Fidelity is teaching employees compassion with virtual reality

Jason Cooper, director of multimedia for Horizon Productions in Durham holds a pair of virtual reality goggles.
Jason Cooper, director of multimedia for Horizon Productions in Durham holds a pair of virtual reality goggles. N&O file photo


Phone associates at Fidelity Investments no longer just sit in a classroom and listen to an instructor for training, instead they put on a virtual reality headset and enter a client’s home.

The investment firm, which has 3,600 employees in the Triangle, is turning to virtual reality to help make their employees more compassionate.

Many of the associates who are answering the phones in the call centers are millennials who have “never been married, never mind lost their spouse, don’t have a mortgage,” said Nicole Heath, Fidelity’s learning delivery manager for performance solutions. The idea is that after virtual reality training these young people will better understand what it is like for callers who are currently going through those experiences, and so more effectively help.

Derwood Bobbitt who started working for Fidelity in September 2011 said that the old training was “in a classroom session with a facilitator going over the materials.” The trainees were told to empathize with customers. The main message, Bobbit said, was that, “We’re all human. At some point in time you’re gonna experience something like this. Treat people the way you wanna be treated.”

Now, instead of being instructed to empathize, trainees use virtual reality to actually have an experience that helps make them more empathetic.

Many more companies are using virtual reality for training, marketing, and consumer content, said Jason Cooper, chief digital officer at Horizon Productions, a creative production company in Durham. The attraction to virtual reality is “the power of the medium,” Cooper said. “It’s really hard to capture an audience’s attention these days and to get engagement, inside of VR you have their full attention. They are fully immersed.”

During the training program, call-center employees put on a virtual reality head-set and experience what it is like to talk to and help a caller who is experiencing hardship.

“It takes you into the kitchen, living room of your caller so that you can understand and feel what that person is going through,” Heath said. “It is intended to pull on the heart strings.”

When you put on the virtual reality head-set, you’re immersed in a 360-degree virtual call center: computer monitors are in front of you, and there are other desks nearby. You get a call from a client who is stressed about a medical emergency and needs to withdraw $15,000 from her retirement account. You practice how to respond, and after an exchange in which you resolve the conflict, you are transported into the client’s home. She is at her desk, her crutches nearby, relieved, and talking over her experience with her daughter.

“It was awesome,” Bobbitt said.

The filming for the virtual reality training program was done by STRIVR, a virtual reality technology company based in San Francisco that has worked with the NFL, Major League Baseball and Google. STRIVR came to Fidelity’s Durham site to film, Heath said. The script was written in-house at Fidelity.

Heath says that Fidelity has seen a 10 percent increase in caller customer satisfaction since beginning the virtual reality training in September. Fidelity is continuing to monitor customer feedback as more associates are trained with virtual reality.

Currently the virtual reality program is part of the nine-week training program for phone associates who work on 401 (k) plans, Heath said. Later this year it will be used to teach other soft skills like effective listening, deescalating conflict and handling suspicious callers. It will also be used for training employees who work on other financial plans like the 403 (b).

While the use of virtual reality may seem like an enormous change, Horizn’s Cooper emphasized that, “It’s really just another delivery mechanism.” Like video or text, virtual reality is trying to communicate a message and create an experience, he said, adding it’s “really just a more immersive platform.”