Answering call centre turnover

Hamilton-based AnswerPlus uses training, support, rewards and career opportunities to solve retention woes in a sector notorious for turnover
By Uyen Vu
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 04/03/2006

High turnover is the bane of most businesses, but nowhere more so than in the call centre industry, widely seen by jobseekers as high-stress, no-advancement work environments.

It’s not unheard of in this industry to have 100-per-cent turnover, and about eight years ago, such would be the level of staff departure at AnswerPlus.

“That doesn’t mean that you would lose all of your staff, but it may mean that you would have to fill a third of your positions three times a year,” said Barbara Bradbury, vice-president of operations at the Hamilton-based inbound third-party call centre employing 90 call centre employees at two locations.

“People used to see working at a call centre as something they did before they got a real job,” said Bradbury. But given the growth of the industry, businesses can’t afford to be complacent about staff retention, she said. This is especially true as the competition for people tightens up across different sectors.

“The demand for the same skill sets is growing. And that is what I see as a real threat for us. There are more people competing for the same talent pool and the pool is not getting larger,” noted Bradbury.

That’s why AnswerPlus, a subsidiary of Pasword Group, set out on an employer-of-choice branding effort in late 1990s.

“We realized that in order to give our customer the best service they can have, we had to put our employees first,” said Bradbury, adding that the philosophy at AnswerPlus is the customers come last.

“We put our customers last because we have to put our employees first. They are the voice of our customers. We have to have them feeling good about what they do.”

AnswerPlus’ employer-of-choice strategy is built around giving employees “the respect, the tools to do the job properly, the training, the support, the coaching,” said Bradbury. “But you’ve got to put some fun into the job as well. You’ve got to make every day a bit of an adventure for them.”

That means putting the emphasis on all the different skills call centre staff may acquire on the job. AnswerPlus may have started out as an answering service, but these days, a customer service representative might perform any number of 50 different functions in a given shift, from taking a message and sorting out a billing inquiry, to fixing a caller’s bad cable signal.

“That’s how we play it up to the staff. ‘Congratulations you’ve just become a cable technician today,’” said Bradbury. “I’ve been in this business for 21 years and there was a time when our staff would have been really reluctant to do that sort of thing, whereas these days they’re looking for new challenges. They’re like, ‘Oh that’s fun. That’s something new to do.’”

To make sure that the multivariate nature of the job does not overwhelm call-takers, AnswerPlus sales staff put considerable effort into understanding the kinds of calls a given account entails and configuring the computer interface so that it’s clear to customer service reps what they’re expected to handle.

“We’re very careful about trying to set it up so that (the reps) know where to look up each type of information and how to handle a question-and-answer. Our responsibility when we’re preparing the accounts for the staff is to say, ‘I should be able to take anybody off the street, sit them down in front of this information and have them perform for a client the way the client wants them to perform.’” This is what giving staff the proper tools to do their jobs is all about, said Bradbury.

At AnswerPlus, recruiters look out first and foremost for jobseekers with a bright voice, a great phone personality, and an inclination to empathize and “feel a caller’s pain.”

And unlike some call centres that monitor as many as 10 calls per employee per shift, Bradbury said she sees more value in randomly picking just one call per employee per month. Employees are asked to listen to the call first and identify any criteria that they have missed. If they have a perfect score, they receive an added $500 in their pay for that quarter.

“We believe in letting employees take ownership of this company. They are invited to join in any meetings — management meetings, financial meetings, any of the planning meetings that take place. We want people to know what our goals are because they’re part of our goals. We want them to know how we interact with our sales people and how the sales people sell them,” said Bradbury.

One of the greatest retention challenges in the call centre industry, next to compensation and benefits, is to market career prospects that come with a call centre job. That’s why Bradbury makes a point to play up her personal knack for spotting hidden talents among the customer service reps she hires.

“We believe very strongly in promoting from within. And if I think of people in this office, everybody who’s in a supervisory, management or administrative position has worked their way up through the ranks. And most of them never saw this as a career destination,” said Bradbury.

“And it’s fun, actually, when you have young people working for you and they’re sort of floundering and not sure where they’re going to go, and you see in them an ability to shine and you give them the opportunity to stretch a bit.”

As an example, she pointed to long-time staffer Marilyn Dalgleish, who joined AnswerPlus 18 years ago as a part-time customer service rep. Dalgleish returned to the workforce after staying at home for many years to care for her young children. She’s now an operations manager responsible for human resources issues such as hiring and staff training

At the Contact Center Employer of Choice, a Toronto-based consultancy that helps call centres with employee branding strategies, president Jeff Doran said he sees a growing number of companies making an effort to improve the appeal of call centre work.

“They’re really putting a lot of money into developing good management teams and tapping into corporate resources to make them available to the (customer service reps),” said Doran. Some companies are offering full-time benefits to part-time workers; others are tapping into their in-house call centre staff for their internal hiring.

“There’s a focus among senior managers now on having a great contact centre because they are dealing with thousands of calls a year, and each call is an opportunity to make an impression on the customer, so they need to make sure that people are happy doing it.” Employers that are getting good at keeping staff are those that continually strive for excellence, that communicate corporate goals and visions, and that treat employees with respect, said Doran.

Those that aren’t doing well still need to help employees deal with stress, to involve employees more in decision-making, to invest more in technology “because employees directly interface with that piece,” said Doran.

Of course, pay remains a top issue, as does the possibility for advancement.

At AnswerPlus, the employer-of-choice strategy has brought the turnover rate to around 22.5 per cent, said Bradbury.

“We’re seeing staff recommending their friends to us. They want to bring people they know into the business. We’re seeing people stay longer and the morale is the best it has ever been. We see people talking proudly about where they work and that’s nice to see.”

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