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June 2009 | Volume 28 / Number 1

A College Degree To Work in A Contact Center???

By Brendan Read
Senior Contributing Editor, Customer Interaction Solutions

The other day I came across a contact center expansion story where the employer, whose name will not be revealed to save them from being singled out, preferred to have applicants for its contact center agent positions to have college degrees.

My jaw dropped. Isn’t this overkill? This is contact center work we are talking about, where nice people answer and make contacts, not highly skilled and demanding accounting, engineering, finance, HR, IT, management, marketing, media/PR and teaching/training.

Unfortunately, seeking workers with college degrees sets these contact centers and others up for another round of escalating turnover and higher costs that risk leading to more local employment-killing offshoring and self-service in the near future. For once the economy turns around these individuals will be out the doors faster than they can type or click ‘job board’.

Being an agent requires a reasonable level of comprehension along with average reading, writing, and speaking abilities coupled with competences in soft and hard skills such as empathy, sales, collections, and support depending on the job. It is an important, demanding, and responsible position, requiring commitment, patience, a positive attitude (and a thick skin), quick thinking, and a strong work ethic, but it isn’t rocket science. It is also not a role that has much advancement potential.

Then again, given too many reports about how poor the American--and to a lesser extent the Canadian--public education system is, such employers may sadly be onto something. That is because, based on chats with industry professionals over the years, that high schools have largely failed to carry out their publicly-financed job of equipping young people with basic skills. They and their parents have also flunked in inculcating strong work ethics. Consequently too many of the applicants lack both and when they are hired by firms who have no choice in a tighter labor market they underperform, dragging the centers down with them.

It is not that long ago when a high school education counted for something. That even finishing junior high i.e. Grade 8 enabled the aptitudes and gave one the tools to make a decent living. Is the work world that complex today to demand 4 to 8 years of additional schooling for individuals to be at the same level as their parents and grandparents were? Who with less formal education created the foundations of our society and made many or the basis of the products, public goods, and services that we continue to enjoy?

A poor educational system has serious consequences for contact centers. More firms want to keep and/or bring back their work onshore. Yet how can they justify this if the quality they get when the college types leave is mediocre to terrible? There are two options for contact centers: making sure that they locate their sites in reasonably high unemployment communities where there are excellent high schools whose graduates are not all college-bound: not exactly a common combination. Or tearing down the bricks-and-mortar and going home-based.

Repeated studies demonstrate that home agents are the ideal contact center workforce because they have higher skills, better work ethic, are more productive, and are not career minded. They are older and as such are more responsible and because they know a little bit of the world unlike the fresh-out-of-college 20-somethings they can easily answer sales objections and solve problems. They don't need the constant supervision nor require workplace socialization. They know how to work and have their own lives outside of work.

When the economy recovers there will be demand growth for contact center services, not as big or widespread as what can be accurately termed as the ‘Ponzi Bubble’ over the past few years but sufficient to require more high quality agents. Going home meets these needs without worrying about finding and housing these employees, while saving money on facilities costs and lowered turnover expenses. This in turn would free up resources to create products and services that people and businesses want to buy. Items that customers will need agents to help them.

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