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Career path a hidden trail for call center agents

New research finds that many call centers fail to offer agents a well-defined career path or flexible pay plans.

While call centers have made strides in reducing turnover, they are still plagued by a lack of a career path for agents, rigid salary structures and little e-learning, according to a recent survey.

The survey, conducted by Annapolis, Md.-based Incoming Calls Management Institute (ICMI), found that only half of call centers take advantage of e-learning applications to deliver ongoing training.

"Five years ago there was this huge explosion of interest in e-learning and its capabilities," said Rebecca Gibson, performance and education consultant with ICMI. "A lot of companies tried it and didn't see the results they wanted. I don't think it was a problem with e-learning or distance learning or that classroom training is so much more effective. It has a lot more to do with the strategy and deployment."

ICMI surveyed 848 call center leaders, across a broad range of industries and call center sizes. While 94% of call centers offer ongoing training to improve agent skills, classroom instruction (used by 86%), one-on-one coaching/mentoring (used by 86%) and on-the-job learning (used by 78%) remain the most common types of training.

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Call center managers who hoped to keep agents on the phone by training them via e-learning applications between calls were disappointed to discover that learning conducted in one- to two-minute intervals in a noisy call center environment was not an effective method, Gibson said. With the increasing prevalence of remote agents, e-learning, in conjunction with other Web-based training methods, should make a comeback.

"We're seeing a lot more blended learning, knitting together different delivery methods to address different learning styles," Gibson said. Firms are increasingly using live instruction over the Web, with agents signed on from a remote location listening in via phone or Voice over Internet Protocol, looking at a presentation online and interacting via a shared whiteboard, polling or a "Q and A" tab. "That's a lot closer to a live classroom model," Gibson said.

The path less traveled

Call centers also continue to neglect the need to provide a clear career path for agents, according to the research. Nearly 60% of call centers reported encountering organizational obstacles in developing a skills path or career path at their call centers. The most common obstacle was a lack of funds.

"It costs money," Gibson said. "Call centers don't like anything that costs money. It's cheaper to hire new people, put them through training and plug them in."

What has resulted is a tiered system where agents are assigned skill levels based on training and experience and compensated accordingly, Gibson said.

Turnover rates do seem to be improving, with 7.8% of centers reporting an average tenure of six months to one year, compared to 27% in a study conducted in 2000. However, Gibson attributes much of that to a down economy, which prevents agents from leaving secure jobs.

"I like to think a lot of it is the environment is getting better," she added. "Over the last five to 10 years with advent of CRM -- you can't be anywhere and not feel the pressure to be customer focused. There is absolutely no place like the call center to learn that."

And despite an industry-wide push to turn call center agents into salespeople by cross-selling and up-selling on inbound calls, only 3% of call centers pay their agents an hourly rate plus commission. Most firms, pay agents an hourly rate (42%) or an hourly rate plus a performance-based cash incentive/bonus (40%).

Finding inbound service employees who are adept at making sales often requires new hires rather than tapping an existing workforce.

"If I have a rep who is a service person, I can offer that person incentives or commissions and it would not interest that person at all," Gibson said. "It's a matter of hiring the right people and putting the incentives in front of them. It's a big culture shift for centers that want to make that transition from service to service/sales."

Other findings of the survey included:

  • 77% reported average hourly wages of at least $11, with 27% offering $11.01 to $13, 26% offering $13.01 to $15 and 24% offering more than $15.
  • 43% reported an annual external turnover rate of 10% or less and another 24% reported a rate of 11% to 20%.
  • 63% offer performance incentives/rewards with the most common being gifts/merchandise (71%), cash incentives (69%), awards (67%), movie/gift certificates (67%) and public recognition (66%).

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