9 Contact Center Agent Retention Best Practices

Highlights

  • Customer Service Representatives are the most valuable link to customer and contact center objectives. Yet, they are most difficult staff to retain.
  • Call centers that can keep service agents on the job longer not only lower operating costs but retain and grow institutional knowledge and customer affinity. Research shows that contact centers with less than 16% turnover achieve 13% higher staff productivity and 33% higher customer satisfaction.
  • The research also shows there is no single technique that will solve the problem of agent churn but there are 9 methods that are proven most effective. Implementing a mix of these methods will accelerate the goal of reducing agent churn.
Johnny Grow Revenue Growth Consulting

How do Reduce Customer Service Representative Turnover

Contact center agents know the company's products, services and customers. Anything that can slow the revolving door and keep this knowledge in the company will provide significant financial benefits.

The most tenured agents have more expertise and institutional knowledge that improves the quality of service, lowers cost to serve and generally achieves the highest customer satisfaction ratings. And as contact center cases become more complex the expertise of more tenured agents will be needed even more to achieve customer and contact center objectives.

However, retaining staff that work in an often stressful, normally repetitive and modestly paid job is a big challenge. That's why agent turnover rates have been among the highest of any professional role for decades.

For many, it's become an acceptable cost. But that's defeatist thinking that drives unnecessary downstream problems such as higher costs and lower customer satisfaction.

We believe this is a perennial problem worth solving. And there is a proven way to succeed.

Here's How to Systemically Lower Agent Churn

To tackle this challenge head on we've applied years of agent satisfaction research and three decades of firsthand customer service experience.

An overarching takeaway from the research is that there is no one contact center program that resolves agent churn.

Sorry to say, but there is no silver bullet.

But there is an integrated collection of 9 replicable methods that show how the Best-in-Class customer service leaders achieved the highest staff tenure. Adopting a mix of these programs was exactly what the Best-in-Class leaders did to outperform all others.

Customer Service Agent Retention Framework

Successfully replicating any one of these programs will deliver an incremental benefit. That may be sufficient for some. For others that seek to achieve a more significant and sustained improvement a more holistic approach will be required. And of course, the amount of advancement with any method will depend on your baseline or as-is starting point.

Here are the 9 contact center agent retention methods consistently used by the Best-in-Class contact center leaders.

1

Better Recruiting

Anyone looking to improve high agent turnover should first think about prevention rather than cure.

That's why reducing agent churn starts with better recruiting.

Hiring the wrong people not only exacerbates agent turnover, but also degrades overall contact center performance. At best, hiring subpar talent institutionalizes and cements mediocrity. At worst, it creates a downward spiral.

From decades of customer service consulting experience, I've noticed that many contact center managers recognize their agent attrition challenge but don't recognize their recruiting problem. Sometimes the two challenges are distinct but more often they are connected.

Just because the open job reqs have been filled doesn't mean the recruiting was successful. When new-hires don't show up, don't complete onboarding or leave within the first 90 days it's a sign that the recruiting is off. Counting these candidates as part of an attrition problem is misdiagnosing the source.

Improved recruiting starts with identifying the soft and hard attributes that most align with long-term success.

Soft attributes include characteristics and behaviors such as customer focus, empathy, problem solving, goal orientation and dependability. A contact center best practice is to identify and measure the attributes of your top performers and prescreen candidates against these same characteristics.

Hard attributes are often competencies and skills needed to do the work. However, they generally take a back seat to soft skills as most hard skills in the contact center can be learned.

Additional techniques to improve recruiting include using structured and measurable interview methods. Two that I have consistently used to lower agent churn by double digits include the 3 Question Scorecards and the Topgrading Methodology.

Topgrading was originally developed by GE, whose research shows that this method is proven to hire the right person about 90% of the time; compared to 30-60% success rates using behavior-based techniques such as testing and feel-good conversations.

2

Improve the Agent Experience

Where recruiting is the best method to acquire the right people, delivering a rewarding agent experience is the single best method to keep them.

That's important because the agent experience directly impacts agent performance, including productivity, absenteeism, and attrition. And equally important, it directly impacts the customer experience and effects customer lifetime value and customer retention.

The agent experience is the agents' perception of their role and company based on the totality of their interactions. It starts during recruiting and continues through the exit interview. It's the sum of many contributing factors and it's cumulative.

Happy and engaged agents create happy and engaged customers. Unhappy agents deliver poor customer experiences and fuel agent churn.

Agent experience research reveals the five most effective methods to improve the agent experience.

Those methods contribute to a 5-step framework that systemically improves the agent experience and the downstream contact center and customer benefits.

Agent Experience Improvement Plan
3

Emphasize Company Culture

There are several techniques to improve customer service agent retention. But the one method that will directly impact every other is corporate culture.

Culture is a precursor and top contributing factor to anything and everything that requires agent effort. Every contact center has a culture. Most low performance cultures are a consequence of unplanned actions, unforeseen behaviors and random outcomes. In contrast, high-performance cultures are intentional, proactively designed and in a constant state of awareness and improvement.

A high-performance contact center culture carefully defines, measures and reinforces shared values that drive the behaviors which determine the quality and volume of Customer Service Representative (discretionary) effort, which in turn determines staff productivity, and the quality and amount of work that gets done.

Millennials are the top candidate pool and the top candidates in this cohort seek out cultures that align with their ideals.

According to the Korn Ferry Institute recruiting survey, the top factors candidates use to choose one job over another is company culture (23 percent of respondents), followed by career progression (22 percent) and benefits (19 percent). This is a shift from a few years ago, when recruits top job selection priorities were benefits (39 percent), company reputation (19 percent) and job stability (16 percent).

And according to a Gallup report titled, "Culture Wins by Attracting the Top 20% of Candidates", their analysis shows when companies select the top 20% of candidates motivated by corporate culture, they realize:

  • 41% less absenteeism
  • 59% less turnover
  • 10% higher customer metrics
  • 17% higher productivity
  • 21% higher profitability

Given the degree of connection between culture and tenure, customer service leaders should seek every opportunity to promote and reinforce their company's culture and link its mission directly to the agent's daily contribution.

4

Employee Engagement

Agent engagement not only improves the agent experience, but directly impacts staff longevity and performance. A McKinsey survey of 320 contact-center agents in the United States found engaged and satisfied call center employees were:

  • 5x more likely to stay than leave within a year
  • 4x more likely to stay than dissatisfied colleagues
  • 16x more likely to refer friends to their company
  • 3x more likely to feel extremely empowered to resolve customer issues

Many contact center staff say they feel like a cog in a machine. Agent engagement changes that to feeling valued and empowered. And rightly feeling like the most important conduit between the company and the customer.

There are many ways to improve staff engagement. Here are a couple examples we regularly use to achieve significant performance results.

Customer service huddles deliver supervisor coaching and recognition as well as peer-to-peer collaboration. They promote an open dialogue, give staff an opportunity to be heard, give supervisors an opportunity to praise or celebrate, and reinforce messaging, policy or best practices.

If huddles are not delivering improved engagement and performance, it may be helpful to coach the coaches. We see huddles fail to achieve their potential when they are held infrequently or inconsistently, fail to follow an agenda, or become monotonous. We recommend huddles occur at least weekly, focus on one or two messages and conclude with an actionable takeaway. The takeaways should be measured and correlated with performance objectives.

Community building is another engagement technique.

A sense of belonging creates a stable environment. When I speak to seasoned agents, I find they always have friends at work, and they and their friends have the longest tenure.

To encourage a sense of community, contact centers can promote social events, implement competitive play and make common areas available for break time socialization. Another option is to adopt peer-to-peer coaching where top performers coach newbies or younger staff and inevitably build relationships.

5

Learning & Development

More frequent or improved training should be considered if agent churn is attributable or exacerbated by poor staff competencies or skills.

That's because training, learning and development create a trifecta of agent competence, confidence and career progression that collectively aids tenure.

The most popular contact center learning consists of nesting and recurring training. But both have a way of getting tired quickly and missing the opportunity to maximize the training investment. Here's some considerations to raise your game.

Nesting is the period where new hires shadow their peers.

Research shows that the number of agents shadowed and the frequency of supervisor cadence reviews have a big impact on results. Learning from more than 5 agents is shown to improve results when compared to learning from less than 5. Supervisor meetings should be held at least twice per week to gauge progress and potentially modify the nesting program based on interim results.

Nesting can also include computer-based tutorials, self-service learning and e-learning.

When it comes to recurring training, especially training for new processes and software technologies, we recommend several training best practices, include the following.

  • Recognize that training is a process, not an event. It's best to avoid the one-time, or very infrequent, training events in favor of progressive learning.
  • Short, bite-sized training works best. Less is more when it comes to training and retention. Training research suggests that adults can concentrate for up to 25 minutes before getting distracted. Consider events such as periodic conference call updates, town hall meetings, lunch and learns, webinars and recordings to serve as brief but effective training updates.
  • Make the connection between education and action. By themselves, training classes don't create action or impact. Information by itself does not create learning. What is needed is to make the training experiential. Apply the information to daily action, give or receive feedback and coaching, and adjust for improvement. You must live it to learn it.
  • Shift the training objective from delivering training to measuring learning. To do this, use the four-stage progressive training model of See it, Know it, Try it and Do it.
  • Include aids such as reference guides, cheat sheets or custom help. For software training, consider online guided instruction or technology aids using products such as Walk Me, or guided user navigation tools such as online prompts and guides that deliver step by step process or task sequence to completion.

Training comes with a cost, but this investment increases retention, lowers recruiting and hiring costs, increases contact center competencies, and allows managers to spend more time coaching and pursuing more strategic initiatives.

6

Career Development & Agent Coaching

Research for the Contact Center Excellence Report found that agents with career growth plans stay 2.7X longer than agents without. It also found that only 31 percent of contact centers have a formal process to develop these plans.

However, one cohort stood apart. 83 percent of Best-in-Class leaders had a process for agents and managers to develop career growth plans. And that process was driven by agent coaching.

An agent coaching program shifts coaching from informal and impromptu activities to intentional and purposeful execution.

When contact center managers don't have a method for coaching, they revert to informal talks that generally fail to inspire staff and ultimately just consume time. A better approach is to adopt a formal coaching method.

We have used many coaching models over the prior three decades but the one most of our clients' favor is the GROW model. It's not exclusive to customer service coaching but in our professional opinion it is the simplest and most effective technique for problem solving, goal setting and career path progression.

The GROW Model

GROW stands for Goal, Reality, Obstacles and Way Forward. It was developed in the late 1980s and has since become one of the most used coaching models.

The coaching session starts with a goal. The goal must be sourced and owned by the agent and be clear, measurable and time bound. Most contact center representative goals are clear but may not be prioritized (i.e., the right goal for right now) or may need more specificity. That's where the manager adds value through a Socratic process of open-ended questioning. This step is complete when the agent's goal is SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time-Bound.)

The next step clarifies the reality of the current situation. It may be an assessment for a current goal or the result of a previously missed goal. This step requires candid self-assessment and undistorted reflection.

The third step is to proactively detect obstacles. This is where the contact center manager asks questions that surface the challenges that most stand in the way of achieving the goal. While the agent should take the first crack at identifying and prioritizing obstacles, my experience has been they may omit some important challenges so the manager must engage in brainstorming or ask probing questions about specific obstacles they may not have considered.

The final step is the way forward. It's a transition to action and should culminate in a plan.

The upside of this coaching method is that all four steps can be completed in a 45 to 60 minute conversation. And because the agent is identifying his or her career growth plan, it's a conversation that occurs on average about quarterly.

7

Compensation & Perks

Customer service agent compensation is based on market dynamics and the competitive labor force. But that should not suggest the importance of compensation is entirely controlled by external factors.

The previously referenced research found that compensation is important to agents, but the level of importance was heavily influenced by the other factors (including the methods in this report). For example, when agents value the culture, feel engaged and get active coaching, compensation fell on their priorities list. However, when these factors did not exist, compensation became much more important.

The research surfaced three important findings.

First, compensation was shown to have influence in acquiring agents but far less effect in keeping them. Once on board, agents' decisions to stay or leave reverted to other factors.

Second, contact centers without agent experience and retention programs are forced to use higher compensation as a substitute.

And third, even with higher compensation, contact centers without agent experience and retention programs incurred higher turnover than contact centers with less emphasis on compensation and more weight on these other programs.

Employee perks and incentives also play a role, but a small and indirect role.

The research found a stark difference among cohorts when it came to agent incentives. For the Best-in-Class, incentives and perks were a contributing factor to the agent experience. For most others, incentives and perks were more likely to be a substitution for the agent experience.

When analyzing the data, we found that perks correlated to agent engagement, but not directly to customer service agent retention. This suggest their effect is short-term.

The takeaway is to use perks and incentives where they deliver results. By themselves they have minimal, short-term impact and no demonstratable link to contact center agent retention. However, as part of an agent experience or retention program they can be cost effective investments that boost increased staff tenure.

8

Modern Technologies

The agent experience and customer satisfaction are both dependent upon frontline workers applying streamlined processes with modern technologies.

But when agents must navigate multiple disintegrated systems, search multiple data siloes to find what they are looking for or perform duplicate data entry, the agent experience and customer satisfaction decline.

Poor and antiquated technologies is a top cause of agent frustration and contributing factor to staff churn.

On the flip side, effective technologies permit agents to spend less time dealing with systems and more time focusing on customers. And that makes them much happier.

A research report found that there are five contact center software technologies that most improve the agent experience and have a demonstratable impact to staff longevity.

They include CRM systems, call routing systems, customer self-service systems, workforce management systems and contact center analytics that include artificial intelligence.

And that last technology is showing the most promise to agents and customers alike.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is being used to aid agents in their daily processes, improve customer outcomes, and add value to most other contact center technologies. For example, it makes call routing more efficient, case resolution more timely, chatbots more conversant, customer sentiment more detectable and analytics more predictive.

AI aids agent productivity with guided service fulfillment, next-best-action recommendations, suggested knowledgebase articles, case resolution responses and personalized offers. It can even deliver push-based coaching and suggest how to use customer data to deliver differentiated customer experiences.

It allows agents to better solve for the customer. AI can automatically apply customer transaction or case history, and even customer personas, to deliver more personalized and contextual customer support.

AI can be extended to customer-service chatbots or virtual agents to deliver these advanced capabilities without agent or human intervention. AI chatbots are especially well suited for the high volume of mundane questions that bore agents and lower job satisfaction. Or another option is to use AI-based virtual assistants to triage inbound inquiries.

For contact center managers, AI can measure trends, forecast staffing requirements and enable proactive customer support by identifying customer problems before they occur.

Agents and managers are using AI-infused technologies to personalize customer engagement, deliver faster resolutions, lower cost to serve, increase customer satisfaction and scale customer support operations. It's an underlying technology that has become democratized as its now included in popular CRM software systems such as Microsoft Dynamics 365 with its Azure Machine Learning and Salesforce with its Einstein AI. These packaged systems remove technical barriers and put AI capabilities into the hands of business analysts and power users.

Our experience in implementing AI in the contact center is that clients achieve an average payback period of 6 months and an average ROI of 39 percent at the end of the first year.

9

Agent Analytics

Call center analytics improve employee tenure by making the agents job easier and more rewarding.

And the most preferred type of analytics are role-based dashboards.

But the challenge is two-fold. First, prioritizing the top metrics. And second, making them measurable and actionable. Because as we all know, you can only manage what you can measure.

Call Center Agent Experience Dashboard

Good agent dashboards aid time management and productivity by showing what should be done first, then next and so on. They rank key activities and metrics to prioritize action. Tasks and activities are not all equal and should not be acted upon in random order.

Customer service analytics are most effective when they focus on the most important measures and deliver actionable insights to agents and managers that would otherwise not have been unearthed. That requires harvesting data to publish insights that drive action to improve agent, customer and contact center business outcomes.

Analytics are ineffective when they display information that is considered not that important or useful or not actionable by the recipient. Customer Service Representatives often cite too much low value information content that gets ignored.

Analytics can also reveal factors that impact agent turnover.

For example, extracting and analyzing the 0-to-90 day attrition is helpful in understanding the types of candidates that should not have been hired and improving the recruiting process.

Predictive analytics are effective to show agent churn prediction.

Call center agent retention can be increased by identifying the specific reasons staff churn, creating methods which measure these leading indicators and using the indicators to produce an agent churn prediction report.

These reports show not just who, but why those agents are churning, with measurability. And they can surface the root causes so issues can be resolved before they create staff turnover.

Knowing why agents churn is more powerful than knowing which will churn as it allows contact centers to prevent attrition before it happens.

Takeaway

As said by Mark Twain, the secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex, overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, then starting on the first one.

To achieve significant and sustained improvements to employee retention, it's more important to do the right things than do things right. This 9-step framework identifies the right things.

Without a framework accompanied by benchmarks, it's easy to confuse activity with progress and difficult to separate the urgent from the important. Without a framework, customer service managers attempt to navigate without a map and execution becomes aimless.

Applying a proven and repeatable customer service agent retention framework will define, de-risk and maximize the likelihood you achieve the most impactful results.