Practical pointers for retaining new talent through the critical first year.
For decades, the call center agent job has had a notorious reputation for being a revolving-door position. Low pay, high stress, redundant work—what else could managers do but accept high turnover as an unfortunate reality of running a call center? In more recent years, the frontline role has been evolving as contact center agents continue to transition from order-takers to knowledge workers (see “From Transaction Processor to Knowledge Worker,” Pipeline, April 2011). Many centers have had to rethink their hiring profiles for the job, culture and organizational goals.
Yet challenges still exist. According to ContactBabel’s “The U.S. Contact Center Decision-Maker’s Guide 2014” (www.contactbabel.com), last year, contact centers reported an average attrition rate of 27%. The No. 1 cause of turnover listed by survey participants? They simply hired the wrong type of person for the job. The report found that hiring the wrong type of person was more prevalent in larger centers where 59% of respondents reported that more than 20% of their new agents leave within the first six months.
The Problem of Mismatched Expectations
More companies are including a variety of pre-employment psychological and behavioral assessments in their screening process in an effort to lessen “wrong person” type turnover. However, as Kevin Hegebarth of HireIQ Solutions (www.hireiqinc.com) points out, “While these assessments are sometimes useful in weeding out poor fits, they are often just burdensome on the candidate. Some assessments take over an hour to complete and have little discernible effect on attrition. In these instances, companies often hire candidates who are not necessarily the best for the position, but those who merely have the perseverance to endure the process” (see “The Two Faces of Attrition,” Pipeline, September 2013).
Hegebarth adds that, “Not everyone is cut out to be a call center agent. The demands of the job may be beyond what many candidates are capable of. This kind of mismatch is what often fuels early stage attrition—the job just isn’t what the candidate bargained for. Many freshly minted agents cite the rigors of the job as their reason for leaving, and if they had known in advance, they wouldn’t have accepted the job in the first place.”
Hiring older workers is an effective solution for cutting new-hire turnover, says Dick Finnegan, CEO of C-Suite Analytics (www.c-suiteanalytics.com), and author of the book, “The Stay Interview: A Manager’s Guide to Keeping the Best and Brightest” (http://amzn.to/1EWWSIg).
“Older candidates have realistic expectations,” Finnegan says. “They know how much they need to make, which benefits they need, what hours they want to work and whether they can sit for long periods—and older workers tend to stay longer.”
Practical pointer: When recruiting for your contact center, ask your current agents for referrals. “Your employees are the best resource for A-Player candidates,” says Zane Safrit, author of “The Engaged Hiring Process” (http://amzn.to/1DjqM88). Your current staff understand your company’s needs and how to solve them, and they know which of their friends and contacts in other departments and companies are best-suited to the culture, goals, people and the work (see “Today’s Hiring Process: High Risk, Low Engagement,” Pipeline, November 2014).
Provide a Realistic Job Preview
In their eagerness to attract the best talent, companies often oversell the job during the recruiting process, which only increases early defections. Providing a clear, honest preview of the position will help to weed out those who are likely to leave—before making a significant investment in the candidate’s training.
Many contact center leaders say that including time on the phones as part of the screening process helps to provide candidates with a better understanding of the job. Candidates who make it past the screening and initial interviews get to spend time jacked in with a senior agent listening to the agent handle calls.
While listening to calls for an hour or two will provide candidates with more insight about the types of transactions they will be handling, will it give them an accurate idea of what it’s like to handle those types of calls, one after the other, for a full shift?
To set clear expectations for what the job will entail, Finnegan recommends that job previews demonstrate every part of the job that could disappoint a new employee, such as being inside in artificial light all day, dealing with difficult people and doing the same job redundantly. “Job candidates should be exposed to all those things before they are hired,” he says. How? Have the manager walk the candidate through the contact center while calling the candidate’s attention to specific details in the work environment—for instance, asking the candidate to focus on the noise in the center for several minutes, or observe an agent going quickly from one call to another without a break.
“This type of realistic preview will help candidates to understand whether they’re cut out for the type of work they’ll be doing as well as the environment in which it takes place,” Finnegan says. “It typically results in several candidates opting out of the application process.”
Contact center and customer service trainer Mike Aoki, president of Reflective Keynotes (www.reflectivekeynotes.com), says that it’s important to prepare candidates and new-hires for the types of calls they will be handling. “When I train agents on how to handle irate callers, I am continually amazed at how many of them seem shocked that most of their calls are from complaining customers,” he says. “Prepare your new-hires for this by asking the class, ‘How many of you have ever called a company because you felt happy about their service?’ Only a few hands will go up. Ask, ‘How many of you have ever called a company because something went wrong?’ Normally, every hand will go up. Then say, ‘That’s why people call. They have a problem and need your help.’ Another way to add perspective is to say something along the lines of, ‘Only 10% of our customers ever call in, but they make up 100% of the calls you take.’ Give them that perspective so they know what to expect” (see “10 Tips to Improve Agent Engagement During New-Hire Training,” Pipeline, October 2014).
Practical Pointer: Turn to your core agents and top performers to develop a realistic job preview, advises contact center recruiting veteran Eric Berg of Doherty Customer Contact Solutions (www.dohertyemployment.com). “Request a candid assessment of the job, including work environment, opportunities for advancement, incentives and daily tasks. What surprises did they encounter in their first week? Does your way of sharing performance statistics motivate some agents but discourage other? Use their input to refine and redevelop your job descriptions realistically and eliminate unpleasant surprises for new-hires” (see “Attrition-Proof: Why Your Applicant Intake Process Matters,” Pipeline, February 2013).
Align Onboarding with Long-Term Development
A well-thought-out onboarding process that focuses on new-hire development and building meaningful relationships with supervisors and peers can have a positive impact on retention.
While HR traditionally has had the primary responsibility for the onboarding process, research by Aberdeen Group (www.aberdeen.com) has found that the role is shifting to the learning and development team. According to Aberdeen’s “Onboarding 2013” report, 26% of organizations reported that learning and development functions now own onboarding, compared to 22% of recruiting departments.
The report further points out that organizations are quickly realizing that, to be effective long-term, onboarding should be a crossfunctional effort. “Best-in-class organizations are moving away from the role of an onboarding manager. They are assigning non-traditional roles to own the onboarding process, such as mentors, peers and individual business leaders.… These roles will help engage new-hires and empower them to become productive through their first year of employment.”
This type of collaborative effort provides an opportunity to increase new-hire engagement and retention by setting individual development goals and assessment points that extend beyond the initial classroom training period.
Social Integration: Help New-Hires Build Connections
In addition to helping new-hires understand company and center objectives and acquire the skills to do the job, an effective onboarding process helps new-hires connect with their peers from the start.
Company leaders at Blinds.com have put a great deal of thought and effort into their approach to welcoming new employees. On Day 1, new employees are greeted at the door by the CEO who takes them on a personal company history tour that includes driving by the garage where the company’s first website was launched and an alleyway in Houston’s Rice Village where the company’s first office was located.
Back at the office, new-hires are presented with a customized welcome video created by their new teammates. Each team member welcomes the new-hire personally to the company, offers a tip or two, and shares his or her thoughts on what it is like to work there. Next, the new-hires are off on a three-hour scavenger hunt where they have a chance to gather interesting and quirky details about their fellow employees, the office and the company culture. It’s a first day designed to provide new-hires with unexpected fun and camaraderie (see “Inside View: Blinds.com,” Pipeline, January 2014).
Once they’re past the orientation stage, contact centers can give new agents a sense of community within the classroom by having them work in small groups, says Aoki. “Contact center agents are typically social people. They like talking with and meeting new people. Have them work together in pairs, trios and small groups of three to four people. They can work together on training exercises, role-plays and simulations. This will not only increase their level of knowledge retention, it will also increase the energy level in the room.
“Make sure that you use e-learning in moderate amounts. E-learning is a great way to learn data. It is also self-paced, so new-hires can move through modules at their own comfort level. The drawback is e-learning does not create the positive energy level or sense of community that interactive group exercises create. So be sure to balance group work and e-learning to achieve the best balance between independent study and teamwork” (see “10 Tips to Improve Agent Engagement During New-Hire Training,” Pipeline, October 2014).
Managers: The Most Important Relationship for New-Hires
Study after study has highlighted the fact that employees don’t leave companies, they leave their bosses. The relationship that new-hires form with their managers is critical to whether they will stay in a job—even more significant than forming friendships with co-workers.
“The manager relationship is by far the most important,” Finnegan says. “Peers and mentors can provide new employees with information, but they don’t have the authority that requires trust. The manager has authority to fire you and make your life miserable, so you need to have trust in that relationship. If new employees leave a great onboarding program, but they don’t trust their manager, you’ve erased the benefits of the onboarding program.”
Finnegan adds that, “Employees view their job and their company through the prism of how they see their boss.” He points to a study by recruiting and talent management solutions Kenexa (http://ibm.co/1yZGDVw), now part of IBM Smarter Workforce, in which 1,000 employees who recently quit their jobs were asked to rate pay, benefits, development, advancement and their relationships with supervisors. The study found that the employees’ relationships with their supervisors influenced their opinions about pay, benefits, development and advancement opportunities. Those who had a good relationship with their supervisor gave higher ratings to those four areas, while those who didn’t like their bosses, rated those areas low.
Get Feedback on New-Hire Engagement
Given the importance of the manager-employee relationship, what steps can companies take to ensure that frontline managers support new-hires through this critical period and help them to feel connected in their role?
Some companies conduct surveys at various checkpoints to measure and track employee engagement and opinions. A more proactive approach is to incorporate stay interviews to drive ongoing dialogue between supervisors and individual employees.
“Stay interviews provide solutions for engagement and retention, whereas surveys provide data, but they don’t provide solutions,” says Finnegan.
Importantly, stay interviews should be conducted by the employee’s direct supervisor—“always and only,” he stresses. “Employees don’t stay because they have a good relationship with HR.”
To conduct a stay interview, the supervisor should ask five questions, Finnegan explains:
- What do you look forward to when you come to work?
- What are you learning here?
- Why do you stay here?
- What could cause you to leave us?
- What can I do to make your job better?
Getting honest and useful feedback requires frontline managers to build trust with new-hires. In addition, they need to learn how to probe for more information by asking follow-up questions to obtain specific feedback, such as: Tell me more; Can you give me an example of…; What makes you feel that way? Additional details will help managers to build individualized “stay plans” for each new-hire.
How often should these sessions take place? Managers should conduct stay interviews with each new-hire twice within the first 90 days, and then at least once a year afterward, he says.
Finnegan also recommends that contact centers make managers accountable for retaining new agents. How? By setting new-hire retention goals for frontline managers (e.g., X percent of new-hires to reach 90 days), tracking their effectiveness monthly, and providing them with the tools to keep their talent.