Managing Call Center Agents
Hiring call center agents
When it comes to hiring agents, managers should look beyond previous call center experience. Look for attitude and professional behavior.
Dru Phelps, vice president of certification at Benchmark Portal, an agency that partners with the Center for Customer-Driven Quality at Purdue University to offer call centers reports and certification, suggested that call centers offer a few days of training for interested candidates to see whether there is mutual interest. Then, hire only those who are interested after the training period. Or, in the job advertisement, Phelps said, ask applicants to leave a voicemail explaining why they want the job. That pre-screening method will quickly show an applicant's phone manner.
Another option to consider is hiring remote, or home agents.
"More and more companies are utilizing home agents, because it gives them access to unique skill sets available in different geographies, and allows them to provide different services to their customers with agents who are more knowledgeable," said Randy Saunders, marketing manager for Cincom. Continuous training on all of a company's products and services as well as how customers use them becomes a must, as does making a bigger investment on the front end to ensure that agents know how to handle more than just the basics.
Home-based call center agents are expected to number 300,000 by 2010, nearly triple the current figure of 112,000, according to Framingham, Mass.-based IDC.
Labeled homeshoring by IDC, the practice of allowing contact center agents to work from home is being driven by several factors, including VoIP, rising gas and housing prices in cities, backlash against offshore outsourcing. They are capturing the imagination of contact center managers and self-service organizations thanks to the flexibility they provide.
Motivating call center agents
Keeping agents motivated is also important. A few ways to motivating call center employees are:
- Empower agents
Virgin Mobile Canada recently gave call center agents more responsibility for the crediting process. Managers increased from $20 to $200 the amount that agents are allowed to credit to the bills of angry customers. Instead of more credit being applied to customer bills, Tichbon said, the amount has declined. "Agents have given customers 130% less credit [following the change]," Tichbon said. Phelps also suggests using mentoring in a call center.
- Start off right with training, and continue with regular training
Send supervisors to business classes to develop their skills as effective trainers with a big-picture approach. During training, make sure to ask for feedback from trainees throughout, and refrain from using a lecture style, she said, adding that it's important to revisit curriculum frequently to ensure that the information is fresh. Also, make training separate from the work shift, and pay overtime for it. Reynolds recommended regular refresher training, especially for call centers that do a lot of selling. How often do you need to retrain agents?
"That depends on how complex the material is," Reynolds said, "but maybe once a quarter or once every six months."
- Foster self-development
An agent with a sense of ownership in the customer service process will be more invested in satisfying customers.
- Talk about money
Call center agents should be kept informed about financial information. Let agents know how performance can be quantified, Phelps suggested.
- Know when to embrace turnover
Weeding out the lowest-performing agents can be as easy as eliminating rewards. "[Remove] rewards for the bottom percent," Reynolds said, "certainly the bottom 5% and maybe even the bottom 10%."
To advance the skills of agents, consider call center certification. The CIAC is an organization that has established various levels of certification for contact center professionals. They offer a framework and testing for certification, and other industry players offer training and study tools to prepare for the certification (visit www.incoming.com for some good resources). These certifications don't generally address agent-level work (they're targeted more at the manager level). Work with your internal HR department to establish an internal certification process for the various job levels in the call center, tied to competencies for the job. Communication of those may help gain the respect your call center agents deserve.
Agents can also be motivated through incentive programs for the call center.
In these programs, some call center managers measure number of transactions, accuracy, attendance, quality and timeliness. Other factors to consider are customer satisfaction, teamwork or contributions to the team (e.g., special projects, mentoring, identifying process improvements), financial metrics (e.g., cost per transaction), and individual development (learning and growth).
Consider involving a team of agents in the definition of the incentive program -- they can help refine the factors and definitions and put relative weights to them. It's important that call center agents feel like they can control or contribute to what they are measured on.
Retaining call center agents
Unfortunately, turnover is probably the most typical "metric" of call center employee satisfaction. Beyond that, surveys, focus groups (generally run by outside resources), exit interviews and suggestion boxes are typical tools used. I would say a "best practice" is to survey your employees routinely (e.g., twice per year) and to do a contact center specific survey, rather than a general corporate survey.
On the other hand, losing an agent can cost a contact center between $5,000 and $17,000, and though training is part of that cost, it's not always the largest part.
"The cost to train is coins in the couch compared to lost business and productivity," Finnegan said. Once firms have identified a 90-day target period for keeping agents, they can start measuring call center agent turnover and improving retention. The most important place to start is with supervisors and other leaders, according to Finnegan. A survey conducted by TalentKeepers found that people join companies based first on organizational factors, such as pay and location; second, on job factors, such as their duties; and third, on the qualities of their leaders. Yet when asked why they terminate their employment, the results were the opposite. The No. 1 reason for job abandonment was leadership (or lack thereof).
Call center performance management
More and more call centers are using workforce optimization and performance management tools to measure agent performance. According to call center expert Donna Fluss, performance management started to penetrate contact centers in the early 2000s, but 2006 is the first year of significant adoption.
"At a strategic level, contact center performance management provides a framework for aligning the goals of the contact center with those of the corporation," Fluss said. "At a tactical level, the performance management process uses goals, key performance indicators (KPIs), metrics, data sources and balanced call center scorecards for capturing and reporting how well the call center delivers to its objectives in order to identify the actions necessary to address areas of weakness or strength. At a practical level, it streamlines and simplifies contact center reporting, enabling managers to use a carefully selected set of KPIs, metrics and reports to manage their operation, instead of the numerous reports and hundreds of measures previously required."
According to call center expert Lori Bocklund, performance management is a hot topic for call centers and has the potential to make a big impact.
"The idea is to use the mountains of data generated in the contact center to better manage resources and achieve performance goals," Bocklund said. "They can gather information from multiple systems, and report on performance against key performance indicators (KPIs) that are defined."
When it comes to measuring call center agent performance, customers are closest to the call experience, have an opinion unbiased by their experience as a company employee or their own interpretation of corporate goals, and are the only evaluators who know the true purpose of the call. "You still need the [quality assurance] team to help decide if an answer was accurate, and did the agent comply to policy and procedure -- that's the compliance part," said Jon Anton, director of benchmark research at Purdue University's Center for Customer-Driven Quality. "But for the non-compliance [review], the best person to do that is the caller."