor training will ensure that they are fully immersed in the goals and metrics of FCR and the principles of VoC being the judge that matters the most for determining FCR. Unless this happens, the whole movement to FCR could potentially 'die on the vine.' In addition, lack of supervisor 'buy-in' is detrimental in the critical coaching discussions where they have the power to kill an FCR initiative by simply dismissing the customer feedback as 'just an odd customer,' or 'there was nothing that could be done anyway.'

Supervisors, who overly use their ability to dismiss customer surveys because they judge that their agent could not have done anything to resolve the issue, are essentially becoming the Voice of the Organization (VoO) instead of the VoC. Supervisors need to attend the agent training sessions to support and lead their agents from a training perspective. In addition, there needs to be supervisor and management call handling FCR delivery training sessions. The most critical outcome of the supervisor and management call handling FCR delivery training is the mindset shift to advocate for the customer. This is best done by using many FCR scenario-based calls that illustrate where the agent could have changed the outcome for the customer.

Training Managers

Managers, like supervisors, are pivotal in accepting the VoC in FCR. If the manager is a strong advocate for customers, FCR focus will be treated in the highest regard in the call center. Call handling FCR delivery training (e.g., best practices for measuring and managing FCR) is essential for management, especially for the SVP, to ensure a successful FCR outcome. SQM highly recommends that management attend SQM's FCR benchmarking and tracking report workshop that shares research, success stories, and best practices for improving FCR performance.

3. When to Train for Call Handling?

A best practice is for organizations to train from the top-down versus the bottom-up. The average call center tends to approach an FCR initiative from the needs of the largest group (agents) and plans the entire initiative from the bottom-up. This means that agents become the first to be trained and held accountable for call resolution. While this might be argued to be the most practical practice, it will backfire due to agents feeling like it is just another initiative being forced on them without the leadership team's 'buy-in' and support. An effective way to assist in helping achieve an FCR culture is to manage the call handling FCR delivery training so that the first people to be trained are managers, and the last people to be trained are the agents. The best practice for FCR training is an implementation initiative in two phases as follows:

Phase 1: Training for the Management Team and Supervisors

Training for managers and supervisors takes place just before full-scale post-call surveying begins so that they understand the process, baseline results (based on preliminary benchmarking studies), opportunities, and goals for improvement. In addition, both groups will have First Call Resolution as the metric for which they are held accountable.

Training Mangers and Supervisors

Although post-call surveying begins at an agent quota level, there is no agent accountability at this early stage. Accountability is restricted to the management team and supervisors. Agents are informed that post-call customer surveying has started; however, the only evidence they see of the survey process is when they are told about a world-class Csat survey completed by a customer they served. In no time at all, there is quite a buzz created about the initiative and curiosity from agents as to when they can expect to receive their world-class Csat survey. In this way, the following critical goals are achieved:

  1. Supervisors and management have the time to understand the FCR, call resolution, and Csat data and apply it before rolling it out to their teams. In this way, supervisors can become comfortable with the concepts and discuss any challenges they might face ahead of the full launch with their managers.
  2. When supervisors and managers learn how to and start to share congratulatory world-class FCR surveys with their agents, enthusiasm for FCR will begin to happen. As soon as supervisors or managers share world-class FCR surveys, all agents will want to see them as soon as possible, and as a result, the agents will be motivated to achieve world-class FCR surveys.
  3. Supervisors buy into the process from the beginning of the launch, as they are instrumental in building the call handling FCR delivery training program that will be used in Phase 2

Phase 2: Training for Agents

This phase is typically two to three months after the Phase 1 call handling FCR delivery training. By this time, if supervisors have been effective in offering congratulatory messages of call resolution and world class call FCR surveys, agents will be ready to learn more about the full context of the program.

Training Agents

4. How to Train for Call Handling?

There is much discussion in the call center industry about the mix of computer-based training (CBT) and live training helping frontline employees improve customer service. From SQM's perspective, the live training component should never be under-valued. It grounds new agents in the culture of the organization. In-person training can certainly be supplemented with CBT, but it needs to be designed to be rich in FCR scenario-based calls. However, it is critical that the live training is broken into units so that, as quickly as possible, new agents can be introduced to a live environment of taking simple calls with great support.

Four best practices for agent call handling FCR delivery training that SQM has observed are:


1. Mentoring

Given that new hire agent turnover within the first three months is at 25%, the assignment of a mentor has a business case in terms of the early identification of challenges and cultural fit. The mentor role is where each new agent is assigned a world-class Csat certified mentor agent from the first day of training, and time is made available for the agent to listen to calls that their mentor handles each day. In addition, the mentor has time each day to check in with their trainee agent on what they are learning. The mentoring program is also a good way for the mentor to become familiar with the current call handling FCR delivery training material.


Talk and Type

2. Talk and Type Separated

People joke that they cannot talk and type simultaneously, and while it is required in a call center agent role, it can be very stressful for a trainee to do both. In the early stage model of taking live calls, the two functions – talk and type – are separated. The trainee is paired with their mentor and takes live but straightforward calls. Initially, the trainee should control the keyboard while listening to the call, and the mentor should handle the call (e.g., the mentor does the talking part of the call while the trainee does the typing and screen navigation).

In this way, the trainee becomes used to navigating the system in real-time and putting the pieces together to resolve the customer's issue. The mentor can point out where the trainee should go if they become stuck and take back the keyboard, if necessary, not to impact the customer's experience. Once the trainee masters typing, they are now ready to take on talking with customers without having to do the typing. After mastering talking and typing separately, the trainee is prepared to do both simultaneously.


Customer Call Library


3. The Creation of a Customer Call Library for FCR Scenario-based Calls

Common to all practical training is the use of FCR scenario-based calls drawn from a well-coded customer call library containing a great variety of calls that have been coached to and for which the agent has approved their admission into the library. The customer call library should have both customer satisfaction and dissatisfaction calls. These types of calls can be great coaching opportunities for supervisors and agents. The calls should be identified through the following selection tags:

  • FCR by reason for the call
  • FCR by product or service
  • FCR by the line of business

In addition, the following guidelines are recommended in the development of the customer call library:


  • The call library should include customer survey ratings and feedback, the call recording, the screen capture, the QA form, CRM notes, and the agent practices used as to what made the call world-class or dissatisfied
  • These calls must have the permission of the agent to be used in the library (not usually difficult when used in a positive capacity)
  • These calls should be continually refreshed so that current processes are reflected. The customer call library should contain between 200 and 500 calls so that the appropriate calls can be accessed by using multiple selection tags (e.g., FCR by reason for the call and FCR by-product or service)
  • Customer and agent names should be removed to protect their identities
  • The selection tags on the calls, and the library in which they reside, should be easy to identify and retrieve. For example, it should be easy to retrieve a selection of great call examples when the following query is used (e.g., resolved claim inquiry calls for Product XYZ).


Call Resolution Training


4. Agent Call Resolution Two-day Call Handling Training

Train all of your Agents on Call Handling for Call Resolution Delivery. The agents chosen for training should not be restricted to only low or poor performing agents, nor should the mix of the group be limited to only one performance level. In many cases, SQM has found that the most effective call resolution and Csat improvements typically come from first quartile call resolution performing agents rather than from the lower quartiles. Agents at all performance levels and all tenures should attend the training with no more than five Agents per session. Therefore, it is minimal impact to call center operations and maximizes learning and sharing opportunities with a small training group comprised of different CX performance levels. The call resolution training typically takes two days and should be offered to all agents throughout the year to accommodate call center needs.

The agent call handling two-day training program outcomes of improved call resolution and Csat performance are accomplished by using the following six steps:

  1. Introduction to FCR and call resolution and its importance to the call center
  2. Performance review of the individual agent based on customer survey data
  3. Education on the Call Resolution Delivery model
  4. Agent self-assessment of call recordings and survey results
  5. Agent group call calibration using call recordings
  6. Agent call resolution goals and improvement plan

5. What to Train on for Call Handling?

In world-class FCR organizations, FCR is integrated into the initial classroom training in four ways. Listed are training approaches for what to train employees on:

Training For Call Handling

1. Call Types   

Training focuses on providing the agent with a base level of knowledge for each typical call type (e.g., claims, orders, billing, and technical). Then, the call types that create the lowest FCR results are examined more closely. Finally, the trainer will detail the knowledge required to handle these calls, illustrating both satisfied and dissatisfied calls for each call type reason retrieved from the call library.

2. Product and Service

Training focuses on providing the agent with a base level of knowledge on each product and service offered. Next, the products or services that cause the lowest FCR results are examined more closely. Finally, the trainer will detail the knowledge required to handle these calls, illustrating satisfied and dissatisfied calls for each product or service type retrieved from the call library. Of course, the reality is that call complexity often combines product and call type. For example, the lowest-performing FCR metrics might come from a particular call type (e.g., billing) for a related product type (e.g., merchandise). The call library would allow the trainer to find calls that fit this exact description, combining call type and product type.

3. Process and Operations

In this part of training, the agent will become familiar with the functions of other departments and how the call center should interact with those departments to resolve the customer's call. They will learn about the levels of authority that the agent has and how to exercise that authority. They will also learn about the call center's support structure for the agent to resolve calls. Again, everything in this section is taught from the viewpoint of call resolution. In world-class FCR call centers, training is given on how to follow up on issues that have been forwarded to other resource areas for resolution, specifically, how cases should be tagged and how the follow-up process works. Again, FCR scenario-based training calls can be selected from the library to illustrate process and operations training issues using different tags (e.g., call types and services).

4. Call Handling Skills

As noted earlier, nearly one in every three customers is a repeat caller, and when they call, they need to be handled well by the agent acting as their advocate to resolve their call. The agent's ability to resolve customer calls satisfactorily is a set of skills that goes way beyond soft skills. Therefore, it is essential to differentiate between soft skills and call handling skills. Many call center managers view call handling as a soft skill. SQM defines soft skills to include greeting, caring, courtesy, politeness, building rapport, and empathy. On the other hand, SQM defines call handling skills to include understanding the reason for the call, product and service knowledge, ability to process the call, advocate for the customer, and, most importantly, resolve the call. See SQM's First Call Resolution Delivery model blog for more details on soft and call handling skills.

For the 30% of customers who experienced an unresolved call, agents are the source of error (SoE) 40% of the time. Of that 40%, only 5% is due to a lack of agent soft skills (e.g., poor listener, did not care, and was rude). On the other hand, agents who lack call handling skills (e.g., could not fix the issue, did not have product or service knowledge, and could not provide a satisfactory solution to resolve the customer's call) account for 95% of SoEs. Clearly, call handling represents a much bigger opportunity to improve than improving soft skills. Many SQM clients are surprised that call handling skills significantly impact non-FCR calls.

The following is a list of effective call handling skills:

  • Understanding the customer's issue through active and passive listening
  • Reassuring the customer that the issue will be resolved
  • Demonstrating detailed knowledge of products and services
  • Positioning the rules and policies of the organization in a way that the customer not only understands but sees how they benefit them
  • The ability to explain all aspects of billing issues or claim eligibility
  • Providing solutions that will make the customer satisfied
  • Acting as an advocate to resolve the customer's call

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