Across the United States, workers are voluntarily leaving their jobs in record numbers. The Great Resignation—a trend being driven by an economic and psychological shift as employers struggle to tempt unhappy staff to return to work, coupled with the impact of retiring Baby Boomers—saw more than 4.3 million people quit their jobs in December 2021 alone.
And a month earlier, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the nation recorded its highest ever quit rate of 4.4 million.
Those are frightening numbers, and they are costing companies millions of dollars.
Contact Center Turnover
In our own contact center space, we are no exception to the pain point of continual turnover, specifically agent attrition, which averages between 30-45% per year in the U.S., according to the Quality Assurance and Training Connection.
And every indication is that these numbers have risen since then, driven by the COVID-19 pandemic, but also as people take the initiative and look for new opportunities.
This follows the cumulative pressures of lockdown, working from home (WFH), and by general job dissatisfaction, which includes the added dynamic of an aging workforce adopting a “too old for this s#$%” (quoting from the movie “Lethal Weapon“) attitude.
Factor in the fact that hybrid working is already removing geographical barriers for workers in terms of new employment opportunities, and it’s clear that retention is set to become even harder in 2022.
But for the contact center industry, the attrition rates should be of particular concern, and they are potentially at risk of spiraling further if the Great Resignation really starts to take hold.
That is because adequate staffing is critical in retaining and growing customer revenues by providing excellent customer experiences (CXs) and at the same time in controlling costs which, in turn, helps keep companies competitive.
Yet, too many organizations still treat agent turnover as just another cost associated with running their contact centers. So, it’s perhaps not surprising that, as an industry, we rarely monitor or keep track of those issues that we know to be important contributing factors behind attrition.
While CX leaders always talk about how people are their #1 asset, many agents are still faced with a working environment that is characterized by poor supporting technology, frustrating gaps in customer journeys, limited empowerment, and often incohesive feedback.
When you lose a contact center agent, you don’t just lose their expertise or years of experience, but also the investment that it took to hire them—and not just in terms of their salary, but also potentially recruiter fees, onboarding costs, and training expenses.
Given that the costs of recruiting and onboard training new agents are already high (and set to climb even higher this year as wages rise), any reductions in the attrition metric can have huge cost implications.
These costs often depend on the position you are refilling. A blog from Glassdoor, the company review website, estimates that it costs $4,000 to hire a new employee while Workable, developers of a leading recruitment software, estimates that it costs approximately $15,000 to replace a high-level executive.
But the costs don’t stop there. Companies then have the costs of further training and managing their employees.
After being hired, it takes an employee approximately eight months to get up to speed, working at their fullest capability.
Keeping in mind that about one-third of new employees look for another job within their first six months, and a further 23% do so before their one-year anniversary—the turnover (and cost) cycle continues. A cycle that accelerates when the labor market for that specific employment approaches saturation, with an increasingly limited supply of potential available workers.
For an industry where current attrition rates already cost a typical 500-seat contact center over $1 million annually, with firms having to replace those agents and train their replacements, any escalation in resignations would have huge implications.
Finally, there is the cost of lost business. Like from customers who abandon their shopping carts by waiting too long to get their inquiries answered in a timely manner. Or who do not receive the right or incomplete information from overworked existing or newly recruited agents.
And this is a cost that is greatly magnified when customers share their negative experiences with others.
Workloads Becoming More Stressful
The discussions, however, around global trends such as the Great Resignation mask the day-to-day reality of working in contact centers for many agents.
For today’s agent workloads are changing dramatically, with a third of agents now reporting feeling acutely stressed multiple times each week. Yet few of them are given the tools they need to deal with the increasing complexity of their roles.
A recent Harris poll suggested that 46% of all customer interactions are already automated. This level continues to grow, with the pandemic clearly accelerating brands’ determination to simplify processes and enable more effective digital access for customers.
And, with artificial intelligence (AI) computational power currently doubling every 3.5 months, according to McKinsey, you can expect to see automation and AI become even more prevalent as they help brands to free up customer service resources and make more informed decisions.
While it is logical that effective automation programs should result in a requirement for a smaller but higher skilled group of agents, it’s essential that brands don’t overlook both the initial and longer-term impacts of these changes on their people.
Unfortunately, the reality is that—as overall customer contact volumes fall—agents are being left with the more complex, urgent, and emotional customer journeys to handle.
We also need to consider that customers who are falling out of the self-service journey are more likely to be frustrated. If we transfer those already disgruntled customers through to agents who are mentally fatigued from these interactions, we can hypothesize that they are unlikely to perform at their very best and impact customer sentiment for the better.
And while the pandemic-driven shift to WFH has been beneficial for some agents and organizations, by freeing the former from the costly stress of commuting and the latter by growing their labor pools, it has also introduced additional concerns for agents.
While we are seeing some reluctance in areas to return to the traditional workplace, it’s wrong, however, to assume that this experience has been universal.
For much of the contact center agent demographic, WFH has involved work/life balance compromises and inevitable distancing from their teams and colleagues. This too has had an impact on agents’ mental health and well-being during the lockdowns.
Criticality of Agent Well-Being
Brands, then, need to recognize the impact that major changes such as automation and WFH have had on their contact center agents.
We know that they already have one of the most monitored, measured, scrutinized, and analyzed roles that exists anywhere—telling managers exactly what their agents have been doing.
But very rarely do organizations stop to ask what their people actually need to do their jobs better. What would truly help them to be more productive? What could enable them to feel more empowered?
And do we ever stop to think about what it is that we’re measuring? And, more importantly, what we’re not?
As an industry we manage agent performance at every available opportunity.
That’s reflected in familiar metrics such as average handle times, transfer rates, average agent hold times, and first contact resolution.
Typically, however, these metrics are internally focused and exist to track and improve contact center productivity.
And while customer effort scores have increasingly been used to identify areas of potential friction in customer journeys, the emphasis has always been on optimizing them so that they work better for brands and their customers.
Our industry should be doing much more to acknowledge the key role that agents’ mental health and well-being plays in delivering excellent customer service, and in ensuring strong performance and results.
It is unfortunately true that mental illnesses are common in the United States, with nearly one in five U.S. adults living with such an illness (52.9 million in 2020), according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
Not surprisingly, poor mental health is one of the biggest contributors to attrition and absence in the workplace, with the impact of an unhappy workforce now a multi-billion-dollar problem across North America.
So, looking after agents’ mental health and well-being needs to be front and center of the management agenda.
For if we continue to overlook these matters then organizations are failing to provide the rounded support that they need to continue delivering high quality CXs.
And because we don’t tend to monitor agent well-being on a regular basis, then we shouldn’t be surprised that so many agents end up being frustrated and frequently depressed—with a significant proportion feeling the need to quit their roles.
Absenteeism and Presenteeism
But while some of the consequences of poor agent well-being, like attrition, are relatively easy to measure and the direct impact is obvious within contact center operations, the stories of absenteeism and presenteeism is more difficult to understand.
Sure, we understand the symptoms of absence and sickness, such as bad back, flu, stomach upset, and migraines.
But do we truly understand the root cause of absence?
If you think about it, do we really believe that our employees will be comfortable telling their managers that they “are unable to cope mentally,” or “feel completely burned out because I cannot manage the complex calls you give me every day.”
Mental health is such a difficult subject, we often feel uncomfortable talking about it with our closest family and friends, let alone our manager at work.
But if agents just put up with burnout and stress and “struggle on,” they will not be the best version of themselves in front of customers.
This is in fact an example of presenteeism: showing up to work when too ill, physically and mentally, to function adequately. And it is a massive problem in our industry. To prove this, call a customer service hotline of a brand you know has poor customer sentiment and speak to the agent. Do they act as a brand ambassador for their company? Are they the best version of themselves?
Placing an increased focus on monitoring agent well-being makes smart business sense, particularly in terms of identifying what can be done to reduce their frustrations. At a time when optimizing agent retention and reducing attrition could prove critical, it’s also essential that a contact center’s management team does everything it can to support the mental health of their employees.
Ensuring Happy Agents (and Customers)
Fortunately, there are solutions that have been developed to help brands gain a deeper understanding of the added or unseen pressures that agents now face due to changed processes, working practices, and digital transformation.
These tools enable managers to better understand issues around agent wellness, emotions, and stresses. It also allows them to identify how positive boosts can impact the agents’ days, as well as focus in on those issues or processes that might be failing agents and resolve them much more quickly.
With these applications, managers can formulate people and technology strategies based on data, not assumptions. This data surfaces actionable intelligence on what the technology can do for people, not the other way around.
Well-being starts in the workplace, and we believe that a key goal should be to make sure that your culture is centered on it as well as on the health of your people.
Even percentage point improvements in agent well-being can make a positive impact—unlocking measurable improvements in absence and attrition.
Happy Agents=Happier Customers!