Poking Holes in Attrition

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For the rest of the June 2009 issue of CRM magazine — The Social Media Issue — please click here.

In the face of a worsening economy and rising unemployment—even Internet heavyweight Google recently laid off 200 workers—jobs that may have once been deemed relatively unappealing are attracting hundreds of applicants. A school-janitor position in Ohio, for example—offering less than $16 per hour plus benefits—brought in more than 700 desperate job-seekers; a two-day job fair for 500 seasonal jobs at Los Angeles’ Dodger Stadium drew 7,000 people. With nationwide demand reaching historic levels—California’s unemployment rate skyrocketed to 11.2 percent in March—analysts believe the un- and underemployed may find compelling opportunities in the contact center industry, particularly now that human resources departments and contact center managers seem to have discovered the power of social networking.

Contact centers have always been plagued by rampant attrition—see our August 2008 cover story, “Calling It Quits,” for more on the subject—and even a difficult economic climate doesn’t cure the industry of the problem. Research by Chicago-based FurstPerson, a consultancy providing contact centers with employment-related screening software and outsourcing services, finds that the average monthly attrition rate for contact center outsourcing companies in 2008 was 8.7 percent; internal centers fared better, at 5.7 percent.

The remedy is improved hiring practices, but Paul Stockford, chief analyst for Scottsdale, Ariz.–based Saddletree Research, suggests that contact centers may be missing the chance. Arizona is one of the country’s contact center meccas, Stockford says, and in Phoenix alone there are between 300 and 400 contact center positions to be filled — including slots with A-list employers such as Wells Fargo. Despite the city’s 7.2 percent unemployment rate in March—up from 6.7 percent the month before and 3.9 percent in March 2008 — Stockford says he’s not sure those jobs are filling up. “It’s an interesting phenomenon,” he says.

People, it turns out, may not necessarily be knocking down the doors for contact center jobs, according to findings from United Kingdom–based research firm ContactBabel. Conventional wisdom is that contact center work is repetitive — among the contact centers surveyed, 40 percent called that a “major issue,” making it the number-one cause of attrition. Social networking in a customer service environment—most notably community forums — has a chance to change the way both potential and current agents see their jobs as customer service representatives (CSRs). (For more, see this month's Customer Centricity column, and “You’re Not Social (Enough),” page 39.)

“Social technologies will open doors for people who have not traditionally gone to the contact center to work,” explains Lisa Wojtkowiak, a senior consultant for the employee engagement practice at Princeton, N.J.–based Opinion Research. “This includes shy individuals, introverts who are not used to — or comfortable with — talking on the phone for fear they may say something wrong.”

Jeff Furst, president and chief executive officer of FurstPerson, echoes Wojtkowiak’s sentiments, stressing that the new breed of contact center agents must be able to handle this additional level of knowledge and sophistication. “First, you need to be able to have good reading comprehension skills in order to best monitor these online communities,” he says. “Then you must be able to use the right grammar if you are empowered to respond, and really examine potential employees’ decision-making capabilities. It’s certainly more critical now than it would have been for a traditional agent profile of handling calls quickly.”

While at first glance it may seem as though Generation Y — the members of which have grown up with social technology and are rapidly entering the workforce — may be the best fit, both Furst and Wojtkowiak are quick to point out that may be an overgeneralization — and blatantly discriminatory. “It’s not really young versus old,” Furst adds. “It’s more of a competency basis. It goes back to who has the ability to have the appropriate judgment, written communication skills, and ability to comprehend issues quickly.”

Rather than push out older CSRs, Wojtkowiak believes that the promise of social networking in the contact center could help open doors for them as well. “It’s about supporting open dialogue and the exchange of ideas,” she says. “We’re opening another door of communication. For older employees, they can share their experience and knowledge with the younger workers.”

Still in its nascent stages, there is no official research that has found a definite link between reduced attrition and the use of Web 2.0 and social networking technologies in the contact center—yet. That doesn’t undercut its promise, though. “The most fascinating thing with social [media] is that it’s a runaway train,” Stockford says. “It’ll have an impact and [it’ll] most likely be positive.”

Every month, CRM magazine covers the customer relationship management industry and beyond. To subscribe, please visit http://www.destinationcrm.com/subscribe/.

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