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August 2008 | Volume 27 / Number 3

Turnover Isn't Necessary Why solving impossible problems is possible if you don't settle for business as usual.

By Keith Dawson

For more than twenty years we have been hearing the same sad story about contact center workers: they are underpaid and underappreciated. They leave at an unbelievably high rate, no matter what managers and supervisors do to prevent turnover. The industry has shrugged its collective shoulders and decided that appallingly high turnover rates of 30 percent, 50 percent, even 100 percent and more are structurally built in to how you run your center. You may not like it, but it's seen as something that's fundamental and that you have to live with.

Rarely do senior contact center managers look at the resource burden tied up in structural turnover and ask themselves why it's ok that 30 percent of the money devoted to training, recruiting, on-boarding and coaching is stuffed into the shredder every year.

It is pretty clear that yes, you can live with the high endemic turnover. But should you? And what would you do with those resources if you didn't have to waste them? When you step outside the contact center and look at the problem from a C-level point of view, you should ask yourself how long the senior decision-makers are going to let the contact center get away with this.

How many people stop and ask themselves at the beginning of the budgetary cycle what they can do to dramatically stop turnover next year?

More often, managers start from the basic assumption that what you've been doing is what you will be doing, and that the best you can do is kick the problem down the road to the next manager four or five years from now.

My experience has been that there are, in fact, specific things that a contact center can do as part of a concerted effort to control and reduce turnover. The thing that prevents most centers from taking these steps is a blind-spot — the mindset that persists from years of stasis gets locked in, and convinces management that all you can do about turnover is mitigate its bad effects, not attack the root causes.

I have seen plenty of examples of companies that quietly, without fanfare, set about to reduce their turnover exposure and succeeded. Sometimes the results are dramatic (one company reduced annual turnover from 24 percent to 8 percent over two years). The common element among all the examples is that they stopped looking at turnover as problem with a single quick fix, and they stopped looking at it as a technological contact center problem. It's an HR problem, and most HR problems require a lot of small steps to solve.

The other common element to successful turnover reduction is the use of a combination of existing tools (familiar to most contact centers) with some newer, HR-related advances in psychological screening, and a set of simple-sounding best practices designed to make better use of the resources that you already have.

Here are some of the factors that can be deployed to reduce, if not eliminate turnover:

• Screening systems to make sure the potential hire is an appropriate fit from a values and skills perspective

• Pre-hire assessment of skills and potential for growth

• Remote and/or automated systems to screen larger pools of talent

• More resources to training, to make sure they understand the job before they get onto the floor

• Focused coaching systems that deal with problems consistently, at the moment they occur, not later

• Consistent policies across supervisors

• Career-pathing that has a realistic acknowledgement that not all reps will progress to higher levels, and that uses the advance screening to determine if potential reps are likely to accept what you have to offer

• Motivation/incentives tied to skill-acquisition, not just activity metrics

• Opportunities for skill acquisition and use

• Coordination of the information that comes out of all the tools at hand (including quality monitoring, workforce management, performance management and HR/payroll data)

• Linking all these things together into positive feedback loops that reinforce best practices and provide assurance and continuous improvement.

Ultimately, that last element is what keeps reps in the job longer. That, and using the appropriate tools to put the right person in the job in the first place.

Traditionally all the tools have been applied separately. When you look at the three separate areas of recruiting, hiring and training, those three normally are performed by different groups of people within the organization, each with a different set of standards and core competencies. All the technology tools that manage agents once they are hired are usually also bought separately, managed separately, and rarely linked.

When companies unify their strategies to address turnover, they learn to measure the outcomes they want to achieve, and find patterns that lead to those results. And in addition to reduced turnover, they often also see higher employee satisfaction, better quality and higher customer satisfaction. The key is to look at the processes and root causes of problems, at the whole chain that leads to the outcome that's worrisome, and not just to tackle the segment of it that's producing the bad metric.

High turnover isn't a replacement problem; it's a sign that something is wrong with the whole cycle that leads from choosing the person as a rep to the moment that person leaves your employ. If all you're looking at is the part that comes up in the metrics, the turnover, you're going to miss the broken part.

Reducing turnover is considered impossible, so doing it is, by definition, heroic (and highly competitive). The first step is deciding to stop accepting business as usual as a given and recognize that a series of logical and coordinated steps will have an effect in the right environment.

Keith Dawson is a Senior Analyst with Frost & Sullivan.

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