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Needed: A Contact Center Makeover?


TMCnews Featured Article

March 24, 2009

Needed: A Contact Center Makeover?

By Brendan B. Read, Senior Contributing Editor

Contact centers seemed to have weathered the downturn better than most sectors thanks to the need for firms to retain and attract scarce customers and their wallets with quality service, the unfortunately growing demand for collections, and in a slowdown in and in some cases a reversal of outsourced nearshoring and offshoring.

These are also excellent times for contact centers to expand. Retail closures and layoffs have created plenty of available customer-service-skilled people and modern, well-situated buildings. The financial services industry meltdown has led to similar opportunities, including vacant, well-wired, move-in ready contact centers. Home based work has finally emerged as a viable cost-effective and arguably more productive and greener alternative to traditional, and expensive employer-subsidized facilities.

Unfortunately if reports are accurate, contact center turnover continues to be higher than one might have expected in these difficult times. Even in communities where larger and better-paid employers have been cutting back, contact centers aggressively recruit for staff. In at least one city where there are several contact centers some of them have resorted to placing portable billboards near the entrances of their competition to lure agents and supervisors.

And where communities are prosperous, contact centers seem to lose out. One firm is closing its contact center in a small Midwestern city because it could not find enough workers to fill open positions even after several months of trying.

At the same time the bar has been raised on contact center employees. Customers who cannot find the products/services they want or solutions for their issues via the self-service demand, and rightly so, truly intelligent agents to help them: individuals who can communicate on their feet both verbally and in writing at the customers' level. It is no longer enough to have a pleasant voice in today's contact centers. Yet when positions require more skills it shrinks the applicant pools.

To fix these issues a contact center makeover may be needed. A good hard look at why those that are experiencing staffing issues cannot attract and retain the quality people they or, more accurately, their customers need, and take steps to address the problem areas.

The first place to examine is supervision and management. Staffing experts and experienced managers agree that the top reason why employees voluntarily leave their employers is because they work underneath terrible supervisors. Individuals who zero in and blow up out of proportion minor matters rather than focus on the key issues and who coach by berating staff as opposed to employing constructive criticism and showing better ways of accomplishing tasks.

The chief culprit is the age-old mistake of management, which is to promote the best line workers without any examination of whether they have the aptitude and skills to lead and supervise colleagues. Managers who themselves should not be in those roles. Then again stupidity breeds, well...
Yes, other service jobs like in retail and hospitality have the same bad supervision and turnover issues. Yet their environments make the idiocy a little more tolerable. Clerks and waiters can walk away and focus on customers whereas agents are haunted, even terrorized every second by their supervisors, over multiple channels, and with nowhere to run. Bullying managers have to keep their traps shut when they are facing the public.

A second trouble spot is lack of staff empowerment and flexibility. Most contact center agents want to help those they are communicating with--doing so gives them tremendous satisfaction--but they get frustrated when they are tied down by bureaucratic red tape and procedures.

In today's world employees want and expect workplaces that work with instead of against their lives. That means enabling them to change and trade shifts, and giving them flexible hours, accommodating child and eldercare, and allowing them to work from home.

A third blotch is no community identity. In-house contact centers almost always rank higher than teleservices firms with potential hires because they have names and corporate images that they can wear as badges. Yet in all too few cases do teleservices companies have similar positive identities that their staff can be proud of. Not enough of them make themselves parts of their host communities such as by participating in charity or school fundraising, supporting local amateur sports teams, and in joining events such as holiday festivities.

Like being a homeowner in a subdivision it isn't enough to pay your taxes and mind your own business. You have to string your lights and take part in whatever else is taking place on your street if you are asked.

Lastly, in thankfully fewer and fewer cases, some contact centers, especially the smaller operations still are situated in buildings that look like they have been condemned, or should be, and that is from the outward appearances: Diety knows what's behind the walls or under the floors or above the ceilings. There have been reports of instances that the sites have looked so bad that prospective clients have looked at the sales reps, said 'You gotta be kidding', and walked away. 

Little wonder that elected officials have been able to punch through Do Not Call and other industry-restrictive legislation in the past; deaf to the complaints of job loss fears. There have been politicians who fairly recently have blasted contact centers because they create low-paid high-turnover jobs. If you act and look undesirable and you are not visible, and you don't give others a reason to truly care about you, you get treated accordingly.

There is no reason why contact centers cannot become employers of choice, whether the workplaces are bricks-and-mortar sites or employees' homes. The solution lies, like in the hiring candidate agents, in facing the mirrors, getting their acts together, becoming interested in and taking part in what's around them, and in putting their best feet forward.

Brendan B. Read is TMCnet’s Senior Contributing Editor. To read more of Brendan’s articles, please visit his columnist page.

Edited by Stefania Viscusi

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