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Accelerated E-Learning: Simulations Take Over the Industry

Special Issue of Spice of the Month Accelerated Learning Ezine

Special Guest Writer: John Lamb

Reprinted with permission from:

Contact Professional Magazine

For years, simulations have been used as a training tool for people in high-risk and high-skill occupations. In areas such as the airline industry and the military, simulation has long been used to provide people with real-life experience in the safety of a training environment. The merits of this approach are well-documented and, as technology has advanced, simulation has started to move into the mainstream of corporate America. In a recently released report, the Gartner Group dubbed simulation e-learning's "killer application" and predicted that 70 percent of all off-the-shelf and custom e-learning content will include some application of simulations by 2006. Like many other market sectors, contact centers are increasingly starting to take advantage of this technology.

In this article, we'll discuss various types of simulations and then drill down to how these types of simulations can be applied in your contact center's training process. We'll also explain the benefits associated with e-learning simulations and provide a list of the essential ingredients for an effective simulation training solution.

Why Simulations?

E-learning is no longer just about putting paper-based training online. Using the "old system" of page-turner courses providing low value and ROI just doesn't cut it anymore. Companies are expecting their training programs to step up a notch and ultimately are looking for tools that allow for interaction and application of knowledge to develop skills. This is where e-learning simulations catch the attention of contact centers that need to give agents real-life experience without putting customers at risk.

There are many variations on the types of simulations that companies are using, and several are particularly well-suited to the contact center. The most obvious and potentially most effective is the call flow simulation. As anyone familiar with a contact center knows, agents are required to do a great deal of multi-tasking. They must be able to listen, think, talk, and type/navigate - all while providing the best service possible to the customer on the other end of the line.

Call flow simulations seek to replicate this process, allowing agents to master multi-tasking on a simulated customer before moving to a real-life environment. Agents in training listen to a "customer" through their headsets, respond to questions, and navigate through a simulated version of software applications. This type of simulation allows the student to get firsthand experience with both customer and application interaction and provides a highly realistic emulation of real-life conditions. Call flow simulations can be created for a variety of different call types that incorporate best practice standards with techniques such as up-selling or cross-selling.

A second type of simulation increasingly being used by contact centers is the application simulation. Application simulations are used to train agents exclusively when centers have a major new system rollout or upgrade. Rather than building a duplicate system or "dummy" training database, centers are using simulations that replicate system behavior, allowing agents to practice interacting with the system without risking data integrity. This type of training can be delivered in a classroom or directly to agents on the floor, allowing for flexibility in training scheduling and delivery.

An additional type of simulation that is gaining popularity is the soft skill or situational simulation. These simulations incorporate role-playing scenarios that are usually developed to assist learners with problem solving. A scenario is presented to the student and roles are given to the student and the simulator. For example, the role of the agent would be given to the student and the simulator would play the part of the customer. The "agent" would then be presented with a problem and be responsible for solving the issue. This type of simulation is used to train an agent on how to handle a certain type of customer - such as an irate or happy one. The customer's demeanor and responses change dynamically, based on the actions agents take. The simulation can also include coaching, to provide guidance and support on how to interact with the customer in the most appropriate manner.


So how can e-learning simulation be applied in your contact center's training curriculum, and what's the best fit? As the use of simulation grows, centers are finding that it can be applied across a wide variety of business processes. Let?s take a look at four different areas where simulation can be and is being applied:

  • Hiring
  • New Agent
  • Ongoing Training
  • Major Initiatives.


E-learning simulations can be applied in the hiring process as both job preview and prescreening tools. On the job preview side, contact centers are using simulation to give applicants a realistic view of what the job will be like. This type of job preview gives potential employees an opportunity to experience the job firsthand and determine upfront whether it will be a good fit for them.

On the prescreening side, simulations can be used to assess both soft skills and technical skills. Applicants can be tested on customized simulations and other exercises, giving hiring staff an opportunity to assess their performance in conditions as close as possible to real-life.

New Agent Training

In new agent training, simulations provide an ideal method for exposing newly hired agents to real-life conditions without putting customer relationships at risk. Agents are able to master interacting with customers and software applications in a safe environment. The benefits of this approach relate directly to customer and new hire satisfaction. New agents who have been trained using simulations have been proven to achieve performance goals more quickly and to be less likely to succumb to the stress of the job, thus improving attrition rates and customer service levels.

Ongoing Training

With ongoing training, e-learning simulations provide tools that can be used to address skill gaps of existing agents - either individually or in groups. Many contact centers are starting to integrate simulation training approaches with quality monitoring to identify specific skill gaps and prescribe training to address them. For example, if a group of agents is having difficulty with a particular type of interaction, a simulation can be developed to address the gap and be delivered to those agents on the floor. Likewise, simulations - either customized or packaged - can be developed to address individual performance improvement needs.

Major Initiatives

In this category, contact centers are using simulations to assist with major initiatives such as new application rollouts, major system upgrades, or new center-wide campaigns. These types of initiatives are standard practice at many contact centers, and the challenge of training so many agents at one time can make them difficult to manage. Simulation provides an alternative for getting agents up to speed in a more efficient and - often - least costly way. It can also significantly improve performance, since simulation by its nature requires agents to demonstrate their ability to perform as desired.


There are many benefits associated with using simulation in contact centers, and they vary from center to center, depending on the specific use in any given environment. However, some benefits consistently can be achieved, and they are associated with the concept of learning by doing.

Gartner Group states that studies have shown that simulation can make a student proficient at a skill four to six months earlier than those who took a training class but had no application of the knowledge. This accelerated learning is a key benefit of simulations delivered to any type of audience-executive, manager, instructor or agent. The ability to become proficient in skills more quickly is linked directly with the opportunity to practice in a realistic job environment. Rather than trying to explain what real-life is like or attempting to replicate it with activities like role-playing, agents experience it firsthand and leave training with both the skills and confidence to be successful. This can result in a host of bottom-line benefits for contact center managers.

Among those benefits is reduced training time. The real-life experience that simulation provides leaves agents better prepared to handle live calls and reduces the support they require to become self-sufficient. Another benefit is reduced attrition. A common complaint of contact center agents when they enter the floor for the first time is that they feel unprepared to handle a live customer interaction. This leads to frustration, stress, and in many cases, an early exit from the job.

When George O'Donnell, director of North American Help Desk for Galileo International, started looking at simulation training, the ability to better prepare agents for the job was a top priority. Galileo International is one of the world?s leading providers of electronic global distribution services in the travel industry.

"Our programs focused too heavily on content and not enough on performance," O'Donnell said. "We were providing newly hired agents with 12 weeks of training, and we regularly got feedback that they didn't feel prepared to take their first calls. We needed to improve the fundamental training of agents on how to do their jobs."

Before implementing an e-learning simulation solution from Simtrex Corp., Galileo relied on role-playing and buddying to give agents "hands-on" experience.

"We spent a lot of time in role-playing, but it was very loosely defined," O'Donnell said. "Role-playing didn't do a good job of emulating real-life, and our agents were unprepared when they got to the floor. Simtrex's simulation training has allowed us to bridge the gap between classroom training and the real world. It has been a breakthrough in our efforts to provide agents with the real-life experience they need to be successful."

The Bottom Line

And finally, let's get down to the bottom-line: What kind of cost is associated with e-learning simulation?

Ultimately the cost will depend on the type of simulations your contact center requires and the degree of complexity involved. Some tools will allow you to author your own simulations without programming knowledge, while others require the subject matter expertise of vendors or technical staff. Regardless of your specific needs, simulation is becoming increasingly affordable as the technology continues to advance. With the benefits it can provide - decreased agent turnover, lower call handling time and increased performance levels within your center - the cost is often clearly outweighed by the return on investment.

SMART Simulation Training

A simulation training solution should incorporate several essential characteristics. To help you evaluate various solutions, use this SMART list as a guide. Look for a training solution that will:

Simulate calls exactly as they would occur in real-life. Effective simulations place the student in the "heat of the battle" by providing a faithful representation of on-the-job conditions. Trainees should be able to immerse themselves fully in the simulation, often forgetting that it isn't real.

Mentor and correct students in real-time. Imperfect practice leads to imperfect performance. An effective simulation training solution will recognize errors in real time and correct students as they progress through a simulation. This will ensure that agents practice in the right way and allow instructors to accurately assess performance.

Accommodate self-paced skill building. One of the benefits that simulation training can provide is the ability for students to learn at their own pace, and this approach is further enhanced when agents are able to practice parts of a customer interaction in blocks before combining their skills. One example would be allowing agents to master system navigation on its own before incorporating conversation.

Replicate call-handling time. The flow of the simulation should match the pace of an actual call to provide a realistic experience. In other words, when agents stop talking, their simulated customer should respond exactly as a real customer would. This allows agents to get a realistic experience and gives instructors the ability to evaluate call handling time metrics for each student.

Teach best practices. Inconsistent performance is a common challenge for contact centers. It is beneficial, therefore, for simulation training to reinforce the best practice standards established for your center. This will enable all agents to have the same training experience and minimize the problem of tenured agents passing on undesirable habits to new hires.

In summary, effective simulations allow agents to practice the whole customer interaction in a highly realistic manner, multi-tasking within the real-world time constraints of a call. Taken as a whole, these attributes define effective simulation training.

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Anne Thornley-Brown is the President and founder of The Training Oasis, Inc., a Toronto based consulting firm for rapidly changing organizations. Through a strategic alliance with Kuala Lumpur based FIK International, Anne has toured Asia 9 times and offered seminars to over 1300 executives, managers and HR professionals in Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, and India. Petronas, Malaysian Airlines, Digi, Mobil/Exxon, and Dell Computers are among the organizations that have sent delegates to her sessions in Asia. Anne is available as a keynote speaker, instructional designer and facilitator for seminars and team building.

Anne Thornley-Brown, writer, World Music for Cross Cultural Accelerated Learning

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