In a Tough Labor Market, It’s More Important than Ever to Attract & Retain Great Agents



By Craig Tobin

It’s no secret that the contact center industry accounts for one of the highest levels of employee churn, with average attrition rates as high as 60% onshore and over 100% for offshore operations based on feedback from our global clients, representing a significant challenge to drive high quality transactions with constant turnover of staff.

Hiring is expensive, training is expensive, and having to re-hire and retrain to fill openings becomes an ongoing economic burden and management problem, which can be addressed with the right mindset and programs.

With a steadily growing economy and historically low unemployment rates in the US, as well as minimum wages, increasing in some states to levels above entry level customer service agents, workers have choices. Businesses are competing to attract talent and offer impressive hourly rates or salaries, benefits packages, bonuses, career opportunities, flexible scheduling and remote working options, and more.

Late last year, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) released monthly Employment Situation Reports, showing consistently robust job growth, despite our country being in the middle of the longest economic recovery in its history. The survey found that the unemployment rate fell to 3.5 percent in September of 2019, marking the 19th consecutive month at or below 4 percent unemployment (the lowest it has been since May 1969, over 50 years ago).

Also important to the contact center industry, where a focus of HR recruitment of agents, largely high school graduates who have not yet received a college degree, the unemployment rate for people without a high school diploma fell to 4.8 percent, the lowest rate since the series began in 1992.

In the context of this tough and super competitive labor market, contact centers need to rethink how they hire, whom they hire, how they train, manage and motivate agents, and how they improve the “ROI” associated with supporting talent in order to deliver the best possible experiences to their customers, if they are running their own operation, or for their clients’ customers if they are running a BPO service.

When selecting a new employee from a pool of candidates, it’s important to vet prospective team members carefully to be sure that they are genuinely happy when working with the public, that they love to learn, that they are comfortable with technology, that they have a positive outlook and attitude, and that they have demonstrated reliability and professionalism even if their careers have been relatively brief. Check references, and allow multiple colleagues to interview candidates, then share your collective opinions.

Ask yourself:

  • Will this individual work productively even while under pressure?
  • Can this individual work with customers who are calling into the organization and may not be easy to communicate with as they may be frustrated with the company?
  • Does this individual feel comfortable working in an environment where they will be measured on their performance on a weekly and monthly basis?
  • Is this individual one who can become genuinely enthusiastic about the brands, products, and services and drive loyalty by being professional, thoughtful and appreciative?
  • What kind of intellectual and creative drive will this individual bring to the collective effort to serve customers, as well as be self-motivated but also open to motivation and coaching from managers?

Clearly, a process to hire great employees in a tough market is essential to the attrition program, but too many times companies believe that in order to fix their attrition challenge, they need to increase wages. Competitive salaries are important in retaining customer service agents but there are many other key factors that organizations must take to retain their staff.

  • With all the processes in place to hire the right folks into training and pressure to fill open positions, many organizations struggle to make the tough decisions during the initial training to come to a quick conclusion that the new hire isn’t the right fit for the organization.
  • At the same time, there is a significant challenge to realize that everyone doesn’t learn at the same pace. Often, some of your greatest customer service agents took longer to hit key metrics and were let go before they reached their full potential.
  • Working moms are an integral member of the full and part time workforce. They will always have challenges that will need attention at home.  The value to be measured is the life experiences and maturity to the workforce that you get with hiring a working mom and the requirements to find ways to support this family balance.  A sick child may require an employee to miss work and then be penalized for sick time.  Not an easy challenge to resolve, but smart organizations can take this into consideration with their forecasting slippage so that these incidents don’t impact your ability to meet your service levels.
  • Don’t make the mistake of taking your best frontline staff and making them supervisors. Many organizations take this path, which allows them to pay their top performers more money.   Organizations need to find ways to increase salaries and allow employees to grow in their current roles.  The relationship of a contact center agent and their front line is one of the most critical reasons that will retain key employees
  • Investments in process and technology that enable your agents to resolve customer problems. One of the challenges today is that agents can be frustrated with all the systems they may need to access in order to solve customer problems.   Great organizations invest in providing and integrating technology solutions which enable agents to solve customer challenges on the first call.
  • Frontline employee empowerment. Too many organizations don’t trust their frontline staff to make the right decisions even though they are the face of the brand. There is a lot of satisfaction for employees who come to work each day and help solve problems.
  • Integrate your contact center agents’ feedback to drive business changes. Your agents are taking calls, responding to emails, chats, or working to represent your brand in social media settings.   Make the investment of taking agents off the phone and soliciting their feedback in a productive manner.
  • Treat your contact center and the employees as running a profit center, not a cost center. Too many organizations today don’t analyze the value of enhanced customer satisfaction and lifetime customers.
  • Invest in front line supervisor training. For many employees who have been promoted, this is their first supervisory role.   Many of them need a mentor program with a more experienced employee in addition to the company making real investments to train the supervisory staff on how to motivate front line employees and optimize their performance.

Retaining the great agents after they’re hired can be a very exciting process, motivating to the managers and to the leaders in contact center companies, as those agents are provided career paths, becoming the next generation of CX experts.

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