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Avoiding Agent Underhiring and Undertraining

Avoiding Agent Underhiring and Undertraining

/ Operations, Strategy, People, Hiring, Development
Avoiding Agent Underhiring and Undertraining

How job misspecifications undermine worker wellbeing and contact center performance.

My first professional exposure to contact centers came in 2005, and it didn’t take long to fall in love with the industry.

The pace, challenges, and mission piqued my curiosity and inspired me to design solutions for some of the industry’s most pressing challenges, such as agent retention and performance.

Over the last 17 years, I have studied the cultures of thousands of centers and the skills of hundreds of thousands of agents worldwide.

My research exposed a pivotal talent-related problem plaguing the global contact center industry. And that is the tendency to underhire and undertrain while expecting extraordinary results.

...some senior executives will understandably question the value of investing in contact centers at the current level...

Unfortunately, this practice leads to a misalignment between agent recruiting and training with contact center performance goals.

Should this state of affairs continue, some senior executives will understandably question the value of investing in contact centers at the current level if they consistently underdeliver the promised results.

Contact centers connect customers with company representatives efficiently across multiple channels. Agents support customers using sophisticated dashboards to access account details and information necessary to answer questions and solve problems.

The jobs tend to be fast-paced, complicated, change frequently, and require agents to complete multiple tasks concurrently while managing a cornucopia of customers’ moods or emotions.

The mixture of job complexity, pressure to perform quickly, and a never-ending stream of customers creates a demanding environment that quickly exposes and exacerbates an agent’s skill and socio-emotional deficits.

Mismatches between jobs, people, and goals frequently lead to cultural dysfunction, high attrition, and poor performance. This article discusses the ways contact centers inadvertently normalize misalignment, its consequences, and the steps centers can take to course-correct.

Understanding Requirements

Aligning people with jobs demands a clear, objective understanding of the jobs' requirements. This demand is the first place where misunderstanding the job leads to misalignment.

Properly documenting a job’s tasks, context, and worker requirements takes considerable effort and specialized expertise. Consequently, many centers unknowingly take shortcuts that lead to downstream issues, especially worker-related needs.

Frontline contact center jobs cover a range of skills (e.g., service, sales, and support), channels (e.g., voice, chat, and email), and environments (office and work-from-home [WFH]).

Virtually every center attempts to define a job’s requirements through job descriptions and competency models. However, the process companies follow to create the documentation usually lacks the rigor necessary to match people with the right job accurately.

One large-scale study in the public domain provides insight into the shared and unique competencies across contact center jobs.

The study drew on data from nearly 3,000 subject matter experts (SMEs) in 16 countries to investigate the requirements of six jobs (care, support, retention, collections, and inbound and outbound sales) across the office and WFH environments.

The results allowed the authors to draw three conclusions:

  • First, frontline contact center jobs require many social and technical skills.
  • Second, the six jobs share 15 “universal” competencies, regardless of whether work occurs in an office or WFH. Those 15 competencies encompass responsibility, communication, emotional intelligence, adaptability, and comfort with change.
  • Finally, the job-and environment-specific competencies provide vital details for placing a person into the right job.

The research helps illustrate where misunderstanding the job leads to misalignment. Contact centers appear to unconsciously rely on hasty generalizations when documenting a job’s requirements.

The result is that centers begin to assume “universal” competencies capture critical worker KSAOs (knowledge, skills, and other characteristics), leaving the impression that jobs are far more similar than different. For example, one driver behind the emergence of the “superagent” job is a belief that a good contact center agent can deliver service, support, and sales equally well.

Although some agents thrive in a superagent role, data suggest that they are the exception rather than the rule. The lack of precise, comprehensive job-specific documentation affects recruiting and training directly.

Recruiting and Hiring

The second place where misunderstanding the job leads to misalignment occurs during the recruiting stage.

Contact centers, particularly global BPOs and large corporate operations, are recruiting machines capable of attracting and processing thousands of applicants daily.

Interestingly, many centers rely on wide-net strategies that favor applicant volume over applicant quality. The idea is to get people in the funnel and let technology and process sort them out.

But by unwittingly relying on inaccurate or incomplete job requirements, recruiters generate large pools of applicants who frequently lack the skills and capabilities necessary to succeed in contact center jobs.

Yes, the large influx of applicants places enormous pressure on talent assessments and interviews to distinguish between high and low potential candidates.

And that might be okay if applicant testing and interviewing solutions deliver consistently on their value promises. However, data indicating that as many as 81% of new hires fail undermines the narratives of virtually every testing and interviewing company.

The mass exodus of employees, known as The Great Resignation, compounds the recruiting challenges.

The vast departures at least partly reflect decades of poor leadership that left employees feeling disconnected from their employers.

The way recruiting teams source and hire people amid the talent crisis will have long-term implications for companies and their workers, as described below:

“Many companies now offer high-value incentives, such as tuition reimbursements or sign-on bonuses, to help fill job openings. These strategies may deliver short-term results, but incentives will not produce long-term value unless companies address the underlying causes. The biggest single mistake a company can make in this environment is to hire for body heat, a tendency borne out of panic that can negatively impact a brand’s reputation…”

Unprecedented churn, combined with a worker shortage, leaves companies in the precarious position of choosing between lowering employment standards (increasing misalignment) or reducing capacity.

Unfortunately, pressure to achieve recruiting goals further increases the problem by rewarding fill rate over hire quality, leading some recruiters to mislead applicants about the job.

Sourcing qualified applicants and vetting them properly and fairly are vital to hiring people with the highest likelihood of staying and performing well. However, the recruiting-job disconnect and worker shortages are magnifying organizational misalignment. The consequences of which reverberate into employee onboarding and training.

Onboarding and Training

Onboarding and training is the third place where misunderstanding job requirements can lead to misalignment.

Few contact centers purposefully align job and worker requirements across the employment lifecycle, recruiting, onboarding, training, and production, though there is usually significant overlap.

Contact centers quickly move new employees through onboarding and training to transform the person from a cost- to a profit center.

During onboarding, centers introduce employees to their new company, coworkers, and job, but it can also sow the seeds of disengagement. Such introductions aim to create a warm welcome that reduces unease and helps new workers acclimate rapidly.

Training uncovers misalignment between the recruiting process and job requirements.

However, onboarding can also drive a wedge between a new hire and the company. By positioning the job, schedule, and company in a particularly favorable light, recruiters sometimes lead applicants to form wrong expectations about the employment experience.

For example, new hires regularly learn that the work schedules will be different than anticipated based on discussions during the hiring process. This creates disappointment at a pivotal time in the new hires' journeys.

New-hire training also immerses new hires into a company’s culture while preparing them to perform the job correctly and efficiently. Implicit messages companies send during training may impact a new employee as much as the courses.

However, the large-scale shift from instructor-led training to self-paced learning can make new hires feel isolated and unsupported.

This undercuts the expectation of a supportive environment established during the recruiting process.

For instance, exit interview data from 2021 through Q1 2022 from an unpublished research project I am working on, suggests that only 27% of departing agents believe training equipped them with the knowledge, resources, and support to perform the job.

Training uncovers misalignment between the recruiting process and job requirements.

Contact centers generally organize training around four themes, platform, policy, procedure, and product(s), over two to twelve weeks, depending on the job.

The complexity and fast-paced nature of the training make first-time contact center employees feel like they are studying a new language while in flight to a foreign country.

Learning a new technology platform, vocabulary, and seemingly endless list of “do’s” and “don’t do’s” puts tremendous pressure on employees that exposes weaknesses almost instantly.

New contact center employees, at a minimum, must possess six core skills (computer, keyboarding, processing speed, emotional understanding, communication, and overcoming adversity) to perform most jobs.

Employees who lack these skills will invariably struggle to complete training, meet performance goals, manage the emotional load, or remain employed long enough to deliver a return on investment.

Consequences of Misaligning People and Jobs

Carrying job requirement misspecifications through the employment lifecycle has a compound effect on worker wellbeing and contact center performance.

Contact center jobs place enormous psychological demands on workers.

One of the most harmful outcomes of the work is employee burnout, which is composed of:

  • Emotional exhaustion (feeling overextended emotionally and drained by demands and stress).
  • Detachment (a negative attitude towards customers).
  • Underachievement (feeling ineffective).

At least one study suggests that burnout is a process that begins with emotional exhaustion and detachment, though the path between detachment and underachievement is less clear.

The convergence of job complexity, pace, monitoring, and a variety of customers create the perfect conditions for emotional exhaustion in two ways.

First, contact centers drive emotional exhaustion by relying on inaccurate or incomplete job requirements.

Recruiting generates new hires who frequently misunderstand the job or lack essential skills, ensuring immediate disconnects between workers and the job.

Onboarding and training add to the problem by exposing and exacerbating worker-job misalignments, straining new hires when they are most vulnerable.

Second, research shows that customer interactions, lack of autonomy, performance monitoring, and customer hostility increase emotional exhaustion.

Distancing and Detachment

Employees working in jobs where they receive punishment for issues over which they have little control may distance themselves from the company, coworkers, and customers.

A metric-driven environment, such as contact centers, is susceptible to employee detachment. For example, one of the most common KPIs in contact centers is customer satisfaction (CSAT), a well-intentioned metric that summarizes customer sentiment about an employee’s performance.

An employee’s CSAT score commonly affects incentive pay and employment status for those who underperform consistently.

The problem is that the CSAT scores fluctuate wildly (unreliability) from month to month, pointing to issues outside a worker’s control, like supply chain issues or a faulty product. The result is that employees may begin to communicate with others in a calloused manner.

The pressure-to-perform culture that dominates contact centers may leave workers feeling incapable and ineffective.

Employee burnout is a systemic issue that impacts center performance...

Performance incentives help employees know how well they are doing. However, workers begin to doubt their capacity to perform well when they have little control over their performance (e.g., CSAT) or when the company fails to give incentives.

Employee burnout is a systemic issue that impacts center performance directly by increasing attrition and lowering performance.

Mismatching people with jobs is a critical factor underlying employee burnout, with implications for workers and centers. Therefore, eliminating misalignment is essential to improving employee wellbeing and center performance.

Recommendations to Improve Alignment

Establishing better alignment between people and jobs requires contact centers to revisit their operational roadmaps. Although there are many steps contact centers can take to connect people with jobs, I focus on four points that will deliver the most impact in the shortest time.

1. Update Job Requirements

Accurately defining job requirements is a straightforward step that helps eliminate misalignment and its consequences.

Build or partner with a reputable company to deliver surveys that measure a job’s tasks, worker KSAOs, and work context. If you choose to develop the surveys, the O*NET center (https://www.onetcenter.org/questionnaires.html) offers tools to simplify the process.

Next, identify a group (~ 20 or more) of SMEs (agents, supervisors, and trainers) across the job’s locations, and then ask them to complete the surveys.

Finally, analyze the survey data to document the job’s critical tasks, important KSAOs, and the work conditions.

2. Align Recruiting Strategy with the Requirements

Revise your center’s recruiting strategy based on the job requirements. Ensure the marketing strategy targets sources with the applicants who are most likely to possess the essential skills.

The next step is to measure an applicant’s readiness to perform the job based on the most important KSAOs using well-designed tests and interview questions.

However, you must verify that the tests or interviews (a) predict job performance in your company’s jobs and (b) are not unfairly discriminating against people due to group membership (e.g., race, age, disability status).

3. Standardize Agent Interventions

Conduct analyses to find leading indicators of a new hire’s likelihood to churn. For example, by identifying new hires at risk of churning 30 – 45 days beforehand, centers have enough runway to save high-risk employees. After finalizing the algorithm, you can build standardized training programs to target your KPIs’ underlying skills.

The success of the program rests on creating specific skill-based training.

The success of the program rests on creating specific skill-based training. Generic solutions are unlikely to deliver significant ROI.

4. Teach Supervisors to Lead and Coach

Investing in supervisor hiring and development is one of the lowest cost, highest-return investments contact centers can make, yet few take advantage.

Contact centers almost always fail to prepare supervisors for the most valuable part of their jobs, namely developing high-performing teams.

But helping supervisors learn the skills necessary to communicate effectively, intervene appropriately, teach others job-related skills, and hold team members accountable (compassionately) will improve team performance and lower attrition.


Contact centers struggle under the weight of attrition and poor performance, often assuming little can be done to turn the tide.

I disagree. One of the fastest, most effective ways to drive positive change is to better align job requirements with people and processes.

This article describes the implications of misalignment and straightforward steps companies can take to change their direction. Centers that invest in improving worker-job alignment will benefit from more efficient recruiting, better training results, reduced attrition, and improved job performance.

Brent Holland

Brent Holland

Brent Holland is the cofounder of Intelliante, a talent growth company transforming contact center hiring into a fast, adaptive, data-driven process that delivers quarter-over-quarter gains in KPIs and retention. Intelliante believes every person matters, so they invest in applicants by providing them with free professional development resources, incentivizing them to complete the hiring process.

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