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Contact centre staff: How to tackle attrition in two steps

16th Oct 2013
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When a quarter of your staff are leaving your business every year, you might be inclined to admit that you have a problem with staff attrition. However, in the contact centre industry, high attrition rates are really just a symptom. The root cause of the problem is your recruitment.

The average annual attrition rate in contact centres is 24%, according to workplace performance charity Skills CFA’s Contact Centre Operations, Labour Market Report 2012. This report claims that the annual agent attrition rate varies significantly across different contact centres. In some cases, it can reach 43%.

Not only are large numbers of staff leaving agent positions every year, they’re also heading for the door surprisingly quickly. Research by ContactBabel, the contact centre industry analyst, shows that 50-60% of agent attrition occurs in the first 90 days after recruitment.

Nearly every other industry would be horrified by these statistics. Yet contact centres seem to accept this state of affairs as the norm. They’ll point to other large employers of frontline staff, such as retail and hospitality companies, and argue that attrition rates in those sectors are just as high. That may be true but it shouldn’t detract from the fact that high attrition rates can be extremely damaging to a business.

What’s the impact of attrition?

For one thing, substantial costs are involved in constantly recruiting new staff. It’s more than just the actual cost of recruitment as you have to factor in the opportunity cost for recruiters and the cost of training new recruits. Let’s assume that the cost to recruit each agent is £2,500. If you’re recruiting 400 agents per year, that’s £1m off your bottom line.

But cost is just the tip of the iceberg. A high level of staff turnover causes untold disruption, it damages the morale of the remaining staff and puts increased pressure on team leaders. New agents take time to get up-to-speed. During this period, the customer experience can suffer, as new agents may not be able to handle queries effectively. They may also miss out on some cross-selling or up-selling opportunities. Attrition can therefore harm your metrics and performance indicators. Worse still, it can adversely affect your employer brand and your profitability.

So why does it happen?

According to ContactBabel’s research, the number one reason for agent attrition in contact centres is simply that the wrong person was hired for the role. Poor decisions in the recruitment process are the real culprit in the problem of agent attrition. If you’re appointing the wrong people, they won’t be suited to the required tasks. Put bluntly, they’re doomed to fail. They’ll either leave of their own accord or you’ll soon be asking them to go.

Worryingly, some recruiters seem well aware that they’re hiring the wrong people. They do it because they’re under intense pressure to fill the available roles quickly. In a recent study we conducted - involving recruiters in UK contact centres and other companies that employ large numbers of frontline staff each year - 37% admitted that they knowingly hire unsuitable applicants just to fill a role quickly.

Another underlying driver of attrition is the mismatch that’s created between expectations and reality. When you’re looking for new staff, candidates will make an unconscious judgement based on your communications with them, including how you describe the available role, and how you treat them in all aspects of your selection process. They will therefore create an expectation in their own minds of what it will be like to work for you. If that expectation does not match the reality of the job, that individual will soon become disengaged, bored and unproductive.

That’s bad for you, of course. But it’s also pretty disastrous for them. Having got themselves a job, their hopes will soon be dashed when they realise they’re not cut out for frontline work. Losing their job - and losing it quickly - can put a long-term dent in their self confidence.

The good news is that contact centres can, of course, do something about this. In fact, you can go a long way to resolve the issue of agent attrition by taking two simple steps:

  • Clarify the agent role. You can help people to create the right expectation about their work by clarifying the role sufficiently at the outset. Be brutally honest about exactly what the job will involve. That way, people won’t be joining with false expectations. Some contact centres are starting to create a ‘realistic job preview’ on their website. This is a short ‘self-selection’ assessment which allows an applicant to evaluate whether the demands of the role and culture of the contact centre are a good fit for them. The test might prevent people from applying. But if it stops your application process from being cluttered up with unsuitable applicants, that’s a good thing. If you still find that agents are leaving because the job wasn’t what they thought it was going to be, then you haven’t got this step right.
  • Know what you’re looking for. Your top-performing agents will undoubtedly have certain traits and attributes in common. For example, they might be strong in behaviours such as empathy, reliability or resilience. Once you know the factors that are likely to lead to success, you can then use psychometric assessments to screen your applicant pool so that it only includes candidates with those specific traits and competencies. These assessments could include verbal and numerical reasoning tests, a personality questionnaire and a ‘situational judgement test’ (which assesses the competencies of candidates and closely reflects the environment in which they’ll be working). Using these assessments, you can hone your selection process so that it focuses on the right people.

These two steps can help you to recruit agents who are a strong fit with the culture and values of your contact centre and with the competencies and traits required in the role. Yes, these people will still need training but, fundamentally, they’ll have what it takes to succeed.

If you’re losing a quarter of your staff each year - and you’re spending a lot of time, effort and money in replacing them - you’re simply treading water. Your business isn’t moving forward. Imagine the difference if you didn’t have to do this. What if your agents were engaged and productive? What if they stayed with you? Your recruitment costs would come down, your customers would be happier and your bottom line would improve. All of this is achievable if you can hire the right people.

Steve O’Dell is managing director, UK, of assessment provider Talent Q. A free white paper on volume recruitment, from Talent Q, is available here

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