Tested Methods for Reducing Absenteeism in the Call Center

Kelly Carson

Oy Vey, Hire Another Call Center Representative!

Here’s a statement you’ve likely heard many times from your company VP: "We’re spending way too much money to staff this call center." Depending on the organization, attrition for one call center representative can result in costs as high as $30K once resources, benefits and training are factored and loaded into the on-boarding equation. High-performing organizations understand the value and contribution of each call center representative. The time-worn adage "turnover is just part of life in a call center" is really nothing more than excuse. That fatalistic type of thinking simply has no place in the present day call center. If your organization places an emphasis on assuring that only top-notch staff is hired, the burden and challenge is on you to ensure that the call center culture is conducive to learning, growth and personal values.

What Did You Call Me?

The term "agent" evokes memories of the woman at the United Airlines gate smiling as she handed me my seat assignment or even of someone in the intelligence community—James Bond if you will. Fast forward to the middle of the ‘90s and "agents" were the people in Omaha, who took incoming overflow calls for a variety of elite companies or made outbound telemarketing calls. Back then, we used the term "agent" in a sour way to describe our counterparts in Manila or elsewhere. The term "agent" now has come to represent thousands of perceived disposable people whom are essentially "numbers" for large corporations. I prefer to refer to call center staff as "representatives"—after all, they represent your company, your values, culture and ultimately—you. It may be a simple shift from agent to representative, but anything that we can do to renew our sense of respect and awareness related to a difficult front-line job will only help in transitioning your outlook from a sea of faceless numbers to one where employee satisfaction is of paramount importance.

Do I Have to Go There?

Take a moment and carefully think about why you, as a call center leader, go to work each day. It’s probably obvious that you need to contribute to your family’s household income. And it goes without saying that money is indeed a great motivator. However, how do you feel about going to work each day? Below are some of the common reasons why call center employees may choose to leave their organizations:

  • They do not have the tools, resources or ability to impact the company culture in a way that truly makes customers feel valued.
  • As a call center representative they were not empowered to think outside the box to ensure a great customer experience.
  • It was the actual minutes and seconds of talking time (instead of customer satisfaction) that determined how their performance was measured.
  • There was zero or a very low chance for any advancement opportunities with the organization.
  • The call center leader did not offer sympathetic or kind words of encouragement, nor did the leader provide regular feedback.
  • When the call center representative offered ideas for improvement or evolution, those ideas were summarily dismissed.
  • An overwhelming sense of class difference was apparent as evidenced by the differences in physical environments for the call center employees with sub-standard break rooms, bathrooms, and other working spaces.

Though people care about their income, all is lost if they dread going to work each day. Displeasure for work also bleeds over into personal life. Sadly, we’ve created and or implicitly looked the other way as these same environments crept into our call centers.

Tell Me the Truth

The first step toward improving employee satisfaction in the call center requires a review of your culture. Your culture should consist of the following altruisms:

1. Open and honest feedback. Think of the times your call center mentor or trusted peer came to you and provided feedback that helped you improve your performance as a call center leader. Many call center leaders were born with tendencies and traits that assisted them along the correct career path—but that doesn’t equate to lifelong learning, growth and development of key skills.

2. High trust in call center leaders. Sometimes we erroneously place people in positions of leadership that don’t belong there. If we cannot coach them to sustained improvement, look at your organization and see where that person could contribute in a positive manner.

3. Empowerment. Life is full of black and white. When gray occurs via a customer service interaction, your call center representatives must be empowered to make decisions that benefit both customer and company.

4. Regular coaching. Every call center representative has a right to regular customer feedback and coaching sessions for improvement and praise. High performing organizations provide a tool for call center representatives to share ideas for process/policy improvement. Progressive discipline must be tied closely to coaching; coaching is a powerful performance improving tool.

5. The VP knows my name. We don’t give enough respect to the power of personalization. As a Manager/Director/VP, do you listen to a certain amount of calls each week and give feedback to the call center representative directly?

6. Feed me. Celebrate my successes! Praise me in front of my peers! Write me a personal thank you note! Give me a coffee card!

7. High performing organizations participate in 360 reviews. Challenge the HR manager who oversees the call center team to make a certain percentage of your call center surveys "in person." Give them 30 minutes with a person who is skilled in listening and open to cultural improvement ideas. Take the results of your 360 review and build a project plan. Take your plan and incorporate your call center representatives into creating solutions. Hear your team and let them have a say in their environment.

8. Save the drama. Don’t allow your call center leaders to participate in idol gossip and ensure they set a good example by maintaining professionalism. Perceived favoritism or in-office dating inevitably creates assumptions, accusations, and can create a level of unintentional hostility.

Moving on Up!

All representatives should clearly understand their roles, expectations and how they will be rated for performance. Pay tied to performance has been an integral tool in many organizations to increase overall satisfaction scores. The days of, "Your pay is $12/hour until next year, same time" is over. If your organization wants certain results, create pay plans to mimic those goals.

1. Clear progression plans for call center representatives.
The first day of call center training should include an overview of the steps to better positions, more money, and overall increased job satisfaction. As a "Call Center Representative 1," I need to know how to become a 2, a 3, a Call Center Lead, a Call Center Coach and a Call Center Supervisor. The traits of each position should be clear and concise.

2. Pay me for my performance. If my starting pay is slightly lower at $10, but with my performance incentives I have the ability to make my hourly wage $15, I become in charge of my destiny. If I make $12 an hour regardless of how well I perform, you’ll likely receive mediocrity. Pay for performance is results driven, and if coupled with a strong culture—exceptionally high satisfaction ratings.
3. Established call center policies and procedures. Your call center team needs to find answers quickly; they need to be able to assist the customers with an arsenal of tools. Vague and hard to find answers create frustration that is often translated to the customer interaction.

4. Call center leaders must ensure high performing call center representatives are given recognition in the form of opportunities for advancement and/or special projects.

Wash, Rinse, Repeat
Processes frequently fail more often than people. Companies spend a great deal of money annually measuring customer satisfaction in relation to products and service. Traditionally, we ruled these reports with an iron fist. We were quick to act on the customer results in relation to products and features; but also fast to point an accusatory finger towards the call center representative. A sub-par customer interaction in the call center is an exchange where the problem wasn’t resolved in one interaction in a manner consistent with the fundamental of customer service (things like tone, greeting/closing, listening and paraphrasing skills).

While reviewing your customer feedback, how often do you hear things like, "The call center representative was nice, but my product is still not working" or "I am so angry with your call center and your people can’t help me."

Formalize your plan for measuring a variety of customer touch points, then act on improving, then measure again. The cycle in high performing organizations never stops.

1. Listen to your call center team. Your team of representatives and first line call center leadership listen to 70 or more customers per day, per person. They know what tools would make their jobs easier and what services/products would excite our customers. We underestimate their breadth of knowledge. Give them a chance to participate in surveys and focus groups. Allow their ideas to come to fruition. Their buy-in will perpetuate your sales machine and create loyal customers, as well as increase employee satisfaction.

2. Tie customer satisfaction to employee performance. The creation of a culture which embodies "customer ownership" will produce call center representatives in tune with customer delight and empowered to create customer satisfaction.

3. Post customer compliments about products/services/call center representatives. Create a cork board, e-mail distribution list or other communication plan to celebrate the great moments of customer wow. Allow the call center representative to feel pride in themselves, their service and the company.

Toolbox Hints

People thrive on stability. Call center representatives like to know their company is healthy, jobs are secure, 401K is matched and health insurance premiums are paid. Regular coaching and customer feedback continue to be the anchor of all call centers.

When one is clear on his/her call center performance and is given data regularly to improve, we have succeeded in intentionally creating an environment of high performing call center representatives who are in charge of their destiny. Taking your call center representative’s satisfaction measurement regularly, and acting on the feedback provided will inevitably contribute to lowering your call center turnover.

Six Quick Tips for Retention of Call Center Representatives

K—Know my name
E—Empower me
E—Excite my workplace with opportunities
P—Professional in your interactions with me

M—Measure my call center performance regularly
E—Eager to listen to my customer feedback and ideas
Retaining call center representatives requires feedback as part of your culture and takes bravery; and a call center team open and ready to actively managing call center performance. Investing your time into gauging employee satisfaction will pay dividends.

You will see call center turnover rates plummeting to less than 20 percent and landing around 10-15 percent. My findings from a recent in-house employee satisfaction review of 100 percent of my call center staff displayed the team desire to improve processes for our customers.

I did not receive requests for large scale raises or a general displeasure with our environment. Quite the opposite, I was given great amounts of feedback that assisted in improving the overall customer experience.
Stay tuned for Jo'Ann Alderson's Web seminar on Tested Methods for Reducing Absenteeism and Turnover in the Call Center taking.

First published on Call Center IQ.