Call Center Retention Best Practices

Call Center Retention Best Practices

Executive Summary

Call Center Retention Best Practices help in order to retain employees and achieve attrition of no more than 15% annually (employees leaving the firm either voluntarily or involuntarily), firms must deliver on the following best practices:

  • Recruitment/screening to identify a flexible and talented pool of candidates
  • Candidate sourcing tested and validated based on demonstrated results
  • Candidate testing specific to the job function and skills required for job performance
  • Selection criteria that predict a candidate’s potential for success
  • Training design/delivery that engages the new hires and equips them for the realities of the position
  • Front-line management that effectively assesses performance and coaches to performance excellence
  • Metrics that provide early warning indicators for attrition
  • Organizational accountability for all metrics including attrition, included in all performance reviews
  • Annual employee surveys with mini surveys throughout the year to capture the organization’s pulse and identify issues that may impact attrition
customer-loyalty

Critical Components of Retention – Call Center Retention Best Practices

Firms focused on recruiting and retaining quality personnel must deploy highly effective staff in the following areas to leverage best practice metrics, processes, and accountability:

  • Recruiting & Selection
  • Training
  • Front-Line Management

The Call Center Retention Best Practices approach is to hold each part of the organization accountable for their role in attracting and retaining a high quality staff. One element in the organization (generally HR), exclusively owns accountability for new hire attrition up to the point that the new hire reports for training. They are responsible for gauging reliability – will the agent who accepts a job offer report to training? Once in training, accountability for retention is shared with training as they equip the agent with necessary skills and assess the agent’s ability to perform. Post-graduation, the front-line supervisor assumes ownership for all aspects of the new hire’s performance with accountability for recruiting and training diminishing over time. The graphic below illustrates the migration of attrition accountability over time.

recruiting-selection

Recruiting & Selection

Rather than dictating precise recruiting practices, it is best to hold the individuals responsible for creating candidate flow, screening candidates, and extending job offers accountable for making effective hires. This is accomplished by tracking performance at multiple points in the process and linking candidate performance to the individuals involved in the selection process. Individuals responsible for generating the candidate pool should be accountable for the following metrics:

  • 100% of the required classroom quota filled for 98% of the classes scheduled. This is a rolling average over the course of the year with staff reviewing their performance on a class-by-class and monthly basis.
  • 90% of job offers accepted result in an employee remaining with the firm six months after training graduation. This is a rolling average, again with class-by-class and monthly reviews of performance.

Individuals responsible for screening candidates and making the decision to extend a job offer should be accountable for the quality and reliability of the individuals selected for employment. Metrics for the individuals extending job offers to candidates are as follows:

  • 97% Successful Candidate Success Rate (Number of Accepted Offers Reporting for Training/Total Accepted Offers). This is a one-time metric by class but cumulative for the individuals making the hiring decision.
  • 95% Training Completion Rate, expressed as a percentage (Number of Graduates/Number Reporting for Training). This is also a one-time metric by class but cumulative for the individuals making hiring decisions. The standard provides no incentive to “fill” classrooms with minimally qualified candidates who would not be able to graduate.
  • 90% New Hire Retention Rate (New Hire Employees Retained Six Months After Graduation/Total Number of New Hire Graduates). This is a rolling metric with new hires not tracked for this metric after six months post-graduation.
  • 95% New Hire Performance at or above the new hire learning curve expectation (adjusted operational metrics for new hires) for three months post-graduation. Specific focus on AHT, Attendance, Adherence, and either Conversion/FCR (sales/service).

Note: The first three metrics could be replaced by a single retention metric with a target of 87.5% retention if measured from job offers or 90% if measured from the point of training (Six Month Retained New Employees/Job Offers Accepted or divided by New Hires in Training). However, this combined metric does not provide granularity around potential root causes in the recruiting/selection process and thus, while simpler, is not as effective as separate metrics.

Training

While recruiting/selection should identify agents with the ability to be successfully trained, training must not only equip agents for the work to be done, but must also terminate agents who should not have passed screening. Therefore, the metrics for training must focus not only on the present (completion rates) but also the future (performance and retention post training). Training best practice metrics include:

  • 95% Training Completion Rate (Number of Graduates/Number Reporting for Training). This is a class-by-class metric but also a cumulative metric for the Instructor.
  • 95% New Hire Retention Rate (Retained Employees Six Months Post-Graduation/Total Number of New Hire Graduates). This is a rolling average.
  • 95% New Hire Performance at or above the new hire learning curve expectation (adjusted operational metrics for new hires) for three months post-graduation. Specific focus on AHT, Attendance, Adherence, and either Conversion/FCR (sales/service).

These targets can be met if each part of the organization is accountable and delivers on its focus: generation of an excellent candidate pool, selection of optimal candidates, engaging and effective training, and the creation of a work environment that motivates employees to perform.

Front-Line Management

Supervisors and center leadership own attrition accountability with exclusive responsibility from six months after graduation forward. Early in the cycle, constant communication and support for the agent is necessary or attrition will become a major issue. Supervisory introduction during training and even pre-training phone calls to welcome the agent to the firm have been shown to reduce training no shows and to increase retention in the first few months of employment. Early in the employment cycle, the agent is out of their comfort zone and may experience anxiety relative to job knowledge and performance. They are candidates for “flight” behavior and may choose to resign rather than work through early employment jitters. Between three to six months after graduation, the agent’s skills have matured and the supervisor can focus on managing a wide range of performance metrics in a steady-state environment with a focus on metrics that may signal potential attrition. Since new hires tend to turnover at a higher rate than tenured reps and generally turnover within the first six months of employment, supervisory retention goals may be customized to reflect group makeup. An excellent retention rates for an internal call center is 85% annually (70% or higher for outsourced operations) measured from the point of graduation with 90% retention considered an absolute best practice. In addition to the specific retention focused recruiting, training, and performance management metrics listed above, best practice firms identify potential attrition drivers in advance of escalating attrition. It is human nature to exhibit flight or fight behaviors when stressed. When an employee is stressed in the work environment, there are behaviors that may indicate the employee is considering a change. Effective supervisors monitor performance alert to “fight” or “flight” behaviors. Metrics that can provide early indications include:

  • Adherence (flight, work avoidance)
  • Attendance (flight, work avoidance)
  • Combative behavior when previously supportive (fight—breaking the bond)
  • Performance Decline (flight–uncommitted)

When evaluating adherence and attendance supervisors should be alert to their potential role as an early indicator of potential attrition and take steps to intervene and restore the employee’s commitment to the firm. In addition to monitoring specific agent metrics and behavior, there are specific aspects of the work and the work environment that can drive attrition or retention. The best practice model for evaluating attrition drivers is Herzberg’s Social Hygiene theory that specifically researched and addressed the root causes of employee turnover. In 1959 Frederick Herzberg developed the Two-Factor theory of motivation. His research showed that certain factors were the true motivators or satisfiers. In contrast to motivators there were hygiene factors that created dissatisfaction if they were absent or unsatisfactory. Dissatisfaction could be prevented by improvements in hygiene factors but these improvements would not alone provide motivation.¹

call-center-retention-best-practices

To retain employees, employers had to remove the barriers presented by hygiene factors and focus on delivering on motivator factors. The chart above summarizes the elements in Herzberg’s two-factor theory. Employees will be dissatisfied and will leave a firm where:

  • Pay and benefits are unacceptably low for the skill the employee brings to the job or the work being done
  • Company policies and administration are viewed as restrictive, impersonal, or unfair/unethical
  • There are hostile or apathetic relationships between the employee and co-workers
  • Supervision is not competent or is hostile or apathetic
  • They have no status in the organization or there is a perceived blow to status
  • Their job is not secure leading to uncertainty about the future
  • The working conditions are unsafe or unsanitary or demeaning
  • There is a conflict with their personal life/needs (e.g., new addition to the family, family relocation)

To retain a high quality workforce, the hygiene issues must be eliminated and the motivators must be tangible. To retain a quality workforce, firms must:

  • Offer individuals the ability to achieve and be recognized for their achievements
  • Provide employees with valuable, purposeful work to do (e.g., FedEx saves lives thru organ transplant shipments)
  • Enable employees to assume increased responsibility
Offer employees personal growth and an opportunity for career advancement

Best practice firms focus on eliminating hygiene issues and optimizing motivators by monitoring the organization’s pulse through annual employee surveys as well as quarterly mini-surveys that query both areas. Once survey data is collected, it is shared with the organization, and plans are put in place to correct any problems identified through the survey process. Quarterly mini-surveys ensure the organization is on track and provides an early alert system if a problem is developing. The results of the annual survey are generally a metric for the leadership team with team responses aggregated for the next level up through leadership. Results are stack ranked by individual with significant recognition for those members of the organization with outstanding results.

Screening Process and Tools

In general, standardized tests allegedly validated for individual businesses do not appear to increase the efficiency or effectiveness of new hire recruiting. Multiple tools have been tested on existing employee groups only to yield no predictive value. Unfortunately when queried about the level of validation, firms reported that test results were correlated to training exam scores (not the work environment) or had been validated to a generic customer service model rather than the hiring firm’s specific workforce and talent requirements. However, there are several standard practices that appear to be effective, and while they do not represent the shiny new object that everyone wants, they have delivered documented results.

  • Test the candidate’s aptitude based on job requirements. For call handling, conduct phone-based interviews with a reading sample. For language skills leverage in-language interviews, for a project requiring analytic capabilities automate basic math and logic testing. For a project requiring PC skills, test for PC and web navigation savvy. If there is significant data entry, test for typing skills. Basically, rather than attempting to restructure a one size fits all solution, testing and screening should be customized to the environment. When working with off-shore environments and English as a second language, telephone interviews should be conducted by individuals in the United States who have English as a first language and are not acclimated to the non-English accent. The most important part of testing is to identify if a candidate has the required skills and if they are “smart,” that they can learn and apply what they know.
  • Do not hire candidates referred by individuals in the organization who are not performing. Limit your screening efforts to referrals by highly valued employees and set criteria for who can submit referrals. While it is highly desirable for employees to recommend their firm as an employer to friends and family, do not risk replicating the bad work habits and work ethic of employees currently in discipline plans.
  • Utilize the side-by-side exercise during the interview process, allowing a candidate to sit with an agent handling calls. Train specific agents to engage the candidate and discuss the job while handling calls. This is an important recognition activity and also yields valuable information during the hiring process. Candidates may not tell HR that they are looking for a temporary assignment, but they will frequently share that information with an agent on the phone. Have a process for selecting, training, and debriefing agents who conduct side-by-sides.
  • Track attrition/retention at the team, group, and site levels. While the traditional attrition/retention metrics are an average over time of the existing workforce plus all those that have left the firm, a more effective way to look at retention/attrition is to look at the percentage of new hires of total headcount on payroll for the function (new hire = less than three or six months seniority). This measure more accurately reflects the impact of new hires (longer learning curve, higher AHT, more errors/rework, etc.) more accurately than an average that may be driven by activity six months earlier. When tracking team/site attrition, best practice firms either use the New Hire As A Percentage of Headcount metric or they track attrition from the point of graduation dividing resignations/terminations by total headcount on staff/hired during the period. It is important to note that internal promotions and transfers are not counted as attrition and are removed from the numerator and denominator. Recognizing that most turnover is churn within new hires, the New Hire as a Percent of Headcount metric should not exceed 10% at any point in time to be a best practice.

Performance Management

On an ongoing basis, supervisors must work with agents achieving below target results to develop and deliver effective coaching and performance improvement plans. Once they are convinced that an agent cannot/will not perform, they must move the low performing agent into a formal step based termination process. Understanding the difference between will and skill based performance gaps, developing the appropriate training/coaching/mentoring plans, and executing on those plans is critical to preserving an employee that might otherwise be lost to unsophisticated management. Best practice firms eliminate the hygiene factor of ineffective supervision by training supervisors and managers with the planning, communication, root cause analysis, and coaching skills required to elevate individual and team performance. Classroom training for the management team is enhanced through daily mentoring during the training cycle with specific feedback delivered daily. Combined with performance focused daily meetings and daily scorecards, supervisors mature into mentors and coaches with the ability to support the agent’s aspirations professional growth and recognition.

Conclusion

Retention best practices require focus at every stage of the employment cycle as well as strong performance management processes. Creating an environment that fosters the development of Herzberg Motivators while eliminating Hygiene issues will improve retention rates for a population that has been well recruited, well trained, and well managed.

Sources

¹ Herzberg’s Social Hygiene Theory

McIntosh & Associates founded in 1997, is a call center consulting firm that offers its clients unparalleled expertise in the design, implementation and management of call center operations.