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Women in Tech

Call Center Attrition

By Denis Pombriant
Jun 13, 2007 4:00 AM PT

Earlier this year, we did a study of attrition in the call center. We wanted to know why even good or great call 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.

Call Center Attrition

As you might expect, we discovered a variety of issues that impact attrition in the call center. The ideas coming out of the study ran a gamut, including new agents were improperly trained, agents' job expectations were not properly set, the interview process was flawed, or prospective agents' skills and backgrounds were not well matched to a particular job -- and the list goes on.

There are lots of different ways to test some of these ideas, either with cross tabulation or direct questions, but some of the things that I took away from the whole research experience are that the job of call center agent is pretty demanding and we don't have a great handle on it.

Fix the Job, Not the People

Attrition is high, and depending on the call center, it can be as high as 50 percent or even more, depending on circumstances. Every call center is not that bad, and even bad call centers have good times, 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 re-organizing the job, break it down into smaller parts and reassign certain tasks so that more brains could be applied to the various challenges.

Good advice, but in the call center we tend to do the opposite. We script the job, micro-manage it and apply a withering array of metrics to track what we have euphemistically come to call progress.

Centers Need Better Products

What the attrition crisis in the call center tells me is something different. Products -- especially new technology products -- are to one degree or another hard to use or understand or they are outright confusing, 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 difficult to realize efforts to constantly grow business, we may be overshooting the customer's ability to consume.

If that is true, then it helps to explain the situation in the call center and how to fix it. Very simply, we may be asking the call center representative to make up for flaws in product, service and after-purchase processes design. To go back to Drucker, the way to split the call 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 is part of the product life cycle. The only difference now is that many product life cycles were synchronized long ago by the high technology revolution. There have been a lot of new products introduced to the market over the last few decades, and there has been a cumulative effect of new product burnout; the results of which land on the doorstep of the service and support department.

Early adopters take on products with little or no service or support and figure everything out on their own. Middle and later adopters expect a modicum of service and support and assume it is built into the price of the product.

Sandbags Not an Option

Successful vendors are frequently behind the curve when it comes to these issues. Early success and high profit margins lull them into a false sense of security, and when the dam breaks the responsibility goes to the service and support department to minimize the problem. Unfortunately, sandbags are not a way to prevent flooding.

So even though attrition in the call center might seem like a big problem, and it is, I believe it is temporary. I expect that continued competition will force vendors to improve and simplify their wares and provide better modes of providing service. User experience nearly killed several of CRM's (customer relationship management) early leaders before they got the message, and industry-wide it is hard to see how emphasis on the customer experience could be more dominant.

Focusing on the customer did wonders to revive the Apple franchise and it will do the same for any company that decides to think outside of the box, and that will go a long way to solve the call center agent attrition problem.

Denis Pombriant runs the Beagle Research Group, a CRM market research firm and consultancy. Pombriant's research concentrates on evolving product ideas and emerging companies in the sales, marketing and call center disciplines. His research is freely distributed through a blog and Web site. He is working on a book and can be reached at denis.pombriant@beagleresearch.com.

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