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.

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