Unorthodox Wisdom for the Uncommon Call Center

Best Practices in Call Center Recruitment: Stop Trying to Understand Why Call Center Representatives Are Quitting

Brooks Mitchell, PhD
Posted: 09/27/2009
The improvement in economic conditions has companies revamping their call center recruitment and hiring strategy. Call center recruitment has become a focus again and, as a result, call center turnover is inevitably increasing. The luxury of having a stable call center workforce during the last few months has begun to evaporate. Once again, call center managers are forced to deal with this perennial and nettlesome headache that just will not go away. And, I predict, most call centers will try to solve this problem (as they always have) by trying to understand why people are quitting.

This is the wrong approach; it will not result in a positive solution! If you try to comprehend why your call center representatives are quitting, you are assuming there is something wrong with your call center and you must correct the problem in order to make yourself more suitable as an employer. In an effort to improve call center recruitment it is far better to focus on why people are staying at your call center rather than why people are leaving your call center. This methodology is founded on the possibility there is nothing significantly wrong with your call center. Think about it! Regardless of how bad you think your call center environment might be, I’ll wager you have several productive call center representatives who have remained on the job for a long time.

If that is the case, I challenge you to try to understand what differentiates those call center representatives from their fellow call center representatives who were prematurely terminated. Armed with this awareness, you can improve your call center recruitment strategy.



Rookie Mistake: Accepting High Churn and Constant Call Center Recruitment

You can begin to emphasize employment processes and procedures that match the characteristics of those performers who are staying with you. Wouldn’t you agree to improve your call center recruitment it is far easier to change who you hire than it is to change your organization?

I think the biggest problem with high turnover in the call center is acceptance. This includes call center managers who say, "It’s just the nature of the working in the call center and we have to learn to live with it." This simply is not true! A monumental study conducted in the 1930s by Patricia Cane Smith indicated, "There is no such thing as a boring job, rather there are repetitious jobs that some people don’t adapt well to."

And more recent studies have revealed that call center representatives remain on call center jobs because of the call center work relationships they do not wish to break. Now there’s a clue! Anything you can do in your call center to emphasize social bonding, car pools, peer-to-peer recognition group lunches, etc. will increase that social bond which will become difficult to break.

A Case Study in Call Center Recruitment

Now, a true story that illustrates my point: Several years ago, I was a Human Resource manager for the PepsiCo Transportation Division. I learned about employee selection and turnover from a very unusual source, and, like much of my real learning, it came the hard way. The message stuck and was the unintended inspiration for my subsequent doctoral dissertation.

Here’s what happened.

Our division was run by Mr. Butch Jones, a battled-scarred veteran of King-of-the-Mountain battles in one of the toughest businesses in America. Mr. Jones did not like staff managers in general and Human Resource whippersnappers specifically. But I didn’t let that dampen my enthusiasm. I wanted to show him that I was a professional, someone he could rely on.

My opportunity came to prove myself when Mr. Jones’s secretary called me three weeks ahead for an appointment at 2:28 PM. I knew the odd meeting time and long advance notice were among his intimidation techniques, so I was determined not to let them bother me. Grapevine rumors made it apparent that Mr. Jones was unhappy with the call center recruitment and staffing efforts of my department since we took over this responsibility for NTC. Call center recruitment at NTC proved to be a challenge.

One particular call center job paid $1.60 per hour and required continual calculation without the benefit of adding machines in a room without air conditioning. Call center promotion opportunities were non-existent and oppressive supervisors prevailed. More often than not, our employees crossed the street to Minihoma Insurance, which offered similar jobs in an air-conditioned office with adding machines and paid $2.25 an hour. I conducted a professional wage and benefit survey confirming the dismal working conditions and rock bottom pay scale at NTC. I was well prepared to deliver my presentation and escort Mr. Thompson and NTC into the 20th century.

Recruiting the Best and the Brightest at the Call Center

My heart quickened as Mr. Jones looked with interest at my slick graphs and quartile charts. As the presentation progressed, I thought I had gained his confidence. He even asked for my recommendation. I offered my opinion that we needed to raise the call center wage from $1.60 per hour to $2.30 per hour. Furthermore, we needed to assign a private call center work station to each call center representative, install air conditioning and purchase electronic calculators to attract qualified call center representatives. Most importantly, I recommended that we train our call center supervisors in modern management techniques. "That, sir, would enable me to recruit, hire and retain qualified call center representatives for NTC," I concluded.

I proudly envisioned Mr. Jones rising to applaud my presentation.

It didn’t happen that way. Mr. Jones pulled a yellow pencil stub from behind his ear and made a few calculations on the tattered desk pad in front of him. (Mr. Jones didn’t use one of those newfangled calculators either.) He turned to Arnold McGruder, his trusted right hand in all matters of accounting, finance, public relations and personnel. Arnold wore the green eyeshade and plastic pocket protector of his bookkeeping trade proudly. He was Boss Hogg in the flesh.

"Arnold," Mr. Jones drawled in a deliberate and cynical country accent, "Mr. Mitchell, who I believe is a college-educated boy, says he can hire and keep the help if we spend what I calculate to be 750,000 bucks a year."

The words "college-educated boy" slammed into me like a Mack truck. I knew I was in deep kaw kaw. My college education taught me that much. Beads of sweat formed instantly on my upper lip. Mr. Jones paused for a minute to savor my obvious pain. Then he asked Arnold, "Do we have anybody working for National Trailer Convoy (NTC) who has been here for more than five years, who is doing a good job in spite of our supervisors and who is working for minimum wage?" "You betcha, Mr. Jones, There’s Iola Fay Welch, Prissy Stroop, Ella Joe Miller, Mable Grace Apple, Lydia Lou Landry and many more."

Workplace Wellness Comes at Cost

"Now, Mr. College Boy, don’t you tell me we have to spend $750,000 to hire and keep good help," Jones said. "Your job is to find and hire more folks like Iola Fay and Mable Grace."

I saw myself as the young warrior who had challenged the chief and lost. My destiny lay in riding alone in the badlands of ignorant managers for the rest of my career. Then, at the bottom of my despair, I came to a stunning conclusion. Mr. Jones was absolutely right! He had hit the nail on the head. Much of his logic was askew, but in terms of hiring practices, he was right. I didn’t endorse his sweatshop management practices, but no matter how bad the working conditions, pay or supervision, there were still, for whatever strange reasons, long-term employees who remained on the job and performed.

The key was to determine what was unique about these people and differentiate them from their short-tenured, unproductive counterparts. As soon as I correctly profiled the successful employee, in terms of NTC’s viewpoint, our turnover began to decline.

I don’t think I ever did gain Mr. Jones’s’ total respect, but once he did say, "Hi, Brooks" when our paths crossed in the executive commode. What more could a college boy ask for?

I continue to treasure the great lesson I learned from Mr. Jones. It is far easier to change the kind of people you hire than it is to change the organization in which they work.
Brooks Mitchell, PhD
Posted: 09/27/2009

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