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Fixing the Agent Attrition Problem

May 2022
By Donna Fluss

Most of us are tired of hearing companies complain about agent attrition. Don’t get me wrong – it’s a serious issue that has been exacerbated by the Great Resignation. The frustration is that attrition is a problem that can be corrected if a company wants to fix it. I can say this definitively because I have worked in hundreds of contact centers over my many years as a consultant and have seen “the good, the bad and the ugly” (to borrow the title of a Clint Eastwood film). When a contact center has a high agent attrition rate, the reasons are obvious. 

During the last few years, contact center leaders changed the narrative by talking about agent engagement instead of agent attrition. It made sense, because engaged employees are more likely to stay, but it did little to improve the agent experience and to fix the underlying issues that drive high rates of attrition. Telling people you care about them and their future is very different from demonstrating your concern with appropriate actions. In the past, contact centers were able to replace agents when needed, but with the change in employee expectations, this is no longer the case. Companies can and should migrate low-value work to artificial intelligence (AI)-enabled conversational self-service solutions, as this will be better for employees, the brand, the bottom line and customers. But this will not resolve the primary agent complaints, which are:

  1. Being an agent is a dead-end job with little to no opportunity for promotion in the department or company.
  2. Agents do not have schedule flexibility, are penalized for the smallest infractions, such as being 5 minutes late, and cannot even change their lunch or break to accommodate life events.
  3. The salary is not adequate for the tough job that agents are required to do.
  4. Agents are treated like second-class citizens and are not allowed to attend company events and training courses (during normal business hours) because the contact center cannot be closed down.

As the issues are clear, so is the path to address them, but for this to happen, enterprises need to change their mindset and policies about contact centers and their employees. The fundamental change that will kick off a chain reaction of positive developments is to upgrade the agent role from one of the lowest in the company to a mid-level customer experience (CX) function. This will influence agents’ salaries and demonstrate the relative importance of this customer-facing role. The reason why this has not happened is because companies have wanted to keep expenses as low as possible for a function with a large number of employees. (Agent salaries are benchmarked against other companies with similar functions and a desire to keep their agent salaries low for the same reason.) However, most companies have seen that this approach encourages agents to quickly look for new jobs with higher salaries and more flexibility. The cost of hiring and onboarding new agents on a revolving-door basis has reached such a critical level that it’s finally worth fixing the problem

And if the agent role is upgraded to customer brand advocate (or something similar), it will position them to be better prepared for new opportunities. This is another area where change must be enacted if companies want their agents to stay. Many contact centers require agents to stay in their jobs for 1 – 2 years before they can transfer to other positions. This policy tells agents that their only way of moving up is to leave the company, which is a waste, as these front-line workers have broad knowledge of the company and its policies from helping customers. In short, it’s time for real change and recognition for agents. 

Final Thoughts

Executives need to be realistic about their contact centers. Being an agent is a tough job and the people who do it should be recognized and rewarded, not knocked down and held back. Agents are much more likely to stay in a job, even one as challenging as helping consumers, if they see it as a stepping stone toward their future instead of as an impediment to their future success. Reversing agent attrition won’t happen by talking about agent engagement, but can be solved by altering the policies that created the problem.