Agent Retention

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Agent Retention

/ People, Turnover, People management
Agent Retention

Grappling with the age-old challenge of retaining entry-level service staff.

High agent turnover has been a leading source of frustration in contact centers for decades. Despite dealing with rapidly evolving technologies, digital channel expansion and ever-increasing customer expectations in recent years, agent turnover remains the toughest nut to crack.

As readers may recall from the “Contact Center Challenges & Priorities for 2017” survey findings published earlier this year, center leaders across sectors cited agent turnover as their No. 1 challenge (again!). The silver lining is that survey participants also reported that they planned to prioritize coaching and development this year, presumably to help alleviate turnover and its side-effects (i.e., negative impact on customer satisfaction, team morale, budget, etc.).

Saddletree Research Chief Analyst and Pipeline columnist Paul Stockford recently reported similar findings from his annual research into the top issues for 2017 (see his February 2017 column, “Power to the People!”). In one-on-one interviews Stockford conducted with members of the National Association of Call Centers (NACC), he found that executives expressed deep concern about workforce turnover. “Most executives recognize that something has to change in 2017 in order to create the workforce stability they seek,” he notes.

Global consulting firm Mercer’s “2016 U.S. Contact Center Survey” (http://bit.ly/2pq8hzJ) results point to non-challenging work, lack of recognition, no career growth or development and inflexible working environment as key contributors to high turnover. Not surprisingly, the report found that turnover is highest among entry-level agents (27%), and then tapers off for those in higher skilled and supervisory positions: Average turnover rates dropped considerably to 20% among intermediate staff, and then dramatically for senior agents (12%), team leaders (11%), teamgroup supervisors (7%), and teamgroup managers (6%).

The industry has had a longtime struggle when it comes to retaining new agents. Larger centers, in particular, tend to lose a substantial percentage of their new-hires within the first six months. Mercer’s survey results revealed that 25% of turnover was voluntary at the median. Agent turnover, broken out based on time since hire, showed that 6.2% left within the first 30 days; 5% left between 21-60 days on the job; 5.6% quit within 61-90 days; and another 8.2% left within 3-6 months.

Considering that the average entry-level agent job is still a relatively low-skilled position, higher turnover within the first few months of employment is quite normal, says Matt Stevenson, Mercer Partner and Leader of Mercer’s Workforce Strategy and Analytics group. “People are job-shopping, and trying out different lines of work,” he says. The bigger issue for centers, he adds, is the growth of the on-demand economy, which will drive up turnover rates because it gives workers more options. “There are now more choices for people who may work in call centers. They might now also be working for Uber or taking shifts at an Amazon warehouse,” he points out. “There has been an influx of new employment options for people who are at the lower end of the skill spectrum.”

In fact, a recent independent study by the JPMorgan Chase Institute (“Paychecks, Paydays, and the Online Platform Economy: Big Data on Income Volatility”) found that more than 8 in 10 low-wage workers who earn money from on-demand platforms hold other jobs.

Closing the Revolving Door

One way to combat higher turnover in the center due to the availability of on-demand work options is to make the agent’s job more flexible, Stevenson says. “This is where work-at-home comes in, because agents can be that much more flexible if they don’t have to commute to their jobs.”

Contact centers also can make a considerable dent in new-hire turnover by refining the hiring and onboarding process to ensure that the people they bring on are a good fit for the job, the company culture and their customer base.

How? Top-performer modeling can help. This process identifies the characteristics that make the top 5% to 10% of your staff successful, and uses those common traits to guide the selection and on boarding process, according to Service Agility’s Jay Minnucci (see “Top-Performer Modeling,” April 2015). He lists several attributes to include in your model, such as: months of prior phone experience, length and/or type of customer service experience; scores on the phone interview; education level; extracurricular activities; prior leadership experience; answers to behavior questions in the interview; and referrals from current staff.

Minnucci adds that, while the most common use of top-performer modeling is to help select the best candidates for the agent position, it’s also an excellent way to identify the best onboarding processes.

Case in point, Vivint Smart Home. Vivint’s customer care leadership team first looked to their data to ensure that their hiring strategy identified the right individuals for the job. The team began with a profile of top-performing agents. They then analyzed the 2,000 most recent hires to develop an employee lifecycle plan to ensure that agents are performing optimally for their level of training and time on the job. Each new-hire’s performance is tracked weekly, and those who fall below the standard are provided with additional coaching. The process has improved new agents’ time to productivity by seven weeks, and new-hire satisfaction is higher because agents are more confident in their job knowledge. (See “Inside View: Vivint Smart Home,” May 2016).

Another way to minimize the risk of a bad hire is to ask your current staff for referrals. Your agents understand the pros and cons of the job, and they know whether the friends they refer would be well-suited to the work. According to Robert Half’s “Small and Midsize Business Hiring” survey, 58% of respondents said that the best new-hires come from referrals, including employees, friends, recruiters and others in their network.

Providing a clear, honest job preview will help to weed out those who are likely to leave before making a significant investment in the candidate’s training. Including time on the phones jacked in with a senior agent as part of the screening process will give candidates a better understanding of what the job entails.

Pairing new-hires with senior agents can provide an all-important support system during the orientation and training stage. At Carbonite, every new-hire is assigned a mentor—a top-performing senior agent who sits with the new-hire to review training checklists and share best practices. The new-hire will shadow his mentor until he feels comfortable handling calls on his own—and both must agree that the new-hire is ready. (See “Inside View: Carbonite,” April 2016.)

With sales agents, it can be particularly difficult to retain new-hires during the first few months of employment because they’re typically ineligible for incentives, says Beth Ann Finis, a Principal in Mercer’s Talent Information Solutions business. “Offering an incentive plan that bridges the gap so new sales agents don’t have to wait until they’re fully trained and operating at full capacity to be eligible may help to retain agents,” she says. “It provides the agent with some form of guaranteed pay early on, until they reach the sales floor and are able to earn sales incentives.”

Early in the employee lifecycle, companies can speed up the onboarding process by using gamification tools to reinforce certain behaviors taught in new-hire training, such as schedule adherence, or by engaging new-hires in learning with a series of challenges that, once accomplished, allows them to unlock new levels of training.

Finally, recognition can have a strong impact on a new-hire’s level of engagement. Recognizing agents in the early days of employment gives them a sense of belonging, and encourages them to perform higher. According to Mercer, 66% of companies are utilizing formal non-cash recognition to reward team members and reduce turnover. The most common are trophies, plaques, gift certificates and award checks, says Finis. “Public recognition can be very powerful and meaningful,” she says, adding that recognition which is visible, such as plaques and trophies that peers in the center and in other departments can see, is highly effective.

Susan Hash

Susan Hash

Susan Hash is the Editorial Director of Contact Center Pipeline magazine and the Pipeline blog. She is a veteran business journalist with 28 years of specialized experience writing about customer care and contact centers.

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