Jonathan DeVore

By: Jonathan DeVore on November 4th, 2022

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Should You Have Your New Call Center Agents Shadow During Training?

Do you use call shadowing as part of your call center training program?

Many call centers use call shadowing as part of their curriculum. But after working with many call centers to revamp their training curriculums and organize their knowledge bases, I no longer believe shadowing is the most effective training strategy.

I know what you’re thinking: ”What? Shadowing is the best! Reps get to hear what it’s really like on the phones!”

But hear me out! With my position as Head Consultant at ScreenSteps — a knowledge base software and training solution company —  I’ve seen the effect of shadowing (or the lack thereof) at dozens of call centers.

In this blog post, I’ll first explain the motivation for including shadowing in your call center training program. Next, I’ll explain why call shadowing is a dangerous approach and what is really happening during call shadowing.

Then I’ll show you why I recommend removing (or at least modifying) shadowing from your call center training curriculum. In case you still want to include shadowing in your training program, I’ll even provide a tip on how to make shadowing more effective at the end.

What is call shadowing?

Call shadowing is the part of call center training where new hires listen in as experienced agents take calls. New hires going through training watch what tenured agents do and listen to how they handle calls.

Depending on your call center training curriculum, the shadowing phase of training can happen at different times of training.

Nesting vs shadowing

The call shadowing portion of training is paired with nesting. With the nesting phase, new reps are also paired with experienced agents. However, in nesting, the trainees are the ones taking the live calls while the tenured agents are listening in.

Nesting is more like coaching. New agents have an experienced aid on hand in case they get stuck or have questions during a call.

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Why call centers use shadowing as part of new hire training

Call centers commonly use shadowing as part of the training curriculum. There are many reasons that call centers choose to include call shadowing.

An overarching reason is that call centers want their new agents to have a real-life experience before they begin taking calls on their own. That, of course, is a good idea. Agents need to get the feel and have exposure to real-life situations before setting off on their own.

Other reasons that call centers want to include call shadowing are understandable, but not as intentional.

Often, call centers rely on call shadowing to take up time in training. Sometimes that is because the trainers and leaders get pulled into other urgent projects and need to figure out some way to occupy the trainees' time.

Other times, it’s because trainers don’t have the resources they need to train agents how they want to train them. So they rely on shadowing.

But, that can be dangerous. Why?

Why is shadowing dangerous?

Call shadowing, while well-intentioned, can be dangerous for your new hires’ development and learning. That’s because call shadowing provides an inconsistent learning environment with uncontrolled variables.

While you probably assign your new hires to your top-performing agents for shadowing, your top-performing agents aren’t necessarily doing things correctly. Or, more accurately, your top agents have probably developed their own habits that aren’t textbook. They do things in a different way than you are training your new hires.

For example, you are teaching your new hires to follow your guides, but your tenured agents have these procedures memorized or are still doing things the way they were taught (five years ago).

The experienced agents may be skipping steps and not following the guides precisely because they intuitively know what needs to be done. If you have new hires following someone doing a procedure, they are taking notes and not learning the proper way to handle calls.

Ultimately, new hires are at risk for picking up bad habits from your experienced agents.

Shadowing also sets up unrealistic expectations

When new hires shadow experienced reps, they are impressed by how quickly these experienced reps can take in information, know exactly what to do, and get the caller off the phone in record speed.

New hires begin to think that they’re expected to do things at that exact same pace right off the bat. So, they’ll try to handle their first few calls quickly, feeling a little embarrassed that they have to use their guides to help them handle basic calls.

When New reps shadow your contact center’s best, they begin comparing themselves to a standard that isn’t realistic for them. At least not at first.

The disadvantage of shadowing during training

The downside of call shadowing is that it is passive learning.

Shadowing an expert is similar to being a passenger in a car.

If you are driving around in a new city with someone who knows their way around, you aren’t paying attention to anything. As the passenger, you get to sit and simply enjoy the view and conversation. Or you are free to zone out or take a nap.

If the driver were to pull over and say, “I just drove you here. Can you repeat that on your own?” You wouldn’t remember the path.

It is the same for your trainees when they shadow your expert agents. The new hires are not engaged. It is easy for them to sit back and zone out. There is nothing requiring them to be active learners. They don’t remember the path for the procedure — which you want them to remember.

With shadowing, we get a false sense of security. We think that since our reps are shadowing they are learning and they are getting a sense of what work is like.

In reality, they are spending hours watching a screen and listening to people without engaging and retaining information.

A more productive alternative to call shadowing

So, how do your new hires get exposure to real-life scenarios without shadowing?

You want your new agents to have an opportunity to see calls in action — but you want them to be more engaged.

Instead of shadowing, get a call recording from a real call. Have your new hires listen to the call. You can listen to the call together. Pause the call as you ask questions, like:

  • What is this caller asking about?
  • What is the next question you need to ask to get clarification on what they need?

Your new agents are still getting real-world experience.

Another option is to use scenario-based training. Create a list of real-life scenarios. This list can be real calls you’ve received in the past at your call center. Role-play those scenarios.

With both of these options, you are in a simulation and your learners are in the driver’s seat. They have to be actively engaged to learn. And if they make a mistake, no problem! It’s a practice scenario, but it is real because it comes from real calls your agents have handled.

This will better prepare your reps to think on their feet on the job.

How to make call shadowing more proactive

If you still want to include call shadowing as part of your training, here’s how you can make it more proactive and engaging.

Your trainees can have a positive learning experience with shadowing if you set them up for engaged learning.

Call shadowing is beneficial if your reps already have a good grasp of how to handle calls, they understand the principles of calls, and they know what needs to be done and how to respond to callers properly.

These new hires have usually gone through a few weeks of training. (It’s not productive to have people who have only been training for a few days.)

These multi-week learners can then identify techniques they haven’t thought of before. During shadowing, have them take notes on what they’ve observed. They should compare what they would have done to what the caller does.

Have them report back on the notes they take. These will help you know what they need further instruction on before completing training.

Build a training curriculum that produces self-sufficient agents

You want your call center agents to be able to handle any call on their own. Of course, that training takes time.

A complete call center training program takes more than nesting, shadowing, and lectures. 

With ScreenSteps, we use the Find & Follow Training Framework. It uses lectures, training videos, role-playing, and more to prepare your agents to work independly faster.  This program has helped companies decrease their onboarding times by up to 75% while decreasing employee mistakes.

Want help building a call center training curriculum that prepares agents to handle calls faster?

Download our free new hire training eBook. This guide will help you build a training curriculum that trains your call center agents to be more knowledgeable, consistent, and efficient in 30 days or less.

How to Plan, Build, and Run a New Hire Training Program That Works Download

About Jonathan DeVore

Customer Success