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I recently attended the ICMI Contact Center Demo conference. While I was there representing my company ServiceNow at the vendor expo, I had the opportunity to attend the keynote and breakout sessions and get a pulse on what is keeping many contact center leaders up at night. One recurring theme was agent retention.
It’s not surprising. Customer service is a stressful job. Anyone who has been on the front lines in a contact center or in a management role it will tell you this. (I’ve done both!) This factor alone makes retention challenging; now add record unemployment resulting in many opportunities to hop jobs and you have an environment where preserving talent is tough.
One thing made clear in many of the sessions was that the issue was not about pay or benefits; in fact, many told stories of, when star agents were leaving, offers of additional pay or other extras had no impact on their decision. After listening to the many observations, I have summarized here the various suggestions offered to retain agents for the long-term. From my prior experience managing a call center, I didn’t find any surprises.
What agents need
- Supportive management – while policies and procedures exist for consistency and to protect the company, agents are sometimes forced to make a call when serving customers. Companies such as Zappos.com (check out these true stories) have empowered their agents to go above-and-beyond and built a brand “powered by service.” Empowerment was cited over-and-over as something agents wanted in situations that required flexibility.
- Role modeling – leaders must walk the talk. This is true not only as they work with customers themselves, but also in the workplace.
- Continuous training – learning should not end after the initial product, service, tools, and skill training for new agents. (If there is no formal training, this is another issue entirely…) Agents are eager to continually build their soft skills and product knowledge beyond what they will learn on the job and assimilate from the team.
- Growth path – most employees are looking to further their careers, and customer service agents are no exception. Even if formal promotions and title changes aren’t possible, additional responsibilities offer new skill development. Options such as assisting with knowledge base curation, customer service training development and delivery, and level two or advanced support in tiered service models are all great advancement opportunities.
- Off-time – working with customers can be exhausting work. Customer questions might require rote answers or some troubleshooting and emotions can run hot at times. Training and other growth options are also not possible without non-customer time, so ensure it is available and used appropriately.
- Effective tools – many stories were shared about projects undertaken simply to reduce or consolidate the various systems and tools necessary for agents to perform their job. In addition, making systems easy to use and taking advantage of embedded assistive tools that suggest answers make agents’ work easier (and means they can serve customers faster).
- Offload common tasks – remove mundane tasks from the agent’s daily life. Use Artifical Intelligence to sort, prioritize, and assign cases. Ensure customer self-service (chatbots, knowledge bases, communities, and automation) offer alternate service channels for customers that then allow agents to focus on higher priority and more interesting work.
- Clear and attainable goals – goals should be based on what they can control and roll into the overall customer service team’s goals. For example, if the department is focused on increasing CSAT or NPS scores, set agent goals on delivering quality service. Don’t tie goals to circumstances they can’t control such as queue wait times, which are a resourcing issue controlled by management.
- Coaching – with goals firmly established, hold regular coaching sessions to help them reach them. If achieving their goals requires additional knowledge or training, provide them with the time necessary.
- Rewards and recognition – share the successes of individuals with the entire team. Share not only the accomplishment but what made it possible. This is a feel-good moment for the recognized agent as well as a great learning tool for the rest of the team.
- Continuous service improvement – the organization should be focused on always getting better, addressing the business problems that prevent delivering the highest possible customer service. That might be by investing in better tools and technology to simplify agent work, creating new customer-self-service channels, or offering new agent training where a gap in skills or knowledge exists.
- Driving customer experience – I saved the most important for last. Everyone, not just customer service agents, wants to know their job is making a difference. When customer service works collaboratively with teams across the organization–in finance, manufacturing, field service, etc.–to address the root cause of customer problems, the customer experience improves because future customers will no longer encounter the issues (which has the additional benefit of saving costs for the business). Talk about making a difference!
One of the events during the conference was to honor a contact center leader on their work building a strong, vibrant customer service team and culture. What really brought this all home was the entry video for the winner. It was submitted secretly by her team and included comments by her employees (one who had worked for her for over ten years) citing the strong leadership of the winner in many of the above areas.
This might seem like an overwhelming list of things to try to keep tabs on. Based on the many speakers and my own experience, though, lack of attention to these topics might be causing agents to head towards the door. By giving them attention, you can reverse the trend.
One final note. Despite all your efforts, agents will leave customer service roles for other internal opportunities or depart the company entirely. Don’t miss out on the chance to perform exit interviews to determine where additional focus might be needed.