Seven Secrets of Minimizing Agent Turnover

By Dr. Jon Anton and Anita Rockwell

“My call center has been searching for a viable methodology to reduce agent turnover ever since its creation. To date we still experience a 75 percent turnover rate and all the costs associated with it.” Sound familiar? It is just one of hundreds of comments we’ve heard as we researched the issue of agent turnover.

How much of a problem is it? According to a recent poll of 1,000 call center managers, the average turnover is 19 percent. The highest were credit card centers at 46.9 percent. Of the more than three million customer service representatives (CSRs) working in North America, that means approximately 600,000 new CSRs must be recruited and trained each year. At an estimated cost of $5,000 each to replace, turnover can soon become a costly business.

Chart #1

What can you do to tackle turnover? Based on our research, we’ve identified a number of ‘best practices’ among world-class call centers that contribute towards improving staff retention. Here are our seven secrets to minimizing agent turnover, along with what those we surveyed had to say on the subject.

1. Turning Managers into ‘Retention Champions’: “I was working in one of four call centers for a major credit union. Mine was the worst. The people didn’t care. They just showed up to do the job. We got a new manager a month after I joined. He really listened and was supportive. He asked us what we thought. He asked good questions when needed. He empowered us and he made work fun.” It sounds so simple, doesn’t it? We call people like this manager ‘retention champions’ and turning managers into them is perhaps the single most important way to combat turnover.

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One of many such comments included, “People might seek out a job because of pay or benefits, but if their boss makes them miserable every day, they won’t stick around no matter what the compensation.”

2. Individualizing the Customer Service Representative (CSR) Experience: “Treat the phone representatives as if they are the most important part of your organization, because they are!” World-class companies are recognizing the CSR as an individual. This can be something simple. As one respondent put it, “Take the time to say, ‘thank you’.”

Or it can be something more complex. Examples we came across included CSRs having their own ‘management-free-zone’ meetings or enjoying ‘early-leave’ incentives schemes, with points awarded to representatives caught in the act of delighting their customers. Whatever you do decide, the trick is always to know what the CSR really thinks.

One center manager explained how she gets all employees to fill out a survey every two weeks. “If scores are low, we can see the warning signs early and are able to try to give individuals extra attention. The feedback helps us change processes and procedures as a result of the feedback. It’s worked great.”

3. Provide Clear and Balanced Expectations: “The biggest impact on turnover reduction and morale boosting comes from establishing both a career path and a solid bonus structure.” If clear and measurable performance plans are adopted, then a CSR knows exactly what is expected of them. They also know what they can expect in return for their efforts.

“We implemented an incentive bonus plan allowing for increasing bonuses year after year based on customer satisfaction achievement levels. An employee can earn 5K after one year, 10K after two years, 15K after three years and 20K after four years. This plan has reduced turnover from 31 percent to 17 percent. Costs are justified by reduced cost of turnover, productivity gains, and long-term profitability of the corporation through improved customer satisfaction and loyalty.”

4. Investing in CSRs/Training: “If they are well trained and up-to-date, they are not bored.” One of the best solutions to reducing agent turnover is to offer a package of benefits, ranging from medical insurance to on-going training. “In our customer service department, we created the Career Institute, with very clear paths of promotional and lateral opportunities for our customer service representatives. We met with each CSR individually to identify which path best met their interests and abilities.”

5. A Fun Place to Work: The manager of a 250-seat helpdesk center, staffed predominately by young agents, summed up the feelings of many. “We just make it a fun environment, have parties, nice incentives – movie vouchers, drinks, t-shirts – and we are very flexible in working hours and desk environment.  We listen to them and use their ideas to improve their working experience.”

If it is because salaries are low, or because your center isn’t convenient to the bus route (yes, that was a reason given as contributing to staff turnover in our survey), making the center a fun and enjoyable place to work might be an important option. Besides which, the antithesis of fun, namely stress, has been identified as the single most important reason for agent turnover.

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BenchmarkPortal, Inc.

“The one thing that the staff enjoys the most, which has created friendly competition, is a ‘speed demon’ award. This is a toy red sports car that they get to set on top of their monitor if they have the best talk time for the previous week. In addition, I have a ‘slow poke’ award, which is a toy pocket scooter for the person with the longest talk time; this is also awarded weekly. They are all excited about the awards each week to see who it will pass to. They all work hard to try and keep the sports car as long as they can and to get rid of the scooter!”

6. Chance of Advancement: This one’s simple. Without a proper, clearly-defined career path, how can CSRs be expected to grow, or want to grow, within an organization? “Agents need to see a light at the end of the tunnel and must have a trail to get there. Motivation for agents lies in and upon themselves for their own personal reward psyche. Wages, respect, and satisfaction are necessary for people to believe and stay with an organization.”

7. Tools to do the Job: Finally, providing the best possible tools for agents to do their jobs can contribute immensely to their feeling of job satisfaction. “By use of computer based ‘soft phones’ the agent is only working with one device. We are also using wireless headsets, which allows the agent to be able to get up and move around from their workstation.”

Or, if necessary, you can change the tools to meet the demands. “We hired a programmer who completely re-wrote the software we were using, which made the intake personnel more comfortable with the process and expedited the call process.”

So, there are our seven secrets. Of course, other factors can play a significant role in helping to reduce employee turnover. Other factors included fair pay, trust, variety throughout the day, and employing the right person in the first place. As several people pointed out, there is no magic bullet. Tackling turnover is about helping employees to grow. It’s about being fair and consistent. It’s about creating a workplace where you would want to be every day.

Dr. Jon Anton is the director of benchmark research at Purdue University’s Center for Customer-Driven Quality. He can be reached at: Anita Rockwell is the Director of Business Intelligence at BenchmarkPortal, Inc. For more information, call 805-614-0123.

[From Connection MagazineMay 2004]

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