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Reducing Attrition in Contact Centers: It's All About the Team

Tom Marsden, CEO of Saberr, exposes the true cost of employee attrition to call centers, and three simple ways to mitigate it

Contact centers are a notoriously difficult place to work: dealing with inbound customer complaints can create huge amounts of stress among workers, and that stress translates to high staff turnover. The average ‘lifespan’ of a US call center worker is approximately 3 years, with a turnover of 33 percent. What’s going wrong?

Employee attrition analysis is hardly a new science, and there are several metrics that HR managers often turn to. Measurements such as the number of sickness days taken, lateness, average employee tenure change over time and cohort analysis can give managers a solid picture of what’s going on in the present, but rarely offer predictive insight. More significantly, attrition metrics rarely deliver truly actionable information, muddying the waters further rather than bringing clarity. A company can collect vast quantities of HR data and be none the wiser as to the correct path to take.

Employee Turnover

There are other areas that call center managers can look at to get more actionable insight. There’s increasing appreciation of the role social dynamics - often referred to as ‘cultural fit’ - plays in employee longevity. Here are three ways to utilize this new approach in your call center.

Assessing cultural fit

Call centers are used to assessing employee performance through hard metrics, such as number of issues resolved, customer satisfaction, and average handling time (AHT), but are much less familiar with measuring an employee’s social well-being in the workplace. This is a key mistake, as academics have noted that employees who fit in well with their job, team and organization have greater job satisfaction, are more likely to remain in their organization, and show superior job performance. There’s a governing mindset that call centers are highly individualistic places, and that only by analyzing and improving individuals can the organization succeed. I disagree: social connectivity is a fundamental and overlooked factor which can often lead to easily-identifiable desirable action.

Hiring managers can start measuring social dynamics by being open and honest with themselves and with colleagues about the call center social environment: what kind of person will succeed here? It’s imperative to talk to people from all levels of the organization to get a ‘360 degree view’ of who is successful in the workplace: once you have this information, it becomes much easier to figure out why that is the case.. From these conversations you’ll get a better idea of your ‘ideal candidate’. It’s essential that job applicants are given a dedicated cultural fit interview: a ten minute chat on the phone is not enough.

Social profiling and data analysis can be a key ‘voice in the room’, giving additional weight to decisions over which course of action to take. Algorithms have the key benefit of being transparent: if mistakes are made - the wrong person is hired, or someone leaves quickly - people can review what went wrong, and make adjustments. This couldn’t be more different to the opaque ‘gut feel’ approach prevalent in today’s culture fit assessments.

Experiment with team structure

We increasingly need to recruit people to integrate into a fast-paced team: according to McKinsey, 40% of jobs in developed economies involve a high degree of collaboration. This is especially true of contact centers, which are not as individualistic as people think. Not only do teams give employees a social structure to their work time, but call center employees rely on their teams for advice and guidance in dealing with tricky situations.

Communication and sharing of knowledge between individuals has a huge impact on customer service performance: the happier an employee is in their environment, the more engaged that person will be in his or her day-to-day job. Given most work in call centers is socially intensive, having a socially supportive environment isn’t simply a ‘nice-to-have’, it can have a real effect on your bottom line.

Managers should pay close attention to the everyday functioning of their teams, isolate problem areas, really examine what could be going wrong, and make adjustments. More and more companies are using data-driven personality testing to help them in these crucial managerial decisions.

Allow for downtime

Your workers are people, and people need downtime. There’s a growing trend of companies looking to utilize their employees’ downtime for good, or at least to not let their employees’ inevitable breaks go completely to waste. One oft-cited example is Pixar: Steve Jobs insisted that all the office toilets would be located off the ground floor lobby, so as to increase the likelihood of chance interactions between employees in different teams and departments. Fast forward a few years and this thinking is present across much of the corporate world.

Call centers too can make use of this line of thinking. Rather than forcing employees to take very short breaks, and logging those breaks fastidiously, managers should encourage groups of  employees to take breaks at the same times. By doing this, employees will spend more time together, encouraging social bonding. A well known MIT study tested just this: by ensuring that everyone on the same call center team took a break at the same time, a bank’s call center AHT fell by more than 20 percent among low performing teams, and fell by 8 percent overall. Canada and the EU have call center turnover rates of 25 percent and 15 percent respectively, far higher than the 33 percent rate seen in the US. It’s often said that the work environment in Canada and the EU countries is more relaxed and flexible than in the US: perhaps this is one reason behind the difference.

Not all of these suggestions will work for all call centers. However one thing is clear: call centers have a problem with attrition, and that problem is expensive. According to the Human Resource Institute, the average cost of replacing just one front line call center agent in the US can reach $15,000. There’s a clear business need to get to the bottom of the problem here. Attrition problems are unique to each organization, there’s no one size fits all approach. Managers should experiment with team dynamics, structuring employee downtime, and adding some social data into the mix. With the right combination of HR innovations, call center managers will find themselves with happier teams and more profitable branches.