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Call Center Onboarding Programs Raise Agent Engagement, Retention and Performance

Successfully onboarding employees during their first year of service raises retention by as much as 25 percent, improves performance and accelerates the time to full productivity, according to a landmark study by the Partnership for Public Service and Booz Allen Hamilton, 

But in many contact centers, new-hire orientation can be downright disorienting. Though intended to help rookie agents get acclimated to the new job and environment, the deluge of information, policies and resources thrown at them over such a short time often leaves newbies with their heads spinning rather than their feet planted.

Ours is an industry plagued by high turnover – particularly within the first few months of employment. Centers whose induction period consists of one to two days of hurrying through an employee handbook, the organizational mission statement, and payroll paperwork do little to fend against early attrition. 

To help ease the transition into a new and challenging role and more effectively engage new-hires, top contact centers go far beyond the plain vanilla, fast-track orientation phase; instead, they rely on a dynamic onboarding program that is spread out over several months and features numerous employee-centric components that facilitate learning and foster a strong sense of belonging among incoming agents.

Kevin Wheeler, President and Founder of Global Learning Resources, Inc., has witnessed the benefits of taking onboarding beyond the bare bones first hand. “Employees who have gone through some sort of onboarding process – one that is much more than the usual paper-processing bureaucracy – report feeling better connected to corporate strategy and to the company culture,” he says. “The more you can provide at the start of the employment experience, the stronger your organization’s culture will be and the better its retention of key people.”

Employee retention expert Dick Finnegan – president of Finnegan Mackenzie: The Retention Firm – agrees, and recommends that call centers take a good look at their current new-hire turnover trends to help determine how long formal onboarding should last for agents.

“So many call centers track turnover annually or monthly, but they are missing the big number: What percent get to 90 days? What percent get to six months? The length of your onboarding program should match or exceed the ‘tipping point’ for keeping your employees. For instance, if you find that half of your people quit within the first 90 days, but once you get them past that point they tend to stay, then that’s how long your onboarding program should be.”

Traits of Successful Call Center Onboarding Programs

There is no “industry standard” agent onboarding model that will work for every contact center; however, there are several components that the best onboarding programs have in common.  

A comprehensive pre-hire job preview.  Centers with the most impressive agent retention rates informally begin the onboarding process before the candidate is even hired. Providing a clear picture of what the challenging yet rewarding agent job entails right from the start of the selection process serves to engage and inspire those candidates who are cut out for such work, and enables others to self-select out of the hiring process before the organization has invested in assessing and training them.

The most effective job previews feature candidates interacting with existing agents – via contact center tours led by the latter, and/or via call observation sessions where candidates listen in on a few calls with an experienced agent and ask questions afterward. Such early interaction with peers goes a long way to creating an early sense of team and camaraderie – one that is likely to propel qualified candidates into the job and last well into the first few months of their employment.   

Finnegan highly recommends introducing a formal and alluring “employee value proposition” (EVP) during the job preview process. “While it’s true that employees are interested in how much they are going to get paid and all those types of things, what they really want to know is: What am I going to learn? Who am I going to help? And what kinds of relationships am I going to form? Smart companies provide an EVP that clearly answers those questions. The rest of your onboarding program should then just carry the EVP further and deeper.”       

A dynamic orientation process. Onboarding isn’t about doing away with your traditional agent orientation process; rather, it’s about building upon it. Employee orientation is still vital – for example, there’s a lot of information on each new-hire that must be gathered and carefully filed during this phase – but it needn’t be so static and bureaucratic. For instance, some organizations have moved much of the paperwork process online and enable new-hires to complete the process prior to their start date. But, according to a survey by Towers Perrin, only 18 percent of employers in the private sector use Web-based tools to help onboard new employees prior to their first day on the job.  

In addition to automating the paperwork process, top centers use their corporate intranet and wikis to provide new-hires with a host of helpful resources in a single, easily accessible location.  This not only shortens the learning curve with regard to company policies, procedures and strategies, it helps to create a culture of information sharing – especially in the case of wikis, where all employees can contribute data and ideas to build a valuable information hub that helps everybody in the organization.  

As valuable as automation is in orientation, the most progressive organizations add a strong human element into the process to help make new agents feel welcome and part of a cohesive team. Examples include walking new-hires around on their first day and introducing them to agents on the phone floor, or having a group of veteran agents or team leaders give new agents a welcoming presentation – emphasizing how important the agent position is and how happy the team is to have them aboard.

Many contact centers invite a company executive in to introduce themselves and speak to new agents within their first few days on the job, thus providing a “face” to the larger enterprise for new-hires and instilling in them an enhanced sense of value to the organization. 

“Transition” training. While a dynamic orientation process is critical for engaging agents early on, it’s not enough to build long-lasting commitment and propel them through the on-the-job challenges that lie ahead. That’s why the best contact centers continue “incubating” and nurturing new-hires all the way through initial training – and beyond. 

To do so, many have incorporated a “transition” training component into new-hire training, where agent trainees are taken out of the classroom and placed in a controlled environment to help them get used to handling real customer contacts. Typically, agents complete a week or two of classroom training, then head to the transition training bay (or “nesting area”) to take basic calls while being closely monitored and carefully coached by a supervisor – or multiple supervisors if the training class is particularly large. After a week or so handling rudimentary customer calls, trainees usually head back to the classroom for some more advanced didactic training and to work on the areas in which they struggled while on the phones. Then, after a week or so, it’s back to the nesting area to hone their call-handling skills and knowledge before graduating to the official phone floor.

Transition training not only is a great way to gradually prepare trainees for the fast-paced and dynamic contact center environment; it shows new agents that the organization cares about their success rather than merely “throwing them to the wolves,” which is common in many centers eager to get “butts in seats.”  

Peer mentoring. Effective agent onboarding doesn’t end with initial training. To ensure that new-hires receive the extra support and attention they need on the official phone floor, many leading centers pair them up with an experienced agent – or agents – upon completing training. Such mentor-protégé relationships help keep promising frontline staff from becoming overwhelmed by the steady and at times unrelenting flow of customer contacts. Having a peer nearby to help rookies through tough calls, rough spots and peak periods is a surefire way to not lose your latest hiring and training investment after just a few weeks or months of making that investment.

“Research shows very clearly that providing a mentor is a major contributor to increased productivity and lower turnover,” says Wheeler of Global Learning Resources.

Mentoring is right in line with all three things that retention guru Finnegan said employees want most – the ability to learn valuable skills, to help people (customers) and to form relationships (with colleagues). That said, Finnegan warns against jumping into a mentoring program without proper preparation. Not every experienced agent is meant to mentor, he says. He strongly advises that centers certify everybody who is going to be serving any kind of mentoring or supervisory role. “Don’t just assume anybody can go to your new hires and be effective. Whatever your internal certification process is, make sure that everyone who teaches and presents to new hires is prepared and has the skills to be effective.”   
Customized development plans. Heeding the notion that what truly engages – and retains – employees is learning new things and helping people, top centers take the time to create comprehensive and customized development plans for each new-hire as part of the onboarding process. These plans – a collaborative effort by the agent and his or her supervisor, to ensure agent buy-in – focus not only on steps to help the agent close any existing skills and knowledge gaps to help them succeed, but also consider how the agent’s individual strengths and interests can be utilized to benefit the contact center and organization as a whole. For instance, if an agent shows a strong interest and potential in a particular area, the development plan might list directives and goals to help the agent become an official “subject matter expert” in that area.

Such personalized and empowering development plans get new agents up to speed quickly, increase their confidence and add an element of motivation by showing them opportunities for job diversity and advancement.  

Employee social events. Being a job in which most of the time is spent tucked inside a cubicle while on the phone or online with customers, the agent position can breed feelings of isolation – regardless of how many other agents are situated nearby. Such separation from the pack is particularly daunting for relative new-hires who are still learning the ropes and are seeking relationships with peers (other than just their mentor, if they have one) in the contact center. Sure, agents have the opportunity to interact and connect with colleagues during team meetings and breaks or lunches, but most new-hires require more meaningful social interaction in order to engage them and for them to look forward to coming to work each day.

The best centers realize this and build into the onboarding process frequent events and gatherings – both inside the center and out – intended to strengthen relationships, increase morale and make new hires truly feel like they are part of a tight-knit team. This can take the form of group luncheons, fun team incentives/contests and projects, celebration dinners, recognition events (Customer Service Week festivities, for example), bowling night, and other creative mixers.  

Of course, such events and social gatherings benefit all staff, not just new-hires. It’s up to the supervisors to ensure that the latter get a lot out of these team-building interactions, says Finnegan. “These events are great as onboarding tools when the supervisor plays an active role in them. Supervisors need to watch carefully as the events unfold and take the initiative to help new-hires form important bonds. ‘Suzy is new – let’s see how she is getting along with others. Who do I want her to know? Who do I think she should stick with because they’ll be a good influence on her?’ As long as the supervisor manages it as a work event to make sure that relationships get built, it’s great.”   

New employee satisfaction surveys. As part of their onboarding strategy, top contact centers administer employee satisfaction surveys after agents’ first 60 or 90 days on the job. This is a smart and effective tactic for three reasons:

1) It enables the contact center to gauge the level of engagement among existing new-hires, and to act quickly on key employee feedback to help prevent early attrition.

2) It provides managers with critical information and recommendations regarding how the organization might improve its onboarding process and other aspects of the job to ensure high levels of retention among the next group of new-hires that come through the center

3) It shows new employees that the organization truly values their opinions and suggestions and is committed to making improvements based on employee feedback. This in itself helps to increase agent engagement and feelings of belonging and ownership and, thus, retention and performance.  

Employee satisfaction surveys for new agents should differ somewhat from employee satisfaction surveys administered center-wide each year. The former should focus on the recent experiences of the new-hire and aim to measure how effective the center’s recruiting, hiring, orientation, initial training and other onboarding components are. To ensure openness and honesty in responses, centers typically have their new-hires complete the survey anonymously, and emphasize to them that their frank feedback is critical for improving processes and employee satisfaction. 
"Research tells us employees make decisions in their first weeks regarding how long they stay,” says Finnegan. “These employees are especially ripe for leaving because they are still getting calls from other companies where they applied. Surveying them not only gives you good, useful information, it also tells them you care."