Improving Hiring, Training Practices Can Ease Call Center Labor Woes

ORLANDO, FL — The incorporation of new technologies into call centers is making it even more difficult for managers to hire and retain qualified agents, but there are several things call center operators can do to minimize their labor problems and help keep a lid on the costs of employee turnover, according to two training specialists at the Call Center Demo and Expo 2000 here Friday.

Rosanne D'Ausilio, president of Human Technologies, and Anne Nickerson, president of Call Center Coach, not only stressed the importance of training but also gave some practical tips for hiring call center agents in multimedia contact centers.

“We need to take a look at our job descriptions and make sure they include Web skills,” said Nickerson. She suggested that managers incorporate an item in the job interview that asks prospective agents to describe an experience they had searching for information on the Internet. Managers should be able to learn a lot about an agent's level of familiarity with the Web, based on how they respond, she said.

She also recommended that prospective agents be shown the call center in operation, if not in person then via videotape, so they can see for themselves the potential monotony of their jobs.

“You have to give them a realistic job preview,” she said. “The goal is to almost talk them out of wanting the job.”

She also recommended using interactive voice response technology to screen potential applicants. By guiding applicants through a number of basic questions, a touch-tone IVR screening system can determine which applicants meet the basic qualifications and can even be programmed to schedule live interviews with those applicants who meet the minimum criteria for the job.

“You can put an ad in the paper on Sunday and conduct interviews on Monday,” she said. She said such systems are especially helpful when many agents need to be hired quickly. The cost for such a screening platform usually averages between $2 and $8 per hire, she said.

However, automated screening systems cannot yet be used to determine quality of voice.

Although the labor market for agents remains tight throughout the country, Nickerson said she thinks the pending legislative changes allowing Social Security recipients to work while retaining their full benefits will help bring more senior citizens into the job market.

“We might want their life experience and their knowledge,” she said; although, she also noted that hiring older people might require “a little extra training to get them used to the technology in a call center.”

Turnover in the call center will probably always remain higher than in other industries. Citing a recent survey from a human resources organization, D'Ausilio said working in customer service is one of the 10 most stressful jobs in the country. About 95 percent of agents report that they experience at least one stressful event per day, and 15 percent said they had five or more stressful events per day.

The survey found that stress is rapidly increasing as a reason agents say they don't show up for work, catching up to personal illness, which is rapidly declining. Almost 20 percent of agents cited stress as a reason for staying home last year, up from about 5 percent in 1995, while personal illness fell to just over 20 percent last year, down from 45 percent in 1995.

A survey by Manpower Inc. also cited stress as one of the key noneconomic reasons for employee turnover, along with a “negative environment.” Among the economic reasons for turnover, the study ranked “no opportunity for advancement” as the top reason agents leave, followed by low pay.

Nickerson and D'Ausilio conducted an informal survey of the 100-plus attendees at their session and found that most customer service centers start full-time agents at salaries of at least $28,000 annually, with only one attendee saying they pay agents more than $40,000. Technical support agents generally make more, with some tallying annual income of more than $50,000, according to the attendees. The salaries also varied widely by geographic region.

Rather than advocate higher pay, however, D'Ausilio and Nickerson recommended using ongoing training programs that help make agents feel like they are an important part of an organization while at the same time improving their skills.

D'Ausilio said about 3 percent of a call center's budget should be spent on training, up from the current rate of about 1 percent.

She quipped that a call center operator once asked her, “Why should I spend all this money on training an agent when they are just going to leave to go work for company XYZ anyway?” Her response was that the operator was asking the wrong question. The right question is “What if you don't spend any money on training and they do stay?”

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