Contact center work is important, sometimes interesting but more often than not highly stressful and mind-numbing and the hours are often unsociable. It is little wonder then that agent turnover is high, even in an economic downturn; at the first sign of an uptick, of better-paying, more 9-5 and stable jobs off go the headsets.
And with indications that at last the economy may be turning the corner, more attention should be given to keeping quality staff.
In many cases these conditions described above are inherent in the contact center business. We as customers want service and support and to have our purchases handled promptly and professionally through the channel and language of choice 24/7. We also don’t want to pay for the service we get.
Contact centers provide just that, arranging enough agents to be there when we contact them or to contact us and they can pay only so much from the budgets provided. Also working with the public often stinks; people are too often rude and impatient.
(Each of us should work in a contact center, or in retail or a hotel or restaurant to hear and see for ourselves, and then catch ourselves when we behave the same way.)
Yet many of these conditions can be compensated or ameliorated. There has long been a wide array of turnover-limiting solutions proposed: from more accurate applicant screening for their tolerance to the work environment to goalposting and certifications and to rewards programs.
Each of these methods, though, has their flaws. To get enough people screening standards are often lowered. And agents cotton onto the cynicism inherent in goalposting. They’re not stupid. They know there is no career advancement in this business; these levels too often mean nada—try to explain them in the real world—and are worthless unless they are backed up with some real benefits like $1/hour-$2/hour increases. Certifying agents (and supervisors) to objective transferable standards is counterproductive; they enable even higher turnover by making it easier to hire on with other contact centers.
Rewards programs are useful when they honor exceptional performance but they run the risk of becoming substitutes to the real rewards which is providing excellent service and meeting/exceeding targets. They can be then in those circumstances be compared to Pavlovian/Skinnerian operant conditioning used infamously for dogs and for the Mercury space program chimpanzees. Make or exceed the AHT, FCR, CPH or SPH and get a biscuit or a flavored pellet. Fall behind and get zapped.
There are, however, two proven, not very complex and low-investment methods to keep quality agents.
The first is high quality supervision, by supervisors selected for their leadership, management and training abilities. Supervisors are not made but are born. You have it, and can have those skills honed and be trained on new methods, or you don’t. Those that have it are rewarded, and by extension so are their employers, by employees who will put 150 percent into their jobs, who will stay later, come in earlier and take on spare shifts. Those that don’t—well there’s plenty of web sites out there where agents have expressed their frustration—and will find out soon enough with the smash of headsets into the workstations.
The second is enabling agents to have a life and by that I mean is giving those that want it set hours every week with no change they can count on. In that fashion they can take courses to better themselves, hold down other jobs if they are part-time, get fit, participate in their communities and faiths and look after their children and other loved ones in meaningful routines.
Contact centers are better than most service businesses when it comes to that. Retail is notoriously terrible when it comes to spur-of-the-moment shift and hours changing; employees are often sent home if sales are slack. On the other hand there is little freedom and freedom to move careerwise in contact centers and the work itself commands little respect. Therefore to retain quality people extra care must be given to permit them to have meaningful lives. And in return they will return it with loyalty, and exceptional service.