Call Center Catch-22: Cutting Turnover While Controlling Costs

Ann All

IT Business Edge recently featured a couple of stories involving U.S. companies moving their previously offshored call center jobs back to the U.S., notably Delta Air Lines and United Airlines. (It's worth noting that both airlines hope to reduce the overall number of such jobs by nudging their customers into using more self-service channels.)

 

The companies seemed to conclude that paying far higher salaries to U.S. call center personnel will be worth it, assuming that customer satisfaction levels increase. Delta CEO Richard Anderson admitted that "customer acceptance of call centers in foreign countries is low and our customers are not shy about letting us have that feedback."

 

So move those jobs back to the U.S., problem solved and everyone's happy. Right?

 

Not so fast. When AT&T decided to move some offshore technical support jobs back to the U.S., CEO Randall Stephenson said the company had trouble finding enough qualified U.S. workers, citing low high school graduation rates among other factors. Some of the comments on my post, however, implied that AT&T should share at least part of the blame for not trying to make those jobs a little more fulfilling. Wrote one reader, "Average Joe," who claimed to be employed by AT&T:

They pay $13 an hour, fire you if you're two minutes late twice in a year, give you substandard training and poor benefits.

Another reader got to the heart of the problem:

In almost every company in almost every industry, customer service is considered an entry level job due to the fact that the job typically requires little skill or knowledge. However, you still want people who at least have reasonable speaking and writing skills, hence a high school diploma. But, it is, by definition, a low paying job.

 


This Catch-22 is detailed in a CRM Buyer article in which one expert refers to call centers as "white-collar sweat shops." While the turnover rate at call centers has fallen somewhat due to the poor economy, which keeps some folks at jobs they might otherwise leave, the industry has historically coped with a high churn rate. That may be an even bigger issue than offshore/onshore salary differentials for companies with U.S. call centers. According to Paul Stockford, chief analyst at Saddletree Research and director of research for the National Association of Call Centers (NACC), the cost of attrition at call centers is $5,466 per individual, based on a 2008 survey of 70 call centers conducted by staffing specialist Furst Person.

 

The work is largely unsatisfying because it's stressful, repetiitive and doesn't pay all that well. But companies certainly don't help by stuffing employees into cramped cubicles, monitoring their every move and placing more importance on call volumes rather than successful resolutions. (It appears to be a similar situation in India, where university graduates seem far less interested in call centers than in other areas of BPO work.)

 

Unfortunately, there are no easy answers. As the article notes, some companies do invest in making their call center environments a more pleasant place for workers. I mentioned one, Zappos, in a post from 2008. Working with no scripts or time limits on calls, Zappos' agents are better empowered to actually solve their customers' problems. In theory, solving more problems should help agents feel less stressed and more fulfilled.

 

An increasing number of companies are also allowing agents to telecommute, a trend I last wrote about in December. As I wrote then, the tough economy is making this option more appealing for both employees and employers.



Add Comment      Leave a comment on this blog post
Jun 12, 2009 8:36 AM Jim Sevier Jim Sevier  says:

Telecommuting also provides access to a previously untapped resource of educated stay-at-home parents and the recently retired.  Both age groups would welcome the income (at almost any level) and are usually very well educated with excellent people skills.  Businesses would do well to reconsider the model of "high school" entry level call center positions to one that could actually help improve customer relations.

Reply
Jun 13, 2009 3:57 AM Stephanie T. Stephanie T.  says:

Just got done reading your post and it's really good! As a Zappos employee, and never previously working in a call center, I couldn't imagine what another place would be like. A few of my co-workers have worked in other centers and describe what it was like, and I couldn't bear the thought of it! We're like a family here at Zappos, and I've even had a 2.5 hour phone call, no scripts, and no time constraints! Have a good one!

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Jun 14, 2009 2:08 AM Jean S Jean S  says:

To outsource or not to outsource, is the conundrum faced by a number of companies. While outsourcing to locations like India, China has its advantages, the companies have to factor in a number of other issues as well.

Reply
Jun 18, 2009 9:28 AM Ed Gillespie Ed Gillespie  says:

Technology is certainly making off-site customer service more feasible.   I've been particularly following how Pitney Bowes Business Insight has been focused on this area.   While e-document access has been around for a while, the latest area of focus is on interactive communications -- giving companies a better way to manage the one-to-one communications between reps and customers.  Xplor recently hosted a webinar on this topic... pretty interesting.

http://xduonline.net/video/10284/10284.htm

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Jun 22, 2009 9:23 AM Glowtouch Glowtouch  says:

Call center and customer handling jobs require a great amount of skill acquired through continuous training, hands-on work experience and a good commitment level. It is understandable that customers sometime encounter situations while an offshore service representative makes best attempts to deliver apparent information. Offshore call centers have the potential to meet any industry requirements but again performance metrics should be tested, regularly.

Reply
Jul 14, 2009 10:43 AM Ip pbx Ip pbx  says:

I agree, the turnover rate is a big dilemma faced in call centers. I think with the proper incentives and a comfortable environment to work in, the turnover rate could be cut significantly. It's striking the balance between profit and employee comfort that is often times a tough nut to crack.

Reply
May 14, 2010 5:32 AM philippine call center philippine call center  says:

Call center  and customer handling jobs require a great amount of skill acquired through continuous training, hands-on work experience and a good commitment level. It is understandable that customers sometime encounter situations while an offshore service representative makes best attempts to deliver apparent information. Offshore call centers have the potential to meet any industry requirements but again performance metrics should be tested, regularly.

Reply
May 20, 2013 2:31 AM michellewilson michellewilson  says:
Agree, some companies do invest in making their call center environments a more pleasant place for workers and also get good results out of it Reply
Jul 25, 2013 6:34 AM Tara Tara  says:
@Michelle - this is very true - the ones that try to reduce the cost of their turnover rates are doing a good job of making their office environment fun and engaging so that people can relieve the stress of "the grind" Reply

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