Your frontline employees look very different than ten, five, or even two years ago. One reason they’re different may be due to agent attrition, since turnover is at an all-time high and you have a constant sea of new faces. But even the staff you’ve managed to keep around are different agents today.
New tools and technologies, shifting work environments, escalating customer expectations, and evolving employee priorities are changing the way we must think about contact center staffing.
This article will identify the four main factors impacting staffing and then outline strategies we must rethink related to hiring, training, scheduling, coaching, and motivating today’s contact center agent.
Factors That Impact Staffing
There are four main factors that are changing the face of the contact center workforce. These four factors are technology, work environment, customer expectations, and personal workforce needs.
According to a recent study by IBM, in a six-minute conversation, 75% of the agent’s time is spent in doing manual work while only 25% is spent on valuable customer interaction. Contact centers using Artificial intelligence (AI) give their agents knowledge at their fingertips so they can focus more on the customer experience. Indeed, enterprise executives today cite customer experience as their main reason for investing in AI, according to a recent poll, with cost reduction in second place.
AI-enabled conversational agents, for example, are expected to handle 20% of all customer service requests by 2022. That alone relieves human agents of huge burdens and time. And when customers do talk to a live agent these days, AI tools are bringing many of them up to speed before they get on the line. They already know who the customer is and what’s needed.
Not only does AI support agent knowledge, but can serve the customer directly as well. Using increasingly sophisticated natural language understanding (NLU) software, a large number of calls can be handled with these virtual assistants. These tools are offloading increasing numbers of simpler calls where customer needs can be met via this self-service option.
Another technology factor that can’t be ignored is the growth of contacts over a variety of channels. The call center evolved into a contact center years ago, and there has been a steady increase in contacts via email, chat, and social media. Data shows that telephone calls have pretty much stayed within the “normal” operating hours of a center, while the chat and social media contacts are more likely to arrive at all times of day and night.
Finally, the WFM industry has seen great strides in technology in the last few years, too. Capabilities in the cloud, along with advances in AI for more accurate forecasting and self-service for agent access to schedule information have streamlined the WFM process to some extent and made it more accessible for staff.
What impact have these technology factors had on staffing? With increasing use of self-service eliminating the simple calls, the calls that are arriving at the agent desktop are more difficult to handle. The technology has offloaded the easy stuff, meaning that agents now have to be smarter and also better equipped in service and interaction skills. And with access from so many different channels, it would be nice to have these agents skilled to handle multiple contact types and flexible enough to handle them at any time of day or night.
The physical work environment looks very different today. Just a year ago, most agents worked in a brick and mortar center. While many organizations had embraced a remote agent strategy for at least some of their workforce, nobody could have imagined the mass exodus as call center agents were sent home to work.
It is unclear whether the call center world will ever go back to the traditional brick and mortar model. Once remote set-ups were up and going, many centers found performance was not just satisfactory but was better than before. Many employees appreciate the convenience of working from home, along with the savings on wardrobe and commute expenses, so it is very likely that much of the remote set-up will remain in place. Companies benefit from sustained performance numbers, more flexible scheduling options, lower real estate costs, positive environmental impact, and happier employees.
What impact has the pandemic-forced remote agent plan had on how we should think about a staffing strategy? Companies are finding that working from home is desirable for most folks, but there are others that do not thrive in a remote arrangement. As new agents are hired, it’s important to screen for attributes that point to success in this work set-up as well as screening for the other job attributes. Recruiting for at-home staff will be different than traditional staff and then there are training issues to consider if new hires will not be gathering in-person. Once on board, it’s important to think about how to constantly engage and motivate this remote workforce.
Today’s customer is highly-connected and well-informed. With information at their fingertips, customers expect easy access (on their channel of choice) and quick responses. They don’t expect to wait around very long and then they expect a knowledgeable and competent person to handle their contact. They’ve likely already checked information online and have all the facts, prices, and comparisons they need. What they can’t get online is a personalized response with someone that is focused on the customer experience.
Today’s connected customers typically have high service expectations. Again, they’ve already been online and know much of what they need to know already. It’s less about the transaction and more about the interaction that will remain with them when the call is over. And many are likely to share how they feel about the service they received. We live in a world where any experience — good or bad — can go viral in a few minutes. That’s fantastic news and great marketing if the customer experience was a good one, but it can be equally devastating if the call didn’t go well.
What impact does this well-connected customer have on staffing the center? It means that we have to find agents with the capacity to learn quickly and to amass the knowledge they need to handle an increasingly complex mix of calls. One call center executive recently stated that today’s agents “have to be smarter than Google” to answer contacts that the robots and online sources can’t handle.
Also, in order to serve today’s customers, the agents’ skills must go beyond completing a transaction to carrying on a meaningful interaction. These interactions are where the customer experience will be most influenced, so agents should receive more training than ever on handling the personal interaction part of the call. This training should address phone etiquette techniques, word choices, listening skills, and strategies for handling angry callers.
These staff are going to be more valuable than ever with the additional training and coaching investment. This means it will be more costly to lose these employees. Contact centers will have to work harder to keep these workers engaged and happy on the job. There will need to be a new emphasis on retaining the best employees.
The New Workforce
Today’s contact center workforce is different than the staff of ten, five, or even two years ago. As just discussed, these workers are technology-savvy and able to handle increasingly complex customer contacts. With much of today’s workforce in their 20s and 30s, they represent a generation with a different mindset about work than their parents. There is less long-term commitment to a particular job or company and their skills make them more mobile applicants to a variety of jobs.
This generation is the first to work in a “gig economy” where it is customary to hold down a variety of jobs at once. In addition to a main job, many in this younger workforce are likely to be adding to income with part-time driving or shopping gigs whenever they find themselves with a sliver of available time. They are accustomed to looking for a few hours of work at a moment’s notice, perhaps for several different companies.
Today’s workforce is also more focused on work/life balance where they prefer to fit work around their lives instead of the other way around. While compensation is important, they tend to rate flexibility as the most critical factor in job satisfaction.
What impact does this employee make-up have on staffing the contact center? There are workforce management implications related to scheduling these employees. It will be important to let these employees have more of a voice in the schedules that they would like to work. Long-term fixed schedules that don’t meet their personal needs will likely be the major factor that results in attrition. The good news is that this workforce may also be the one willing to fill in small segments of schedules at the last minute as workload unexpectedly changes, especially if they are working from home.
The New Staffing Strategies
Given the four driving factors just discussed, let’s now explore what strategies and actions are required now in the contact center to make sure our staffing is matched to the new requirements and also that the contact center is adapting to the needs of this new workforce. Getting this mutually beneficial strategy in place involves rethinking how we think about these five staffing processes:
- New Hire and Ongoing Training
- Workforce Scheduling
- Performance Coaching
- Engagement and Motivation
Recruiting and Hiring
Here are some considerations when recruiting and hiring staff for the 2020 contact center.
- Redefine job profiles to describe the new “ideal agent.” It’s time to dust off traditional job descriptions and update for the new responsibilities, required competencies, and working conditions for today’s call center agent. Now is the time to really define the “ideal agent” since many constraints can be removed related to local geography and local talent pool. Develop profiles that will enable the contact center to build a diverse workforce with not just the needed skills but also a culture fit for this important customer-facing role.
- Cast a bigger net considering the new potential geography. Organizations can now advertise and recruit without worrying about geographic proximity. Use online tools with a broad reach to reach a wider labor pool that can provide such capabilities like niche skills, diverse backgrounds, and more languages.
- Consider specialized job marketplaces. There are many options that can assist with targeted testing and screening. Look for industry specialists that can create a specific call center interface and then test an applicant’s ability to learn and adapt to various technologies.
- Employ psychometric testing in addition to aptitude testing. There are many candidates that can do the job, but it’s equally important to find someone who is a good personality and culture fit. It’s important to find people who will actually enjoy the work so they’ll perform better and stay with the company longer. In addition to aptitude testing, consider creating profiles of your ideal agent (perhaps creating a benchmark from your current high-performing staff) and then using psychometric testing to screen for these personality attributes, too.
- Continue to use “word of mouth” and referral programs. The most successful recruiting has been and will continue to be referrals from current employees. They know what the work is like and can best convince others that would be a good fit. Many of the best potential applicants may not actively be looking for work, so continue to encourage referral programs to get the best fit.
New Hire and Ongoing Training
Changes in the work environment, coupled with the requirement for new skills, have changed the way we must think about training frontline staff. Here are some of the changes to consider.
- Rethink training content while also revising how training is delivered. With the majority of staff hired to work from home, it is likely that the training will also happen in a remote learning environment. This means a big change in the training delivery model for most contact centers. As long as a change is happening in the way in which training is delivered, it’s a good time to think about the actual content of the training, too. As you examine what content will be delivered live with an instructor and which training will be purely computer-based training, take the time to review the actual content itself. It is likely that there is outdated material that could be deleted, as well as gaps in needed content to address the latest challenges.
- Use both synchronous and asynchronous training. Synchronous training happens in real-time with interaction between students and instructors. This can occur through teleconferencing and live-streamed lectures and can provide a way to have active discussions, feedback, and personal interactions. Asynchronous learning consists of programs and materials where students can access training at their own convenience and pace. There is a place for both of these forms of learning. The latter works for learning facts or a procedure, while developing interpersonal skills is absolutely better learned in an interactive, live mode.
- Ensure training encompasses all three adult learning modes. Adults learn in different ways and each person has a preferred learning mode. It’s easier in a traditional classroom to include programs that appeal to the visual learner (reading, charts, note-taking), the auditory learner (lectures, sample calls), and kinesthetic learner (hands-on practice). When moving from a traditional classroom environment, take care to ensure that both synchronous and asynchronous programs address all three kinds of learners.
- Test often to gauge progress and competency. In the classroom, most trainers can gauge from body language and puzzled looks whether or not the students are grasping new concepts and can adapt training and individual attention on the fly. This is much harder to observe and adapt in a remote training environment. It will be necessary to test more often for progress and acquisition of necessary skills.
- Incorporate discussion and peer interaction early and often. While most agents prefer working from home, there can be a feeling of isolation if not surrounded by a peer team. It’s important from Day One to include time for peer interactions in a casual way, as well as more formal discussions focused on training topics. One of the factors contributing to job satisfaction and retention is the sense of belonging to a team or social group. This social and training interaction should begin early and happen often throughout new-hire and ongoing training.
Once staff have been hired and trained and are ready to begin their work life, it’s time to consider how and when they will be scheduled to work. As discussed earlier, many factors have impacted the workforce scheduling process. We need to think about scheduling differently for a remote workforce given all the new possibilities, but also need to think differently because of changing personal needs and priorities. Here are a few of the considerations for staffing and scheduling.
- Throw out old schedule rules. Many organizations have used the event of implementing an automated WFM system to rethink old scheduling practices, scrapping old schedules and using the software to configure the best possible set of workforce schedules. The mass exodus of staff to remote status provides this same momentous event where it’s time to erase old rules and consider new possibilities.
- Survey agents often for schedule preferences. In order to even know what’s possible, the first step of scheduling work-from-home (WFH) staff is to survey every agent to see what the possibilities are. Ask for possible start time ranges, preferred break and lunch lengths, willingness and preference for short spans of work versus full-day, day-of-week preferences, and more. Keep in mind that agents’ preferences will change over time as they grow accustomed to remote work and the lives and schedules of those living with them change as well. Survey them often or provide an automated way for them to update their preferences. Given that schedule accommodation is a major factor in employee satisfaction, it is more important now than ever to be aware of preferences.
- Redefine schedule possibilities to include options once impossible. Allow much leeway in how schedules are defined. Schedules once thought to be highly undesirable may now be favorites. For example, a split shift where an agent works 4 hours in the early morning and 4 hours again late afternoon with a 4-hour gap in between was usually not a popular one if someone were driving in twice to the workplace. However, it may be a perfect lifestyle fit if working from home. Be open to all possibilities.
- Reward frontline staff for flexibility. Working from home may allow some agents to be much more flexible with when they can take calls. This flexibility is worth a lot to the WFM team in getting the best fit of workforce to workload. Think about ways to reward the agents that are willing to flex on short notice to meet workload demands. This might be actual monetary compensation, but it could also mean first in line for vacation selection, taking off early, etc as allowed by the WFM team.
- Use tools and training to keep agents in place and on time. It’s important to give agents the tools they need to request schedule changes and see adherence numbers so they can buy into the WFM process. They have left the contact center with the big displays of service and adherence numbers. In this new environment, they will be self-monitoring in terms of adherence. Keep reminding them about the Power of One, being creative with how you demonstrate what a difference their contribution makes to service and occupancy.
One of the most critical ingredients for performance excellence has always been, and continues to be, individual coaching. Given the new workforce arrangement, coaching has to be done differently today, but is perhaps even more important than before given the more remote, isolated workplace. Here are some changes to think about related to performance coaching.
- Rethink definitions of good performance. Many centers have relaxed their focus on metrics during the pandemic and have not seen a detrimental effect as a result. Some centers are choosing to focus on outcomes rather than metrics during these changing times. One center manager noted that some staff needed more hand-holding than others, mostly worried about not hitting the right numbers. When the staff were allowed to just focus on the outcome of the call and the customer experience, they took ownership and needed much less oversight.
- Consider new complexities and channels. Centers are rethinking some metrics that have been traditional measures of operational efficiency. Given that self-service has offloaded the simpler calls, the calls that remain are more complex and therefore longer. Using the same old measures of AHT as a performance metric need to change to reflect the ways customers are choosing to interact with the center.
- Remember the two main rules of feedback — consistency and timeliness. When doing performance coaching, it is still important — and maybe even more important now — to provide feedback on a regular basis and to give it as soon as possible after the desirable (or undesirable) behavior happens. Agents were used to having supervisors a few feet away and available for questions on an immediate basis. Likewise, supervisors could stop by and do a quick reinforcement or correction on the spot when in the physical center. That is harder now — sometimes “out of sight, out of mind” can cause a gap in getting feedback when needed. Supervisors need to carve out dedicated time to devote to feedback and coaching, since the walk-by interactions have disappeared.
- Touch base more often. As just discussed, there is less opportunity for one-on-one interactions that happen naturally in the workplace. Therefore, in addition to regular coaching sessions, it’s critical to do several short face-to-face touch-base meetings throughout the day. The employee/supervisor relationship can’t just happen through emails and online chats. Face-to-face contact is important to solidify the relationship and to ensure all team members feel connected.
- Consider small group coaching sessions for similar performance issues. It’s important to team members to feel connected to their team members as well as their supervisors. While one-on-one coaching is critical, it’s also good to do some coaching in small groups where similar behaviors (either good or bad) have been detected. Agents are less likely to feel alone if they get to participate in some small group huddles and coaching.
Engaging and Motivating Staff
While many agents are happy to be working from home, they may also feel more isolated and less a part of the call center’s culture. Here are some ideas for keeping staff motivated and engaged.
- Remember the five categories of motivation and plan how to do each. There are five basic categories of motivation techniques: time/attention, recognition, rewards, social, and fun. A good motivational program will include components of all of these. Supervisors need to spend time with and give personal attention to each employee, preferably every day. Recognition can just be acknowledgment of good performance or progress made. Rewards can include prizes and awards, either small or elaborate. Social motivation is a big factor that includes team activities and competition to encourage bonding and a sense of belonging. And finally, fun just means creating enjoyable activities to keep everyone happy and engaged.
- Figure out what motivates each individual. A successful motivation program will include elements from all five motivation categories. However, some people will be motivated much more by one of these than the other categories. One agent may be all about public recognition, while another doesn’t want to be singled out and is happier just being included in team activities. Some agents thrive on winning prizes and coupons, while others would savor more coaching time with a manager. It’s up to each supervisor to figure out what motivates each person most in order to create an individualized motivation program for each employee.
- Be creative to provide team interaction time. One of the big motivators for many employees is the social interaction and the sense of belonging to a team. This is way tougher to provide in a WFH arrangement. These folks will miss the pot-luck lunches and holiday parties and group activities. Therefore, supervisors will have to work harder to create this team time. Consider Zoom or Google Meet or some other online tool to facilitate informal time together as well as organized meetings. Many teams have virtual happy hours or join in together to play games or have virtual pot-luck dinners where everyone shows off what they’ve made for dinner. Ask team members for ideas on how they’d like to get together in this virtual work environment.
- Schedule more time to address motivation. It’s clear that motivation and fun doesn’t just happen like it does in the traditional call center. Supervisors will have to work harder to figure out creative ways to motivate staff. The Internet is full of ideas for how to keep remote workers happy and engaged and it’s critical to keep new, fresh ideas coming.
- Reconsider past prizes and rewards. Finally, it might be time to reconsider some of the prizes, tokens, and coupons that call centers have traditionally used to motivate staff. The book, Drive, by Daniel Pink, suggests that little trivial prizes may actually be de-motivating. In this changing contact center where staff are handling more complex contacts and managing their own work environment, they are likely to be more motivated by autonomy, mastery, and sense of purpose.
New tools and technologies, shifting work environments, escalating customer expectations, and evolving employee priorities are changing the way we must think about contact center staffing. While some of these impacts have been evolving slowly over the last few years, others have happened at warp speed in 2020. It is critical that contact centers react quickly and make sensible changes to the processes of recruiting, hiring, training, scheduling, coaching and motivating staff in order to not just survive recent events and changes, but to make the most of them for a happier, more effective workforce.
Penny Reynolds is an industry expert in the area of call center workforce planning and management. She was a Co-Founder of The Call Center School where she headed up curriculum development for over 12 years. She developed and taught courses on a wide variety of call center topics, including workforce management, performance measurement, and call center technologies. Penny has authored seven books: An honors graduate of Vanderbilt University, Penny was one of the first recipients of the industry’s prestigious Call Center Pioneer award.