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Employee retention: why your agents are quitting you

Things are looking grim in the White House.

As of this month, July 2019, turnover in the Trump administration has reached an astounding 74%, according to data from the Brookings Institution, breaking the record for every single administration in the past 100 years.

This has prompted headlines in every news outlet, and stirred jokes from pretty much every comedian in the US. Turnover in the White House is especially problematic because replacements are harder to find, since there are political considerations and comprehensive security clearance processes to be taken into account. Plus, it’s a job with the pressures of the private sector — but not the perks —, and the scrutiny of the public sector.

But you don’t need to be the highest ranking member of state to deal with the challenges of high turnover. If you’re leading a customer support team, and especially if you’re leading voice contact centers, chances are this is one of your biggest problems too.

According to Contact Babel’s survey, The US Contact Center Decision-Makers’ Guide 2018-19, the median annual attrition at contact centers is 23%, and has been on the rise consistently since 2013. The reasons go from stressful conversations to bad recruiting and training methods, lack of technology and knowledge to empower agents, and no clear career progressions. All in all, it’s not that surprising that your employees don’t stick with you for more than a year.

Every company has to deal with turnover. But high levels of unchecked staff rotation can have a lasting impact on your business, and it’s not just the obvious costs associated with recruitment and training. Crushed morale, low performing KPIs, overwhelmed team leaders as they struggle to support new staff. It can even impair your customer experience.

In Contact Babel’s conclusions, they realized that to successfully reduce turnover, you have to tackle two parts. First, that hiring is done properly, and hires have the skills necessary to do their job. Second, that they have the right conditions to stay.

What makes an agent successful?

The first thing we set out to do, as part of our Sales Enablement responsibilities, was finding out what makes a customer-facing employee successful in their job. We sat down with multiple members of the team to see how they worked, how they were dealing with all kinds of situations and their reasoning behind it. We recorded areas of focus and the skills — both hard and soft — they needed to achieve their objectives. We gathered best practices from the field, and because what works for others doesn’t necessarily work for you, we also talked to managers to see how those could fit at Unbabel, and what success looked like to them.

The end result was a Scorecard that looked like this:

This helped us identify the areas of improvement at an individual and group level. Even if there’s no sales enablement in your company, a friendly hand in People Ops should be able to help you develop a similar sheet. These are extremely helpful to tailor specific training for your team. Maybe someone is really good at some things but lacks other skills. Maybe someone is underperforming due to personal issues or they’re disconnected from the company’s mission. Have a chat with them to figure out what’s happening and create a plan that can help them get back on track.

These sessions are great to foster a culture of continuous learning, but also to give your team members a sense of career progression, all of which positively impact retention.

Don’t be afraid to split the team into smaller groups when it comes to training; you want to allocate their time as best as possible and make it as relevant as it can be for them.

Hiring done right

In their 2016 issue, a Harvard Business Review study showed that 80% of employee fluctuation happens because of poor recruitment decisions. Maybe it’s the overly aspirational job description that paints a completely different picture from the nitty gritty of the daily job functions. Maybe it’s just a bad fit — it happens. A good way to avoid this is by using the scorecard to develop what we call a Hiring Guide.

A hiring guide helps you take the competencies you’ve identified as essential and build questions that seek to uncover them, as well as a list of things to listen for in the candidate’s reply. Ask specific questions about personal challenges so that the candidate gives you a concrete example of the actions they took in a similar situation — that should give you a hint of whether they’ll be a good fit for your team.

Get your agents to stick around

Once you’ve made sure that you have the best people on board, it’s your job to keep them happy and productive. The best retention strategy doesn’t start the moment your employees come to you with months of frustration, and likely an offer to match. By that time, it’s probably already too late. The key to retention is to be proactive about nurturing employee happiness in a good, productive work environment where everyone feels valued.

Because ultimately, it seems we care less about the perks, and more about the weight of our contributions. As Peter J. Martel, senior talent development consultant at Harvard Business School, points out in an article about what millennial employees really care about, “Employees want to feel valued, and the best way to express that value is through investment in the individual”.

1. Work on career paths

A simple way to make sure employees feel valued is by developing Career Paths, which is fairly easy when you have your scorecards in place. Grab all your scorecards side by side — for example, a tier 1 agent and a tier 2 one — and compare where the gaps in knowledge and skills are. Design a path that will help agents from tier 1 develop those over a 3-month period (ideally) and break it into milestones that you can keep track of during your one on ones or performance reviews.

2. Lift your team culture

We’ve all heard about culture fit, but the problem with it is that more often than not, it can lead to a biased hiring process, and a lack of diversity in your team. Instead, we like to talk about culture add. What is this new hire going to add to our team and company culture? How will they bring new perspectives and new experiences to the table?

A culture fit might be someone you want to be friends with, but a cultural add is someone that you admire or want to learn from. Gather your team in a brainstorming session and have them share their values, the things that bond them, that inspire them, and that they seek to become. Those will be the attributes of your culture.

3. Respect your employees’ time

It’s common, especially in the start-up ecosystem, to talk about your co-workers as your family. You’re likely logging in long hours every week, checking up on Slack notifications at dinner, and following up on emails during the weekend. While it’s important that the team works well together, employees have their own actual families at home. They want to spend quality time with their friends, pets, boyfriends or/and girlfriends, spouses, kids, or even a good book.

A poor work-life balance can be very damaging to our wellbeing, as was proved by a study conducted by UCL of more than 10,000 participants. Apparently, employees who worked three or more hours longer than required had a 60% higher risk of heart-related problems than those who didn’t work overtime. And that’s not even taking into account stress-related disorders.

So next time one of your employees is on vacation, sipping on a mojito with friends, or enjoying the beach with their family, encourage them to leave email and Slack alone.

4. Understand why people are leaving

Even businesses with off the charts retention rates have to deal with employees leaving — it’s just how the world works. But they shouldn’t walk out the door without you learning something from it.

“Eventually, all work relationships come to an end. Exit interviews help us tie loose ends and get to the bottom of why someone left. Sometimes, it’s the only chance we have to do that, when an employee feels comfortable enough to talk about issues that they might have never mentioned before.”

That’s Pedro Homero, one of our People Ops recruiters, who’s also in charge of all exit interview processes. He told me we’ve actually changed procedures and added things to the employee experience because of information he got during exit interviews.

We have also incorporated our own version of exit interviews to understand how to improve our training sessions. We ask employees what trainings and coaching sessions were the most effective to them, not only for this job, but for their next one as well; and how they felt about the value of their work and the alignment with other teams.

With this feedback, we started holding sessions during on-boardings, the kind of sessions that cover “what I wish I knew when I first joined”. Of course, you don’t need to wait for people to leave to get this feedback.

5. Keep the conversation going

“If managers and People Ops keep a continuous line of communication with employees during their time at the company, they already have an idea of what the company could work on to improve the employees’ experience,” Pedro says.

People leave for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes it’s something external — the family is moving to a different country, the employee wants to travel and work remotely, they got offered their dream job. But most of the times, it’s completely avoidable, and you can work on it by continuously checking on your agents and asking how they’re doing, by keeping them in the loop, helping them understand why decisions are being made and their role in it.

Particularly with agents, there are a few important aspects to improve retention. Customer support is one of those jobs where you’re typically invisible, unless, of course, something bad happens. It’s very important for agents to feel like the rest of the company understands their role and the importance of what they do on a daily basis, to create a culture of recognition and support.

When your team goes above and beyond, reward them. We always make sure our customer support and success teams are recognized in every Unbabel channel: in our Slack channel #tower-pride, All Hands gatherings, management meetings, and weekly reports.

Still, you can do all of these things — creating a positive environment, training your employees, giving them the space to grow, and turnover will always be a constant. But hopefully you’re learning something every time someone leaves, and creating a better experience for everyone that sticks around.

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