Improving Agent Retention

By Kelli Massaro

Retaining top performers is essential to call center success. The challenge is to create a positive work culture that sustains, nurtures, and engages employees – both as part of a team and individually. Retention is a multifaceted issue that is affected by both intrinsic factors (individual employee needs) and extrinsic factors (organizational or departmental systems that support employees). Retention strategies need to address both.

Intrinsic Factors

Individuals have several basic, intrinsic needs that must be met in the workplace to feel satisfied. As a manager, if you can meet these needs for your staff, you can positively influence retention. In many cases, nurturing good relationships with your employees can override the negative effects of extrinsic organizational factors.  Different things motivate different people, and you may need to use multiple strategies to achieve individual employee satisfaction and improve performance. In general, agents seek a mutually supportive relationship with their supervisor, a sense of belonging and security, a feeling of contribution, control over or input into decisions regarding their work, and appreciation.

Good Relationships with Supervisors: Employees desire good, fair supervision. After job fit, this is the second biggest factor in employee retention. Supervisors and managers who use a constructive “coaching” style when delivering feedback nurture growth and learning among their employees. Conversely, supervisors that “police” for infractions and shortfalls create fear and inhibit employees’ growth potential. Feedback should be timely and include both praise for things done well and suggestions for improvement.

Belonging to a Team is more than working together with a group of people. A sense of belonging is created when an individual feels a personal investment in the organization’s shared vision and works to better one’s self and the department. In a collaborative culture, team members participate in call center decision-making. Trust your employees enough to delegate projects and explore their ideas. Promote the feeling of “our” call center. Stay open-minded to new ways of looking at things, and take advantage of networking with other call centers to explore alternative solutions. This will push your program and your employees to new heights.

Contribution: Employees enjoy the opportunity to make a meaningful contribution to their workplace. Pooling the unique talents, gifts, and interests of team members creates an opportunity for each employee to excel and have unique ownership for a project or for the work itself. You should seek opportunities to specifically engage and recognize your employees in this regard.

Security is an individual perception regarding “safety,” whether it’s financial, physical, emotional, or a combination thereof. When security feels threatened due to lack of managerial support, lack of communication, or a number of other factors, employees begin to experience anxiety, stress, and dissatisfaction. Communicating regularly – and even more often during times of change – promotes trust and provides a sense that there is more within each team member’s control.

Control: Employees don’t like change when they feel it is “done to them.” Poor change management skills is a frequent cause of job dissatisfaction among call center staff. Change is much more palatable for employees if they have some input regarding decisions that affect those on the front line. Implementing change with staff suggestions in mind will achieve better staff support and results that are more positive.

Recognition and Appreciation: Recognizing a job well done and showing appreciation to employees on a regular basis goes a long way toward keeping employees satisfied. This can be done in small ways, such as a verbal “thank you” or a written note.

Although a powerful motivator, no incentive program can replace good leadership and management practices. The key to retention is attending to the basics: hire right, provide a fun and engaging “team” workplace, provide opportunities for employees to stay challenged and make a contribution, involve staff in decisions, communicate effectively, and coach with timely feedback. No amount of praise or rewards will keep and attract staff if the basic intrinsic needs of employees are not met.

Extrinsic Factors

To achieve a positive work environment, managers must purposely deploy a range of strategies that address retention’s multiple factors.

Hiring Right: Most call center turnover occurs with the first three months, so hiring well from the start is of utmost importance. Assessing job applicants for job fit and essential skills is crucial to help ensure that new employees are positioned to succeed. In addition, providing new hires with realistic job expectations, consistent training, ongoing mentoring, and social integration helps to support them through their development phase.

Addressing Extrinsic Retention Factors: A number of organizational and system factors influence your ability to affect employee satisfaction and retention. Considering how to maximize each element (as listed below) for your call center setting may increase overall satisfaction. Some items may not be within your control; however, many can be implemented without additional cost.

Compensation: Call center staff should be paid comparably to their counterparts in other departments. When call center staff are paid less, the workforce feels devalued. Also, perform marketplace surveys to insure that salaries are competitive with similar community organizations.

Opportunities for Professional Development: Encouraging staff to take advantage of continuing education can boost motivation. It can also help employees stay challenged at work. Positioning education and training as a privilege or benefit (not a mandatory obligation) will stimulate interest. If allowed to earn their way toward advanced training and awarded a chance to participate, staff will be more likely to attend and share what they’ve learned with their colleagues.

Career Ladders are useful for attracting new staff. The perception of advancement opportunities to positions such as team leader, senior agent, shift supervisor, trainer, or middle manager is important for retention. Rewarding top performers with a promotion, even if it’s not monetary, may be just as crucial to employee satisfaction as appropriate pay. In smaller call centers, the organization chart may be relatively flat. If advancement opportunities are limited, you may need to be creative in offering a lateral career path. Horizontal advancement that promotes employees to positions with new titles that offer new responsibilities, certification, or additional training (such as in computers, software, customer service, communication, or accounting) can be developed and used as part of an incentive and reward program.

Alternative Work Environments and Job Diversity: Telecommuting, or working from home, is an opportunity many call centers are eager to explore (or already have in place). The benefits are greater staffing flexibility and employee satisfaction, increased productivity, and decreased turnover. Another satisfier, as well as a burnout-prevention strategy, is exploring options for staff to work outside of the call center. Offering paid time for completing call center projects can unveil and highlight a staff’s individual talents. For example, a call center manager in Michigan stocks a drawer with one- to two-hour projects for staff to work on during lulls in call volume. The project materials and instructions are in a sealed envelope, along with a project “thank you” gift, such as gift certificate or movie tickets.

Schedule Flexibility: Call centers that help employees balance their personal and business lives with schedule flexibility positively influence staff satisfaction. Exploring alternative schedules – such as split shifts with telecommuting, creative weekend shifts, or working a “nine months on, three months off” schedule – can offer family-friendly choices to the employee. Customized schedule rotations and self-scheduling with a staff committee are other innovative ways to give employees input and promote positive morale.

Call Center Environments: The call center environment also affects staff satisfaction. Optimizing the physical environment based on employee feedback (noise level, workstations, ergonomics, lighting, and temperature) can help employees to be more productive and efficient, as well as preventing work-related injuries. (In one call center, the staff opted for “low-light days” for stress reduction. The center’s overhead lights are left off one day per week. Team members have individual desk lamps to use if they prefer a well-lit work area.)  Break rooms should be amenity-rich, convenient, and promote a “homey” feel. Many centers have quiet rooms (“No talking, please!”) for reading, thinking, or napping.

Promoting a relaxed work atmosphere also promotes positive morale. Do people have fun at work and enjoy being there, or is the stress and negativity palpable? Creating a fun atmosphere with perks like Pajama Day, Jeans Day, Ice Cream Sundae Day, potlucks, and birthday celebrations can contribute toward making the workplace environment a lot less stressful. And sharing humor on a daily basis reminds everyone to smile at work!

Recognition and Appreciation: Recognition for hard work is nearly as important to employees as receiving better pay. This illustrates that recognition can be a powerful motivator, and employees like to work for organizations that appreciate their contributions.

Incentive and award programs may be organization-wide, departmentally created, or a combination of both. Acknowledgment for an individual’s contribution can range from verbal recognition and small gifts (including nonmonetary awards and gift certificates), to pay-for-performance incentives or bonuses. Rewards can be tied to meeting individual, team, and/or organizational performance targets.

Call center manager Belynda Delgado describes her company’s incentive program that was started several years ago. The incentives tie into both individual and team performance goals. Monthly, she presents a gift certificate to the individual who best meets a specific performance goal, and she rewards the team for meeting team objectives. She sees the reward program as offering three main benefits: 1) a healthy competition between individual staff members, 2) a report card for team and individual performance, and 3) a means to improve teamwork and promote the team mentality. Each year, she also offers an employee bonus that is proportional to meeting both individual and call center goals.

She believes in showing her staff that she values them; she says “thank you” to everyone at the end of the day for the work they’ve done. This simple gesture shows that she is grateful for the many small acts that her staff performs every day. Sometimes the most valuable things in life are free!

Conclusion: Call centers should employ a range of strategies to create positive, fun, and stable workplaces. To foster optimal retention, the organizational culture should recognize employees as its greatest asset. By using tools such as employee-satisfaction surveys, exit interviews, and organizational culture assessment surveys, call centers can glean valuable insight into factors influencing employee retention. Implementing creative methodologies that address both system and individual factors involved in retention yield positive results and result in a more engaged staff. In turn, your staff will treat callers and patients in ways that positively influence customer service.

Kelli Massaro works as a triage nurse and is the communications director with LVM Systems; she may be reached at

[From Connection Magazine May 2010]

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