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From taking orders to fulfilling customer needs: Transforming telesales capabilities

Changing employees' mindsets, behaviors, and customer conversations lifts revenue.

Challenge

A major video and telecommunications provider saw slowing sales and flattening revenue per agent, even as the time spent on sales increased. The organization retained McKinsey to diagnose issues with its sales operation and recommend ways to improve. McKinsey used its experience with other distributed sales organizations to develop a telesales capability-building initiative that focused on increasing revenue per call, with greater cross-sell and upsell, higher conversion rates, and lower customer turnover.

Discovery

A short diagnostic assessed the current practices and capabilities of the telesales operations. The McKinsey team reviewed call mix and customer segmentation, as well as call-center statistics (for example, call volume, average handling times, revenue per call, and close rates). The team also analyzed the call-center organization and observed calls and coaching during daylong visits to develop a perspective on improvement opportunities.

Among the findings was that the sales representatives' customer interactions reflected an "order taking" mentality, with little focus on the discovery of customer needs or top-down selling. Supervisors spent significant time on noncoaching activities; when coaching was provided, it was inconsistent and focused on low performers. Further, the McKinsey team discovered that most of the sales training was classroom based—not optimal for adult learners in communication-based roles.

The McKinsey team developed a comprehensive capability-development program to improve frontline performance and sustain behavioral change. In addition to setting clear performance goals, the team developed a blueprint to align call-center processes and systems for performance and impact. The blueprint included a few elements:

  • consistent call flows and sample words that emphasized probing for customer needs and top-down selling
  • coaching and leadership training for supervisors and leaders
  • management systems and metrics to support new behaviors, such as incentives and scorecards

The team employed several adult-learning approaches in designing training for sales representatives and supervisors, emphasizing techniques in the behavioral and affective domains. Hands-on training included role plays, call listening, and open discussion, as well as contests and incentives. A staged rollout across regional centers allowed the company to scale it quickly and consistently.

Impact

Beyond the field and classroom training sessions in the 6-week representative program, McKinsey worked with the client to institutionalize the approach in several ways:

  • supervisors provided one-on-one coaching and led sessions to share best practices
  • McKinsey convened a leadership council to ensure ownership of the program by company leaders
  • certification was awarded to representatives and supervisors who took part in training
  • an e-learning solution and playbooks were developed as study aids
  • sales expectations and philosophies were integrated into corporate recruiting, orientation, and training
  • the compensation system was aligned to reward frontline performance using the new behaviors

Over a 6-week pilot, revenue per call jumped by 17 percent as sales representatives became more comfortable probing for customer needs and offering responsive services. The annual impact of this improvement was estimated at $400 million. The company's return on investment in the program was ten times its cost, as incremental increases in call-handling time translated to substantial gains in revenue per call that were sustained in monthly service bills.

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