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The sky's the limit for contact center agents at Continental

Turnover at the airline's call center is among the lowest in the industry, thanks in part to the career path the company sketches for its service agents.

When Andre Harris first took a job as a customer service representative (CSR) with Continental Airlines Inc., she had no intention of establishing a long-term career in the contact center field.

"Gosh no," said Harris. "The reason I came to Continental was the flight benefit. I had a cute boyfriend in Auckland, New Zealand, and I needed the cheap flights."

During a year-long engagement to that boyfriend -- a year filled with travel to other side of the world -- Harris realized that she liked working at Continental's call center. Now, 14 years later, she's director of reservations training and quality for the airline.

Carving out a career path for call center agents like Harris has helped Houston-based Continental bring its annual agent attrition rate below 5%. Even in a tough economy, where inexpensive labor is more readily available, that figure is the envy of many a call center manager.

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Agent retention wasn't always a bright spot at Continental, however. Until 1996, the service staff was "like a revolving door," with turnover around 60%, Harris said.

"We've worked several years to create a career path," Harris said. "It was not there back then. From our perspective, it's absolutely important. We know how bad it was with 60% attrition. All our finances and resources from leadership were tied up on new hire training."

While Continental doesn't solely credit its system of training and promotions for its success in retaining agents, it is a major factor, said Harris.

Continental has more than 4,600 agents in three domestic and 18 international call centers. The average tenure of CSRs at Continental is 10.3 years, Harris said. Agents have an opportunity to advance, but are also recognized for good service, even if they aren't promoted. Some CSRs have been there 25 years.

Retention cuts costs

Spending on the call center more than doubled between 1998 and 2003, according to a report from Cutting Edge Information Inc. in Durham, N.C. Much of that money went toward recruiting and training, with human resources expenses eating up 65% of the budget.

Training alone can account for 5% of a contact center's budget, said Donna Fluss, principal and founder of DMG Consulting LLC in West Orange, N.J.

Employees who see a career path both within the contact center, and also in the wider enterprise, are far more likely to stay with a company, according to Fluss. Additionally, contact center agents bring a valuable perspective to the rest of the organization.

"That individual understands your business," Fluss said. "The contact center is the focal point for the enterprise. It hears and sees, and gains an understanding of the entire operation. That is a very valuable individual."

Continental, like many other organizations, seems to have recognized a need for people to move upward, Fluss said. But Continental has also created a program encouraging it.

The real "homerun" in keeping agents motivated and talent at Continental is the company's Talent Optimization Program (TOPs), Harris said. High performing agents within the call center are given the opportunity to apply for temporary positions at headquarters -- not just in the reservations department but in other areas like the marketing and technology groups. Currently, more than 70 agents are in TOPs; and last year, 24 moved into permanent management positions.

"The balance returned to positions in the call center, but I'll tell you they come back more experienced and diverse individuals," Harris said. "They bring a wealth of experience into the call center that they're able to utilize."

Look internally first

Continental promotes from within. Within the reservations division, 100% of team leaders started as CSRs. Continental doesn't hire leaders off the street, Harris said.

Harris was a CSR for about nine months before she started pestering management to give her an opportunity to work in the training department. Eventually, they relented and she began filling in on a relief basis.

Today, Continental has formalized that process. Top performing agents are continually trained for team-leader positions, giving the company a pool of experienced workers to fill in should someone take vacation or go on special assignment. Agents then gain and offer feedback, and the process continues up the chain, providing "a positive domino effect," Harris said.

Sheila Richard is one of the CSRs in Continental's TOPs program who has been working with Harris at headquarters. Career advancement and upward mobility didn't bring her to Continental. Like Harris and many other CSRs, she came for the discounted plane tickets. But the training, corporate atmosphere and chance to advance have kept her at Continental, she said.

Richard moved from Illinois to Houston about five years ago with her husband, leaving behind her job as a middle school teacher and most of her family. Answering phones at Continental gave her the chance to fly home frequently.

Richard described the contact center like "a family" and, since entering TOPs, has had the chance to learn about Continental's training and its corporate structure.

"That was very enlightening for me," Richard said. "You change your comfort zone and explore other areas."

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