Anyone who has ever directed a contact center knows how difficult it is to retain professional talent.
Many of the best people who come through the door have no intention of staying long term. The difficulty of interacting with angry customers who are upset about things beyond the agent’s control drives away many who would otherwise consider it a career.
I was assigned to manage such a place, and was charged with reducing the turnover, along with many other performance objectives.
Upon my arrival the company was training about 400 new hires each year, and the most who would be employed at any given time was just about a hundred.
There were 48 agent seats shared between the daytime and evening shifts, and the staff was a mixture of both fulltime and part time. There was a reduced need for Saturday and Sunday staff, so most employees were scheduled for two weekend shifts per month.
There were about a half dozen or so “veteran” agents who worked at the contact center for more than 5 years. Less than 20 agents worked at the facility longer than 2 years, and the vast majority had worked for the company less than a single year. At any given time, at least 15 agents would be in their 90-day probationary period. This was the current reality at the beginning of my mission.
I started with a churn rate upwards of 75% per year.
Reducing the turnover rate by just 10% or 15% would mean big savings for the company, and perhaps a significant merit increase for me. I was motivated.
All of the agents were divided fairly evenly between four supervisors; two dayshift, and two evening shift.
The two day shift supervisors didn’t like each other, and this disunity was evident to their teams. I wasn’t even half-way into my first week before the one came to my office to complain about the other.
I realized a short way into the conversation that venting about the other supervisor had been a habit of hers. The former manager was a good listener—too good of a listener. He would listen to the one, and then provide feedback to the other. My predecessor tried to help them resolve their differences by being the buffer between them. This, of course, escalated their resentment for each other.
I would employ a different strategy. After Lily was done venting about Herman for the day (yes, the names have been changed), I asked Lily, “What did Herman say after you shared all of these things with him?” The complete silence that followed made it obvious that she had never tried this novel approach; tactfully addressing her grievances with the one who was allegedly responsible for all of her stress at work.
Lily hadn’t given her colleague the chance to explain his behavior, or change any of his actions. To be fair, Herman hadn’t tried this approach either. Each grew colder with the other, the more they were encouraged to vent about each other behind closed doors.
I informed each of them that I would not intervene until they had tried everything within reason to figure out how to get along with each other, and fairly distribute the workload among themselves.
The truth is, happy employees talk. To each other.
Reasonable adults who are forced to face each other to work out their differences can’t hate each other for very long. Three years later when Herman took a position at another facility, Lilly cried his last day at the contact center.
She went from actively disliking this man to crying on his final day as her co-worker. She was going to legitimately miss him! This was because the structure I had put in place did not allow employees to vent to management about each other.
They had to resolve their differences on their own. When they started talking to each other, they realized they liked each other.
Unity Loves Company
No children want tension between their parents, even if the occasional fight among them provides some temporary excitement. Likewise, employees function better when their leaders get along with each other.
Laws prevent children from running away from home when their parents don’t get along, but no law prevents employees from running away from the workplace and finding a job elsewhere.
Having a unified leadership team had an immediate, noticeable impact on the day shift turnover rate. Employees could sense the newfound harmony.
Having been promoted to management at a young age, I quickly learned that silently wishing employees would change their behavior had zero impact on their behavior.
Exceptional performance needed to be rewarded if I wanted to get more of it, and bad work habits needed to get addressed—if I wanted fewer of these things.
I walked into a facility where feedback was mostly vague, and many agents didn’t know how well they were doing. Leadership was nice to those who performed, and distant, or short with those who didn’t perform very well.
This passive-aggressive management style was confusing, and appeared quite arbitrary to its victims. The supervisors assumed the employees knew why they were being treated this way. The employees had no desire to perform because they were given the cold shoulder, and had no idea why their supervisors disliked them.
It took a few of the supervisors some time to adjust to giving fast, persistent feedback, but it created a much happier, more productive workplace in return.
Feedback and Forth
Feedback is a two way street. It was just as important that supervisors took more time to listen to what their employees were telling them as well. A few calculation errors within the performance goals, and other true employee injustices were unearthed as result of actively listening to them.
Not only did real issues get resolved, but the staff overall felt as though they were being heard—something they were not accustomed to experiencing.
This meant fewer naysayers complaining about the company to fresh new hires. Another retention win!
I must admit, taking in all that feedback from the team was exhausting, and sometimes difficult to manage. Not every idea they come up with was workable, or in the best interest of the company. That being said, the end result was still worth the effort.
Aventr, a tech company has since released Happster, a workplace app where team members can leave real-time feedback and supervisors can easily manage and respond to it. I wish I had such an app while on this mission.
A Culture Shift
Within six months the overall climate of the contact center had shifted from cold, nebulous and fearful, to warm and interactive, where people knew how well they were doing—even when the news was bad.
The supervisors became more hands on in the coaching and development of their agents.
Performance improved across the board. Not everyone who wanted to keep their job did, but we saved many from termination who would have otherwise been dismissed by the folks at corporate for poor performance. Those who had to be let go usually knew that it was coming, and were often grateful to have been given the opportunity to improve—while knowing the performance levels they needed to reach in order to continue their employment.
After the first six months the turnover rate dropped to less than 40%. After two years it dipped as low as 28%.
Many other factors influenced turnover rate that I do not have space to go into here, however I believe the things explained above had the most significant impact at the start.
I couldn’t have done it without a flexible team of supervisors who—although reluctant at first—were willing to completely change the way they thought about leadership. They used my ideas for guidance, and then continued on to create better ways to lead their own teams.
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