• September 1, 2007
  • By Denis Pombriant, founder and managing principal, Beagle Research Group

Back to the Drawing Board

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Why do good--or even great--contact centers have such persistently high rates of attrition, especially when on-boarding new agents? (On-boarding is the process that starts with hiring and continues through training and the initial experience of dealing with customers.) Earlier this year we did a study to find out. As you might expect, we discovered a variety of issues that impact attrition in the contact center: New agents were improperly trained; agents' job expectations were not properly set; the interview process was flawed; prospective agents' skills and backgrounds were not well matched to a particular job; and the list goes on. There are lots of ways to test some of these ideas--cross-tabulation, direct questions--but two of the things that I took away from the whole research experience are that, first, the job of contact center agent is pretty demanding and, second, we don't have a great handle on it. Attrition is high industrywide--as high as 50 percent or more, depending on circumstances. Not every contact center is that bad, and even the bad contact centers have good periods, but it all puts me in mind of what the late management guru Peter Drucker once said: If you can't find the right person to fill a job and people consistently leave the job, the problem lies in the job, not the people. Drucker's prescription was to consider reorganizing the job, breaking it down into smaller parts and reassigning certain tasks so that more brains could be applied to the challenges of the job. Good advice, but in the contact center we tend to do the opposite. We script the job, micromanage it, and apply a withering array of metrics to track what we have euphemistically come to call progress. What the attrition crisis tells me is something different. Products--especially new technology products--are, to one degree or another, hard to use or understand, especially if they do something new. Companies appear increasingly bureaucratic as they attempt, through self-service and audio menus, to get answers to people without the need for person-to-person interaction. In our increasingly complex efforts to continually grow business, we may be overshooting the customer's ability to consume. If that's true, then it helps to explain the way things are in the contact center--and also suggests a path toward fixing them. Very simply, we may be asking the contact center representative to make up for flaws in product and service design and after-purchase processes. To go back to Drucker, the way to split the contact center agent's job and manage it more effectively may be to go upstream to build better, simpler, and more elegant and intuitive products. In other words, the split should happen with product designers and developers. In itself this is no surprise; in fact, it's part of the product life cycle. But there have been a lot of new products introduced to the market over the last few decades--producing the cumulative effect of new-product burnout. The results of that inevitably land on the doorstep of the service and support departments. We're in a new era now: User experience nearly killed several of CRM's early leaders before they got the message; today, by contrast, emphasis on customer experience is fairly dominant. Continued competition will force vendors to improve and simplify their wares and develop better modes of providing service focused on that customer experience. So even though attrition in the contact center might seem like a big problem--and it is--I believe it's temporary. Focusing on the customer did wonders to revive the Apple franchise, for example, and it will do the same for any company that decides to think outside of the box about contact center agent attrition. Denis Pombriant is the founder and managing principal of Beagle Research Group, a CRM market research firm and consultancy. He can be reached at denis.pombriant@beagleresearch.com.
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