Article | 7 min read

What is call listening and how to it can improve your call centre’s performance

A guide to monitoring customer conversations.

By Patrick Grieve

Last updated June 5, 2021

How well is your call centre handling customers’ problems?

Metrics such as customer-survey scores and average hold times speak volumes about your support team’s performance. But even data doesn’t always tell you the full story.

To uncover the finer details of your call centre’s performance, you’ll need a headset and a quick tutorial on call listening, or call monitoring. It’s the process of listening to customers’ calls to assess reps’ communication skills and find potential areas for improvement – often in real time.

Why should I care about call listening?

Running a call centre without call listening is like conducting an orchestra with ear muffs on. Tone and tempo matter, and you need to be able to hear when someone’s not hitting the right notes.

There are some things that you just need to hear for yourself. Metrics reports are good for charting KPIs, but they won’t tell you why a conversation went on for so long or ended abruptly. Even call transcripts can’t capture demeanour, clarity and other nuances. And neither option allows you to do a live check-in on an active call.

There are several reasons why you might want to keep an ear on your support agents, from quality assurance to active training.

Monitoring performance

Does one of your agents consistently have poor performance metrics, such as low customer-satisfaction (CSAT) scores or lacklustre first-call resolution (FCR) rates? Try listening to some of their conversations. The calls are likely to reveal the root of the problem, whether it’s product knowledge, service speed or demeanour.

The results might end up surprising you. For example, if an agent’s average hold time (AHT) is high, that may seem like cause for concern. But call listening could reveal that their calls are long because the agent is thorough and asks effective follow-up questions.

High-performing agents are also worth a listen. Monitor the service rep with the highest CSAT scores and you may discover the secret to their success, which you can then share with the rest of the team.

Training new or struggling agents

Customer service reps require hands-on training, even if they’re wearing hands-free headsets. Call listening is the best way to guide new or struggling support agents through challenging calls. Give real-time advice, or take notes during the call. Afterwards, you can go over what they did well and where they need to improve.

It’s a good idea to record calls for training purposes as well. Save examples of exceptional (and exceptionally bad) customer calls, and use them to illustrate the dos and don’ts of customer service. (If you’re going to share examples of what not to do, you should probably only use recordings of former employees. That way, you’ll avoid embarrassing a team member in front of their colleagues.)

Some training processes include ‘mock calls’ for new staff. While a simulated situation works well as a test run, agents also need to be familiar with the real thing. The more call recordings you have, the more examples you can give trainees of what to actually expect when they put on a headset.

Intervening to provide better service

Sometimes you’ll feel the need to interrupt a call that you’re monitoring. It’s especially common during the training phase when service reps struggle to answer questions from customers.

Don’t let an inexperienced service rep flounder on a call, even if it could be a ‘learning experience’ for them. The mission is always to resolve a customer’s problem as quickly and efficiently as possible, even if this means taking matters into your own headset.

Two ways to start call listening

If you’ve ever called a busy customer service hotline, a pre-recorded voice has probably told you that ‘this call may be monitored or recorded for quality-assurance purposes’.

It may not have interested you much at the time, but these are the two main methods of call listening – monitoring a conversation live and recording it for later.

We understand – call listening isn’t the most comfortable thing in the world, especially if you’re new to it. But there’s a great (and mandatory) way to shake the sensation that you’re eavesdropping – always acknowledge up front that ‘this call may be monitored or recorded for quality-assurance purposes’.

You’ve heard it a million times and so have your customers. They’re used to it and will appreciate the improved support that results.

Getting it on the record

Some support agents might prefer their managers to record customers’ calls rather than listen to them live. It can be less stressful to review the conversation after the fact than to have your boss evaluating you in real time.

Plus, recorded calls make excellent educational resources for agents. Instead of sharing feedback quickly during a live call, you can fully explain mistakes that agents have made by pausing the recording. Call recordings can also double as examples for other agents in training.

Most cloud-based contact centres are able to record customers’ calls. Some CRM systems can even automatically connect call recordings to corresponding support tickets so that agents can find them easily. If an agent needs to forward a support ticket to someone else, the call recording could provide helpful context.

Going live

Live call monitoring allows you to intervene and potentially improve the customer’s experience.

There are three methods of live call listening. Each one calls for a different level of supervisory involvement:

  1. Snoop

    A supervisor can silently listen to a call after it’s already started, without the agent or customer knowing. This method limits a supervisor’s ability to give advice, but may make the agents less nervous if they don’t know that they’re being monitored.

    This type of call listening may feel a bit sneaky, but it’s a good way of assessing an agent’s general performance. They won’t be trying to impress you, so you’ll get an accurate impression of their calls. Besides, if agents know that any call could be monitored, it may inspire them to step up their game on every call.

  2. Whisper

    A supervisor listening to the call can speak to the agent without the customer hearing, as if whispering advice in their ear.

    This is basically the ‘Cyrano de Bergerac approach’, because it’s as if you’re hiding in the bushes and feeding lines to someone else. (If you prefer films from the 1980s to plays from the 1800s, you can call it the ‘Roxanne approach’.)

  3. Barge

    A supervisor listening to the call can join in and start communicating with both the agent and the customer at any time.

    This method is perfect when agents are still in training, as there’s a decent chance you’ll need to ‘barge in’ and guide the call. In general, it’s good to have this intervention option on calls for times when you know that you can resolve a customer’s problem faster than the agent can.

Note that live call listening and call recording are not mutually exclusive options. With the right software, you can record customer calls and snoop, whisper or barge into selected conversations.

Just remember to inform every caller up front that the conversation ‘may be monitored or recorded’. Some states legally require this notification (and you could pay big fines if you forget it).

Hear us out – call-listening software is a sound investment

Call listening is about tracking performance and training agents to be better. Why not find a software solution that empowers you to do both?

Zendesk Talk is cloud-based, integrated voice software that:

  • Enables supervisors to silently listen to or participate in ongoing calls between customers and agents
  • Lets you record calls for easy reference, quality assurance and training purposes

Sign up for a free trial and you can start talking (and listening) today.

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