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May 2009 | Volume 27 / Number 12

Needed: A Contact Center Makeover?

By Brendan Read
Senior Contributing Editor, Customer Interaction Solutions

Contact centers have seemed to have weathered the economic downturn better than most sectors. The opening of new locations and the hiring of more agents both for them and for at-home work are bright spots in an otherwise dismal picture.

These are also excellent times for contact centers to expand. Retailer closures have created great inventories of customer-service-skilled people and modern, well-situated buildings. The financial services industry meltdown has led to similar opportunities, including vacant contact centers.

Unfortunately, if reports are accurate, contact center staff turnover appears to be higher than one would expect in today’s environment. Even in communities where better-paid employers have been cutting back, contact centers often must aggressively recruit employees. In at least one Canadian city some of them have placed portable billboards near the entrances of the other sites to lure agents.

And where communities are prosperous, contact centers seem to lose out. One large teleservices firm had to close its center in a Midwestern city because it could not find enough workers to fill open positions.

At the same time the contact center work has become more complex and demanding. Today’s agents must communicate effectively, intelligently, and professionally in voice and in text and think on their feet to quickly meet customers’ needs to their satisfaction. Some firms, like Verizon Wireless, now require applicants to have college educations. Yet when positions require more skills and prerequisites this shrinks the applicant pools.

If your contact center is facing these issues perhaps this is the occasion for a makeover. A good hard look at why you cannot attract and retain the quality people you need followed by taking steps to fix the problem areas.

The first place to examine is supervision and management. Staffing experts and experienced managers agree that the top reason why employees voluntarily leave their employers is because they work underneath terrible supervisors. These are individuals who blow up out of proportion minor matters rather than focus on the critical issues, and who coach by berating staff as opposed to employing construction criticism and showing better ways of accomplishing tasks.

The chief culprit is the age-old management mistake of promoting the best line workers without any examination of whether they have the aptitude and skills to lead and supervise colleagues. Then again those choices are made by managers who themselves should not be in those roles, which perpetuates this cycle of incompetence.

Yes, other service jobs like in retail and hospitality have the same bad turnover and supervision issues. Yet their environments make these often nasty situations a little more tolerable. Clerks and waiters can actually walk away and focus on customers whereas agents face harassment every second by their supervisors, over multiple channels, and with nowhere to run.

A second troublespot is lack of staff empowerment and flexibility. Most agents want to help those they are communicating with--doing so gives them tremendous satisfaction--but they get frustrated when they are tied down by bureaucratic red tape and procedures. And in today’s world employees want and expect workplaces that work with instead of against their lives. That means enabling them to change and trade shifts, giving them flexible hours, accommodating child and eldercare, and allowing them to work from home.

A third blotch is no community identity. In-house contact centers almost always rank higher than teleservices firms with potential hires because they have names and corporate images that they can wear as badges. Yet in all too few cases do teleservices companies have similar positive identities that their staff can be proud of. Moreover, not enough of these firms make themselves parts of their host communities such as by participating in charity or school fundraising, supporting local amateur sports teams, and in joining events such as holiday festivities.

Little wonder that elected officials have been able to successfully target teleservices with restrictive laws. Out of sight, out of...

There is no reason why contact centers cannot become employers of choice, whether the workplaces are bricks-and-mortar sites or employees’ homes. Working in a contact center can be a rewarding, satisfying occupation. The solution lies, like in hiring candidate agents, in getting their acts together and in putting their best feet forward.

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