Call Center Catch-22: Cutting Turnover While Controlling Costs


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.