Thursday, October 31, 2013

Why Your Call Center Turnover Reduction Efforts are Not Working

Even in tough economic times, call center turnover is higher than it is in almost any other part of a company or industry for that matter. As an example, one major financial services firm we work with has 80% annualized turnover here in the US, where unemployment remains stubbornly high. They run new agent training classes of 25 or more agents, weekly, year round.  

I talked to one call center leader in Michigan, who in the height of the recession was suffering from 100% annual turnover.  And believe it or not, that level of turnover is quotidian overseas.  150%-200% turnover in Indian- and Philippines-based call centers is planned for.
Turnover, in fact, may be the biggest challenge call center leaders face. It is certainly one of the biggest sources of hidden cost. You have to have HR staff to exit and on-board agents. You have to carry more training staff. New agents have to be monitored more, which means more off-phone, indirect labor. New agents are off the phone more for coaching, which means you have to carry more agents to maintain service levels. And finally, new agents also make more mistakes and are slower, both of which add cost.

Given such a sizable, omnipresent problem with such pernicious consequences, call center leaders are always on the lookout for strategies to help reduce turnover. Most articles on the subject touch on ideas such as:

  1. Making improvements to the hiring process, including Realistic Job Previews, so candidates know what they are signing up for
  1. Adding variable comp plans so great work gets rewarded and ensuring those variable comp efforts are aligned with key outcomes for the business
  1. Including an emphasis on recognition (vs. monetary rewards), such as putting roses on agents’ chairs, handing out chocolates, moveable trophies, etc.
  1. Strengthening the capabilities of the coaches who work with the agents regularly
  1. Incorporating “feel good” activities periodically or when certain milestones are achieved.  These activities include supervisors dressing up in costumes, cooking hot dogs, sing songs in front of the agents, hanging yellow smiley balloons (
There is nothing wrong with any of these suggestions. They are all good ideas and doing them is certainly better than not doing them.  But many call centers are doing them and turnover is still out of control and crippling performance.  In fact if you want to see how well all your turnover reduction efforts are working, just graph turnover by month over the last two years.)

The shortfall I see in most recommended approaches to turnover reduction is that the solutions are focused on the environment and not the job itself.  No one seems willing to address the fact that call center jobs are very tough jobs, probably the toughest white collar jobs there are. On a good day, they are just tiring and probably a bit boring. On a bad day, they can be extremely stressful.

Here are a few reasons why the job is so hard. Face it:  just talking on the phone all day is really tough. Think about how tiring your long conference calls are.  After them, you do anything possible to not get on the phone right away after just one long call.  Imagine eight or more hours of talking like that!

Call Center jobs are boring too and the repetition makes you want to claw your own eyes out. We had a Telco client whose agents were taking 70+ cell phone activation calls a day. Ninety percent or more of the calls were essentially identical...same questions, same disclosures, same cross-sells. OK, the small talk and banter was different, but for the most part the calls were the same.  Do you think picking songs for the supervisors to sing at the agents' cubes is going to make that job less mind numbing and make those agents want to stay?  

Finally, many call center jobs are really stressful. The customers are often rushed or frustrated or even downright surly. Customers who cuss at and belittle call center agents are as common as sunshine.  Further, there is a lot to remember, especially in tech support jobs. And finally, because of legacy systems, the agents’ tools often don't work well together and a lot of opening/closing windows and cutting/pasting are needed to process simple calls. 

Adding even more stress, is also the continuous monitoring and relentless pressure to increase your metrics...FCR, AHT, Schedule Adherence, CSAT, Compliance... accompanied by the often not so subtle innuendo that there are plenty of people applying for this job. Supervisor activities like dressing up in costume and handing agents hot dogs once or twice a year is not an anodyne.

There is a popular organizational aphorism that goes "People don't leave jobs.  They leave supervisors."  Like most aphorisms, that is generally true, but it meets its Waterloo in Call Centers.  Agents spend little time with their supervisors.  There is so much pressure to maintain high occupancy and schedule adherence that the agents have little off phone time and only a small amount of the limited time they have is spent with their supervisors.  A call center's management ranks could be staffed by Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity and turnover would still run rampant.  You can say, "Well there's the problem...the agents need to spend more time with their supervisors." But you are more likely to see pigs fly than to see a sustained spike up in supervisor-agent bonding time...Maintaining high Occupancy and Schedule Adherence are too ingrained in the call center orthodoxy.

Coming at the Problem from a Different Angle

Let’s say we were in manufacturing and we were tasked with reducing the turnover of blast furnace operators. I am guessing you would say to yourself something like, "I understand why these guys are quitting. This job is brutal." You would not be thinking that a movable trophy or a pizza party or a Realistic Job Preview would reduce turnover. You would not be kidding yourself that a rose on the blast furnace operators’ seats would reduce turnover. You would not be wondering why earning a chocolate for not giving someone around you 3rd degree burns is not making the operators love their job and want to stay.

What you would probably be doing is dramatically improving the pay and everything in your power to make the job easier, safer, and more bearable.  

Unfortunately, call centers don't adopt either of those approaches. As short-sighted as it is, call centers are primarily viewed as cost centers and as such, there is a lot of pressure to keep costs down. There is often a ready supply of labor, especially in this economy and in offshore labor markets, so wages are not going up.  

Centers also don't do enough to make the jobs easier by allowing the agents to leverage automation. 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? 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 is what happens when you do. You dramatically improve compliance with Required Call Components.  Handle Times are reduced. Customer Satisfaction is generally the same and in some cases better. Repeat call volume goes down (because the agents are handling more calls properly).  And agent satisfaction soars.  Though we haven't seen it yet, your agents might even erect a bronze statue of you in front of the building because they are so appreciative of the fact that you made their jobs about 100 times less tiring and stressful. 

This is just one suggestion to make the point about how automation, driven by the agent, can improve performance and make the job easier. There are dozens more ways agent-assisted automation can be applied to reduce stress and improve outputs. Here is more information about agent-assisted automation. 

So, by all means, apply the typical strategies recommended by articles on how to reduce turnover. They won't hurt. 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 concomitant costs associated with it, my suggestion is that you go one step further and start imagining that call center agents are essentially running blast furnaces because you know a job like that is exhausting, boring, and extremely stressful. 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 lousy 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. 

Your turnover problems will quickly fall to more tolerable levels and your costs will go way down.  Your next big problem then will be how to keep the pigeons off the bronze statue of you that the agents erect in front of the building.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Two Widely Held and Deeply Flawed Mental Models Perpetuating Call Center Mediocrity

It is no secret that call center industry performance is mediocre at best.  High error-rates are tolerated (see What is an Acceptable Contact Center Error Rate?).  Employees don’t like working in them as evidenced by the high turnover.  And finally when late-night comedians make jokes about the bad service and accents, everyone laughs because everyone has experienced it.

Now lots of industries have market challenges and technology challenges and competition.  And, of course, improving performance is tough everywhere.  Those challenges are expected.  But when it is your own way of thinking that is holding you back, it is time for a reboot.

Two broadly-held mental models and the actions that are taken as a result of those frameworks are at the root of the chronically poor performance that plagues the call center industry.  I’ll describe those limiting mental models and ways to break free.

Flawed Mental Model #1:  Over reliance on One-agent-at-a-Time approaches to Improvement.  The first limiting belief goes something like this: I have 50 or 500 or 5000 agents delivering performance.  Since the overall performance of my center is the weighted average performance of my agents, if I coach them and they improve, then my center-wide metrics will improve. 

This model is true mathematically, but not in practice.  There are actually multiple reasons why this approach won't work, but the simplest explanation it is not true in most call centers is turnover.  Turnover eats the gains that are produced by the coaching and training given to the agents.  (For more, including a link to a simulation, see the debate I had with a consultant and some employees from Nice, the Call Recording company:  Coaching Remains a Labor-in-Vain.)

I am not saying anything new here.  The late quality guru, Edward Deming, warned us about focusing on individuals vs. “the system” three decades ago in one of the greatest management books ever written, Out of the Crisis, a book, I am sadly guessing, few call center leaders have even heard about, let alone read.  

In Deming’s view, most coaching efforts are a form of tampering because they try to make improvements to individual components of what is largely common cause variation. He argued that the overall performance of a unit was much more a function of the quality of materials, process design (including automation and error-proofing), specs, tools, knowledge bases, rewards, operating mechanisms, selection systems, etc – in other words, the “system.” 

Don't believe me or Deming for that matter?  Just ask the purveyors of Quality Monitoring and Coaching programs to show you the ROI:  the value of continuously improving agent output metrics minus the cost of licenses, monitoring personnel, off-phone time.  They can't do it.  Agent metrics are not continuously improving in any call center I have ever been in or run.  So while there is a lot of I there is no R.

Fix #1:  Focus on ways to lift the performance of all the agents at once and leave the individual agents alone.  You read that right:  don’t coach.  Put the bulk of your improvement dollars into fixing the levers that raise the performance of the entire system…hire better, deliver more timely performance data to the agents' desktops so they know where they stand relative to others real-time, let the agents use automation to ensure the call is done correctly, etc.  The only exception to this rule is for agents that are statistically better or worse.  The ones that are statistically better need to be studied for best practices and the ones that are statistically worse need be fixed or terminated. 

Flawed Mental Model #2:  Thinking that every live agent call is unique and can't be, at least partially, standardized.  As detrimental and capital wasting as the over reliance on coaching is, this second belief is even more insidious.  Those who assume calls are unique throw up their hands and believe they can’t define a call handling process because customers call for different reasons….the order in which they ask their questions is different…they require different levels of explanation….they have different needs for hand-holding and small talk. Leaders holding this belief think that the variation in agent outputs is, in part, due to the high input variation.  This gives them comfort and they think it lets them off the hook.  It doesn't.

Henry Ford was afraid of input variation and he had a unique way of dealing with it.  He said, "Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black."  In other words, he stamped out input variation to keep his costs down and his factories running smoothly.  

We don’t live in Henry’s world anymore.  To maximize revenue opportunities, we have to be responsive to as many of the unique needs and wants of customers as possible.  To do this means that we have to design our fulfillment operations to deliver the variation that our clients define as valuable at the lowest possible cost. 

Once car manufacturers realized they could not get away with just offering black cars, how did they respond?  They noticed that customers didn't want to vary everything.  Car customers care about features like the color, the stereo system, sunroofs, and performance wheels; they don't seem to care much about bolts, gas caps, and axles.  When we compare one Toyota Corolla to another, while of course they are not alike, most of those two cars are exactly the same.  

Yes, each call is different, but for a given type of call, aren't large swaths of those calls exactly the same?  If you lose your CapitalOne credit card and I lose my Capitlal One credit card, the two calls will be differet but probably 60+% of what we want the agents to say to the customers and do in their systems is exactly the same.  Can't we standardize those parts and just vary what the caller wants and needs us to vary?  

Callers want a live agent to address something unique about their situation, or they want someone to listen and provide empathy.  We should absolutely deliver what they value.  Do they care how a required disclosure is provided to them?  After handling hundreds of millions of calls with agent-assisted automation I can tell you unequivocally that customers don't care how disclosures are provided to them.

Without a changing how we are looking at calls, we are never going to get out of where we are today, which is thinking that each incoming call is as unique as a snowflake, that no process can be defined for the agents to execute, and as a result, our calls are riddled with sub optimizations: 
  • Don't automate the greeting and the ending to ensure that it is branded correctly every time; hope the tired and bored agents don't mess it up. And if Marketing decides to change the messaging, really what does it matter if it takes us three months to get every agent doing it on every call?  That's pretty fast, isn't it?
  • Don't prerecord the disclosures; hope the agents read it word-for-word without accent issues interfering with callers' understanding.  We can just have yet another calibration meeting to define yet another standard that we will be lucky if the agents do 85% of the time.  And besides don't the agents really like reading the same information over and over again 50, 80, 100 times a day?  And for those that don't like it, aren't there more where they came from?
  • Don't use technology to ensure that the right cross-sell offer is made at the right time every time; hope your fancy variable comp plan counteracts the unyielding pressure put on agents to reduce their talk time.  And if they don't do the cross-sell every time, so what if we are leaving a little money on the table?
  • Don't pre-record the diagnostic questions and provide the logical sequencing of those questions with automation that the agents can't blow off or blow through.  Heck just have them return the unit...we don't need to care about that since those costs show up somewhere else in the company.
  • Don’t get the customers to enter their Credit Card numbers with their phone key pads so the agent can’t hear or see the number.  Make the customer read it to the agent and then just call the lawyers when the agents get caught stealing the numbers. (My agents don't steal credit card numbers!  Please see and ).  
  • Don't error-proof the step reminding the caller to "remove any software before returning the unit" so that message gets delivered to every customer returning a unit; we don't need to care about that since the angry letters and calls from customers about their missing software go to the CEO’s office. 
Fix #2:  The title of this blog is that it doesn’t have to be this way and it doesn't!  Stop thinking a call is either automated (handled by the IVR) or it is live.  Look for ways to standardize parts of the call that the customer doesn’t care about with automation the agent can drive.  This will make those parts of the call faster, easier to understand, 100% accurate and reliable and it will give your agents a chance to rest.  Error-proof parts of the call where mistakes have nasty consequences (PR problems, legal issues, fines, angry letters to the CEO).  And then let the agent focus on and deliver what the customer deeply cares about…having someone listen, provide empathy, and guide them through the correct resolution of their problem.

It is bad enough to shoot yourself in the foot.  It is really bad if you reload so it’s likely you’ll do it again.  The industry is hog-tying itself with it's own antiquated mental models.  Our agents, our customers and our shareholders can't stand this intolerably bad performance much longer.  Time for Ctrl + Alt + Delete.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Yellow Smiley Balloons & Laminated Cards: Cutting Edge Call Center Quality Improvement Strategies

I wish this story wasn't true, but you can't make this stuff up...


We were at an outsourcer's offshore location recently, where they had tied yellow, smiley-faced balloons to the agents' cubes. When we asked them why, they said they believe the customers get better service when the agents are happy and these balloons make their day a bit brighter. There were also laminated cards hanging in the cubes that said, "Reminder:  English Only Please."


This is how call centers improve quality? Balloons and laminated cards? I wonder what the next quality initiative will be...ordering a lucky rabbit's foot for agents to put in their pockets?  (By the way, if you don't think laminated cards are a common quality improvement strategy in call centers, check out the photo in this NYTimes article:  The Long Distance Journey of a Fast Food Order 

Can you imagine if they had signs saying "check your welds" or tied yellow balloons to tool benches in jet engine manufacturing plants and told you this is our quality improvement strategy for planes flying 350 miles per hour at 35,000 feet? Is it just me, or is anyone else getting tired of these hope-based strategies?  (I might add that when the smiley balloon outsourcer's client listened to phone calls, on ten out of ten of the monitored calls, the agent gave the old price for a service, not the recently updated one.)

Let's see: hang balloons and laminated cards and hope the agents do what you want them to or get process focused and use software to make it easy for the agents to execute the call correctly so that it is right every time without any monitoring or coaching or hoping? 

Guess which strategy is most often deployed in call centers?

I'll give you a smiley balloon if you get it right.