A Five Point Plan For Retaining Your Best Agents

Note from the editor: This article originally appeared in the Customer Management Insight November/December 2008 issue, but is still very applicable and relevant today. As we kick off our month of "All About the Agent" this advice was too good not to share again!  What are some of the strategies your contact center executes to retain your best agents?  Share your ideas in the comments below.

Several years ago I had the opportunity to attend a marvelous management seminar at the Disney Institute in Orlando, Florida. The lessons learned there, coupled with the work I’ve done with contact centers around the world, has convinced me that there’s no magic solution or approach to the challenging task of retaining our best people.

Do you think Walt Disney waved a magic wand to create all that enchantment? No! He planned and worked and planned and worked and... you get the picture. So here’s a plan I developed, and you can use these five points to save your stars.

If this is starting to sound like a lot of work, you may be asking yourself “Is it worth it?”

Jim Collins, in his book From Good to Great, says: “Retaining top performers is essential in today’s competitive market. Top performers almost always exceed the performance of average workers by at least 25 percent. Cultivating top performers nets an instant gain and gives your organization the competitive edge.” He goes on to reference a 2007 employee satisfaction and retention survey, completed by 11,852 employees and 311 human resource professionals, that showed that more than 60 percent of employees planned on looking for another job within the next three months. Think that’s bad? More than 66 percent of tenured employees (employed 3–10) years planned on looking for a new job within the next 3 months.

If that’s not enough to convince you of the value of investing LOTS of time and energy in retaining your best players, then just spend some time perusing, where you’ll find a wealth of information on this topic. The demographics don’t lie and we are all in a race for talent that shows no signs of letting up for the foreseeable future.

If you’re convinced already, you’re ready for the five-point plan to save your stars.

1. Create a Great First and Lasting Impression

Your company only gets one chance to make a great first impression and while we’re not going to spend a lot of time on the recruitment process (that’s another article on its own) you do want your hiring process to be both positive and memorable. When you are talent scouting and hoping to attract and retain some real stars, it’s critically important to ensure candidates have a total job shopping experience that stands out from that of other talent competitors. Let’s face it: the very best in your pool of prospective employees will almost certainly have other offers to consider — often within 48 hours!  Making a memorable first impression with an end-to-end hiring experience that is professional, respectful, comfortable, and enjoyable can tilt the odds in your favor.

Regardless of the tools and techniques you employ to attract, screen and interview potential candidates, be sure that the overall experience is one that mirrors a trip to Disney where the focus is on:

Safety. The candidate needs to feel comfortable from the minute they enter your website or your office — so be aggressively friendly!

Courtesy. Treat everyone you are inviting to apply to/join your company with dignity and respect. Welcome them and thank them — a lot.

Show. At Disney, even waiting is part of the show, with interesting things going on as you make your way to the main attraction. Be sure to engage all of the senses when taking people through your recruitment process. A warm handshake and smile upon arrival, the offer of delicious refreshments while they wait, interesting/exciting videos they can view, podcasts they can listen to, colorful brochures about your company, a creative FAQ document they can take with them, etc.

Efficiency. Respect their time and move them through all phases of the recruitment process as quickly and smoothly as possible. It’s critical they understand what will happen at each stage and that you keep them informed.

All of the above will contribute to a great first and lasting impression of your company when compared to other interview processes the candidate has had or will experience. Like a first date, it can make or break a great relationship, which is what you want to build on right from the start with your stars.

2. Tell Compelling Stories

Once upon a time…

I don’t believe we ever lose the enjoyment that comes from being told a really good story. As lLeaders we need to be constantly telling the story of:

    • Why we’re here
    • What are our company’s purpose, mission, and values
    • What service and/or products do we offer
    • Who are our customers
    • How to we get our products and services to them
    • What are our challenges
    • What role does each person in the company play
    • How can each person make a difference

Due to the size and complexity of contact centers and the sheer volume and velocity of information and change that passes through them, communication is one of the most critical support functions that exist in our industry. In order to keep our people engaged in our business, we must gain and maintain their trust and one of the best ways of doing so is by telling them the truth about everything that affects their day-to-day job.

Such information needs to be conveyed in way that makes our staff want to read, or listen or talk about what’s important to them as individuals and our company as a collective. But remember, a happy ending can only be achieved IF the story telling is a two-way process that enables communication about what’s working, what’s not and what should we should do about it.

3. Hot Buttons

I once worked with a woman who was the top sales manager in her company for several years running and who seemed to have a knack for motivating and retaining a team of top sales people. When I asked for her secret, she replied, “It’s so simple I’m almost embarrassed to share it. Basically I find out what the hot buttons are for each person on my team and then I just keep pushing those buttons.” 

Ellen encouraged a lot of stories out of her team members and kept detailed notes about what was important to each individual. She then made sure she tailored her relationship with each person to help make them as successful as possible.

Incentive programs, training initiatives, special projects and business and social events were geared to meet the needs and desires of each person on her team — and it worked. By paying attention to details, Ellen exceeded the expectations of her team and won both their commitment to outstanding results and their loyalty.

4. Engaging Hearts and Minds

The overriding goal in this step is to persuade the people that work with you to feel personally responsible for their work. This requires an environment with lots of flexibility, plenty of growth and development opportunities, and the chance to become deeply engaged in the activities that affect individual and company success.

There’s no question — and all the research backs this up — that when people believe their interests are being addressed and can see that they are directly contributing to the success of their organization, they feel more committed to their job and are far more likely to stay.

So think about adding more flexibility where you can, especially in the area of scheduling, as that matters a lot to top performers. Let your top performers help you figure out how to do that (see Tell Compelling Stories, above).

When it comes to growth and development, go beyond the basics of helping people become job proficient and provide your stars with opportunities to learn more about the company in general and the world at large. Lunchtime learning sessions (or Lunch & Learns) are an easy and inexpensive way of getting your people hooked on learning, and it can create a link with your company they’ll be reluctant to give up. In the call centers I’ve run, I brought a variety of speakers into the Lunch & Learn sessions, where they covered topics such as company strategy, world travel, financial planning, dressing for success, parenting, personal safety, etc. Over time, my best agents took on the responsibility of organizing the agendas and the events that further increased their success.

Let your best people help your company get better and better by engaging them in solving the challenges that you face. There’s not one problem you may be having that your own people won’t have a suggestion or two on how to fix. So get them engaged — make it easy for them to help. And don’t limit your discussions to problems that occur in your call center — these employees are a conduit to many other parts of your business, as well, and can identify areas of opportunity for the entire enterprise.

It is important to find out what each person can bring to the table (rookies and seasoned veterans, alike, will have valuable perspectives and experiences to share.) In many of our call centers, we can have four different generations sitting side by side, and there will be stars in every age group and from every walk of life. By tapping into that kind of diversity, not only will your company be stronger, you’ll be building loyalty within the employee base as they gain valuable business and life lessons from their peers.

5. Keep it Up

One size does not fit all when it comes to a retention strategy or plan, and successful companies realize that if they are going to attract and retain the best stars in the business — they must be diligent and relentless in their efforts.

Getting the right people onboard in the first place is certainly critical; but getting them to stay there — and being aware of the signs that they might be thinking about leaving — is equally important. To keep your stars on your team, I recommend familiarizing all  managers, team leads and agents with the metrics related to retention and the costs of turnover to the company. Here’s a great example courtesy of Jeff Doran, president of

Contact Center Employer of Choice :

A) Total number of employees (FTEs) = 200

B) Total number of working days per year = 220

C) Total annual employee cost (loaded labor + facilities + telco): e.g. $70K

D) Total daily cost per employee: $318.18

E) Average daily rate of absenteeism:  10%

20 absent/day x 220 days

x $318.18 = $1.4M

Gain their commitment to finding ways to reduce turnover and set specific targets. Learn everything you can about what it will take to keep your stars.

Ask them (regularly): What can we do to keep you?  What kinds of things do you want to do in your job, in your career?  What would make you leave us?

Tell them (often): That you really value them, that you rely on them and that you want to reward them in ways that are important to them.

By implementing your own version of this five-point plan, you’ll be better positioned to save your stars and reap the benefits of higher productivity, happier employees and improved customer satisfaction — as they all go together. See, there’s no magic to it, but you may think the results are magical!


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