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Pipeline Online
Understanding Agent Turnover
By Susan Hash

Contact centers often try to counter the impact of a high-stress environment with fun, morale-boosting activities, such as workplace celebrations, spot prizes and food parties. But on their own, these are simply tactical band-aids that won't improve agent retention for the long-term. Why? "They deal with the symptoms and do not address the root causes of high turnover," explains employee retention expert Chason Hecht, president of Retensa. "If you don't fix the underlying issues, eventually, the disease will spread."

The critical first step in developing a long-term retention strategy is to understand your workplace environment—specifically, why agents join the company, why they stay and why they leave.

1. Why Do Agents Leave? Exit interviews are a common tool for collecting feedback about the work environment. Yet employees often consider the process to be just another mandatory HR procedure to get through before they can get their final paycheck. Those who have watched countless coworkers leave before them don't really believe that their individual feedback will change anything, so the interview is viewed as an empty gesture on the part of the organization. And let's face it: No matter how deeply employees may despise the company, their manager or both, very few will jeopardize their future chances for a good reference by providing honest feedback on their way out the door. In fact, career experts generally advise departing employees to decline the exit interview, if possible, or to avoid the potential risks by focusing only on the positive.

The criticism for exit interviews can be largely traced to user error, Hecht says. "There is no other instrument that will capture and identify why employees leave as accurately as an exit interview, because you cannot know why someone leaves until they are compelled to make that choice," he adds. "Exit interviews can be powerfully effective when we ask the right questions to the right people in the right way."

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Many exit interviews, for instance, ask employees to provide feedback on irrelevant topics, such as the new-hire orientation process. But if the agent has been with the company for a while, how likely is it that he can accurately recall the orientation process?

Who is asking the questions presents another obstacle to obtaining honest feedback. In some companies, the employee's direct supervisor conducts the exit interview, effectively neutralizing any possibility of learning about problems in the supervisor-employee relationship. In most organizations, however, the task falls to an HR staff member. But what are the chances that employees will feel comfortable opening up to HR about problems with their manager? Most will take the safe route and resort to the standard "acceptable" reasons for leaving: better pay, better hours, better opportunities. In fact, those stock answers often signal a deeper issue.

2. What Makes Agents Stay? While departing agents may or may not choose to share their comments with you, a more powerful source of actionable feedback can be collected from those who choose to stay, says customer service and employee performance expert Jeff Toister, president of Toister Performance Solutions. A "stay survey" takes the pulse of your current work environment and its impact on your best agents. It can also help you to identify what your top performers have in common—information that can be used to create an agent profile to drive retention-based hiring.

But as with exit surveys, the right approach is critical. For instance, many organizations survey their entire employee base on an annual or even biennial basis, which is too infrequent to produce useful or actionable data. Instead, Toister advocates surveying a small sample of agents much more frequently, such as monthly or quarterly. Or forgo the formal survey in favor of an ongoing dialogue with your agents. In one-on-one sessions and performance reviews, ask for their feedback and include questions like: What keeps you here? What are your goals?

3. Why Do Agents Join? New-hire surveys can help to identify the breakdowns in trust that can occur early on when new agents decide that the job is not what they expected—a common cause of new-hire turnover in contact centers. This can usually be traced to overselling the company and/or position in the recruiting and interview process, and not providing candidates with a realistic job preview (e.g., simulations, side-by-sides with senior agents).

Besides surveying new employees, Hecht recommends conducting a job candidate survey to gain insights about the recruitment process. "If we want to protect our brand, then we should be asking for feedback from the individuals who interview with us, but who aren't hired," he says.

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