The Future is Now … Agents in “High Demand”

The Future is Now … Agents in “High Demand”

/ Operations, Workforce Management, Strategy, People, Hiring, Turnover
The Future is Now … Agents in “High Demand”

Insights for Combating Agent Retention

The idiom “in demand” is defined as “greatly sought after, designed, or required by many people. Sometimes it is used with the modifier “high” before or in the middle of the phrase. I don’t know about you, but I am very happy to use “in high demand” when it comes to Contact Center agents!

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the phrase “in high demand” is an understatement. There are 389,000 Contact Center “openings” each year. This number does not include new positions, only the number of positions expected to “replace” workers. With these statistics, it is important to calculate the cost of replacing Contact Center agents when evaluating the impact of agent turnover. It is estimated that there are more than one million open Contact Center agent positions in the United States today.

In my 35 years in this industry I have never encountered the level of turnover that has occurred over the last couple of years. Retention rates are fragile and leaders must take this situation very seriously. Contact Centers are a cause and effect environment. When turnover rates rise … performance, productivity, and morale suffer at every level.

My experience tells me that there is no magic to retention. Quite simply, Contact Centers with staff longevity provide a “good place to work.” When resources are “in high demand” it is more important than ever to meet the needs of your front line if the objective is to have agents that meet the needs of your callers across all channels.

“If you want something to happen, you have to make people able and you have to make them want to.”
—Dr. Steve Kerr (Former Chief Learning Officer of General Electric and Goldman Sachs)

The Value of Surveys

What are the characteristics of a good place to work? My simple answer is that when employee needs are met, it is very likely a good place to work. So the real question is, “What is it that agents need?” The BEST way to find out is to ask them. Don’t ask, “Are your needs being met?” Ask, “What can we do to make your job easier, less stressful, and more fun?” The answers may surprise you. I recommend asking these questions within a written and anonymous survey to assure transparency and privacy. Then do something with the information you collect to demonstrate that you have heard your staff and are working towards improvements.

When you survey the front line it shows that you are paying attention. But there is a lot more to do than simply asking agents. The entire management team must buy into and focus their efforts on creating and sustaining a work experience that leads to higher satisfaction and retention rates.

It is more important than ever to meet the needs of your front line staff.

Bear in mind when surveying agents they may not know to ask for a better understanding of how the Contact Center operates. This is something management can offer to engage all team members in learning more about the Contact Center industry, its unique operational environment, and the abundance of professional opportunities.

Who’s in Control?

In addition to surveys, there are several activities to help get the Contact Center management team and agents on the same page when it comes to uncovering and meeting needs. These exercises help the entire team identify, focus, and enjoy a shared understanding of Contact Center dynamics, reducing confusion, chaos, and friction.

Agents being “in high demand” makes this a great time to launch a discussion around what agents REALLY control. This discussion helps to avoid conflict and friction. Many agents suffer from competing priorities because they are told to be responsible for things that are out of their control.

Here is a list of discussion questions from the Workforce Management (WFM) perspective. I have provided a brief response to the first two to get your thoughts going. I recommend highly that you take a close look at the list. If agents aren’t responsible, who is? And how healthy is the relationship with cross functional partners, who may have control to facilitate improvements.

Do agents have control of …

  • How available or on time they are?
  • To a certain extent, they do. Life does occasionally step in with (e.g.,) commuting, weather, childcare, and other human realities. But it is reasonable to expect people to be on time for and during their shift.
  • How many staff are hired and available?
  • Agents DO NOT control how many staff are hired or forecasted. Management must understand that when Service Level is not met, it is very often due to being understaffed. Agents will quickly grow weary of carrying a load that exceeds their capacity; when chronic, this condition contributes to turnover.
  • Who is hired and how qualified they are?
  • How shifts are built?
  • How schedules are made?
  • How many calls/contacts arrive?
  • How many long or short calls/contacts are distributed to any agent?
  • How many easy/hard calls/contacts are distributed to any agent?

The reality is that agents have total control over very few workforce factors. Yet, some Contact Center leaders still insist on measuring agent performance in a simplistic “metric” manner that doesn’t account for all the contributing factors outside of their control.

Make retention not just a number one goal, make it an ongoing goal!

Availability and timeliness come the closest to being within an agent’s control. However, in the commuter world many conditions create “forgivable” delays. Also, remote workers lose internet connections, electricity, etc. These take them out of service, and for something out of their control. Reprimanding agents for metric infractions often creates a fast track to a “not so good place to work.”

What About Handle Time?

Since we are talking about Workforce Management, I would also ask you to think about Handle Time and how you are educating agents on Contact Center metrics. Far too many frontline staff have little if any actual education around Contact Center management. This is a gap and a great opportunity for staff education and development

Handle Time is a great place to start when educating about metrics. First, it must be understood that Handle Time is an equation: Call Volume multiplied by (Talk Time + After Call Work) = X number of seconds of work that must be done within every 30-minute interval of operating hours.

Handle Time is also known as the Call Load and is at the core of resource planning. If information for the Call Load is inaccurate, the staffing forecast will be off (generally overstaffing is NOT the problem) and Service Level objectives will not be met.

Factors Controlling Talk Time

What goes into Talk Time and do agents have sole control? Here are some illustrative responses to this question from previous client engagements.

  • Communication Skills – Rapport Building, Active Listening, De-escalation, and Call Control are all topics that must be covered in training and evaluated by Quality Assurance. Today’s digital natives must be educated to apply strategic communication skills to all interactions. These human skills must be taught if your intentions are to measure them. Coaches must be taught to reinforce the strategies provided in training. So, NO. Agents are not solely responsible for their communication skills. The organization is responsible for training, the employee is responsible for learning. Coaches are responsible for reinforcement and refinement of skills.
  • Accuracy – Getting it right and doing it right may mean adhering to standard processes and procedures. Requiring accuracy means that transactional tasks are taught, well-documented, and supported by reliable tools. Agents are NOT solely responsible for accuracy. They are responsible for learning and applying skills; this only happens when critical tasks are taught, reinforced, knowledge base information is accurate and easily accessed, and processes are streamlined.
  • System Response Time – “This thing is so slow!” Agent Talk Time is impacted by system response, something over which the front line has no control. Your technology partners contribute to the condition and must contribute to its correction.
  • Keyboard Twister – Navigating the user interface is also part of Talk Time. When agents are subjected to multiple open applications, varying time outs, password resets, slow response time, and handoffs, opportunities for efficiency lie more with the organization than the agent.

You can ask many questions in a What Agents Control assessment. In addition to the above, you can delve more closely into After Call Work, Absent/Tardy, and other factors that come to mind. Make this upcoming year the year for challenging everything!

Making sure your Contact Center is a “good place to work” is a solid objective for the upcoming year.

Once given time to think about it, you realize that agents have control over far fewer elements than does the organization. The organization is responsible for hiring, scheduling, training, and coaching agents to meet Contact Center objectives. These responsibilities must be understood to avoid creating a work environment in which employees are expected to influence elements beyond their span of control.

Making sure your Contact Center is a “good place to work” is a solid objective for the upcoming year. Premise or remote, Contact Center agents are “in high demand.” The current competition for these employees is severe and it is incredibly disruptive and expensive to replace agents. Give your teams some solid reasons to stay.

Make a plan with your management team to determine if your frontline agents are empowered, fairly measured, well-trained, and coached. Assure that agents are equipped with proper tools that are well-architected and have accurate and up-to-date information sources. Create a culture that supports long-term staff development and success for all concerned.

Don’t let attrition wreak havoc within your Contact Center. Improve retention rates by investing your leadership time and energy into identifying areas of improvement to meet employee AND customer experience outcomes. Make retention of these “in high demand” resources, not just a number one goal, make it an ongoing goal! You won’t believe how much easier your job gets when your people are happy.

Kathleen Peterson

Kathleen Peterson

Kathleen M. Peterson is the Chief Vision Officer of PowerHouse Consulting, a call center and telecommunications consulting firm.
Twitter: @PowerHouse603

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