Battling Agent Burnout

By Greg Levin

Average turnover rates ranging from 30 to 50 percent. Problems with employee absenteeism and adherence to schedule. An increase in the number of agents seeking union representation.These are the symptoms of a highly disgruntled call center workforce.

But what is the cause? The answer according to many is the nature of the call center environment itself. The call center is inherently a place where agents must stay seated alone for hours while efficiently handling high volumes of often-repetitive contacts from increasingly demanding customers. Isn’t it only natural that the people working day after day in this kind of atmosphere soon become tired and disenfranchised?

Yes — if the leaders in the call center don’t do anything to battle the burnout. According to a study of call center workers by the Australian Services Union, “unsupportive” managers are one of the most common factors leading to stress in the call center.

This is not to suggest that all call centers are plagued with unsupportive leaders and aggravated agents. The fact is, many progressive managers have implemented a variety of practices to help keep agents enthusiastic and committed to the customer contact cause. These managers do not simply chalk employee burnout and alienation up to the “nature of the call center beast.” Instead, they fight every day to reduce or prevent the feelings of stress, futility, and worthlessness that send so many agents packing.

“Save the Agent” Strategies

What kinds of measures do call center professionals need to take to create the kind of environment that retains agents? Here is a list of some key practices and programs that have helped to significantly lower incidents of agent burnout at a wide range of call centers.

Feasible and fair performance objectives. Nobody will argue that call centers need to have formal service level and performance goals in place to help ensure customer satisfaction and to control costs.  But agents at many centers will argue that management has set them up for failure by implementing objectives that are nearly impossible to achieve or that focus on factors beyond the agents’ control.

Such complaints from staff – and the resulting burnout and turnover – have led many progressive call center managers to redefine the entire performance measurement process in their centers. According to Jeanne Dorney, manager of Rodale Inc.’s call center in Emmaus, PA, moving from a mostly numbers-based environment to one where quality and relationship building are valued was the best thing she could have done to stem staff burnout.

Intriguing off-phone tasks and projects. Supportive call center professionals are learning that agents who live merely by the phone, die by the phone. To dramatically lower turnover, these managers are tapping the various capabilities of their staff and creating opportunities that are more diverse for them.

Granted, the first priority in these call centers remains handling customer contacts efficiently, but agents are being given the chance to show that they can do much more. For example, many managers have implemented agent-led task forces responsible for making improvements to key processes, such as recruiting and hiring, monitoring, or incentives.

Laura Sikorski, managing partner of the consulting firm Sikorski-Tuerpe and Associates, has seen the positive impact that agent-led task forces and project teams have had at many call centers. “If you give agents the opportunity to change the system, you’ll be amazed at how motivated and committed they will become,” Sikorski says.

Creative and continuous agent recognition and awards. Top call centers today understand that “15 minutes of fame” just isn’t enough to stem burnout among hard-working staff. That’s why managers at these centers spend a lot of time looking for creative ways to reward and recognize agents on a frequent basis.

An increasingly popular trend among call centers is to place incentive programs directly into the hands of the employees themselves. Many smaller call centers, often with miniscule budgets, rely on a number of fun, often informal, ways to show agents how much good work is appreciated. According to Charlotte Baptie, call center manager of Gordon Food Service in OntarioCanada, “Even the smallest recognition is important.” That doesn’t mean her call center doesn’t know how to recognize agents in a big way, too. Each year Baptie’s center stages its annual “Agent Appreciation Week” that is filled with games, food, prizes, and decorations.

Social events held both in-house and outside the call center. Even in call centers that feature a formal team environment, feelings of loneliness and alienation among agents are common due to the independent nature of the job. With agents’ primary responsibility being to stay seated at their workstation and handle customer contacts, there is often little time for informal visits and chats with colleagues.

Many call center managers have taken big steps toward changing the “antisocial” aspect of the agent position, organizing events that help to bring staff together in a fun, relaxing setting. Common examples include monthly or bimonthly birthday celebrations that are held in-house honoring all agents born during the month(s) in question, and “pot-luck” lunches or dinners.

Of course, in-house celebrations can be tricky because of the need to have a large percentage of staff on the phones at any given time. That’s why some managers seek to foster agent camaraderie outside the call center. This is often done via dinners at nearby restaurants, or by organizing weekly or monthly events such as “bowling night.”

Wellness strategies. As part of its innovative “Keep Well” program, Alliant Energy provides agents with “quiet rooms” filled with books, a CD player, and comfortable couches as well as vending machines containing healthy snack options. One room is even equipped with exercise machines. In addition, all agents are provided with amply sized 7×7 workstation cubicles that are equipped with fully adjustable chairs, footrests, armrests, and workstation tabletops. To ensure that agents understand the importance of good ergonomics, the call center brings an occupational therapist in to work with each new training class and show them how to adjust their workstation equipment. The company’s investment has more than paid off. Since introducing the “Keep Well” program, staff absenteeism and turnover has dropped while productivity has risen.

Managers at Duke Power have seen similar results since renewing their focus on agent health and well-being. The wellness strategy is highlighted by a “Quality Life Center” which is an exercise facility where agents can work out job stress around the clock. Agents also receive regular “ergonomic assessments” to ensure their optimum comfort and performance on the job.

Formal skill/career paths. When the staffing services firm Manpower conducted a study to identify the key motivators for call center staff, issues topping the list included “the chance to learn new skills” and “to be offered continuous new challenges and support for personal growth.” Numerous progressive managers have answered their agents’ call for more opportunities by implementing viable skill or career paths in the call center. Such paths encourage agents to continually expand their capabilities and knowledge, thus increasing their value to the call center.

While several call centers have effectively implemented a formal career path, which typically feature a wide range of positions ranging from new-hire all the way up to supervisor or manager, many centers aren’t large enough to effectively maintain such programs. Instead, they have opted for the skill path route. Pitney Bowes’ skills-based pay program provides a prime example of such a venture. For every new skill attained, agents receive a bump in salary. In return, the call center benefits from happier, more empowered, and more committed employees.

Stress management training. Unfortunately, there is no way to eliminate stress entirely from the call center environment. This fact has inspired some managers to introduce training that helps agents effectively deal with their stress. Stress awareness and management training is highly effective because it clearly shows employees that the organization is aware of and concerned about the problem of on-the-job stress, explains Cary Cherniss, professor of applied psychology at Rutgers University. A good stress management course, Cherniss says, shows agents that managers “don’t ignore [the problem of stress], dismiss it, or downplay it.”

Greg Levin is a freelance writer and the former editor of CallCenter Management Review published by ICMI. To learn more, call 410-267-0700.

[From Connection Magazine October 2004]

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