Why Your Turnover Reduction Efforts Are Not Working

By Dennis Adsit, PhD

Turnover may be the biggest challenge call center leaders face. Even in tough economic times, call center turnover is higher than in almost any other industry. As an example, one major financial services firm has an 80 percent annualized turnover in the US, despite unemployment remaining stubbornly high. They run new agent training classes of twenty-five or more agents year round.

Agent turnover is also one of the biggest sources of hidden cost. An HR staff is required to exit and onboard agents. Additional training staff is necessary. New agents must be monitored more, which means more off-phone, indirect labor. When new agents are off the phone more for coaching, more agents are necessary to maintain service levels. And finally, new agents make more mistakes and are slower, both of which add costs.

Given such a sizeable, ongoing problem, call center leaders are always on the lookout for strategies to help reduce turnover. Most articles on the subject touch on one or more of the following:

  • Making improvements to the hiring process, including realistic job previews, so candidates know what they are signing up for
  • Adding variable comp plans so great work gets rewarded and ensuring that those variable comp efforts are aligned with key outcomes for the business
  • Including an emphasis on recognition versus monetary rewards
  • Strengthening the coaching capabilities of those who work with the agents
  • Incorporating “feel good” activities if certain milestones are achieved (supervisors cooking hot dogs, hanging yellow smiley balloons, singing songs in front of the agents, putting roses on agents’ chairs, handing out chocolates, etc.)

There is nothing wrong with any of these suggestions. They are all good ideas and doing them is certainly better than not doing them.

The shortfall I see in most recommended approaches to turnover reduction is that no one seems willing to address the fact that call center jobs are tough. On a good day, the job is tiring and probably a bit boring. On a bad day, it can be extremely taxing. Let’s face it: It’s hard to talk on the phone all day. Think about how taxing long conference calls are. Imagine eight or more hours of that!

Call center jobs are repetitive too. One client’s agents were taking more than seventy cell phone activation calls a day. Eighty percent of these calls were the same: the same questions, the same disclosures, the same cross-sells. Do you think picking songs for the supervisors to sing is going to make that job more enjoyable?

Finally, many call center jobs are stressful. The customers are often rushed, frustrated, or downright surly. There is a lot for agents to remember, especially in tech support jobs. The agents’ tools often don’t work well together and a lot of opening and closing of windows and cutting and pasting are needed to carry out even simple tasks. There is relentless pressure to monitor and improve metrics, such as FCR (first call resolution), AHT (average handle time), schedule adherence, C-Sat (customer satisfaction), and compliance. These are accompanied by the often not-so-subtle innuendo that there are plenty of other people applying for this job. Having a supervisor hand an agent a hot dog once or twice a year offers little amelioration.

Let’s say we were in a different industry, and you were trying to reduce turnover for running a blast furnace. I’m guessing you would say, “No wonder these guys are quitting. This job is brutal.” You would not consider that a moveable trophy, a pizza party, or a realistic job preview would reduce turnover. You would not kid yourself that a rose on the blast furnace operators’ seats would reduce turnover. You would not think that earning a chocolate for not giving someone around you third-degree burns would actually make someone love their job and want to stay. Instead, you would probably dramatically improve the pay and do everything in your power to make the job easier, safer, and more bearable.

Unfortunately, call centers don’t adopt either of these approaches. Call centers are cost centers, and there is a lot of pressure to keep costs down. There is often a ready supply of labor, especially in this economy, so the wages are not going up.

Centers also don’t do enough to make the jobs easier by allowing the agents to leverage automation. In the telco client example previously mentioned, why did the agent have to read the same disclosures seventy times a day on cell phone activation calls? Why not have those disclosures recorded so the agent can say something like, “I now need to give you some important information in a voice other than my own. I will remain on the phone with you the entire time, so if you have any questions, feel free to interrupt,” and then let the agent play recorded disclosures?

Here’s what would happen if you did: You would dramatically improve compliance. Handle time would be reduced. C-Sat would remain the same. Repeat calls might go down. Further, although it wasn’t your objective, your agents would venerate you because you just made their job less tiring and less stressful. Finally, best of all, turnover would actually go down dramatically.

This is just one suggestion to make the point that automation driven by the agent can improve performance and make jobs easier. There are dozens more ways agent-assisted automation can be applied to reduce stress and improve outputs.

In conclusion, you should certainly apply the typical strategies to reduce turnover. These are best practices, and they can be effective. But if you stop there, don’t be surprised if, despite these efforts and expenditures, your month-over-month turnover percentage remains unchanged.

If you are fed up with high turnover and the costs associated with it, go one step further and start viewing a call center agent’s job like a blast furnace operator’s job: tiring, boring, and stressful. Don’t ask, “How can I brighten the place up?” Don’t ask, “How do I make the agents feel better about their jobs?” Instead, ask, “How do I make the agents’ job easier and less repetitive?” Then implement those changes as fast as you can.

Your turnover problems will quickly fall to more tolerable levels, and all you will have to worry about is keeping the birds off that bronze statue of you in front of the building.

Dennis Adsit, PhD, is VP, Process Improvement Consulting at KomBea Corporation. He may be reached at dennis.adsit@kombea.com.

[From Connection Magazine May 2012]

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