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Closing the Revolving Door – Part1

Closing the Revolving Door – Part1
By: Colin Taylor

Staff and Agent retention was a ‘hot’ button topic in the call center industry 20 years ago and still is one now. So how is it that the same issue that ‘dogged’ call centers two decades ago is still a ‘front burner’ issue today? I think there are a number of factors that contribute to this:
• The nature of turnover and staff attrition is such that you are never done this process,
• Successive regimes have built up and eroded successful programs that addressed this topic,
• Regular and expected fluctuations in employment levels and labour availability ‘hid’ the problem for periods of time.

Addressing turnover and attrition is a never ending process. With labour costs representing approximately two-thirds of your center operating costs, it is a battle you need to wage and a battle you really want to win.
In this article we will look at what you can do, today, in your center to reduce attrition. There are many ideas, methods, tools and tactics that you can employ to reduce attrition that require time to implement, develop the business case, ROI calculations and secure funding and management approval.
But what can you do today, right now, at little or no cost that will actually improve retention in your center immediately? Specifically we will look at rewards and recognition, ways you can involve, engage and motivate your agents, today.

Proven techniques
A number of proven techniques that can improve staff retention and we will address these under the headings I have named:
• Understanding Rewards and Recognition
• It’s not just the Money
• Recognition is over rated
• Motivating without money
• Building Community
• Challenges equal Opportunities

Before we examine how to improve retention it is critical we have a good understanding of what our current situation is. Do you know what your turnover rate is? Do you know why people are leaving your center?
We have worked with many managers that have answered yes to these questions only to later ask to revise their answers. It is critical that you know or at least believe you know the answers to these questions as we begin drill down through the challenges of retention management.

All centers today employ rewards and recognition within their centers, some with robust unified programs and others moving through a series of one-off tactics. However many of the centers in both of these camps do not have a good grasp of human nature or what truly motivates people.

The recent recession has caused many call centers to scale back, they have thinned the ranks of management, fewer VP’s per square inch, and have reduced or frozen headcount and budgets. So doing more with less; really has become doing more with none.

A changing staff
On top of the budgetary and economic issues we have seen a change in the agents we have working in our centers. Gen X and Gen Y employees are different. They have different expectations, motivations and a different view of what is important. They represent new challenges in engagement and motivation. You need to approach Gen Y employees differently in order to engage with them.

Finally we must remember that tactics are short term. One off campaigns, contests and incentives will be quickly forgotten.

Wherever possible you want to develop Reward and Recognition programs and incentives that are strategic, that is to say support and align with the goals of the center and those of business. Strategic and structural programs endure and become a part of the fabric of the center.

Having said this, don’t discount the value of using money as an incentive…It is still the right size, shape and color, but it should not be the only tool in your rewards and recognition arsenal.

One fact that many centers have reported to me is that their staff has become more transient. Staff is not career focused…some just want a job and not a career. Some may be working in the center until they find a job…what does that say about their perception of the call center and the company?
Turnover is a fact of life and will always be a concern to call center operators. And like it or not our Supervisors are likely not as well selected or trained as we would like them to be. All of these factors were true in call centers 20 years ago, so has anything really changed?

Recognition is not enough
Time and time again you will hear experts and pundits espouse that recognition is all you require to have a happy and engaged workforce. Unfortunately that isn’t correct. Recognition is wonderful and makes those being recognized feel special and valued, but alone it is not enough to solve retention issues.
By themselves recognition programs have a number of shortcomings: Event and time based programs end, ‘First past the post’ generally results in the same cadre of agent winning all of the time- remember our Mastery agents…they should be winning all the time! If you can not win, you will quickly give up trying. In this situation the reward program that was implemented to motivate and incent agents is actually a disincentive.

The key to long term success and ease of management is to implement programs that are aligned with the objectives of the center. They support the attainment of the objectives and goals established for the center.

For example if one of the centers objectives in 2010 is to improve First Call Resolution by 5%, then an incentive or recognition program tied to FCR or reducing repeat callers or increasing the percentage of customers who identify “fully resolved” on the post call survey are all examples of aligned programs. Programs that recognize those who achieved a 10 second reduction in AHT is not aligned with the objective unless its’ scope is expanded to include a while improving FCR. In fact in the AHT example it is quite likely that this program would actually reduce FCR at least in the near term as agents rush callers off the phone and struggle to find faster ways of doing things.

Similarly programs that incent sales can be great, but if that is not a center objective it is not aligned.
Lots of achievements that can be seen as positive improvement in a call center, but not all of them will be aligned with the stated and published business objectives of the center; reduce AHT, reduce costs, increase sales, improve center profitability, reduce calls, reduce cost per contact, increase FCR, increase CSAT, improve ESAT etc. All of these can be identified as call center business goals. But none of these operates in a truly independent manner. We know that a call center is an interconnected web of processes, people, technology and methodologies and many of these elements are connected…some in obvious and others in far more subtle ways.

Cases of non-aligned incentives
The following are a couple of real world example of non-aligned incentives.

One services company set the center objective to reduce costs…this is likely one goal we are all familiar with. So the center management decided to offer and incentive for agents who attained an AHT of under 200 seconds. For each call they handled under 200 seconds they had their name entered into a draw for prizes. At first the results appeared stunning almost every agent reduced their AHT from 220 -230 seconds to sub 200. It was on the third day however that the center manager noticed that the call volume was rising significantly above the generally accurate forecast. They were at a loss to explain why.

On day four it twigged. They found through monitoring that they were getting lots of complaints from customers reporting that when they called in the agent would hang up on them before they were finished. Closer scrutiny found that yes; in fact the agents were hanging up on customers. In fact some even told the customers that they would have to call back because the agent had used up all of their time for the call – Ouch

In a real outbound example, one company had an inside sales team that sold new business to a large prospect database. Now the database had been cobbled together from multiple sources and had a lot of holes in the information, missing addresses, postal codes etc. The manager determined, reasonably, that if they had better information in the database then they would have fewer orders with incorrect and/or inaccurate information which required rework.
So the Manager implemented an incentive program that paid the rep $.50/ updated record. This worked, in fact it worked so well that once the agents realized that they could make as much if not more incentive dollars by simply updating records versus selling the service, they stopped selling. Now I ask you what should be the primary role of an inside sales team?
We know that other companies and organizations struggle with the exact same issues as we do. How do these firms motivate their staff?
Existing Recognition/reward programs
Before we dive any deeper on what programs could be deployed, let’s look at some of the recognition and reward programs that other organizations are employing.
• Rotating Trophies for Top Performers each month.
• Decorating agents’ workstations whenever they meet their daily and/or monthly goals.
• Managers calls: where the center Supervisor and Managers take the reps calls for an hour while the Rep coaches the manager.- The Scooter Store
• Reps pick songs and select management staff who must perform them.- Freedom Communications
• Call swapping- If an agent gets 100% QA score on 3 calls, The manager takes 3 calls for the rep.- Galileo Processing
• Top performers each month have their Manager pick them up every day for a week and drive them to work
• Earn a chocolate for a perfect call or a call resolved in X minutes. Each resolution (or perfect call) gets a round of applause from the whole center.- Wipro BPO
• 80/20 Elite Team, the Pareto principal rewards the top 20% of agents. They get a separate lounge, flex shifts, first choice of time off and are groomed for management roles. This is run and reviewed each quarter. – Wipro BPO
• Placing a rose on the seat of an agent who has gone above and beyond.
• Campaign pins, like military ribbons or scout badges placed on the agents nameplate on their workstation.- Embarq
• Producing ‘Baseball’ cards of your star performers- Embarq,
• We rely on Dr. Bob Nelson book “1001 Ways to Reward Employees”, it has been invaluable.- The McNaughton Group,
• Earning points for every call with FCR over 90, points redeemed out of a catalogue
• Call center radio, top performers get to pick the songs that will play in the lunch and break rooms

There are lots of good ideas here, but most are tactical, one-offs and some you can see that are a part of larger, over arching program. Many of these tactics could however be integrated into a strategic program.
One other thing you will notice is that almost all of these reward on the ‘best’, we know from experience that these types of programs do little to motivate or engage the ‘rest’.


Tactical versus strategic

How can we move beyond the individual recognition event?
The answer is to move beyond the tactical and develop an aligned culture and community that delivers superior service? This requires structure and design, both of the real world examples I cited earlier shared the design flaw that the managers didn’t think through the process. They also didn’t appreciate that agents are smart. If there is a way to ‘game’ or cheat a system, they will find it and exploit it.

The second part of this article will explore the creation of an enduring structure in the call center that will foster employee engagement and motivation and permit the deployment of aligned reward/recognition programs that meet the objectives of the center and the business.

2 thoughts on “Closing the Revolving Door – Part1

  1. Colin’s article makes some very good points about recognition and incentives and the laws of unintended consequences. I offer a recent article that discusses some of the causes of new-hire turnover (see the new job morale curve) and makes some suggestions:
    http://www.snowfly.com/pdf/snowfly_curb_article_may2011.pdf

    I’m looking forward to Part 2 of the article.

    Robert Cowen
    Snowfly – Improving Employee Performance Every Day
    [email protected]
    http://www.Snowfly.com
    manager of “Contact Center Incentives” at LinkedIn

  2. colin says:

    Published in October issue of Contact Management magazine.

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