How to Solve the Agent Attrition Problem

By Tom Marsden

We all know it: call centers are a tricky place to work long term. Managing inbound customer complaints is no one’s favorite part of the job, and it contributes to the high stress levels often found in call center employees. This stress translates to high turnover; the average lifespan of a US call center worker is approximately three years, with a turnover of 33 percent. What’s wrong?

HR professionals would like to think they have employee attrition down to a science: measurements such as number of sick days taken, habitual lateness, and cohort analysis of average employee tenure can give managers a good view into exactly what is going wrong, but they don’t help explain why it’s happening or offer predictive insight for the future. The problem with these commonly collected data sets is that they rarely offer managers a real course of action and often actually make matters worse by confusing people with vast quantities of data.

Call center managers can use other information sources to get a better idea of how to prevent their employees from leaving so frequently. More and more business managers are waking up to the role social dynamics – often referred to as cultural fit – plays and how important it can be for achieving employee longevity.

Measuring Social Fit: When it comes to measuring the efficiency of workers, call centers have many data points readily available. Metrics such as number of issues resolved, customer satisfaction and average handling time (AHT) are widely used, but managers are much less familiar with the idea of measuring an employee’s social well-being in the workplace. This is a key mistake, as academics have noted that employees who fit in well with their job, team, and organization have greater job satisfaction, are more likely to remain in their organization, and show superior job performance.

Call centers have a reputation for being highly individualistic places to work. However, social connectivity is a fundamental and overlooked factor that can often lead to easily identifiable and desirable action. Social relationships formed in downtime underpin much of our mental well-being. Even in call centers – where employees are often alone while doing their work – if agents are socially satisfied with their surroundings, this is likely to influence their conversations with customers.

This is all fine, but how do hiring managers actually begin to measure social connectivity and fit? It starts by having open conversations with people from all levels of the organization about who is and isn’t successful at the company and why. From there you can start to build up a more thorough view of an ideal candidate. Practically speaking, it’s imperative that you take this information and use it to conduct cultural fit interviews with prospective candidates; a couple of minutes of chat on the phone is not enough.

You can make it more formal by bringing in social profiling surveys: data analysis of these results can form another “voice in the room,” aiding decisions over which candidate to hire. Surveys and algorithms have the benefit of being transparent; when a mistake is made, you can take a look at the process and find out what’s gone wrong. This is the opposite of the opaque, gut feel assessments that most hiring managers make when thinking about a candidate’s personal and social attributes.

Team Structure Shouldn’t Be Fixed: According to McKinsey, 40 percent of jobs in developed economies involve a high degree of collaboration. Teams give employees a motivational social foundation and an emotional support network for when situations get rough. It’s therefore important that call center managers put renewed emphasis on team dynamics – call centers aren’t as individualistic as people think.

Managers need to pay close attention to the day-to-day social functioning of their teams. This is easier than it sounds. It doesn’t require specialist qualifications or huge amounts of time. Managers can start by being socially observant, and they can use common sense to identify problem areas and potential socially acceptable solutions. Many companies are now choosing to take a more rigorous approach by incorporating data-driven personality testing into the mix, isolating potential problems before they appear.

Make the Most of Downtime: Your workers aren’t machines. They need some relaxation to get them through the day; otherwise their performance will suffer. Naturally this thought frustrates managers who would like their employees to be as productive as possible for as long as possible, so there is a growing number of companies that are now looking to utilize their employees’ downtime for good – or at least not let their employees’ inevitable breaks go completely to waste. One oft-cited example is Pixar. Steve Jobs insisted that all the office toilets would be located off the ground-floor lobby to increase the likelihood of chance interactions between employees in different teams and departments. Fast-forward a few years, and this thinking is present across much of the corporate world.

This same thinking applies to call centers: Managers should encourage teams of employees to take breaks together and socialize away from their desks. By doing this, employees will spend more time together, encouraging social bonding. A well-known MIT study recently tested this. By ensuring that everyone on the same call center team took a break at the same time, a bank’s call center AHT fell by more than 20 percent among low-performing teams, and fell by 8 percent overall. Canada and the EU have call center turnover rates of 25 percent and 15 percent respectively, lower than the 33 percent rate seen in the US. The work environment in Canada and the EU countries is more relaxed and flexible than in the US, which might be one reason behind the difference.

According to the Human Resource Institute, the average cost of replacing one frontline call center agent in the US can reach $15,000. There’s a clear business need to find the underlying cause of this problem. Attrition problems are unique to each organization; there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. However, with the right mix of innovations in HR, team structure, and more rigorous measurement, there’s nothing to stop call center managers from reversing the attrition trend and leading happier, more profitable teams.

Tom Marsden is the CEO of Saberr.