Off Center
The contact center industry has historically been plagued by high employee turnover. Particularly problematic (and expensive) is early agent attrition – new-hires quitting soon after the contact center has spent ample time and resources recruiting, assessing, training and greasing them up to fit inside their cubicle.

While some early attrition can be attributed to poor candidate selection, often rookie reps exit because they get rushed through orientation and initial training then thrown to the customer wolves. Or, in some cases, they receive plenty of coddling and coaching during orientation/training, and then wonder where all the love suddenly went once they’ve earned their headset.  

To help ease rookie agents into the challenging and dynamic customer care environment without the use of mood-altering drugs, many top contact centers have implemented an “extended on-boarding” initiative. Such initiatives spread the transitional phase out over several weeks or months to help foster a strong sense of preparedness and belonging among new staff, resulting in higher levels of engagement and fewer incidents of them vanishing into thin air.

Following are several key components of a successful “Extended On-Boarding” initiative:

“Transition” training. After their trainees complete a couple weeks (or more) of classroom training, many contact centers send them to a special phone bay (or “nesting area”) to take basic calls while being closely monitored and carefully coached by a supervisor (or multiple supervisors, if the training class is particularly large). After a week or so in the bay, trainees may head back to the classroom to enhance their skills and to learn how to ignore the urge to punch customers. Following another stint in the nesting area taking live calls, successful trainees are moved to the official phone floor while their less successful peers are moved to a mental institution.

“Transition” training, as it has come to be called, not only helps to shorten learning curves by providing plenty of practical experience, it works wonders in raising comfort levels among new hires, who love the extra care and attention they get before getting torn to shreds on a daily basis by customers with much more complex problems. 

Peer mentoring. Effective agent on-boarding doesn’t end with initial training. Top contact centers continue to show new-hires the love after “graduation” by pairing them up with an experienced agent trained to assist and inspire. Having a peer nearby to help rookies through tough calls, peak periods and panic attacks is a surefire way to fend against early attrition and help new-hires thrive in what can be an overwhelmingly fast-paced environment.

In addition to raising the retention and performance levels of new hires, peer mentoring has the added benefit of enhancing engagement among the center’s frontline veterans (which can be infectious), who enjoy sharing their knowledge, taking on more of a leadership role, and having somebody to fetch their coffee in the morning.

Social events. Even with peer mentoring in place, feelings of isolation and alienation are common among agents, who must spend most of their time tucked inside a cubicle handling (or waiting to handle) customer contacts. Smart contact centers recognize this, and thus organize frequent events and gatherings aimed at strengthening relationships, elevating morale, and getting agents drunk so that they'll accept weekend shifts. Examples of such practical social activities include team luncheons, bowling outings and barbeques. During these events, managers and supervisors should introduce and encourage interaction with the center’s newer team members, and inform the newer members if they have any food stuck in their teeth.

Specialized satisfaction surveys for new(ish) employees. Just because this isn’t a common practice doesn’t mean it’s not a good one. Administering an “on-boarding satisfaction” survey to agents after 60 or 90 days on the job enables the contact center to gauge the level of engagement among newbies and act quickly on feedback to help prevent early attrition and aggravated assault on supervisors. Agents’ input and suggestions also help the center to improve the overall on-boarding process to ensure high levels of retention and low rates of murder among the next group of new-hires that roll through.

Many managers say that the very act of soliciting such feedback from new-hires helps to increase morale and retention, as it shows them that the organization truly values their opinion and is committed to improving hiring, training, brainwashing and other processes aimed at setting them up for success.

Over the years, hundreds of articles and whitepapers have been written – some by respected experts, others by people like me – on practical ways in which contact centers can reduce operating expenses without sacrificing quality and the customer experience. Unfortunately, practicality is the cousin of conventionality, conventionality breeds conformity, conformity begets homeostasis, and homeostasis, well… I'm not exactly sure what homeostasis means, but I'm told that it doesn't lend itself well to innovation.

To achieve the kind of cost savings that truly impact the bottom line – and help organizations not only survive but thrive during the current economic climate – contact centers need to start pushing limits, taking risks, being creative, breaking laws, ignoring ethics and destroying evidence. It's not enough to focus only on ho-hum tactics like improving scripts and workflows to shave seconds off of calls, or encouraging customers to use self-service options. While such approaches can help cut expenses, they rarely result in the kind of eye-popping savings that earn the respect of the leading white-collar criminals.         

To earn that kind of respect and recognition, you'll need to focus on the highly inventive and unproven practices highlighted here:

Ban turnover. Agent attrition is the biggest drain on most contact center's budgets. The cost of having to continually re-recruit, re-hire, re-train and regurgitate can be staggering. Most contact centers try to reduce turnover via rewards/recognition programs and other incentives, flexible schedules, home agent initiatives, and compelling career paths. The problem is that such initiatives require time and effort and stuff, which can be a significant challenge for managers who just don't feel like working too hard. And even if they do take the time to implement such programs and practices, there is no guarantee that agent retention will improve.

The solution is simple: Formally ban turnover in your contact center. Explain to agents that, from this day forward, attrition is strictly prohibited; that working in the contact center is no longer a privilege nor a right, but an absolute requirement.

Agents will most likely appreciate the authoritarian policy, as it will relieve them of the pressure and anxiety they often feel when trying to decide what to do after quitting. With quitting no longer an option, finding a new and better job will be one less thing that agents need to worry about, which will enable them to focus more on the obscenities that customers are screaming in their ear.

Of course, there are always going to be that small minority of agents who feel compelled to spoil everything. Don't be surprised if a few chronic complainers vehemently object to the center’s decision to strictly forbid turnover. The best way to deal with such employees is to introduce another new policy – one that forbids vehement objection in the contact center.     

Eliminate training. A formal training program can be quite taxing – both financially and physically. First of all, the necessary investment in training materials and software can be staggering. Secondly, trainees often suffer costly injuries to their temporomandibular joint when yawning during sessions covering the company's mission, vision and values.  

To dramatically reduce such expenses and musculoskeletal suffering, the most forward-thinking centers have eliminated agent training entirely – resorting instead to hiring only super-smart people and/or kidnapping competitors' top performers. Newly hired staff who still wish to receive some form of expert training can do so by asking the center's best agent to be their mentor, or by carefully observing the center’s worst agent and doing the exact opposite of everything he or she does.     

Blackmail technology vendors. Just as expensive as agent turnover and training – if not more expensive – is the technology required to effectively and efficiently run a contact center. To compete and succeed in today's fiercely competitive customer contact arena, companies must shell out hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars for call routing systems, CRM applications, advanced speech recognition technology, etc.

The good news is that the vendors who sell such high-priced solutions will do just about anything to protect and embellish their reputation in their respective market. They know if word gets out that their product doesn't work, or that their support is unreliable, or that their ethics are questionable, or that they give out generic rather than Häagen-Dazs ice cream bars in exhibit halls, it could cause their entire empire to crumble. Thus, to greatly reduce your technology costs, it's a good idea to tell premium vendors that, unless they drastically lower the price of/give you their latest revolutionary technology release, you will start a daily blog dedicated to launching rumors that the vendor paid for its last five "product of the year" awards, that's its performance management suite causes meningitis, and that it tests its analytics software out on puppies.