Why, Despite Your Best Efforts, Turnover Remains Stubbornly High
Dennis Adsit, Ph.D.
Call center turnover is higher than it is in almost any other industry or function. As an example, one major financial services firm we work with currently has 80% annualized contact center turnover despite the persistently high unemployment rate.
Moreover, whether they realize it or not, turnover may actually be the biggest source of waste and inefficiency that call center leaders face. For example, some of the HR staff in the call center is there just to exit the agents quitting and hire new ones. Turnover means centers have to carry more training staff. New agents have to be monitored more, which means more call monitoring personnel. New agents need more off-phone coaching, which means you have to carry more agents to maintain service levels. And finally, new agents are slower (which adds handle time cost) and make more mistakes (which adds rework and call back costs as well as fines).
Given the sizable and omnipresent problem turnover represents, call center leaders are always on the lookout for strategies to help reduce it. Most articles on the subject touch on one or more of the following:
1) Making improvements to the hiring process, including Realistic Job Previews, so candidates know what they are signing up for and stay on longer
2) Adding variable comp plans to improve agent motivation
3) Ramping up recognition efforts
4) Strengthening the capabilities of the coaches who work with the agents daily, banking on the belief that “people don’t quit companies, they quit their bosses”
5) Incorporating “feel good” activities to make the environment a great place to work, like supervisors cooking hot dogs for agents, hanging yellow smiley balloons to cubes, having staff be required to sing songs in front of the agents, putting roses on agents’ chairs, handing out chocolates, etc. (These are real examples of what call centers are doing to improve the work environment.)
There is nothing wrong with any of these suggestions. They are reasonable ideas and doing them is certainly better than not doing them.
The problem is that many companies are already doing all of these things and their turnover is still maddeningly high. In my viewpoint, the reason is that actions like those listed here skirt a important issue: call center jobs are extremely difficult. On a good day, the job is tiring and probably a bit boring. On a bad day, it can be extremely stressful.
Let’s face it. It is really hard to talk on the phone all day. Think about how tiring one long conference call is. Are yellow smiley balloons tied to an agent’s cube going to make her less tired at the end of the day?
We also have to acknowledge that many call center jobs are boring. We had a Telco client whose agents were taking 70+ cell phone activation calls a day. Probably eighty percent or more of the calls were exactly the same...same questions, same disclosures, same cross-sells. Do you think picking songs for the supervisors to sing is going to make that job less boring? How about a variable comp plan that allows you to earn a couple bucks more per hour?
Finally, many of these jobs are stressful too. The customers are often rushed or frustrated and can be downright surly. There is a lot to remember, especially in tech support jobs. The agents’ tools often don't work well together, which means opening/closing lots of different windows and cutting/pasting are needed to carry out simple tasks. Then there is the monitoring and relentless pressure to increase your metrics, accompanied by the often not so subtle innuendo that there are plenty of people applying for this job. How does having my supervisor hand me a hot dog once or twice a year help reduce these stressors?
Let’s say we were in a different industry, and the job you were trying to reduce turnover for was running a blast furnace. I am guessing you would say to yourself, "Well, no wonder these guys are quitting. This job is brutal." You would not be thinking that a moveable trophy or a pizza party or a Realistic Job Preview would reduce turnover. You would not kid yourself that a rose on the blast furnace operators’ benches would reduce turnover. You would not be hoping that earning a chocolate for not giving a buddy 3rd degree burns would actually make someone love their job and want to stay.
What you would probably do is dramatically improve the pay and continuously look for ways to make the job easier, safer, and more bearable.
Are these options for call centers? Yes and no. Unfortunately, increasing pay is probably not a realistic option. Call centers are a service and most companies don’t charge for it. As such, they are a cost that eats into margins. Those with P&L responsibility are unlikely to make a bet that better pay will be made up for by reduced turnover.
But the second option…automation, directed by the agent…offers a real opportunity to make agent jobs less tiring and stressful. Why, in the Telco client example previously mentioned, did the agent have to read the same disclosures 70 times a day on cell phone activation calls? Those disclosures can be pre-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.” The agent then just plays the required disclosures.
Are agents worried about getting reprimanded for forgetting steps on the call? Error-proof those steps by doing some simple CRM integration work to make sure the agent can’t skip a step, a question, or a cross-sell. Are agents not doing the requisite system updating or after call work? Pre-program those updates, such that certain actions by the agent automatically update the appropriate systems.
Manufacturing has a long history of using automation and leaders there find it an indispensible approach for improving quality and making jobs easier and safer. What kind of results could call center leaders expect from using agent-assisted automation?
Well, first and foremost, there is a huge increase in agent satisfaction. The job is not as repetitive. There is less to remember and worry about. The agents are much less tired and stressed at the end of their work day. We have not done a formal study to see if the gains in agent satisfaction translate into turnover reduction. But we have noticed agents at outsourcers desperately want to get back on accounts that have deployed agent-assisted automation technology.
Beyond increases in agent satisfaction, tangible customer and shareholder measures markedly improve. Compliance with Required Call Components goes up dramatically. Handle Time goes way down. First call resolution goes up and repeat call volume goes down. While all these benefits are accruing, Customer Satisfaction remains unchanged. We have observed these results on every implementation.
So if your turnover needle is not moving, focus more on the job and less on the environment. Don’t ask yourself, “How do I brighten the place up?” Don’t ask yourself, “How do I make the agents feel better about their stressful jobs?” Instead, ask yourself, “How do I make what the agent does every day easier and less repetitive?”and implement those changes as fast as you can.
Dennis Adsit, PhD is the VP, Process Improvement Consulting at KomBea Corporation. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.