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Call Center Attrition, Or How I Learned to Eat an Elephant

Houston (and everywhere else), We have A Problem

Most companies I can think of operate a contact center of some kind. My first experience with this environment was over 18 years ago with a company that General Motors outsourced to for managing its phone calls. The place was huge! It occupied the top and bottom floor of an old department store in an abandoned mall turned business complex. My experience there definitely left an impact.

I’ll never forget the training class. It was a fairly large room – 3 giant whiteboards attached to the center of one wall, surrounded by tables running the length and width of the others. It was plenty big enough to fit 40 of us comfortably. Our trainer was sweet, but commanded attention. At that point in my life I looked at things much differently than I do today. I never once stopped to think about the cost of it all, whereas today the only thing I’d be able to think about is how to make it less costly and more efficient.

I oftentimes wonder, “Am I the only one crazy enough to think of stuff like this on such a regular basis?”

Leaving the question of my sanity for another time, the issue for today is elephant-sized; contact center attrition. A Contact Center Pipeline survey from January 2017 identified attrition as the number one challenge facing today’s contact centers, a repeat winner from previous surveys. Independent consulting firm Strategic Contact collaborated with the National Credit Union Call Center Conference on a 2016 survey that found attrition among the biggest challenges for their respondents, along with call volumes and meeting service levels.

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                                                       Contact Center Pipeline, 2017

After many years, and holding many different positions in the call center, (what I like to call the cubicle jungle) my perspective on the issue of attrition is slightly different than most C-levels or HR managers. I’ve been on the frontlines, coaching and training from Florida to the Philippines with stops in between. I’ve coached the coaches, trained the trainers and overseen multi-tiered call center operations simultaneously in multiple countries. You don’t have to listen to me, but then again, maybe you should.

I’m not a fan of 2 or 5 or 8 step processes to help you improve attrition. The truth is that there’s no magic formula. There’s no silver bullet. But as the saying goes, you’ve got to eat an elephant one bite at a time. In this case, it is a combination of multiple elements that need to be addressed and adjusted one-by-one to help you create a winning formula for positive employee retention.

New Contact Center Hiring: It Starts with the Ad

How are we portraying the position we’re trying to fill? Are we doing in our ads what we don’t want our applicants to do on their resumes? Extending the truth seems like a great idea. It may get some butts in the seats, but it’s not long after starting the job that our new hires will be enlightened to the fact that it was all bovine secretion (BS for short).

It Continues with the Interview

Pardon my being frank, but our BS interview questions are part of the problem. I understand the need for standardization. In the contact center environment not all interviews are conducted by the same people, in which case we want to ensure there is consistency. But when was the last time we revisited the questions we’re asking our applicants? Or do we just continue to ask questions that are obsolete because they’re part of the printed interview packets we have 1000’s of to get through?

As an interviewer, there was always something I tried to be mindful of. The person sitting across from me is a real person, with a real personality, outside of the one they’ve just put on with the sole intention of trying to impress me.

Every company’s culture is different. Every contact center has its nuances that make it unique. Diversity in them is a great thing, but if we’re honest we know what works in our company culture and what doesn’t. Our job in the interview process should be to make our applicants as comfortable with showing us who they really are as possible. At the end of the day, if they’re not a fit then we’ve saved a name badge and training materials, along with saving both ourselves and them a headache.

For the record, my statement about us knowing what works and what doesn’t is not a covert way of saying that we should discriminate in any way during the interview process. On the contrary, giving our applicants room to be themselves, and not judging them based on our inclined biases will do something incredible. It will reveal to us that many of the people that make the best fit for the job didn’t come packaged at all how we envisioned them to come. And many who don’t make the cut will have been the ones we would have given the opportunity otherwise.

Education: Degree or No Degree

This is a hot button, I know. And I’m probably going to ruffle some feathers with my perspective on it, but I believe we over emphasize the importance of education/degrees. Don’t get me wrong, education is a wonderful thing, but the issue at hand is far greater than whether or not someone has a degree.

What does the position we’re trying to fill really need? Do we need a high level, analytical thinker? Do we need someone with the aptitude to lead, or someone that’s just a frontline person and happy to do it? Or someone thick skinned enough to deal with the culture of our contact center? Once we make that determination, then we need to consult some professionals on the matter, develop some methods to measure these in our interview process and hire the ones that do it best.

As we develop tools to measure these things, we shouldn’t just go out to get a general personality evaluation to measure the intangibles. Look internally at people already successful and thriving in the workplace and determine the common denominators in those employees. Then look for those same qualities in our prospects. In most cases it is more than an education, it’s a mindset.

I mentioned biases above. It is my belief that education creates a bias in us that represents one of the largest road blocks to hiring the RIGHT talent the first time.

Stories of Grandeur...

Or at least white lies of unlikely promise. The applicant is going to ask, what’s the potential for growth? Increase in pay? How flexible are you? How long have your people stuck around?

Yes, our average pay in a certain department is over $30 an hour with commission. Yes, we are flexible with our work schedule… But no we won’t tell you the average in said department is skewed because of 2 sales behemoths. No, we won’t tell you we’re very flexible in some departments and immoveable in others.

Folks, it’s only a matter of time before they figure it out for themselves and then leave in order to find something that better suits them. Be upfront. Be honest.

I’d rather hire and train three people that are the best fits and allow them to flourish, than hire ten that ultimately end up as three after nine months or less.

Strip Yourself…

Of bias – please, keep your clothes on. Objectivity is extremely difficult, almost impossible to achieve fully, yet it is vital to making the right hiring decisions for our institutions.

I know, the applicant looks too much like an ex that did us wrong… there’s just something about that face that cannot be trusted. It sounds silly, but I’ve been witness to A LOT of conversations that happen after an interview. And I will leave it at that.

Be wise. Be fair. Give folks the chance to show you what they’re really made of.

Sometimes it’s not just the person that wowed us in the interview that should get a call back. You might also consider the person that completely bombed because they were so nervous, and with the extra opportunity comes back to wow us with their tenacity and ability to rebound quickly from failure. What we should be looking for in people should be about way, waaaaay more than what can just be printed on paper.

Contact Center Staff: How Do You Know They’re Happy?

Just because someone is great at their job doesn’t mean they’ll stay. Just because people aren’t actively complaining about issues in the office or contact center doesn’t mean there aren’t any. Do we make it a practice to provide a way to discretely and consistently measure employee satisfaction? Will we actually do something with the findings if necessary? It’s always easier to ignore the problem or chalk it up to people complaining, but if protecting our investments is important to us then we MUST do a better job of being proactive.

By some estimates it can take a new hire up to two years to reach the level of productivity of a seasoned employee. And once we talk about replacing mid-level and senior management it will cost us considerably.

More Responsibility & Nothing to Show for It

It happens more often than we’d like to admit. We either voluntarily or involuntarily lose key employees, and those left in the wake of their departure get a little gift – more work. As employers, oftentimes we do nothing about it. It’s a win/win for us, right? One less salary to pay and the same work gets done! This is a recipe for resentment. I’ve personally witnessed it time and time again. It is a very rare occurrence that someone views this additional baggage as an opportunity. Even when we’re fortunate enough to have someone like that, if we don’t act quickly to acknowledge that employee it’s only a matter of time before that enthusiasm turns to bitterness.

If we’re honest with ourselves I think we can all agree that more often than not we undervalue our teams. And the truth is we couldn’t get anything done without them. We can’t afford to wait until we start losing good people before we change.

Flexibility: Bend but Don’t Break

If there is one thing I know it’s that that a contact center will always, at any given time, either be overstaffed or understaffed. Perfection in this area is rarely achieved. I dealt with this daily when I managed operations. But what good does rigid policy do to help the cause of staffing appropriately, if attendance is always a reason to let people go? I’m not saying that there should be a free for all. What I am saying is that how we go about writing policy needs to shift from the traditional mindsets many of us continue to hold on to.

Empowered Employees Are Power Employees

The needs of every department are not the same, yet we blanket the policies for them all. Take for example the segment of your sales force responsible for outbound calling. Those agents arriving an hour later than scheduled will not have the same effect as an inbound agent coming in an hour late. Outbound sales by nature represent work that can be deferred, unlike inbound, which is based on forecasted call volume. Coverage is king! Who cares if an agent will be an hour late if they can have a workmate come in an hour earlier to cover their absence? Yet many times we don’t allow for this type of flexibility despite its practicality. Empowered employees are power employees.

Support staff is unique in that oftentimes their functions vary widely. Some support staff will be used as overflow. Some will never put a headset on to answer calls. Some must absolutely be present at the office, others do not. But much like we deal with call center agents, we blanket a policy because it’s much, much easier to put a single rule in the handbook that gets distributed to every employee, even though it’s ineffective. Think of it this way – what kind of a football team would we have if everyone on the team had to be a great quarterback? What about if we conditioned everyone the same as the quarterback? The fact of the matter is that each position in our businesses and call centers performs specific and necessary function that cannot continue to be managed as if they were the same. If there was any one statement in all of this that bears more weight than the rest it would be the one I just made. One size does not fit all!

What I have found to be absolutely true working in the contact center environment is that the most practical, and efficient practices are too often the ones that are most vehemently opposed. Why? “Because we’ve never done it that way.” That’s hardly a good enough reason to continue doing what we’ve always done. It’s costing us time. It's costing money. It’s costing us good people, in turn affecting how well we are able to service our customers.

I'm no expert in talent acquisition. I am however an expert in training, developing and managing the people that are acquired. Employee retention is a collaborative effort, whether in a contact center or an office filled with software developers. Addressing the symptoms has not, and will not solve unnecessary attrition. Attacking the many elements that contribute to it though, gives us a fighting chance to overcome the beast – one bite at a time.

I hope that my experience has been able to provide a fresh and slightly different insight from the run of the mill. Check back with us next week for more contact center insights.

About the Author

JD is an efficiency expert, consultant and "unofficial wave maker." He fosters the difficult conversations that are necessary to inspire growth in businesses and call centers, and has helped companies recapture significant lost revenues by subtly reshaping the mindset of traditional business practices.

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