Staff retention


Treat the pain of staff attrition with these remedies


Staff turnover plagues call centres.  We challenged the experts and they examined the symptoms and prescribed some tonics, which should go down well


Take your lead from our Olympic heroes


IN 25 years of running call centres for some of the best-known brands, we know that the biggest driver of staff attrition is not money, working conditions or the variety of work. It’s that people don’t feel recognised, acknowledged and developed as individuals.

Team managers and operations managers should aim to retain staff through positive engagement, honest feedback and practical guidance to get the best out their teams and retain the highest quality staff.

In the words of the British Olympic Cycling Team: “Manage the little things -- they make a difference.” 

Do your managers have a toolkit and do they perform their roles effectively?  When selecting call centre managers, it’s important to choose people with the tools to grow and develop your operation and its people.  Management styles, motivation theory, learning styles, how to deal with barriers, culture and values or communication styles all contribute towards managing staff effectively and, in our experience, these tactics help to reduce attrition and increase motivation. 

Do you coach and give feedback?   This is essential at every level – not just for agents.  Staff attrition can be directly correlated to the lack of learning opportunity or lack of inspiration, so an ongoing dialogue of coaching and feedback at all levels is critical to retaining the best staff.  

Can you create and deliver an effective brief?  Many businesses neglect to sit down and agreed the elements of an effective brief, or to take feedback from colleagues on briefing skills.  Creating and delivering and effective brief to staff is a fine art -- paying a little more attention to the briefing process can precipitate significant benefits in the long term.

Do you know how to troubleshoot and deal with difficult situations?  All too often situations are not confronted because it is a difficult skill to master or it is uncomfortable and easy to get wrong.  Dealing with these situations can get buy in from your team if dealt with in the right manner

Have you and your managers agreed the minimum standards of performance?  Do you find yourself excusing an agent’s attendance record because she/he is a top sales performer?  Double standards seriously affect staff attitude.  A consistent approach to performance, attendance, sickness or internet usage is crucial to maintaining standards of performance across the board. 

Do you know how to talk to people and listen?  A detailed understanding of communication skills can have a significant impact on staff through effective briefing, coaching and goal setting.  Knowing how to talk, listen and acknowledge people appears to be a dying art as we all increasingly rely on email. 


Martin Dove (pictured), managing director, and Hamish Cliff, consultant, Merchants Europe



Get real…take them out of the classroom


PRODUCTS, policies, processes and technologies are changing rapidly as companies strive to maintain their competitive edge.  It’s easy to see how new agents, or even experienced employees, can feel lost and confused in a call centre world.   The burning question for every manager is: “How can we keep pace and still deliver outstanding levels of service?”

Outstanding service begins with a highly motivated and engaged workforce.  People need to feel comfortable in their jobs and need access to the required knowledge.  As a result, it is critical to offer the right training; it needs to be effective and relevant to the job in hand.  Poor training can lead to low job satisfaction, as shown time and again in exit interviews and employee surveys.

Put simply, the less people feel prepared to do their jobs, the more likely it is that they will be to go elsewhere.  Rather than address the problem at its source – providing effective training – there is a danger of addressing the symptom: increased turnover.

Today, traditional classroom training -- away from the realities of the call centre -- fails to provide the complete solution.  It takes too long, costs too much and often does not produce the results companies expect.

New approaches that place the emphasis on performance-based learning (PBL) need to be implemented.  In PBL, agents learn by doing a task, rather than reading about it or hearing someone talk about it.  The training blends different learning delivery methods, including instructor-led training, e-learning, simulations, role-plays and performance support systems.

Unlike most traditional training, which can be inconsistent at best and a one-off at worst, PBL continues throughout the employment lifecycle of the agent, providing continual support and promoting development with each new experience.

For new agents, the transition from the classroom to the world of complex inquiries, multiple support systems, irate customers and complicated metrics can be a shock.  During the first weeks of training, the groundwork is laid for what can be a long, beneficial relationship between agent and employer.

Preparing agents for this complex role requires a new approach to training.  PBL can lead to a happier and more confident workforce, an enhanced customer experience and ultimately, savings on the bottom line.


Mark Smith, director operations, customer management, Convergys EMEA



Attracting the best: three key stages to selection perfection   


ATTRACT and select the right candidate for the right job and you’re more likely to keep them.

Yet getting the right personality fit, understanding motivating factors and matching a candidate to the company’s culture are fundamental considerations often overlooked in call centre recruitment.

A more holistic selection process is needed to ensure candidates are recruited into roles that engage them and provide them with development opportunities, making it likely that they will stay for longer. Here are my three key stages to help you recruit the best:


Stage one: pre-selection Many companies fall down by failing to provide realistic job previews. It’s important to be accurate about a job description so candidates understand what a role actually involves day to day.  It helps candidates understand whether a job will suit them.

If, for example, a role involves complaint handling this needs to be made clear from the start so candidates can ‘select out’ early in the recruitment process if it’s not for them. 

Managing candidate expectations is essential to avoid mis-selling roles and there are a number of ways to aid self-selection in the initial stages of the recruitment process.

Realistic job preview quizzes are proving to be popular, for example.  These short tests are designed to provide candidates with examples of typical scenarios that they are likely to face and to provide feedback on their responses to indicate how well matched a person is to the advertised job.     

Throughout the selection process, it’s also important to provide clear and consistent brand messages so candidates can identify with a company from the start and begin to develop loyalties even as they are coming onboard.


Stage two: assessment Building a motivation profile for a role will help to identify candidates who are most likely to be engaged in what they do and therefore go the extra mile to provide good customer service.  It will help pinpoint individuals who will do the job well and enjoy it as well as helping understand long-term development drivers so you can support growth and development.   Assessment is about more than testing the competencies required to perform a job.


Stage three: in-role Last but not least, pay attention to the level of support that managers are offering when new recruits come onboard.  It’s crucial to invest in a management development programme to ensure that managers at all levels have the relevant skills and support to allow them to effectively manage the multitude of people issues that they are involved with each day.

In call centres, first, second and third line managers often start as agents and they need to be trained as their roles change.   Management development is a significant investment for any size of call centre, but it provides a framework for best practise and consistency which will help improve retention.


Angela Yates, resourcing solutions director, TMP Worldwide



Train your people…you’ll need them when things get better


ECONOMIC uncertainty is no excuse to ignore the backbone of your business: people.  By using a highly visible and formal training plan that provides new skills, career development and progression you can improve morale and show your on-going commitment to your staff.

Providing them with certified skills, via NVQ programmes, gives a degree of confidence in long term employability and rewards their efforts.  Furthermore, a sustained and visible commitment to training is also proven to improve staff retention.  It will enable you to retain the key staff who you need to remain competitive in a challenging climate.  It should ensure a high and consistent level of sales and customer service to avoid both customer churn and price erosion.

Yet most UK businesses still do not have a formal structure in place.  To date, just 13 per cent have signed up to the Government’s “Skills Pledge”.  To me, this demonstrates an endemic lack of commitment to sustained employee development.  The access to funding needs to be promoted to raise business awareness and support on-going skills development, especially in the current climate.

While NVQs appear to have an overly academic focus, if you choose the right course/s you can ensure that staff build practical skills that will have a positive impact on their performance.

Encourage them to embark upon the next level of certification and you can build a strong pool of potential team leaders and managers to fill new vacancies as they arise.  This is especially valuable with customer facing staff -- NVQs are available for call centre agents, senior agents, team leaders and supervisors.

This progression process builds strong morale, with a clearly defined career development path.  It also minimises the danger of unproductive downtime during job transition: staff are up and running very quickly when promoted, which is particularly important during difficult economic times when businesses need to function at 100 per cent effectiveness.

Over the next couple of years, high staff morale, experience and commitment will be essential to remain competitive and financially strong.  And, as and when the economy improves, you’ll need a strong, skilled and motivated workforce to exploit new market opportunities.

Companies that renege on training commitments will fail to come out of the downturn in good shape and will be significantly worse off in the long term.


David Allenstein, MD, Best Practice Training and Development



Clear the clutter and you’ll make them happy


WHILE you cannot completely control churn, you can minimise its impact by making induction and training quicker, and the daily life of agents much simpler.


First, look at the systems they’re using on every call, every day.  The introduction of new applications and communications tools has meant agents’ desktops have been left in unchecked disorder, with perhaps as many as 20 applications that they need to use on each call.

The answer is to integrate the different systems and processes that agents need to learn.  A unified desktop enables agents to access all the information they need through a single screen, instead of navigating many silos of data.  One simple interface to learn how will drastically reduce training time and remove the stresses of navigating multiple applications.


Secondly, make agent empowerment a pervasive element in your culture and empower agents by giving them all the tools they need to do their job. If you are asking agents to deal with customer issues, make sure you give them all of the customer information they need.


Thirdly, and most importantly, you must grant the appropriate level of authority to your agents. With the new easier to use unified desktop, agents should have more time to chat with the customer, not only improving customer service by giving them the ability to nurture the relationship.  But, by setting the agent free from complex systems you open up a world of opportunities for the agent to cross sell and up sell products and services, which is good for them and their morale as this can be linked with performance related pay.


After all... happier more motivated agents mean more satisfied customers, and according to Gartner, if your agents are happier within their role, then customer satisfaction will increase in a ratio of 2:1.  In other words a two per cent rise in agent satisfaction will translate to a one per cent rise in customer satisfaction!


Guy Tweedale, senior vice president of European operations, Jacada



What we do to help retain our people


STAFF engagement is fundamental to retention and should be a focus at both a personal level and a wider business level.  The former should be led by line managers, in the form of informal recognition, and the latter by the business as a whole, through training, internal communications and formal rewards and benefits.

For example, we recently launched an employee wellbeing programme, called Wellbeing@Work, to provide information and education on improving personal health and fitness.

It is important to measure employee engagement through KPIs, balanced scorecards and employee surveys.  Last year, we began a company wide employee survey.  It has been invaluable in highlighting where the company is doing well, together with opportunities for improvement.

It is also crucial to understand the importance of leadership in engaging and motivating employees.  This is something QVC has invested in through coaching, assessment and training, to identify managers’ preferred leadership styles and to increase their confidence.  As a result, individual development plans have been created, both to help employees be successful in their current role and to support them in progressing in their career.

Training at all levels is vital to retain employees.

QVC runs a two-week induction programme for all new staff and has an “Incubator” area where they learn the ropes with live customers while having the support of experienced employees.  After induction, we provide ongoing training and coaching opportunities. The customer operations centre is an accredited centre for NVQs and employees are also offered opportunities to gain further qualifications through university courses.

Giving staff the opportunity to work with different teams and departments, giving them exposure to how they work, can also strengthen employee engagement.  QVC runs a job-shadowing scheme and has found that it enhances employees’ ability to carry out their core role. In addition, it is important to ensure that all employee roles are kept as varied as possible through rotation of tasks and working patterns.  We offer different choices of shift patterns, in addition to the option of home working.

Finally, exit interviews are essential to understand why employees are choosing to leave and then learn from this feedback.  Any call centre will inevitably have some attrition and some of this will be beyond their control, such as when university students move home after graduation.  However, it is crucial that companies change those factors they can control, such as recognition or training.


James Keegan, call centre manager, QVC



First, find out your ‘real’ attrition…then ask yourself these questions


RETAINING staff is the bugbear of most call centres.  For most, you’re staring at a 25 per cent black hole of new starters to recruit, train and manage every year.  The costs are staggering.  So what can you do to reduce this?

First, it’s important to accept there will always be attrition.  Until the social status of call centre agents reaches levels of the likes of “international pop star”, you are unlikely to find people choosing call centres as a life-long career.  Most people I have met in my 15 years in the business stumbled on it quite by accident, including me.

The devil is in the detail.

Get a grip on the real attrition rate you are experiencing.  Identify leavers who have a “compelling event” in their lives.  If most of your leavers are facing an important episode – such as moving home, getting married, taking a gap year -- then your real attrition rate might not seem so significant.  Remember the typical demographic of the call centre employee; there is a lot of flux occurring during this time in their lives.

Once you have fleshed out those numbers, you will then have a real assessment of those employees who simply do not want to work at your company any longer.  It is this group of people where you can make a difference.

One of the main reasons for people leaving is lack of job fulfilment.  Assuming your remuneration is competitive, what else are you providing your agents with to make them feel part of the whole?  Ask yourself these questions:

Workplace flexibility is also heavily touted as a great approach to reducing staff attrition.  Features like homeworking can tap into a vast new market for call centres, with little additional investment costs for a business.  In fact, homeworkers can actually reduce a company's bottom line if deployed correctly.

All businesses need to achieve the right balance of flexible working and robust development models to make the most of their staff and to achieve satisfaction in their jobs. By doing this, we maximise their productivity and creativity while under our employ.


Gene Reynolds, consultant, CC



Reward their loyalty…and make it quick


AS 2008 marches on and the effects of the credit squeeze on staff loyalty and retention become apparent, it is clear that there is a requirement for reward and recognition schemes that target all employees, rather than just the sales personnel who have traditionally been the focus of many programmes.

Call centre employees have traditionally been viewed as temporary staff and have often been excluded from reward and recognition schemes.  However, the logistics of including them in an existing scheme need not be difficult.  And in many areas where you seek to encourage a change in behaviour -- such as less absenteeism and greater motivation -- the “positive reward” is often highly cost effective.

One of the most common problems is that temporary staff often break their temporary contracts to go into permanent employment elsewhere.  An incentive scheme can be extremely useful to create loyalty and reduce staff turnover, so it follows that temporary staff should be included.  And it is important that the rewards for them are instant – from hitting objectives to receiving awards, the scheme should be quickly administered.

In every incentive campaign, there will be a wide cross-section of participants of different ages, with different lifestyles and needs.  A voucher welcomed a single 18-year-old is highly unlikely to motivate a 50-year-old married person.  Their lifestyles and incomes are likely to be so different that, for example, they will rarely visit the same shops.

As call centre campaigns have become more sophisticated, so the importance of measurability and return on investment has increased.  My company can help in providing a full incentive management service which includes launch, communications, results reporting and evaluation of an incentive programme.

To truly engage the target audience, schemes often require a high level of creative input, in terms of the launch and ongoing communication of a programme.  These could include themed call centre dressings or event management such as award ceremonies, movie premieres and look-alike celebrity appearances.


Derrick Hardman, managing director, Capital Incentives & Motivation



How to keep them? First, get them to live your brand.


SELLING and marketing your products and services is too often seen as the bottom line, when retaining staff through effective communications and getting them to buy into your brand is actually the first key lesson – and it’s often overlooked.  Here are my 10 tips:


1  Aim for “buy-in” from employees at all levels.  A campaign is only truly effective if the whole company identifies with and lives with the brand values.  I think of the brand as the “soul” or spirit of the business. A brand should be an outward projection of the inner belief.

2  Research for best results.  If the ultimate objective of a campaign is to change employee attitudes and, subsequently, their behaviour, research is essential to develop a solid understanding of what attitudes exist and reveal how they can be changed.   From concept stage through to final delivery, when looking to drive the behavioural changes that all projects depend upon, knowing your staff and what motivates and encourages them is what will drive the change.

3  HR people are not marketing communications people!  This is not meant to be disrespectful to the global HR community, but companies employ marketing communications experts to market their brand and values to customers, so why not the staff!  Many branding programmes for employees fail because the message is not compelling or personal enough or because they are under-funded and under resourced.  Take into account your audience age groups, and demographics where possible and find the right collateral, theme, and appeal which will grab their attention.

4  Form working parties to define the brand.   Companies will need to form working parties across the business to define what they believe the brand should stand for. This in turn will effect the values that the staff and the company should live up to.

5  Apply internal marketing.  Use the same principles and many of the same processes as brand marketing to customers.  The difference is that it is focussed on influencing the attitudes and behaviour of staff.  The core of a marketer’s role is to be the guardian of his or her product.   This translates into understanding the needs and dynamics of the internal market place to ensure not only that the messages are delivered but in a way that maximises the chances of the benefits being realised.  It takes real effort to change customers’ or consumers’ behaviour.  Yet that same type of consumer probably works for you, and when you are restructuring or introducing new working practices, the success of your project depends on changing their behaviour and that of their colleagues and managers.

Let staff own the brand.  They must be involved in establishing what the brand means today and what it is going to mean and, in turn, the values.

6  Set measurable goals.  How will you be able to evaluate whether your internal staff branding campaign has worked?  Companies must have a clear sense of how many of true brand ambassadors they hope to cultivate, which key performance indicators they hope to achieve and the level of customer satisfaction or sales increase which is expected.  It’s also key to set a realistic timeframe against specific targets along the way for your internal branding to filter through and take lasting effect for all employees. 

7  Incentivise and reward performance.   As I work in the business of performance improvement, you would hardly expect me to say anything else!

However, I do see the amazing results that strategic incentive programmes can make to a company performance.  This applies both to internal motivation, dealer or channel incentives and customer or consumer promotions.  The most effective solutions create push and pull through the products’ route to market.

And don’t assume this is all expensive.  Small tactical initiatives can make a huge impact.  Even something as low cost as £1 per employee can start to make an impact on how people think.  A 99p Easter egg on everyone’s desk would be a great start and very low cost.

8  Use events to create internal brand loyalty.  Working in the business of events, we are often asked how much an event will cost so that the client can decide if they can afford it.

Maybe the question should be: “What’s the cost of brand reinforcement loyalty, motivation, initiative, enterprise and hard work?”  Because that’s what good events create.  Think of the buzz in the office the week after the office Christmas party or the atmosphere at the company conference.  Now imagine if it was like that every week.

Events don’t have to be expensive, just well planned and thought out.  If companies are bold enough to want to change the way their employees feel then what better way than to get them engaged in a programme of monthly staff events.  Bowling, cinema, theatre, football, theme parks, there’s a lot that can be done with a little money and a bit of effort. The upside, however, could be that staff will feel that “this brand cares about me.”

9  Achieve brand consistency.  Customers need to see consistency of brands from marketing to sales to operations to delivery to finance -- a complete experience.  This requires communication understanding and engagement.  Understanding why things are important and what they mean to the business and the customer.

10 Make it sustainable.  Getting staff to live your brand is more than a one-off campaign.  Align key people and processes to sustain the brand values and culture of the company.  An ongoing internal branding programme should be a key part of recruitment, learning development, staff training and ongoing communications.


Nigel Cooper is MD of P&MM Travel and divisional MD of Motivcom



Find out what they really want


REWARDING loyalty does work, but do take into account the long-term needs, aspirations and socio-economic groups of your staff.  It’s always a good decision to provide something flexible to suit all tastes yet, when seeking to retain people, consider what interests them.

We believe that people are more motivated by aspirational “treats” as these are often something they’ve always wanted, but could never afford to buy.  Incentives should be relevant to the jobs to which they relate and affordable enough for your company.

Retail vouchers are always welcomed as they provide recipients with such a variety of products -- profiling the target audience will help in deciding just which retail voucher to select.

It’s vital to identify the programme’s objectives before embarking on the scheme, taking care to link it to the company’s financial targets and remuneration.  This will help determine whether the reward offered should be financial or non-financial, and also how the scheme might be administered.  The reward programme should also be easily understood, and clearly communicated.  In addition, personnel should be provided with regular updates on their progress so that they know what else they need to do to reach their goal.  And make sure that hard work and success is acknowledged as a public pat on the back is good for morale!

Finally, think outside the box when it comes to encouraging staff to stay with you.  If they’re time poor, then “duvet days” or time off for children’s sports days, etc., would be well received.   If they've worked for your company for a long time, consider giving a sabbatical.  But whatever reward you choose, make sure it's relevant and therefore motivational.


Catherine Forrest, business incentives manager, House of Fraser



My ideas can help you to tackle attrition


HERE are my tips to help reduce attrition, based on our experience of managing staff absence and retention for a range of businesses as well as operating a call centre for our own staff:


Incentives for length of service If someone has been with you for over two years, for example, reward them with an extra day’s holiday.

Strengthen recruitment  Ensure that the way people are hired demonstrates they have the right skills for the job.  Conduct part of the interview over the phone to check they have the required communication skills.

Ensure staff feel properly trained Inadequately trained people will deliver poor customer service, leading to unhappy customers and stressed employees.  Initial training is vital, but ongoing training is equally important.

Always conduct a return to work interview when someone has been off sick This is an opportunity to brief them on what has happened in their absence, and provides a chance to discuss any ongoing work-related problems that may have led to their absence.

Be flexible Help motivate staff by regularly varying the type of work they do, such as swopping from inbound to outbound calls.

Hire an external absence management company  Companies such as mine can drive down absenteeism by more than 30 per cent, ultimately helping staff retention.

Skills development/career progression Train employees in new skills after certain periods of time and/or having reached a particular performance level.  This gives people a sense of achievement and helps create variety in the job.

Work/life balance  Offering employees a choice of shift options that match their lifestyle -- while meeting the needs of the business -- gives them a sense of ownership.

Set “triggers” and have a clear disciplinary process For example, if someone has more than three absence spells in six months, their manager should conduct an in-depth interview with them to ascertain whether there is an underlying reason behind it and develop an improvement plan.

Establish an integrated occupational health and fast-track programme to deal with mental health and stress to root out any work-related problems that lead to staff absence, attrition or litigation.

Ensure that incentives are performance-based and that staff are regularly updated on targets.  These don't need to be monetary.


Igolv Urnes is the CEO of Active Health Partners



Lift the burden on your agents and they’re more likely to stay


THE key to staff retention is to reduce the pressures and anxieties felt by call centre staff.

Agents get, a. bored, with the same monotonous and repetitive questions from customers; b. annoyed, when they have to trawl through masses of information to answer one question; c. tired, of training manuals and sessions that seem never-ending; d. aggravated, when complicated, slow and cumbersome processes lead to irate customers; and e. disempowered, when their accumulated expertise is left unloved and unused.   All of this can quickly lead to job dissatisfaction.

To avoid this, call centres need to provide tools that empower their agents with the skills they need to be successful and confident from the outset.

By harnessing the collective know-how of all agents and subject matter experts, intuitive knowledge management solutions enable customer service organisations to replicate hard-won “experience” of best-performing agents across the entire call centre; reducing training time and allowing novice and less-experienced agents to effectively become “experts’”

With the adoption of web self service, most simple enquiries are now dealt with online.

While this relieves the monotony of having to respond to the same simple customer questions over and over again, as the issues in the call centre get more complicated, they can’t be learnt easily in a few weeks of training.

At the same time, product cycles have shortened, products are proliferating and call centre agents are burning out.   Now, agents need a 20lb brain to learn and remember all this information and how to walk customers through a resolution or dispense advice.

Instead of cramming agents with information and processes that continually change anyway, next-generation knowledge management systems with adaptive content management and interactive process support can help capture call centre best practices that can be interactively used by novice agents.  It means that they can quickly get their teeth into the interesting part of the job at hand and can reduce that dreaded training time from as much as two months to as little as one week.

In fact, interactive process guidance is often enforced even on experienced agents in highly regulated industries to ensure 100 per cent compliance with best practices and government regulations.

Instead of being forced to balance the need for more responsive and accurate customer service levels against increases in agent resourcing and training budgets, impressive gains can be achieved by harnessing existing resources more imaginatively, creatively, consistently and efficiently with knowledge management and intuitive knowledge access methods.

Businesses need to invest in their staff and the technology that can help them become more efficient, productive and confident in their jobs.


Andrew Mennie, general manager EMEA, eGain