Are We There Yet?

By Tori J. Miller

Those who run a call center in today’s economic times have a low turnover rate. They also enjoy large pools of diverse applicants that cross several generations, including baby boomers, generation X, and generation Y.  As a result, new employee class sizes have been small, while longevity in the workforce has enabled supervisors and managers to build better relationships with agents. Productivity and efficiency increases have resulted less need to add staff.

Running call centers these days is not like it was ten – or even five – years ago.  Today, technology can record every call, enabling call centers to mine call data to determine how many times during a call a certain word was said. This provides an understanding of what callers are saying without having to rely on asking the agents. Additionally, call centers can trend why customers are calling by looking at the steps that are performed on an agent’s desktop.

Companies have spent millions of dollars making sure that they have the best technology to assist their customers in order to remain competitive in their industry. Have companies given this same focus to understanding the new generation of workers that are using this new technology in the call centers?  Are we preparing for an economic turnaround and lower unemployment rates? Are we educating our supervisors and managers about who our new workforce is so we can recruit them and retain them? Do companies know if their culture and benefits are attractive to the newest members of that workforce, generation Y?

The Generation Y Profile: Gen Y (also called “nexters” or “millennials”) consists of individuals born between 1977 and 1994 (the date range is sometimes reported as 1980 to 2000). This generation of workers has been taught to question authority; they have been taught to expect constant feedback; they are the generation most wanted by their parents; and they have a strong need to feel valued. Gen Y employees work well in a team environment. They have grown up with computers, they love technology, and they use it for social networking, which is an important part of their daily lives.

Gen Y workers are results-oriented, and they typically do not focus or care about the method used to achieve those results. This generation is open to any new technology as long as they perceive there is a real value or benefit to them. Gen Y employees contribute to their 401ks at the same rate as boomers do today. Because this is the result of seeing their parents lose their retirement, there is a strong need for long-term fiscal planning.

Communication with gen Y focuses on the easiest and most efficient way of communicating. If they can instant message someone a quick question and get a quick reply while multitasking, why should they be forced to call into a queue for help, only to wait on hold?

When it comes to questioning a process, procedure, or policy, they will not hesitate to go straight to the CEO with their question. Following a chain of command is not something that gen Y has been taught to do. They don’t understand the need to do this and will question why.

Gen Y wants to learn from and be inspired by their leaders. They want to know that their leaders are continuing to learn so that these executives can turn around and teach them. If their supervisor does not have the necessary technical knowledge and does not have the coaching skills to help change behavior, the gen Y employee is lost.

Socializing and being able to network while at work is expected by gen Y. This group of workers is not loyal to the company; they are loyal to the people they work with. By providing activities that allow coworkers to get to know each other, a natural network is created. These networks can be powerful tools to attract and retain good gen Y employees.

Flexible schedules are also important to this group of workers. Call centers are especially challenged with this gen Y need since they are staffed according to when customers need to reach their clients. How does your call center measure up? Here are some key questions call center directors should ask themselves:

Socialization: Does your company allow employees to surf the Web during downtime? If the answer is no, how will the gen Y employee be able to stay connected with their friends, whom they consider their families? Is there any harm if they are not on a call with a customer? Gen Y sees this no differently that the person reading a book or knitting at their desk between calls.

Schedule Flexibility: Does your company encourage flexible scheduling so that employees can take time off without using vacation or personal time? If not, how will the gen Y employee be able to fulfill their need to spend time with family and friends who are their number one priority? Do you allow agents to swap schedules? Do you encourage schedule swaps with other employees? When your call center is overstaffed, do you allow agents to leave early or come in late without pay?

Earn More, Work Less: Do you have the opportunity to increase sales in a technical environment? Can you pay commissions and show how these commissions can add to their income? This extra money can compensate for the time they take off without pay.

Benefits: Gen Y workers don’t plan to stay at their jobs for a long time, so providing agents with sick time and expecting them to save it up for a rainy day is boomer thinking. What is your call centers’ average accumulated sick time? Gen Y employees feel that sick time is a benefit owed to them. They will use it instead of losing it when they leave. Give it to them, plan for it, and let them schedule it.

Feeling Valued: Are your supervisors trained to understand who the gen Y worker is? Do they understand the importance of showing them how their work brings value? Do they understand the need for constant feedback? Do they know how to be teachers and coaches? Do they understand how to take feedback, present it to higher levels, and recommend process changes?  Listening to feedback is important because it tells you what your employees think and what needs to change to stay in sync with gen Y.

So – are we there yet? This is a question to continually ask ourselves. Personally, my answer is not yet, but we have a good start. We need to take this a step further and look at company policies and benefits to see what can be changed to attract and retain this new generation of worker. It’s not just about what happens in the call center, it’s about the overall company benefits and culture. At 71 million strong, gen Y are the future leaders of our companies, and we need to figure out how to change the work environment in order to keep a competitive advantage.

Tori J. Miller is a senior director of customer care, operating a 250-seat call center for Bright House Networks, as well as a master’s student at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida.

[From Connection Magazine Jan/Feb 2011]

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