How to Keep Contact-Center Agents

Updated: April 30, 2009

Issue

Agent turnover is the bane of call centers. Studies show that the average call center CSR (customer support representative) lasts about six months, while call centers have a 40 percent average annual turnover rate.

Churn is expensive. The Robert Francis Group estimated that replacing an agent costs between $10,000 and $15,000, conservatively. The group's report on call-center turnover noted that at the lower figure, a 25 percent turnover costs a call center with 100 agents $250,000 per year. That doesn't include the biggest costs — reduced customer satisfaction and business because of inexperienced CSRs.

How do companies combat call-center churn? Money is important, of course. The RFG report suggested making sure the salary you offer is at least in the 75th percentile for similar jobs in your area.

However, money is far from the only consideration in keeping agents. In fact, when it comes to retaining — as opposed to hiring — call-center agents, money falls behind other considerations. Surveys have found that while factors such as pay and location are the main reasons for taking a call-center job, other reasons, especially co-workers, are more important when deciding to leave.

Analysis

One option you can offer agents is choices on work hours and conditions. Flexibility lets agents fit their job better to their particular situation. An increasingly common way employers have extended agent flexibility is to offer the opportunity for CSRs to become virtual call-center reps. By using VoIP technology, agents can work from home.

Even choices on when to begin and end the workday can be important. Consider a call center located in the Pacific Tim Zone but employing agents covering the entire U.S. The center has to be staffed from 5:30 a.m. until 6:30 p.m. For an agent with a 35-mile one-way commute, being able to start at 10 a.m. and go home at 6:30 p.m. can save a half an hour or more in drive time and a lot of frazzled nerves. On the other hand, an agent who wants to be home when his or her children get out of school — and whose spouse can be trusted to take care of the kids in the morning — may find a 5:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. shift ideal.

In general, flexibility is one of the cheapest ways of building morale and retaining agents.

Good Co-workers

Surveys have also found that while considerations such as location and pay figure heavily in deciding to take a call-center job, the main reason agents leave is other people. An agent who feels isolated, or finds fellow employees unfriendly and supervisors difficult, isn't likely to stick around.

One common morale-building tactic is to divide the center into teams, each with its own name, symbol and persona, and provide incentives for team performance. As the team bonds, it will provide support and encouragement for its members.

At the other end of the scale, call centers need strict and well-understood policies against harassment and other kinds of behavior that create an unpleasant work environment. An employee who creates stress for everyone else isn't worth keeping, no matter how productive he or she may be.

Supervisors are especially important in CSRs' workplace perceptions. A tyrannical supervisor, or one who is indecisive or leads by criticism rather than encouragement, will prompt agents to leave. As a result, some call centers include agent retention in their evaluations of supervisors.

Eliminating Boredom

Boredom is deadly. A bored CSR is an unproductive CSR, and one who probably isn't going to be around very long.

Cross-training is one way to combat boredom. By teaching CSRs several different jobs and switching them around regularly, you can help relieve monotony and keep your agents fresh.

Varying the physical environment, like decorating for holidays, also helps.

Value Your Agents

CSRs should feel that they are noticed and that what they do is important. Praising the call-center staff in general isn't nearly as effective as recognizing individual agents and giving them one-on-one attention.

Personalized feedback is the first step in CSR recognition. If no one's paying attention to what you're doing, it's hard to believe it's important. A daily positive performance report, available on each CSR's screen at the beginning of the workday, helps agents track their progress and shows that supervisors notice their work.

Praise when a CSR does a particularly good job is one of the most powerful motivators. An agent who handles a particularly difficult caller well, or who unravels a knotty problem for a customer deserves public recognition. Public, because it not only helps the agent, but encourages others to do likewise.

Giving small positive reinforcements often is better than offering big praises infrequently. Agents should be constantly reminded that their personal contributions are valued. Little things mean a lot.

Tangible tokens of appreciation help call-center staff to know they're valued. They can range from small rewards given for outstanding performance to $2 boxes of candy distributed to each CSR on Valentine's Day.

Find the Right People

Not everyone is cut out to work in a call center. At its best, being an agent is repetitive and stressful, as many customers can be rude. Some people aren't well suited to the work and won't last long. If you don't hire these people in the first place, your retention rate will improve significantly.

While companies spend a lot of time worrying about skills such as how fast their applicants can type, not many of them seem to be concerned about how well suited the potential agent is to the job.

Previous call-center experience is a good indicator of candidate success. But the type of call center in which the applicant previously worked is almost as important as general call-center experience. Generally, an outbound center that does a lot of cold calling requires a different kind of person than an inbound center devoted to solving customer problems.

One call-center agent, for example, is an extremely intelligent person with good, if rather passive, people skills and a considerable ability to solution sell. She was working in an inbound call center devoted to premium-order fulfillment and found the work stressful and boring. She toughed it out until she qualified for benefits, had a lot of dental work done and left shortly thereafter. She might have done very well in a customer-service role resolving complex problems where high customer satisfaction was paramount, but she was hopelessly out of place where she was working.

Recommendations

Call-center work isn't easy, which prompts many agents to abandon the job after only a short while. But if you implement strategies such as individual recognition, team building and hiring people well-matched for the position, you'll see your churn rate drop dramatically.

And while churn may seem moot considering the number of available candidates due to the economic climate, it's always in a business's best interest to keep its employees satisfied. If word gets out that you're not a good company to join, finding replacement CSRs will be a great hassle than you want to tackle.

For more information on call centers, consult Focus' comparison guide, buyer's guide, and buyer's checklists here; read relevant community-contributed research; or join a discussion in the Customer Service Group.

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