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Recruitment, Attrition, and COVID-19

Recruitment, Attrition, and COVID-19

Recruitment, Attrition, and COVID-19

How Jackson National Life’s contact center responded to the challenges.

Contact centers have long faced challenges in attracting and retaining staff to ensure quality (and productive) customer service. But these were made much more difficult to manage when the COVID-19 pandemic struck four years ago, which upended where agents worked and how they were supervised when they had to work-from-home (WFH).

Today, the staffing challenges remain as labor shortages persist and as costs including wages rise, offset by increased automation. And while there is now a New Normal of WFH including hybrid working, with experience-honed best practices, contact centers, like other business functions, are still tweaking it.

Maggie Garza

The management at Jackson National Life Insurance Company (Jackson), based in Lansing Mich., with offices in Franklin, Tenn., and Chicago, Ill., have guided the contact center through these times. It has been meeting the agent recruitment and retention needs head-on while moving to a hybrid model. And it has been achieving success all around on all counts.

To learn more about Jackson, what the company has done and how it accomplished them, we had a virtual conversation with Maggie Garza, who is Vice President, Service Center.

Q. Tell us the Jackson story.

Jackson, founded in 1961, is a leading annuity provider in the U.S. offering a range of products, financial know-how, history of award-winning service and streamlined experiences designed to reduce the complexity of retirement planning. We are committed to helping people achieve financial freedom by providing clarity to drive better outcomes for tomorrow.

We are well-positioned to capture opportunities as the annuity market expands and the U.S. financial climate continues to evolve, including the aging population, increased technology integration, regulatory changes, and advisory standards.

Q. What challenges were you facing?

In 2017, we began evaluating ways to overcome challenges in recruiting and retaining our call center associates.

The average turnover rate for these positions (30-45%) is more than double that of other U.S. occupations. Additionally, studies show that “lack of career advancement opportunities” is a leading cause of this attrition.

We strongly felt that we could improve our associate recruitment and retention. We believe our call center serves as a launching pad for career advancement within the organization, with the ability to gain product and process knowledge, and the opportunity for growth and career advancement. And we wanted to showcase these opportunities.

Q. What were your goals?

Our main goal was to ensure that our call center consistently provides best-in-class service for our customers. We believe that engaged and motivated associates play a strong role in our ability to deliver on that goal.

We also wanted to create an environment within Operations where the call center was viewed as the premier place to be for career advancement, providing comprehensive product and process knowledge combined with an end-to-end view of Operations. This is something we communicated to our teams consistently throughout the Operations department.

Q. What methods/solutions did you select and why?

To help prevent attrition, we established a pipeline for talent into and within our call center. This involved providing access to mentorship, career development, and training opportunities as well as encouraging growth in interest areas through “Leadership Chats” and “Lunch and Learn” sessions.

Another initiative we launched that continues to support our goals is the Jackson Development Zone in Lansing. It offers flexible work for local college students and community members that allows for hands-on experience in the industry.

“We believe our call center serves as a launching pad for career advancement within the organization...” —Maggie Garza

While many of the activities taken to accomplish our goals related to career development and retention, we also recognized the need to modernize our call center technology.

In May 2022, we kicked off the roll out of the Customer Interaction Modernization initiative, which was created with the goal of improving the experience for both our associates and customers when interacting with Jackson.

Q. What, if any, challenges did you encounter and how were they resolved?

As with any large implementation, we found our share of adjustments that needed to be made along the way.

However, driving associate advocacy was extremely helpful in working through the initial challenges. We also leveraged our agile framework to implement the functionality in digestible components, allowing plenty of opportunity to adjust and pivot based on feedback as we saw fit.

Q. You were executing these changes when COVID-19 struck. What was the impact of the pandemic on your program and how did you adjust?

One of the key challenges we experienced during the pandemic was staffing. It shifted the priorities of what candidates were looking for in an employer, including pay, work/life balance, and remote work opportunities.

With this in mind, we made it a priority to review and adjust our recruiting strategies accordingly. We re-evaluated our job descriptions and pay, and implemented new incentives, such as referral and sign-on bonuses.

Additionally, we were having to adapt in real time from an in-office environment to a fully-remote environment and then a hybrid model as we worked our way back to an office-centric call center.

We also focused on our engagement activities to help maintain retention for existing associates. We put a stronger focus on associate mental health and wellness by regularly sharing tips on maintaining a healthy and balanced lifestyle, offering free memberships to Head Space, and prioritizing weekly check-ins from management.

Finally, we increased associate appreciation efforts through monthly engagement activities, in-office amenities, and reward and recognition programs.

Q. What have been the results and how did they compare with the goals?

Our strategy has resulted in a more productive service center and a culture of internal advancement and longevity. We have maintained an average of 308 service center employees over the past five years.

Over that same period, we have seen an increase in promotions within and outside the service center. There have been 206 promotions within and an additional 51 promotions to jobs outside. Several associates who started in our call center have progressed into leadership positions across the organization. Jackson has seen an increase in promotions within and outside the service center.

As a result, we have consistently maintained a lower-than-average industry turnover rate since 2019 by providing employees with opportunities for career advancement and longevity.

“Our strategy has resulted in a more productive service center and a culture of internal advancement and longevity.”

And while the Customer Interaction Modernization initiative is still underway, it has already gained the buy-in from pilot users that make up approximately 10% of our associate population and has increased the excitement from their peers through word-of-mouth. Gaining this advocacy has been a huge win for both the project itself and associate engagement overall.

Additionally, this strategy has led to our service center being consistently recognized as a leading service center year after year. In 2022, we received four awards from SQM for excellence in contact center service, including being recognized as a “Call Center of the Year” finalist for the eighth straight year.

Q. Where do your innovations go from here? Particularly in the face of staffing shortages/higher costs?

We want to continue to be a place where people want to work, which will assist in limiting turnover and staffing shortages. To maintain this, we have implemented a three-pronged approach.

1. Provide tools to help call center associates do their job in the most efficient manner possible. This is in progress as we work to implement a new CRM system that will enable a true omnichannel experience for our customers.

2. Create an environment that enables our associates to enjoy the work they do. There isn’t one perfect solution for this, but we believe in providing opportunities for those that are looking to challenge themselves and want variety in their day.

This is why we are currently working on implementing a blended role option in our call center. This will allow individuals the opportunity to handle both processing and call work.

3. Ensure career advancement opportunities are available for those seeking upward mobility.

While we already have a defined Career Progression Program in place, we perform ongoing reviews to determine opportunities for enhancements.

“We want to continue to be a place where people want to work...”

To continue to provide superior customer and client experiences, we also recently modernized our legacy on-premises call center to drive streamlined and digital interactions, including traditional phone calls, SMS text messages, online chats, and other channels.

Q. What are your recommendations to other contact centers that are looking to follow in your footsteps?

We aim to be a partner and provider of choice, known for offering exceptional solutions and experiences for financial professionals, customers, partners, and associates.

It is imperative for us to provide accurate and consistent information to customers and financial professionals, including comprehensive explanations of policies and benefits.

We ensure our call center associates are trained to assist in those cases, placing importance on a high level of service as an industry leader. We have benefitted immensely from providing resources and increasing career advancement opportunities for associates. This focus has helped us maintain excellent customer service and a lower-than-average industry turnover rate.

At A Glance

Number of Agents (estimated):

Approximately 300

Contact Volume (last year available):

1,264,867 calls in 2022

Inbound Channel split (e.g., voice, chat, email, text, video):

Currently leverages paper, fax, email, phone calls, and jackson.com self-service as methods for inbound requests. Jackson is moving to a more omnichannel environment, leveraging a new CRM system and will be expanding to additional channels such as chat and text.

On-Premise/Home Office split. Location(s) of on-premise contact centers:

  • 33% full-time remote
  • 50% full-time in-office (100% at Lansing, Mich.)
  • 17% hybrid

Key Technologies Used:

Currently leveraging Avaya, NICE, and IEX/Workforce Management for call routing, recording, monitoring, and scheduling. Jackson is in the process of transitioning to Microsoft Dynamics for telephony and as a CRM platform. It also has security controls in place to safeguard customers’ information.

Brendan Read

Brendan Read

Brendan Read is Editor-in-Chief of Contact Center Pipeline. He has been covering and working in customer service and sales and for contact center companies for most of his career. Brendan has edited and written for leading industry publications and has been an industry analyst. He also has authored and co-authored books on contact center design, customer support, and working from home.

Brendan can be reached at [email protected].

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