How Not to Cut Staff Churn and Boost Customer Loyalty

By Brendan B. Read, Senior Contributing Editor  |  July 01, 2010

Originally appeared in the July 2010 issue of Customer Inter@ction Solutions

Contact center agents are on the front lines of relations with customers – in service, support, loyalty, sales, lead generation, billing and collections. While agents’ pay and benefits are higher and the hours are steadier compared with retail and hospitality, the advancement potential is limited, the work environment is confining; supervisors are too often incompetent and the occupation has, sadly, low social status.

Not surprisingly, when the economy begins to expand and when other employers start hiring, contact center churn jumps and productivity drops. That especially goes for service bureaus that are often less popular with workers than in-house centers because they have lower compensation, increased layoff/reduced-hours risks thanks to their dependence on contracts and they lack brand name recognition and respect.

So why do contact centers take or allow actions that annoy their existing (and future) employees?

The poster child is Teleperformance (News - Alert) USA. It has to pay nearly $2 million in back wages to almost 16,000 contact center workers for overtime violations under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) under terms of a settlement with the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL).

The DOL reported that the overtime violations “occurred primarily because employees were not compensated for all hours worked when the company failed to pay for breaks that were less than 30 minutes in length, or for time spent by employees waiting for work areas to become available even though their shifts already had started.” The agency said that “a small percentage of the employees for whom back wages were computed were misclassified as salaried exempt under the FLSA” – a.k.a. they weren’t eligible for overtime and were at management’s beck and call. The scale of these violations did not appear to be just the result of a zealous manager or two. The settlement covers workers in 10 states.

The actions by those reputedly responsible reeks of the most callous and cowardly type of nickel-and-diming that took advantage of vulnerable men and women in a-then tough economy. These staff knew that these workers had few alternatives for employment and counted on them to keep their mouths shut out of fear of being fired and losing what little they had.

Then again, what were Teleperformance’s personnel who allegedly allowed these purported violations to occur thinking? This is the pro-labor Obama Administration, folks. A foreign-owned company that messes with American workers is painting a bulls-eye on its backside.

This is far from the first or the last instance of companies playing games with employees’ wages. Yet if these outfits think the arrows from regulators hurt, that’s nothing compared with the repeated self-inflicted gunshot wounds from ticking off those who deliver their products i.e. their workers.

Contact center employees may be undereducated and from the other side of the freeway compared with management, but they are not stupid. They chat, abetted by social media when it comes to the best and the worst places to work.

The first chance agents get to say “hasta la vista” from whom they think is a lousy employer they’ll do so. Giving notice? A contact center is lucky if ticked-off agents never come back when they clock out. Agents have been known to whip off their headsets and walk out in the middle of their shifts. If this happens enough, in no time at all the quality sinks, drawing only the most desperate and ill-informed to replace those who had leapt over the sides.

Today’s customers are more demanding than ever. When they call or e-mail an organization after failing to obtain the product or service sought online or overautomated voice they rightly require agents who are helpful and intelligent and who can meet their needs. So what happens to customers’ satisfaction and loyalty when they get less-than-stellar agents? No prizes for guessing the answer here…you can read their reactions via social media sites.

If contact centers want to ride the next boom instead of drowning in it, they need to treat their employees well. For the rewards, in customer retention and sales and lowered total expenses, far outweigh the penny-wise/pound-foolish costs “savings.”

Brendan B. Read is TMCnet’s Senior Contributing Editor. To read more of Brendan’s articles, please visit his columnist page.

Edited by Stefania Viscusi