Agent satisfaction in the call center: How to reduce customer service burnout and attrition

Grigor Kotzev, Director of Business Value

The problem of agent attrition in the digital contact center

If your brand’s call center or contact center hasn’t had issues with employee attrition over the last two years, you’re in a very lucky minority. For most brands, attrition is one of the most challenging issues they handle — both day-to-day and in the long term. And one of the areas where we see the most attrition is the call center and the digital contact center.

Of course, this is understandable. Brand representatives — agents — have difficult, often thankless jobs. Burnout is an issue in the contact center, just as it is in community and social media management. Customer care agents are on the front lines, handling your brand’s most frustrated customers one after another, often dealing with the same problems over and over. It’s exhausting.

As tough as it is for your agents, it can be just as tough for your brand. That’s because when agents burn out and leave, it costs a lot to train their replacements. Likewise, when valuable experienced agents leave, it saps the contact center’s productivity and can even lead to inconsistencies in the customer experience. Many brands have long understood that their most important investments are their employees, yet it’s exceptionally difficult to keep employees in the contact center.

Contact Babel reports that the US alone has 40,000 contact centers employing over 3.6M agents. The cost of an employee leaving runs the brand roughly 20% of that employee’s annual salary. Let’s break that down with some quick math. If the average contact center has ninety agents, at an average salary of $40,000 per year, and an attrition rate of 45%, that center spends $324,000 in attrition costs each year.

This puts the US total at over $13B in annual agent attrition costs.

But as high as that number sounds, it doesn’t tell the whole story. SWPP makes an interesting observation about turnover in the call center industry: it’s exceptionally high, around 30–45%, but some centers have “almost no turnover” while others have turnover “in the triple digits.” Why such a big gap? It turns out certain strategies can help keep agents happy in their jobs for longer.

How to reduce call center agent burnout, turnover, and attrition

If you’re looking for a magic bullet, look elsewhere. Then, come back here. Because there isn’t a single solution that can stop customer service burnout. The call center is like any other part of your organization: Some employees will have burnout, but you should do what you can to minimize that issue. In customer service, as in any industry, the most obvious method of keeping agents around is to offer them more money (although that doesn’t always work). If you can do that, awesome! But many brands can’t, so they have to seek other, more elegant solutions. Here are a few tried-and-true strategies to keep your call center employees sticking around.

1. Support employees’ mental health

One trend that’s really accelerated since the beginning of the pandemic is that employers are increasingly caring more about employees’ mental health. That’s no accident; it’s a response to employee needs. Mental Health America reported a 93% increase from 2019 to 2020 in the number of people looking for aid with anxiety screening, as well as a 62% increase in the number of people seeking depression screenings. Those are massive numbers, and the call center is especially at risk.

Agent Satisfaction Stats

In addition to the isolation of a global pandemic, customer service agents experience personal insults, screaming, cursing, and even threats. All this causes emotional injury, and can lead to serious mental health problems. Hence the issue of customer service burnout.

EY (formerly Ernst & Young) is one of many leaders actively supporting employees’ mental health. Their company program, officially titled “r u ok?” is designed to tackle certain stigmas and encourage employees to reach out when they need help. This is just one of many examples, and the more your brand can do to support employees, the better.

Supporting mental health is trickier in the contact center than it is with some other employees. There’s immense pressure to maintain SLAs, which means limited flexibility. Where a member of the marketing team might be able to take advantage of a flexible PTO policy, a support agent might not have that luxury. Fortunately, there are ways to translate mental health friendly practices into the call center as well.

Start with your call center managers

Managers set the tone for the workplace, especially in the contact center. If they’re working through their lunches, not taking breaks, or exhibiting stress, that creates an atmosphere in which agents feel they have to push themselves — possibly to the point of burnout. Make sure managers normalize mental health tasks, even if that’s just a 90-second break to clear their heads.

Know what to look for (and actually look for it)

Monitor your agents for signs of fatigue. When their response time slips or their messages aren’t as friendly as they could be, that’s not just a risk of upsetting customers; it can be a sign of impending burnout. Likewise, when employees say they need or want something, listen. It’s not always possible to give them what they want (we know you have SLAs to maintain), but showing them that you’re willing to listen to their concerns is huge. To do this, look back at EY’s example: They’ve created an environment where employees feel comfortable speaking up about what’s bothering them, even though they’re not guaranteed an immediate solution.

Respect off-work hours

Look, I get it: emergencies happen. Maybe your website momentarily crashed and you have hundreds of people calling about their lost orders. Maybe your product is malfunctioning and you need to offer refunds. In these situations, it can be all hands on deck in the call center.

But unless these emergencies are happening every day, they’re probably not what’s causing burnout in your call center. So when there isn’t some sort of global emergency, make sure you’re respecting the fact that full-time work doesn’t actually take up 100% of an agent’s time. Do your best not to create a culture wherein they feel they have to respond to customers after hours or come in when they weren’t expecting to.

As long as your employees in the contact center are using good practices, not cherry picking conversations, and staying on top of SLAs, they deserve mental breaks when they’re not working. This starts with a culture that prioritizes their well-being.

2. Invest in your call center’s employee experience

These days, almost everyone is talking about customer experience. In fact, almost every blog we write focuses on CX in one form or another. But not this one.

That’s because one of the most important (yet least discussed) parts of running a successful brand is creating a positive employee experience.

What is employee experience?

The concept here is intuitive: employee experience is the sum of all employees’ interactions within the company. It covers their cultural experiences, such as exchanges with coworkers, leaders and HR, as well as their user experiences with workplace technology, their workspace, and their work environment. Of course, for customer care agents, this also includes all their interactions with customers.

We typically talk about employee experience in two parts. First, there’s onboarding and training. Employees, and particularly contact center agents, often see this as a career growth opportunity. This means that when this step in the employee experience is poor, it can lead to poor performance and high absenteeism. Training and career growth opportunities are motivational engines for agents, and should not stop at the entry level. They should be delivered throughout the whole agent’s career, with ongoing coaching and support from managers. This crucial step directly impacts agents’ satisfaction and happiness.

The second part of employee experience concerns the tools and solutions that employees use to do their jobs. The digital first service funnel is helping address low cost and low complexity inquiries with self service and automation, leaving human agents to respond to more elaborate, complex questions with higher value. Advanced businesses are educating their agents to realize that automation is not an enemy, but rather an ally upon which they can rely to augment their work and help them resolve repetitive, unsatisfying problems. The vast majority of the agent workforce is still unaware of the value such partnership can offer them by automating the customer’s journey and supporting the agent through complex customer engagements. So, how can technology augment employee experience? Here are just a few of the many ways.

AI and ML

AI and ML can be a contact center agent’s best friend. The key here is agent proactivity — that is, helping the agent take active control of the tech they’re using to help customers, rather than letting it become just another resource that the company uses in a silo. In the contact center at Samsung Benelux, for example, agents see automation as a way to take a more active role in assisting customers.

This is effective on the front end and the back end alike. On the front end, agents get a bot that constantly enhances itself, along with agent inputs for a better agent experience. On the back end, agents benefit from augmented or suggested responses that they can use as inputs to make the ultimate optimal answer. With those capabilities, agents don’t necessarily have to search through knowledge bases in order to answer a question; AI can do that job for them. In other words, agents can take advantage of the bot’s machine learning and AI capabilities to enhance their own autonomy and decision making; this allows not just the bot but the agents themselves to improve over time.

As Samsung Benelux puts it, “We are in the lead seat, and we ensure a smooth handover between the digital assistant and contact center human agents.” The smoothness of that transition makes it easier and less stressful for agents to handle cases, and it also improves the efficiency of their interactions.

An integrated, omnichannel customer care platform

Just as important as a solution that can help agents cut down on response time is one that can streamline their care experience. Yesterday’s call center has become today’s contact center. Whereas agents used to respond to just one incoming channel — the phone — now they’re tasked with responding to up to a dozen or more: SMS, web chat, social media, and many more.

This can create several headaches. One is the question of how to organize the team. Some customer care centers have a separate team for each channel: one answers the phone, another responds to Tweets and DMs on Twitter, another replies to SMS messages, and so on. But while this makes it easier on agents, it creates (at least) two issues for the call center. First, this creates knowledge silos; feedback from the Twitter team might not reach the SMS team, leading to a slower, less adaptable customer experience. Second, this strategy destroys call center efficiency. If volumes spike on one channel but not another, a call center organized this way will be slow to respond; that creates needless delays and expenses for the brand.

A better solution is to give agents the ability to respond to customers on all channels within a single platform. That way, they’re not constantly switching between screens and potentially missing messages — and you’re not sacrificing efficiency. This is exactly what European Wax Center did when they onboarded Khoros for Contact Centers. Before onboarding, their agents had to switch back and forth between six different channels; now, they answer all their inquiries within the same platform.

7 Customer Service Strategies

An omnichannel contact center solution gives agents the ability to care for more customers more efficiently while reducing the stress of answering inquiries on several channels at once. It’s a win-win.

Call deflection

Talking on the phone is likely the most stressful part of the job for most call center agents. This is the channel where agents most fully experience customer frustration. It’s also far less efficient than messaging channels, often leading to a backlog of waiting customers and mounting pressure to meet SLAs. To put it simply, the more time your agents spend on the phone, the more stressed they’re likely to be. Stress leads to burnout, and burnout leads to turnover. So, let’s avoid the phone.

To do that, you’ll need to think about call deflection. Call deflection occurs when a customer who would have called to resolve their problem instead uses another method. This is most effective when it’s a self-service solution like an online brand community, but there are other ways to deflect calls as well. Google’s Business Messages and Apple Business Chat both offer excellent points of entry for customers who search for brands online. Brands can use those channels far more efficiently than phone calls, thus cutting down on agent stress and creating a cleaner experience for agents.

Agent communities

A lot of brands, including Khoros, talk about online communities as excellent ways to support customers. And that’s true. They deflect calls, boost engagement, and provide a place for a brand’s most passionate fans to share their opinions. But customers aren’t the only people who can get a lot out of a well-built community; service agents can also reap the benefits.

One brand leading the way in this space is Cisco. Cisco realized that their customer support agents are more than just individual resources for customers; they’re experts on the Cisco brand, products, and customer experience. That’s why the brand decided to connect these repositories of information to one another in an online community. Together with Khoros, Cisco found a way to seamlessly transform the expertise of their agents into content their customers and partners could use to improve their business operations — all while improving agent satisfaction.

They developed a competition for the chance to win a two-week work rotation at any global support center location. The competition, called the Knowledge Champions League, consists of agents collaborating to create articles within Cisco’s internal community. Articles are then published to the support site, where customers and partners can access them to problem-solve. The KCL team who creates the highest volume of impactful content wins the grand prize. Although only one team wins, all KCL participants realize the benefits of working collaboratively in global teams across technologies: building their network of contacts, building cultural awareness, and strengthening their collaboration skills while developing articles.

While this is just one of many possible examples of an agent community, it shows how this solution can stimulate agents’ creativity and, ultimately, job satisfaction.

To see all the ways in which Cisco has taken advantage of their innovative community, check out their full case study.

Develop a winning employee experience with the Khoros platform

As I said above, reducing attrition isn’t easy, nor is there a single solution that will help you do so. You’ll never completely solve the problem, nor should that be your goal. But creating a positive experience for your customer care agents is a crucial step in keeping (most of) them around for the long term. Mental health resources and PTO are crucial for any employee, but especially customer service agents, who exhibit incredibly high turnover.

Also important are digital-first solutions like Khoros, which leverage AI chatbots, advanced analytics, natural language understanding, and other cutting-edge features to make life easier for employees (and customers too!). Khoros also offers industry-leading professional and strategic services to onboard and train agents, supporting them through the transition from a legacy system and helping them squeeze as much utility as they can from the new solution.

To learn more about how Khoros can help you reduce attrition in your contact center, schedule a demo today.

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