Despite their increasingly important role in attracting and retaining customers and revenues, contact centers continue to face high agent turnover.
Yet to keep delivering excellent customer service and support and making sales, centers must identify or develop a healthy supply of high-quality labor to meet or ideally surpass a rising bar of customer expectations. While at the same time achieve or better yet exceed ever-more-demanding performance and productivity goals from senior management.
The COVID-19 pandemic has arguably accelerated and compounded the challenges of sourcing sufficient supplies of suitable agents. But as this deadly outbreak hopefully begins to wane, what will the contact center workforce look like in the “new normal”? And how should managers respond?
To find out, Contact Center Pipeline asked these leading authorities on contact center staffing, coaching, and training: Mike Aoki, Reflective Keynotes, Inc., Brent Holland, Intelliante, Inc., and Mark Pereira, Briljent, LLC.
Q. What are, and rank, the top changes you are seeing in the contact center workforce? And what are the key factors driving these developments?
1. Recruitment challenges. The overall job market is hot right now. So there is a lot of competition for customer service roles. Also, artificial intelligence (AI) has taken away the easy interactions. As a result, agents need a higher skill level. But finding them with those skills, such as emotional intelligence, strong verbal and written skills, and the ability to multitask, is tougher to find.
2. Employee engagement challenges. One of the biggest challenges will be work from home (WFH) employee engagement.
It is too easy for WFH agents to feel disconnected from their organizations. Consequently, team leaders, Quality Assurance coaches, etc., need training on how to build engagement via video (Zoom Teams, Meet, etc.) and instant messaging to make their agents feel engaged. Leaders also need to uncover what motivates their agents and how to add meaning to their roles.
3. Remote training challenges. At the start of the pandemic some training departments simply switched their classroom training to Zoom. That meant eight hours a day of lectures and software training.
But that was a disaster. WFH employees need a combination of synchronous and asynchronous learning.
Leaders and coaches need to mix mini-lectures and demos with self-paced learning. They should also provide opportunities for new hires to build relationships by using breakout sessions and group assignments during training.
Finally, contact center leaders should harness the power of videoconferencing to share training videos and call clips, and have people brainstorm on using the virtual whiteboards or chat.
1. Opportunities. Contact centers are competing for talent against an assortment of companies and industries that adopted the remote work/WFH model.
The pandemic eliminated many of the traditional geographical barriers to competition. So now, for the first time, contact centers—especially those in small and mid-markets—are fighting for talent against companies searching for top-tier talent in new areas.
2. WFH. The pandemic forced companies in most industries to move to a remote model virtually overnight. Fortunately, the contact center industry adopted WFH early, and the transition was well planned and rolled out over a years-long process.
Unfortunately, many people lack the skills to perform well in a remote environment, and the sudden shift impacted the entire customer-employee value chain.
3. Multichannel and multiplatform. The superagent concept makes sense operationally. For example, enabling agents to support sales, service, and support needs should streamline and improve the customer experience (CX).
In practice, though, it isn’t easy to find people with the skills essential to providing service, sales, or support across voice and chat. It’s hard enough to find someone who can excel in one channel and one platform.
In my opinion, the move towards a multichannel-multiplatform agent reflects three things:
- A desire to improve the CX by training agents to provide end-to-end support
- Labor shortages forced contact centers to adapt their operating models
- A misunderstanding of the nature and distribution of human talents. For example, Shohei Ohtani, California Angels pitcher and outfielder, has captivated the athletic universe with his ability to excel at two positions; in fact, he’s the first person in nearly a century to be selected to the All-Star Game in two positions. Although baseball isn’t a contact center, it’s a profession, and every job is complex and requires an array of unique skills
1. Emphasis on empathy and courtesy from agents: crucial skills to help resolve callers’ inquiries.
I believe that call/contact centers that have resorted to using automated processes and tools, such as chatbots to name one example, are now looking for agents who not only can do the job but who also offer an exceptional experience to the customer.
An example would be when a caller who calls in upset about their credit card being charged for a service they felt was fraudulent or unauthorized. But the agent helps explain what happened without making the caller feel bad or ignorant and/or goes above and beyond to correct the issue for the customer.
2. Agents shopping around for positions that pay well (above the call/contact center average pay found on sites such as Indeed) with benefits, and with companies that have good reputations.
Agents talk to each other through social media. And if a company treats their agents wrongly (such as favoritism, harassment, and removal without following the disciplinary process or without proper reason) prospective new hires will avoid it.
It’s a seller’s market and agents want what’s best for them and their families. They also want a workplace that will not just give them a paycheck with benefits but also keep them engaged.
Ask yourself this, why would an agent want to work for your call/contact center versus another?
Would they like to be tied to a phone for an extended period of time and go through the mental turmoil from customers and their work environment, and for a wage lower or even on par with the industry standards in your area?
Then ask yourself, would you do that job?
Additionally, contact centers should have programs that would take care of the challenges of life, such as a death in the family, a sick child, eviction, or foreclosure.
Most of the time agents aren’t looking for handouts. But how can the call/contact center work with their life changes, like with a temporary schedule or WFH? Or offer programs they could use to help them get through their challenges? For example, a company may have an employee assistance program or EAP but the agent isn’t aware of the program or how to use it.
3. Agents looking for remote work (WFH), or hybrid (coming in one day in two weeks or similar).
Agents like to have the ability to work from anywhere they want. But where they also can come into the office due to challenges such as poor internet connections, power outages, moving to new homes, or even just to connect with colleagues.
As more call/contact centers move fully remote, this widens the ability for recruit from various parts of the country.
Further, agents who like to stay remote, but who have been working for companies that now require their employees to return back to the office, are now jumping onto companies that offer WFH call/contact center positions. Which makes it tough for brick-and-mortar companies to find qualified candidates to fill their positions.
Q. The COVID-19 pandemic appears to have shaken up the labor market. What permanent changes are you seeing and expect to see going forward?
Mike Aoki: Most of my clients have moved to permanent work from home or hybrid staffing. Some of those WFH contact centers are recruiting beyond the usual “one-hour drive” from their offices. Instead, they are reaching out nationally to find good candidates.
I expect that trend to continue. Which means every contact center is vulnerable to having their best people “poached” by out-of-city, out-of-state, and/or out-of-province employers. That means employee engagement and retention are critical to maintaining your existing workforce.
Brent Holland: I think the only thing permanent is that companies will adapt rapidly to the environment. The pandemic affected every person and company in unimaginable ways. Everything people did and every place they gathered changed in the blink of an eye.
First, I believe WFH will continue into the foreseeable future.
Most contact centers have resolved many of the operational disruptions created by the forced transition of their entire workforce. Although it’s not a panacea for many of the industry’s problems, it has opened new doors to previously unavailable labor pools.
Second, the Great Resignation is impacting other industries in ways contact centers have endured for decades.
The interesting undercurrent is the public’s shock that so many employees are unhappy with their employers and are changing jobs en masse.
Unfortunately, contact center leadership has become jaded towards attrition, assuming there are few reasonable solutions.
They’re wrong; there are solutions. But those solutions demand changing the workplace culture, improving frontline leadership, and creating employee experiences that bring people together instead of pushing them apart.
Although attrition isn’t new, it will remain an unfortunate reality in the contact center industry until companies redesign their cultures, operational models, and jobs.
Mark Pereira: Agent training has changed. It requires building on material and using it for agents to learn in a safe environment.
I’ve learned a lot from training classes. That also includes knowing that you need to have at least two experienced trainers who not only understand adult education but have also worked in a call/contact center taking calls.
Call/contact centers are also developing ways of how agents can improve retention of training material, and how to support agents while they are on the calls, such as through intranet sites, chatbots, knowledge flow charts, and automating manual processes, to name a few.
All of these tools assist agents in reducing average handle time (AHT), hold time, and in increasing the rate of first call resolution (FCR).
Also, caller demands are evolving. They want your agents’ attention to their concerns, to demonstrate exceptional customer service, and make emotional connections that can be achieved through empathy.
Call/contact centers need to be proactive to their customers’ needs and wants and do their best to ensure agents have the available skills and knowledge to take care of customers. If not, agents will walk out and never come back, and let’s not forget, they will tell a few friends about their negative employee experiences.
Q. What are your recommendations in the way of recruitment, assessment, training, and employee management?
Mike Aoki: Make your contact center a place where people want to work. Go beyond inquiring about compensation and reviewing your employee attitude surveys and the answers from exit interviews. Ask your current employees: “What do you enjoy about working here? What could be improved?”
Mark Pereira: Reduce the time taken to complete behavioral assessments of a candidate. Many times, if an agent knows that a position pays less (below the average market), the agent isn’t going to waste their time completing it.
Agents prefer hybrid training classes, especially if the agent will be performing their role remotely.
However, having them does come with its challenges, such as the agents’ technical knowledge about computer setups and internet/power outages, to name a few. Here trainers need to be prepared for these challenges and have backup plans.
Employee engagement has been tough on call/contact centers particularly during the pandemic. Using engagement programs that provide agents with points that they can trade for prizes that they want is a great way to keep them engaged.
Further, these points can be given if an agent received a call where they went above and beyond to help a caller and the caller left a good review. Or the agent met all their individual service goals for the month.
I believe in the quote from John E. Jones: “what gets rewarded gets done.” Then again if an agent has been spectacular maybe buy them lunch. I’ve done this for an agent who is working remotely.
What Will the U.S. Contact Center Workforce Look Like to 2030?
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) released its latest 10-year forecast, from 2020 to 2030, in September 2021. Amongst the data points:
- Total employment is projected to grow from 153.5 million to 165.4 million, an increase of 11.9 million jobs
- The labor force is expected to increase by 8.9 million, from 160.7 million in 2020 to 169.6 million in 2030. But the labor force participation rate is projected to shrink, from 61.7% to 60.4%, driven by aging Baby Boomers and declining men’s and a slight decline in women’s participation
- The civilian noninstitutional population growth rate is projected to decline slightly, from 0.9% annually in 2010-20 to 0.8% in 2020-30
- Labor productivity is forecasted to increase, at 1.7% annually, compared with the 1.1% rate from 2010 to 2020
- Real Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is projected to grow faster, at 2.3% annually as compared with the 1.7% annual rate experienced in the prior two decades
The COVID-19 pandemic-accelerated shift to eCommerce from brick-and-mortar retail and to WFH has been reflected in the BLS projections. This retail channel is expected to lose 586,800 jobs over the 2020–2030 decade, the most, it said, of any sector.
However, many computer-related positions may likely experience strong growth, according to the BLS, “in part due to the demands for telework computing infrastructure and IT security.”
Significantly for the contact center industry there will be a slight (-1%) decrease in the number of customer service positions, from 2,923,400 to 2,888,800, over the same period.
But the BLS expects there will be about 361,700 openings each year, on average, over the decade, most of which resulting “from the need to replace workers who transfer to different occupations or exit the labor force, such as to retire.”
So, we asked: what do these data points say about the state and future of the industry? And how should contact centers use this information in their workforce planning?
Brent Holland, Intelliante: Despite calls that automation will decimate the contact center industry, the data suggest that it’s more likely new technology will help enhance the way representatives support customers, not replace them.
One reason the contact center workforce may not keep pace with economic growth is the trend towards automation-assisted superagents. The challenge is to identify people who possess or can develop the breadth of skills necessary to deliver an end-to-end customer experience.
Mark Pereira, Briljent: From what I’ve learned, it’s good to plan for the future.
I feel that many call/contact centers will move from having their agents take care of minor inquiries, such as hours of operation and “what is the nearest store to my address?” to questions more complex, such as a doctor calling into a health insurance company to find out why their medical claim was denied.
I also feel that we need to embrace technology, whether this is artificial intelligence (AI) or not, and is proven that it works to help our call/contact center’s success.
I believe that many of the minor inquiries should be answered using flows found in chatbots and streamlined FAQs on websites that don’t overwhelm the customer or potential customer, thus reducing the number of clicks they must make to find what they need.
These are just a few of the things that can reduce the pressure on your call/contact center moving forward.