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Measuring agent retention translates to the bottom line

With agent turnover still a significant concern, contact centers need to make agent retention a measurable goal.

ORLANDO, FLA. – If the cost of agent churn were a line item in a company's budget, do you think people would run contact centers differently?

This question, posed by Richard Finnegan, chief client services officer at TalentKeepers, an Orlando, Fl.-based consulting firm, was the basis of a session focused on the age-old problem of confronting agent turnover. In the session, one of dozens at the ICMI Call Center Demo and Conference taking place this week in Orlando, Finnegan offered a series of steps to build agent retention, starting with the establishment of a 90-day period to measure agent turnover. 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.

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Once firms have identified a 90-day target period for keeping agents, they can start measuring 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).

"They join for things. They stay for people," Finnegan said. "Being a supervisor is a hard job, and I think it's harder in a call center than anywhere else."

TalentKeepers' surveys also found that employees most value trust in their supervisors, followed by communication and flexibility. Contact centers need to promote these qualities and measure retention, Finnegan said.

He suggests a retention roadmap that identifies stakeholders in agent retention and gives them goals. For example, supervisors should be measured and rewarded by the number of agents in an incoming class who stay past 90 days.

But it shouldn't stop with supervisors. Contact center directors should also be involved in setting retention goals and should create reports that they send out to all stakeholders showing retention to date and the money saved as a result. Operations managers should create a code for agents -- determining whether they are safe, OK or at risk of leaving -- and should then identify processes for improving the satisfaction levels of those agents who are not in the "safe" category. Human resources employees, who are often the first point of contact with new agents, should offer follow-up interviews and should be measured on retention goals. Training managers should be measured on the percentage of agents graduating and staying with the company for more than 90 days. Currently, some call centers require that a certain percentage of an incoming class graduate, Finnegan said, but this can be a counterproductive method.

"It's about building in touch points, building in encouragement," Finnegan said. "The saying applies: 'It takes a village.' "

There are simpler methods as well. Finnegan suggests weeding out people who don't want to stay in the first place with a "please say no" script. He advises contact center managers to say to new hires: "If you've applied somewhere else and are waiting for that job, please don't take this job -- if you're going to move away in six months, please say no to this job -- if you'll go looking for more money in three months, do me a favor and walk away now."

The message was well received by Becky Walz, associate director of Aria Communications, a professional direct contact firm based in St. Cloud, Minn. The company plans to implement a retention roadmap within the next two weeks.

"That is one of our biggest issues," Walz said. "We're an outbound call center doing fundraising. We need to fill openings with really good people. If our numbers go down, our performance goes down."

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