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Agent Attrition and the Economy: What Contact Centers Should Be Doing Now

As long as I have worked in contact centers, Customer Service Representative (CSR) attrition has been one of the most common, yet challenging and costly matters a contact center has to face on a consistent basis. While industry data varies with regard to the actual cost of losing a CSR, we all know it is a costly loss. Typically, the cost figures we see comprise direct costs associated with recruiting/hiring and training.  These figures generally fail to account for the loss of productivity, impact on employee engagement or the myriad other indirect costs incurred when an employee leaves.  

I would venture to say that over the last few years, many organizations have seen their attrition numbers go down due to the current economic climate. Job openings are not as plentiful, so people are staying in positions they do not like with companies they no longer trust, just waiting for the opportunity to leave. Generally, following periods of economic contraction and “doing more with less,” as soon as the economy rebounds and companies begin to hire again, attrition spikes.  Now, for some companies that might be good…you might be glad to see some of your low performers leaving.  But what about your top performers?  Have you made an effort to keep them engaged or basically taken the tack that you really do not need to worry about keeping employees engaged because “they are lucky to have a job?” If you have taken this stance, you can expect these CSRs to leave as soon as they get a chance… and they probably will not have much good to say about you or your organization!  

This brings up another issue: How are these unhappy, unengaged CSRs treating your customers?  According to the 2009 CFI Group Call Center Satisfaction Index study, there are three primary drivers of customer satisfaction with their contact center experience:  CSRs, the Customer Service Process, and the IVR.  The frontline CSR is a considerable driver of customer satisfaction in contact centers. (Although I do not think any of us really needed a study to provide us with this information!) We “assess” this every time we contact a company but do we really apply this knowledge in our centers and in the way we treat our frontline employees?  

A Case Study In Call Center Risk
I recently worked with a very large international organization that came to ICMI because it was experiencing high levels of attrition – particularly in skill areas where the organization could ill afford to lose people.  I worked with them to uncover the root causes of this attrition and outlined a recommendations roadmap to address the issues uncovered. Because this organization – like many of its size – is slow and deliberate in its actions (which is a good thing most of the time) they were “spared” from having to implement many of my recommendations because, when the economy tanked, they saw their attrition rate go down almost by half. The turnover is still high but low enough (for them) that the issue took a back seat to the other issues the organization was dealing with at the time.  

Interestingly enough, we worked with this same organization again to develop a groundbreaking predictive modeling tool that could predict the expected level of attrition based on certain scenarios. In this organization’s case, the scenario was compensation.  We were able to ascertain a precise correlation, as well as accurately predict the organization’s level of attrition prior to obtaining current attrition data from the organization. Pretty cool stuff, huh? Still, it wasn’t a priority for them for a host of reasons.
They did not make any changes, implement any new processes but still saw attrition drop.  What was the difference?  The economy!  While the organization generally accepts where things are now, be assured that unless changes are made, the attrition rate will go back up and maybe at an even higher rate than before as soon as those CSRs get a chance jump ship! These CSRs were unhappy before and are still unhappy…they are not engaged and they are likely to leave the first chance they get. Sometimes a wait and see approach is good; other times it is risky. I believe this organization is taking a high risk not addressing the issues sooner rather than later. Is your organization in the same high-risk situation?

There is an interesting sidebar to this discussion: Many believe the economic recovery will be different this time because not all the jobs will be coming back to the USA.  Many jobs have been lost permanently to other countries.  If this is true and the flood of hiring does not occur, the attrition spike may not be as large as in times past. Although, other data indicates that companies are responding to the customer backlash against the off-shoring trend, so that story continues – stay tuned.  

Stop Agent Attrition Before It Stops Your Contact Center
The moral of this story is if you want to avoid the spike in attrition that is likely to come in some form or other, start now by engaging your CSRs, improving employee satisfaction and loyalty by making sure they know how much you appreciate their work. As the economic recovery begins, with a bit of luck, this tactic will help you keep those high performing CSRs so your organization will be poised to succeed. For those companies that anticipate post recession attrition spikes, you might try the following:

• Monitor employee intent:  Identify attrition drivers and develop an attrition early warning signs program.
• Watch Washington: Start assessing the impact of changes in benefit policy driven by the new healthcare legislation and how these might affect attrition.
• Get in synch: Synchronize operational improvement initiatives with your attrition forecast to minimize the threat of understaffing to service levels and damage to the customer experience.
• Right size training: Revisit new hire training programs to reduce “time to proficiency”. 
• Break tradition: Investigate non-traditional shift arrangements, remote workers, job-sharing and diverse labor pools. Revise your employee referral program.
Susan Langwell is an ICMI Senior Consultant. [email protected]