In late 2017, ICMI surveyed the contact center community to ask about their challenges for the year ahead. What came out on top? Hiring, training and retaining agents. People-related problems are an age-old struggle for contact centers, which have notoriously high turnover rates. If you’re finding it difficult to find, train and keep excellent agents, know that you’re not alone. If you’re ready to face the challenge, here are some contributing factors to consider.
The CEO has announced that customer experience is a top priority for the business this year. As a result, the contact center is being asked to revisit service level agreements and boost FCR by 10%. To do that, you need at least 20 new agents. Yesterday. In a mad dash to fill the empty seats, you reuse an old job posting, screen resumes, conduct a few interviews and send out offer letters. Sound familiar? It’s a common path to follow in an industry where hiring takes place frequently, but there’s a significant consideration missing: culture fit. Ultimately, failing to screen for culture fit can lead to numerous problems down the road, most notably, attrition.
The other piece of the puzzle? A healthy job market and shifting demographics mean contact centers need to re-examine the way they structure and recruit for open positions. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the national unemployment rate has fallen to a 17-year low of 4.1%, all while hiring rates are rising.
“Filling positions in this candidate-driven market is becoming more expensive, and it takes longer,” says Erica Mancuso, Director of Client Care at Straightaway Health Careers. “Since turnover is inevitable, you should always be recruiting. If you can build relationships ahead of demand, you will maintain a strong candidate pool to pull from as the need arises.”
And those who are seeking work have different expectations than they did five or 10 years ago. According to a recent report from NBC News, over half of employees would switch to a job that allows them flextime, and 37% would move to a position that allowed them to work off-site at least part of the time.
That’s particularly true for millennials, says Sara Lighthall, Content Marketer at Zendesk. “Why are millennials so passionate about flexible work? Because it’s no longer necessary to physically be in the office to execute daily tasks,” says Sara. “A flexible work program not only looks great to millennials on a job posting but also has vast benefits for both employees and your company at large. Improved productivity, higher job satisfaction, and time and money savings are just a few of the benefits.”
Getting agents in seats is one thing. Training them is an entirely different challenge, and the most successful contact centers know that it’s not just part of the on boarding process, but an ongoing effort. Easier said than done, though. Shifting priorities, tight budgets, disjointed knowledge, a lack of proper tools and technology, and poor instructional design are just a few of the many reasons why so many contact centers struggle to deliver consistent and effective training. So, what are some ways to combat those potential stumbling blocks?
Let’s address the budget. As one #ICMIchat participant put it, “what training budget?” Perhaps you’re in the same boat. If so, here are a few ways to ensure that lack of funding doesn’t stop your team from receiving the training they need to serve customers well:
- Get out of the mindset that instruction means formal classroom sessions. Training can happen every day! For example, during weekly team meetings, devote 10-15 minutes to training agents on a new product offering, a technology feature or a common customer question.
- Use the resources you have to develop bite-sized training content. Speaking of those customer questions, use them to generate a working FAQ doc for agents to reference. Not only can they use this document has a handy reference to guide conversations with customers, but they can also study it during downtime between calls.
- Let agents lead the way. Peer-to-peer learning is powerful! Leverage the star agents and supervisors on your team and establish a training committee. Host one lunch and learn per month, and have the committee members rotate the responsibility for learning and teaching the material to their peers.
Hiring and training agents requires significant time and money, which makes it all the more frustrating when those agents move on after a short time. Attrition rates in contact centers remain alarmingly high, and according to new research from Leslie O’Flahavan and Jenny Dempsey, that may be because leaders misunderstand what truly motivates employees.
According to Leslie, the #FreeToHelp survey feedback gives managers a few clear steps to follow:
- Learn to recognize innately motivated agents and get out of their way.
- Establish practices that help moderately motivated agents become more motivated. For example, if you solicit their input, do so regularly and act upon what they tell you.
- Stop doing things that harm motivation. For example, stop measuring handle time, buy comfortable office chairs, and update computer systems during non-working hours?
Beyond motivation, many contact centers struggle to retain top talent, because the company doesn’t invest in employees who work there. For bright employees who are looking for advancement opportunities, hands-off leadership can crush morale. When UPMC Health Plan saw their new-hire attrition rates rising, they took action and revamped every aspect of their hiring and training process. They examined every touchpoint and determined that they needed to involve senior leaders in the process. What happened when they did this? Their attrition rate has dropped by 25%, and employees are taking notice.
Now, every single one of their new-hires has the opportunity to interact with company executives via meet-and-greets, coffee chats and in small group settings. The Associate VP, Director of Member Services, and two Directors of Enrollment attend each session, with the pure intent of connecting with and learning more about new employees. It’s a small gesture that reinforces to new-hires that they made the right decision in joining the team, and sets the expectation that they can build a successful career at UPMC Health Plan.
“I appreciate the focus groups and meeting with senior leadership,” said UPMC contact center agent John Pignatelli. “I think it helps to drive change for day-to-day operations and is an excellent opportunity for entry-level reps to have some input.”
Bringing It All Together
Hiring, training and retaining qualified employees is an age-old challenge, but it’s not insurmountable. To hire the best candidates, focus on what makes your center unique, revamp your job descriptions and interview questions to reflect the culture you want to build, and consider adding perks like flextime or work-from-home days. To tackle training, leverage peer-to-peer learning, beef up your knowledge base, and don’t let budgetary or time constraints fool you into thinking training shouldn’t be a priority. Once you’ve hired and trained new agents, don’t let the learning stop. Development, empowerment and encouragement are all key to retaining top employees. And remember, focusing on improving hiring, training and retention won’t just benefit your employees. Even small improvements in these areas can translate to higher customer retention and satisfaction.