CXperts: Reimagining Training and Development for Hybrid or Remote Teams

CXperts Video Podcast: Ramon Icasiano meets with Melissa L. Brown, a global Learning and Development leader to discuss recipes for CX success and operational insights on how leaders and trainers should navigate the new norms.

Last updated on: 
August 11, 2023
Josh Witty
Josh Witty
February 1, 2022
14 min read

CXperts is a video podcast hosted by our Chief Customer Officer Ramon Icasiano, who is a former CX leader at Earnin, Netflix, Zynga, and Verizon. In each episode, Ramon dives into hot topics around customer experience with a guest industry thought leader.

This week’s episode: Ramon Icasiano meets with Melissa L. Brown, a global Learning and Development leader to discuss recipes for CX success and operational insights on how leaders and trainers should navigate the new norms.

Melissa is AVP Knowledge Management at Sutherland, an experience-led BPO. Sutherland’s mission is to deliver exceptionally engineered experiences for customers and employees. Melissa has 20+ years of experience in call center quality and training for companies like Conduent, Xerox, and TD Ameritrade.

Watch on YouTube or listen on Spotify or Apple Podcast.


Ramon Icasiano 0:29
Hello, this is Ramon Icasiano, chief customer officer at Pathlight, welcome to the CXperts podcast, a podcast for operators by operators. I'm a 20 year CX veteran that has helped high growth startups become trusted brands my experience spans the early days at Verizon as a frontline team member. I guess that's why this headset feels comfortable to me. To helping Netflix start its legendary customer support culture, to scaling global support teams at Zynga where we supported 320 million monthly unique players, and to growing Earnin’s CX team from 35 frontline folks to over 1200 and three short years. At Earnin we purchased a platform called Pathlight which transformed how we understood and manage the performance of a growing team — and I loved it so much that I joined the team, and here I am today.

And speaking of which, today, my guest is  Melissa L. Brown who’s also currently AVP of learning and development at a company called Sutherland a huge BPO, which I’m really interested in learning more about her experience, but let me just quickly pull up her LinkedIn and walk you through her amazing background, a 20 plus year one, as well as mine.

So Melissa you were at Prime Star, a workforce management team lead. Operations manager Midwest Recovery. I think where we met you were a senior operations manager at R-Systems. And then, a director of cCall center operations at a startup called TrustedID which was acquired by Equifax where we worked really closely together. And then at TD Ameritrade, this is what I love about your experience there, you really start digging into learning and developmenthere as a manager. Then you continue that at Xerox as a quality assurance and training director. And then you spent a few years at Conduit as a director of call center quality and training continued to grow your experience there as the global director of training and quality assurance and now really kind of the highlight which I love is now you're AVP of knowledge management at Sutherland which I know is a huge company with over 40,000 frontline team members.

So is there anything in that 20-year span that jumps out or is worth highlighting for our audience? It's just an amazing kind of background.

Melissa L. Brown 3:08
You can see first of all that I’ve been in the BPO space for a very long time, and frankly, I’ve been in the call center spaces, since college. So I know, nobody goes to school and things you know I want to major in call centers or call centers is what I want to do for my life. But, frankly, I’ll be honest, it was either a call center job or waiting tables and I was a terrible waitress, and so I got started in call centers frankly as an agent.

So my experience, I think one of the things that I love about what I bring to the table is the fact that I do have experience from the agent level, all the way up. So, having been doing this now for a lot of years, over 25 years, enough that with that experience again from the agent at the supervisor level the manager, the director, and now the pleasure of being at AVP with a fantastic company on keeping in that knowledge management learning and development space. So that's kind of a niche that I found for myself right around probably around the TD Ameritrade era kind of making that selection between going the operations path or the trainings path and I just chose training and I’m so glad that I did it's definitely the right fit for me.

Ramon Icasiano 4:27
Yeah, it's probably true with a lot of folks who have been in the space a while. I don't think we planned on being here right, but because of the impact that you can make on our frontline teams and kind of replicating that at scale and kind of balancing the art of running a huge team and plus the science of it. It really pulls out a skill.

Anything in terms of how you approach your roles, in terms of trying to understand the needs from a training and development perspective, I know that it could potentially be cookie cutting, but I know it's not, and so what are some learnings over the years that you could share with other learning and development managers that have been really successful.

Melissa L. Brown 5:18
So for a lot of years, you know, I focused on program training. And program training is essentially, this is the client, to which I’m assigned. I’m either learning the program in order to teach it, which is sort of like what I did with TD Ameritrade, or I’m leading that program and leading individuals, trainers, training managers, and what not, also, in that program. And I did that, for a lot of years, The distinction that I had again going back now a number of years was kind of being able to pull out from the program training and look at people in a different fashion. So program training you're taking an individual — will call them a rep or an agent and we're turning them into somebody capable of taking calls for that program.

What I focus a lot now on is, moreover, looking at that person kind of like the industrial organizational psychology of training in the call center, right. Because we're talking now, and especially with the pandemic on how those individuals are learning and coping in that virtual space.

So, while I think not, you know not to take away from the program training or that learning side, but I think we're dealing with an entirely different shift in our worker in an individual that is looking at the early part of their career and all of a sudden they're coming out of school, be at high school or college, into this workforce that is largely remote and they're a little lost.

So a lot of my passion now is we're related to what do we do for this individual. How do we change this experience for this individual. So differentiating that from the program training and getting to a little bit deeper on the overall aspect of learning and development as a whole.

Ramon Icasiano 7:14
That's great. So is there anything like in the last 12 to 18 months, with your experience at Sutherland, that you feel like you've done really well to magnify your results?

Melissa L. Brown 7:30
I think there's always things that I could look at and say I’ve done really well, but I think more than that, I always look at things and say I wish I can do more, or I want to do more, I wish I had done more, or I’m looking forward to more. And I think this is a perfect such example when I talk about how agents are learning and what their experience looks like.

It's very similar in how we look at what the trainers are doing and how our trainers are coping. So one of the initiatives I’m working on right now very, very close to launch, in fact, is a project that is essentially teaching our trainers that all came from brick and mortar spaces. So they're all used to standing up in front of the classroom and being a big showman and none of that translates into being behind the lens. So that was a huge need that we had for the business was essentially, how do we optimize this experience for the learners via the trainers. So that's one of the biggest well, certainly the largest initiative on which I’ve been working, that is specific to. At the end of the day, our learners need to learn this from a program level, but how do we get to that given that the experience is completely different and full shifted that paradigm in that work at home space.

Ramon Icasiano 8:53
Wow so that not only encompasses the actual delivery of the content and how folks are presenting their information but also to the technology and really the expectations of the learner as well. What has been the biggest aha learning from a learner. In this kind of new digital world what kind of feedback are they asking for in terms of the services or experience you're trying to deliver to them around knowledge management.

Melissa L. Brown 9:16
I love that question, Ramon, because I get that question a lot. What did you learn the most — what’s the biggest thing? And I’m going to be honest, and this is the same answer I always give but it's an unexpected answer. My answer to that is that I think we're still not getting feedback from individuals that truly drills down to their ultimate need within themselves as individuals.

I think that they come to us and say I could use more help using this platform that we train on Okay, we can we can help you with that. I use more help understanding how to connect to the VPN because every day I struggle and I locked myself out, we can help with that those are things that people tell us. What they're not telling us, I think, is the real key and I think they're not telling us these things, because this is brand new. I think they can't imagine, in fact, that they're lonely. They're not telling us that they're bored, they're waiting between calls and sometimes it's really busy and that'll keep me going, but when it's not, in a brick and mortar call center when you have some time between calls you talk to that person right here or over there, the one walking by. They don't do that. They don't have that opportunity.

Those social environments in those social hubs nobody's looking back and saying. Hmmm, I really missing those social hubs, right, people aren't telling us that but that's the reality that we're living in.

And so I think the distinction is, it's very common that companies, invest in technology or infrastructure when there's an ROI on it when there's $1 value that you can drill to it. And I think this is unique because most studies will show us that productivity has if just remained flat, or perhaps even improved with the work at home environment, so you can't attach some $1 figure and say we're going to improve productivity, as though it declined because it didn't decline.

But people are missing out on a lot of opportunities, a lot of experiences that they had before, if they're coming in new to their career, they have that nothing necessarily to refer to. This is it. This is how it works. This isn’t what my mom talked about. My dad didn’t talk about this sort of thing. Very, very different. I think we're not hearing it, but we need to listen.

Ramon Icasiano 12:03
And you know, I think, by listening to that that example a few things really struck out, I mean that's important is, I think. The value of having that frontline experience you've carried that through right, and so you understand from the empathy of a frontline person having that interaction being able to kind of chat with someone in between calls and that's completely gone right like that's now feeling isolated and I think I think the second thing that you've made me really think about more is, you know, we talked about work-life balance, but it's all now one work and life are in one kind of capsule now and helping people through your training and maybe through the learnings here is helping them create a separation right in terms of like this is it is going to be a little convoluted but like really setting up your workspace and your time to so that you can feel like you can separate it.

And the last thing really that's probably the most important is there is, I think I think you've accepted, that there is kind of a new norm now. And I don't know like how many of your peers feel like it's going to go back to that world again where you could high five people, walk the floor, right give out atta boys or whatever kudos real-time in person, you know, but that that may never be maybe it's a hybrid and I think you're part of the leadership in terms of helping people understand there's probably not going to be the old way of doing business. Do you believe that or is that something?

Melissa L. Brown 13:46
I do and again I’m a big picture gal right. I'm talking about you know, way back when I was waiting tables or didn't do a call centers you know. I was going to school for sociology and I look at this sort of thing from that perspective. And I look at what you call the new norm, and I look at how long ago it was that we were hunters and gatherers and then we were you know in an agrarian society were farmers. And then, with that industrial revolution and we moved to the cities so from the country into the cities and we worked at factories. And then we went from factory workers with the technological revolution and we moved into offices. So again, even more urban. And now this new normal this new space this remote-first mentality, capability, that we have you're not any longer tied to your location. All through the history of time it's been your job and the location are tied together. If you're a farmer, you're in the country. If you're an office worker, you're in the city, or at least you're not far out in the country.

This is the first time that we're seeing that it doesn't have to be that way. Now to a degree, and you're not going to find agents taking calls from the beaches in Thailand, but, they can be at home, they could be in their living room, they could be on their deck, you know. Any sort of opportunities that we have now, I genuinely believe that we will look back at this historically and we will look at this as a true shift in history where remote-first came after that technological revolution.

Ramon Icasiano 15:29
Wow, that's really insightful and I think about when you talk about geography and you hire within that there's certain biases that are already kind of assumed.  Where they work, you can talk about neighborhoods or parks, they play in our stores you shop at, there's some kind of bond there. But how do you build that when someone is in an area that you know nothing about in terms of how they spend their day, activities they have, other things that are even economic or governmental issues that we're not aware of. Is that part of how you help leaders become more culturated to the kind of global team now is that part of learning and management of the future or is that something that you're working on.

Melissa L. Brown 16:21
No, it definitely is, and I think you hit the nail on the head with the word global. Specifically, in the call center environment, you know we kind of went global a while ago right, so you know we're certainly not centric to the United States. So I think in fact we've done surprisingly well with the globalization, but what I think we actually have a lot of opportunity for is again looking, let's just speak to the United States.

It used to be if I was in Omaha and I was a manager in my own call center, I knew all the Omaha people and, like you said Ramon, you're familiar with that you understand know they live right down the road or well they shouldn't be two minutes too late, you know they only live six minutes away, or that sort of thing. Well, now that same Omaha manager has people in Texas, and the Northeast, and somebody in the southeast that has a tornado, and somebody in California that just fell off an earthquake, or whatever those things could happen for them.

And so I definitely think that again there's a lot happened with the pandemic and a lot of things you know we're all centered around keeping the lights on. So I don't think that this is something that's been well focused on, just because there's been so much going on. But I certainly think managing to your — even if it's just within the United States, there's so much going on just within those different geographies managing to that. Just in the same fashion as we've had cultural diversity training, when we're learning about others from different societies are different faraway geographies, I think we’ll have very much the same when it comes to more centric to one's individual country as well.

Ramon Icasiano 18:03
Yeah that's really a key insight, you know earlier, you talked about employee experience, leading to customer experience. But really also, who you're hiring, the diversity has increased, but also to the customers you're serving. So maybe that it goes hand-in-hand right in terms of making sure that your team is representative of the customers that you're selling to or servicing so really the ideas and the formation of even training or problem resolution encompasses that quote-unquote the global view. Yeah so you know I guess to close this out like give us a preview of what your next 12 to 18 months looks like if there's something that is around the corner that people don't see yet or something that you think might be helpful to this audience around your expertise. That would be great to hear.

Melissa L. Brown 19:03
So, as though you didn't hear how passionate I was about it earlier, I genuinely think whether it's in the next two months, 12 months, or heaven forbid two years. But around that next corner has to be our taking care of our employees in a way that is not our taking what we used to do in brick and mortar and just trying to translate as best we can, and put that onto the virtual environment.

I genuinely believe new things have to be invented, thought of, invested in and, in doing those things and I could give you a litany of those ideas, but you know don't want to don't bust my bubble too much. But in that in those investments in deciding that this is the sort of culture that we want to have for our people.  No, it's not going to give an immediate ROI, but it will return tenfold in lower attrition, higher throughputs, longer retention, loyalty, goodwill. Things that don't show up very well on the balance sheet, but they make a huge difference in the bottom line in the long run.

Ramon Icasiano 20:16
Yeah and I’ve said this on other podcasts customers vote with their dollars and employees, whether hours. And ultimately, the companies that can serve both are really the ones that are going to finish on top, and I think that the reason why you and I are both passionate around the CX space is we bring a high degree of curiosity and passion and energy.

But also, I think to your background and a huge amount of success and success breeds more success and for that I thank you.  Because I think it's you and I’ve worked with you as well you've inspired others around you. I’m sure other people now in your team look up to you. And I also want to offer to our audience your LinkedIn profile as well at the end of this podcast so feel free to connect with Melissa. Ask her questions. And then my contact info will be available as well, so with that. Thank you very much for joining me today on the CXperts podcast.

Melissa L. Brown 21:21
Thank you for having me, Ramon. I really appreciate it.

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