Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Top Reasons Work-At-Home Agent Programs Fail

While so many companies are exploring the call center work-at-home model and finding it very successful, why are others failing?  What makes the difference?

As a consulting company we commonly hear from our clients, “yeah, we tried that and it didn’t work for us”.  And usually their conclusion is that their situation is too complex or difficult to be done outside the office.  But when we start to dig into what they did, we typically find that their failure was due to one of the following oversights.

1.  Talent Mismatch.  This is the number one failure point for most companies.    The company tried to take on-premise agents and have them work from home.  Through the school of hard knocks, we have learned that successful work-at-home agents do not the same profile as those that work on-site.  So your recruiting efforts have to be geared toward finding a slightly different person to work at home.

2.  Lack of Tools/Support.  Companies often don’t think through the processes of how they will keep their remote agents tied into the call center group. 
  • These agents can’t turn around and ask their leader a question when they come across something unusual.  So how is this handled can determine the success of your home agents.  We recommend that they call or chat with an internal help desk group set up specifically for this purpose.  That way they can ask questions real-time just like those on-premise.
  • Also, agents need to be actively engaged with their leaders and peers and feel a sense of belonging and inclusion just like those on-site.  They need the ability to email or chat with others across the day. 
  • They also need to be able to “see” what’s going on across the center – such things as who is being recognized for outstanding performance, who’s on the birthday list, and how they can participate in a fund raiser, etc. Many centers use an internal website for this purpose.  It gives the same exposure as walking down the center hallways.  Don’t underestimate the necessity and value of these tools!

3.  Proper Equipment.  Many companies opt to have their agents use their own equipment at home (computers and headsets).  While this can save costs in the short-run, it can cause a lot of headache and challenges in the long run.  There has to be a way to ensure that the agent’s equipment meets a minimum capability and functionality levels (i.e. they carry certain virus/malware software), or else the company may be better off providing this equipment and software for their agents.

4.  Leadership Training.  Being that the agents are slightly different from those working on-premise, and the situation is very different (managing someone remotely), the leaders (supervisors, trainers, quality coaches, and WFM) all need to be trained on how to successfully work with their remote agents.

A survey completed by ContactBabel the first quarter of 2012, showed that 42% of companies are now using the work-at-home model very successfully.  And those using the model are realizing predicted savings and additional agent flexibility.  If you’ve tried work-at-home agents and failed, maybe you need to try again.  If you haven’t done this yet, maybe it’s time to start enjoying the benefits this model provides.  Share your experiences with us!

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Top 8 Myths of New Call Center Leaders

Is your center a place where the “Blind Are Leading the Blind”?

A common practice for call centers is to spend all their training dollars on their agent new hire training, while very little money is spend on call center leaders.  In an industry that is all about people, this can be a big mistake.  While it is true that agents require extensive training in order to properly and efficiently represent the company, these agents need good leaders to ensure they have the support and help they need to continuously do their jobs well.

Most call center leaders (80% or higher) come from the agent population.  They have proven themselves to be very proficient and effective individual performers, however, this job know-how and ability does not automatically translate into effective leadership, coaching, communication, reporting, and business acumen skills.  As a matter of fact, most people moving into their first leadership roles have large misunderstandings about what being a leader means.

8.  “Now I’m a leader, I don’t have to take customer calls anymore.”  Well – you may not be the one initially saying hello, but you will take all the escalated calls…and the less tenured your agents are, the more escalated calls you’ll take.

7.  “I don’t have to worry about my stats anymore.”  Sort-of – you don’t have to worry about your individual stats, but you are now responsible for a full team of performers, and their stats now become your stats.

6.  “I don’t have to worry about attendance and schedule adherence anymore.”  Actually – as with your stats, your team’s attendance and adherence become your problem to fix AND your team will notice and follow your example.  If you are late, they will be late!

5.  “Now I have the job, everyone has to do what I say.”  Just having the job doesn’t mean that people will respect your or follow you.  This is something that each leader has to earn across time and through positive interactions with their team.

4. “Now that I’m a leader, I can lighten up on the rules for my team.”  Unless you are a one team center, this isn’t the case.  Each center has rules in place that everyone needs to adhere to and follow, and as the leader, it is your job to reinforce the rules.  And if you do make unjust exceptions, you’ll be seen as playing favorites – which does not help with building respect.

3. “I can be open and share my feelings.”  Sometimes.  Remember, when things change or if you have to press your agents to do something new or different, or push their performance, there will be grumbling amongst the ranks.  They will look to you their leader to see how you are responding.  If you appear negative they will too and their poor performance will persist.  If you are positive and enthusiastic, they will at least give it a valid try, and if you stay positive and reinforce their behavior, you will see positive results.  And as a leader, leading your team through changes and tough things is your job.  Leaders only succeed if their people succeed!

2.  “I’ll now be working “normal” hours (8am to 5pm / M-F).”    Leaders keep working until their job is done – this means most leaders work much more than 40 hours a week.  And to ensure that they can coach or meet with all their people, they often have to stay late or come in on weekends to do so.   

1.  “My number one job is to take care of my agents.”   While it is true that this is half of a call center leader’s job, it has to be balanced out with taking care of the business unit they work within.  No one (including the leader) would have a job if the agents were focused and consistently doing the job they’ve been hired to do.  So it is critical that the leader is thinking about their company and balancing that out against the needs of their agents at all times.

If your leaders need training to help them better understand your business, the call center division, and how to be an effective leader, we can help!

Friday, October 21, 2011

Mitigating Attrition During and After Training

Are you loosing your agents in these places?  

Two common places where attrition occurs are during training or right after training ends and the agents move out to the production floor. 

Attrition During Training:  When attrition occurs during training, you have to look at several factors. 

First, was it voluntary or involuntary. When agents leave from training on their own, it could be for many reason – a very common one is that while they were out looking for work, they had interviewed with several different companies and a position that they wanted more than the call center was offered to them after they started training, and they decided to accept that other position.  In other cases it may be that they become overwhelmed with all the learning, information, and systems, or they have a personal conflict/issue with the trainer or someone else in the class. 
Second - when agents are involuntarily dismissed from training it is usually either because of attendance issues or because they aren’t able to pass the learning tests or quizzes.  Regardless of the reason, if your agents aren’t showing up for training or can’t pass their quizzes, allowing them to continue through training can be a big mistake.  Statistics have proven most agents who have poor attendance or low performance during the first few weeks of a job will be let go within the first 90 days.  Due to the costs associated with training it is best to let people go early on if they are showing an inability or unwillingness to do the job.

Deep end without safety equipment?
Transition to the Floor:  The next place that attrition occurs is during the transition period from training to the production floor.  This can actually be a very scary or overwhelming time for new agents, when they move from learning into doing.  If this transition isn’t managed well, a lot of people will lose heart and quit due to fear, concern about their ability to succeed, and feelings of lack of support.

To mitigate these agent fears and concerns, successful companies take some if not all of the following steps:
  • Require agents sit with and listen to Sr. agents take calls during training
  • Have agents engage in several hours of role-plays during the training period so their first call isn’t the first time they’ve used the company dialogue or responded to customer questions/concerns
  • Require the agents to take a final test in training.  By passing the test, it gives the agents confidence that they will be able to successfully handle customer calls.

  • After training, but before moving the agents onto their permanent teams, have the training class move into a transition area where they can take calls, but have extra help available to assist with questions.

  • Set up an internal helpline for your agents.  This is usually staffed by Sr. agents, who can help new agents either by phone or through chat.  (Chat is preferred as one Sr. agent can assist several agents on the floor at once.)

  • Provide extra quality monitoring and coaching during this time-frame.  New agents want to know if they are doing all right or need to change anything.  And if they can be corrected right at the beginning, it can prevent the agents from developing poor habits.

  • Meet frequently with their team lead – to review their overall stats (call handle time, number of calls taken, quality numbers, first call resolution, etc.) to see performance improvement, and discuss any issues or concerns.
Keeping your agents informed and feeling confident is key in their ability to positively represent the company.  The worst thing you can do is “dump them into the deep end of the pool” without help after training!

What does your company do to mitigate attrition during training and the transition to the floor?

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Hiring the Right People

Are you organized in your approach? (Does it make a difference?)

You bet it does!

Finding, screening, and offering positions to the best people is the biggest challenge for any organization.
If you have the ability to, it is often very helpful to work with a recruiting company to find potential candidates for you, that you then interview. This cuts down a lot of your work in trying to find people in the first place. However, regardless of if you are working with a recruiting/staffing firm or doing it on your own, to be successful you need to follow the steps below:
  1. Written Job Description: this description gives a full overview of all the tasks a person in the open role will be required to do, the skill sets required, and personality traits that would help a person in this role be successful.
  2. Job Want Ad: this is a written description that gives the title of the job, a few key tasks and personality traits for a successful candidate, and also includes an overview of the company and benefits of working within your group. Remember, the term “Ad” stands for “advertisement” – and the goal is to attract many people so you have a large pool of people to choose from.
  3. Interview Questions List: having a pre-set list of questions does several things for you during an interview – first, it keeps your thoughts organized, also it ensures you ask consistent questions to all candidates so their responses can be compared, but it also helps to prevent you from asking questions in an illegal manner. And while you always want to ask the general questions that enable you to get to know each candidate, you also need to ask very specific questions that enable you to gain an understanding of their motivations around work. What are their priorities? When home conflicts with work, what do they do? How do they prioritize? Deal with conflict? Solve problems? Cope with repetitiveness? Etc.
  4. Rating or Ranking Method: in order to remain objective it is always helpful to have some type of scoring or ranking system to enable you to ensure you are only offering positions to fully qualified candidates or to the candidate that best fits your needs. Sometimes you find that no one who applied fits the need, and that you need to look further.

Refining the Process: In a call center setting you have the opportunity to re-interview your best employees and to use their profiles as a model when interviewing new candidates. And as your business needs change, so will your ideal candidate profile. Don’t stop with where you are today thinking that what worked last year will keep working this year.

Retention: The goal of this process is that you will find people who are not only qualified and willing to do the work, but that you will also find those who want to work within your organization for at least two years or longer.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Call Center Work - Impacts on Attrition

Does the type of call center really impact the attrition levels?

You bet it does!

As with any type of work, (i.e.: manufacturing, construction, retail sales, warehouse/distribution, etc.) there are always variations in the work being done based on the type of company and company needs.

Call center work is no different – the work varies greatly based on the business unit’s focus and the policies, procedures, and performance metrics. There are outbound call center groups focused on sales, surveys, or collections, and inbound groups handling sales, customer service, and technical support.

It is very well known that outbound groups have much higher agent churn than inbound groups. And customer service groups have less attrition than sales teams. And, once a tech support group is fully established, they can be as steady as customer service groups.

Some of this seems very intuitive – in that outbound groups are calling people out of the blue, interrupting their day and then trying to obtain information or money from them, and they usually have sales (or collection) quotas they have to meet. Emotionally, this is a very difficult role – due to customers being upset at being interrupted or feeling harassed for payments.

With inbound groups on the other hand, the customer is calling in for help to resolve a problem or concern. And even if they initially are grumpy about having the issue, if the agents are empowered to, they can usually turn the situation around and the customer leaves the interaction with positive feelings towards the company.

Another factor that makes a difference for agent attrition, is the size of the center. Smaller centers (less than 100 agents) have lower attrition than large centers (over 100 agents). This is most often due to agents in large centers feeling like they are “just a number” and that their work doesn’t really make that much of a difference in the big scheme of things.

Common annual attrition levels:

  • Outbound groups: 100-250%
  • Inbound groups: 60-150%
How does your group compare?

Planning for Attrition

Are You Crazy? Who Would Plan Attrition?

Knowing that it costs thousands of dollars to recruit and train your phone agents, don’t you wish that they would just stay with you forever until they retired? Yeah – as managers we all dream of life as it was in the 1950’s, where people stayed with the company they joined out of high school and worked loyally until they earned their gold watch….but that isn’t our reality any more.

Today, on average, people change jobs 11 times across their career (about every 4 years). Many of us think people would only change jobs because they are moving up – but that isn’t necessarily the case. In today’s fast paced economy, where companies are moving work around the globe, automating, downsizing, merging, and divesting, it is very common for employees to get caught in the flux, meaning they are changing jobs not by choice, but because they’ve been forced to. Due to this Americans have come to expect that they won’t be staying with one company long term. We now live in a world where companies aren’t loyal to their employees and employees aren’t loyal to their companies.

So, what can we expect from employees? How do we plan for the fact that we may only get 4-ish years from each one? You plan for attrition!

Planned attrition is when you know on average you lose xx number of agents per month, so you put it into your financial budget knowing that you will need to replace them. You start by planning for the worst, and then strive to have a positive impact on the things you can influence.

Attrition comes in many forms – with agents who:

  • Don’t succeed through training
  • Aren’t able to perform up to requirements once they are on the floor
  • For whatever reason are unable to fulfill their shift hours
  • Get promoted to another position within the company
  • Leave the company – for whatever reasons (going back to school, pay increase, more responsibility, schedule needs, closer to home, etc.)
  • Agents who are just working for you as seasonal help

Some of these things we can influence and some we can’t. Smart managers look at each type of attrition and dig in to find out why it is happening, and then put action plans around things they can influence in a positive manner. For example, if you have a lot of people leaving and they all have the same supervisor or quality coach, you might want to explore the leadership style of their leaders. Or if you have a group of agents who are all struggling to meet their metrics – was it something to do with their initial training? Do they all need another day in class, or some time nesting with a Sr. agent? OR are they really just a poor fit and it would be better to let them go?

As managers we have to weigh the cost of continuing to work with an agent who is struggling vs. bringing someone brand new up to speed. I know we wish people would just come to work, do their jobs, and go home. But people aren’t that easy – they have thoughts, feelings, opinions, needs, desires, goals, etc. And as their leaders, we have to address all these components in addition to motivating them to get their work done in an efficient and quality manner. And something that does drag on even your best performers is the constant churn of their co-workers.

Let’s see how the type of call center work impacts attrition….