** This is the first of a series on call center employee turnover and some unique ideas for solving the problem.
You read the headline right, I’m not kidding. If you keep fretting, obsessing, and trying to understand why your operators are quitting, you will never solve the problem and end up condemned to a never-ending cycle of constantly hiring to keep up with turnover rates as high as 300 percent per year in some call centers.
Call centers focusing on why people leave invariably interpret the problem as being due to one or all of the following conditions:
- low wages
- poor working conditions
- inadequate training
- lousy supervisors
- the inherent nature of the job
All of these situations have some influence on turnover but they are based on the misguided premise that if people are leaving our organization, there must be something wrong with us. Wrong. There is a far better approach than trying to understand why people are leaving. I’m going to tell you what that is but you are going to have to read the rest of this article to get the solution.
First though, a true story that happened to me forty years ago.
I was a human resource manager for a trucking company owned by PepsiCo. The company was run by Mr. Bill Williams (I still can’t force myself to call him Bill; it’s Mr., if you know what I mean), a scarred veteran of King-of-the-Mountain battles in a very tough business. Mr. Williams did not like staff managers in general and disliked human resource whippersnappers, specifically. But I didn’t let that dampen my enthusiasm. I wanted to show him that I was a professional, someone he could rely on.
My opportunity to prove myself came when Mr. Williams’ secretary called me three weeks ahead for an appointment at 2:28 p.m. I knew the odd meeting time and long advance notice were among his many intimidation techniques, so I was determined not to let them bother me. Grapevine rumors made it apparent that Mr. Williams was unhappy with the recruiting and staffing efforts of my department since we took over the responsibility for this division.
Hiring and keeping people at the trucking company proved to be a challenge. One particular job paid $1.60 per hour and required continual calculation without the benefit of adding machines in a room without air conditioning. Promotion opportunities were non-existent and repressive supervisors prevailed. Employees frequently crossed the street to a competing company which offered clerical jobs in an air-conditioned office with adding machines and paid $2.25 an hour.
I conducted a professional wage and benefit survey confirming the dismal working conditions and rock-bottom pay scale. I was well prepared to give my presentation and escort Mr. Williams and his trucking company into the 20th century.
My heart quickened as Mr. Williams looked with interest at my slick graphs and quartile charts. I had finally gained his confidence. My goodness, he had even asked for my recommendation. I offered my professional opinion that we needed to raise our wage from $1.60 per hour to $2.30 per hour. Furthermore, we needed to assign a desk to each clerk, install air conditioning and purchase electronic calculators to attract qualified employees. Most importantly, I recommended that we train our supervisors in modern management techniques.
“That, Sir, would enable me to recruit, hire and retain qualified clerks for your division,” I concluded. I proudly envisioned Mr. Williams rising to applaud my presentation.
It didn’t happen that way. Mr. Williams pulled a yellow pencil stub from behind his ear and made a few calculations on the tattered desk pad in front of him. (Mr. Williams didn’t use one of those newfangled calculators either.) He turned to Billy Joe Thompson, his trusted right hand in all matters of accounting, finance, public relations and personnel. Billy Joe wore the green eyeshade and plastic pocket protector of his bookkeeping trade proudly. He was Boss Hogg in the flesh.
“Billy Joe,” Mr. Williams drawled in a deliberate and cynical country accent, “Mr. Mitchell, who I believe is a college-educated boy, says he can hire and keep the help if we spend what I calculate to be 750,000 bucks a year.”
The words “college-educated BOY” slammed into me like a Mack truck. I knew I was in deep ca-ca. My college education had at least taught me that much. Beads of sweat formed instantly on my upper lip.
Mr. Williams paused for a minute to savor my obvious distress. Then he asked Billy Joe, “Do we have anybody working for us who has been here for more than five years, who is doing a good job in spite of our supervisors and who is working for a minimum wage?”
“You betcha, Mr. Williams. There’s Iola Fay Welch, Prissy Stroop, Ella Joe Jiller, Mable Grace Apple (News - Alert), Lydia Lou Landry and many more.”
“Now, Mr. College Boy, don’t you tell me we have to spend $750,000 to hire and keep good help. Your job is to find and hire more folks like Iola Fay and Mable Grace.”
I saw myself as the young warrior who had challenged the chief and lost. My destiny lay in riding alone in the badlands of ignorant managers for the rest of my career. Then, at the bottom of my despair, I came to a stunning conclusion. Mr. Williams was absolutely right. He had hit the nail on the head. Much of his logic was askew, but in terms of hiring practices, he was right. I didn’t endorse his sweatshop management practices, but no matter how bad the working conditions, pay or supervision, there were still, for whatever strange reasons, long-term employees who remained on the job and performed. The key was to determine what was unique about these people and differentiated them from their short-tenured, unproductive counterparts. Why were they staying on the job? As soon as I began to try to understand why they would stay when others would leave, our turnover began to decline.
I don’t think I ever did gain Mr. Williams’ total respect, but once he did say, “Hi, Brooks” when our paths crossed in the executive commode. What more could a college boy ask for?
Forty years later, I still treasure the great lesson I learned from Mr. Williams, the key to improving turnover is to focus on who is staying, not who is leaving. Thank you, Bill; I mean, Mr. Williams.
The next few columns in this article series will explore concepts relating to why people stay on jobs in call centers rather than why they leave them.
Stay tuned and think about it.
Edited by Stefania Viscusi