At first glance, attrition seems like a chink in the armor for contact centers. Across every industry, the fact that people leave their jobs and move on is a basic truth, but in the contact center, the attrition metric receives quite of a bit of negative attention.
In fact, the International Customer Management Institute pegs the average call center turnover rate at 33%. That’s definitely a number that may sound like cause for alarm, but how insightful is that metric when you break it down? From our perspective, it’s almost meaningless without diving in deeper.
It’s common practice to ask about attrition rates in the RFP (grab your free contact center RFP template here), but the answer is not as straightforward as you might expect. In fact, if you’re looking for a new outsourcing partner, your understanding of attrition can impact your choice of potential partners. Here’s what you need to know.
Turnover in the contact center happens for a wide variety of reasons. Even the typical divide between voluntary and involuntary attrition isn’t enough to explain what’s really going on.
One of the most important differences is that the employee experience is simply different in the outsourced world than it is in-house. It’s not uncommon that people apply for outsourced contact center jobs when they’re in career transition. They might be moving from one industry to another or from one region to another, and the contact center is a great place to gain experience before moving up in their career. We’ll talk more about how this kind of employment experience can create good/bad attrition in a moment.
It’s important to understand that career path opportunities impact attrition. It’s a pretty typical in a call center for people to move only within the agent to supervisor to program management role trajectory. That’s why we work very hard to create a differentiated employment experience on our programs wherever possible. We’re looking to create upward career paths for people who have different goals and varied skill sets. We know that projects with multiple paths for advancement tend to have lower turn-over. We work with our clients to build programs that provide career paths not just for the obvious “people managers” but also for knowledge specialists, process people, and data analysts. It benefits our clients and our employees when high potential employees can advance within the program. But with an outsourced program, here’s where the attrition/employment experience differs from in-house: when an employee is promoted from a program role into a corporate role or when they transfer from one program to another, the client experiences “attrition” even though the outsourcer doesn’t.
So let’s look at what we like to call good attrition versus bad attrition. If an employee leaves us because they’ve been able to leverage their Blue Ocean experience to take a step forward in their career or in their life, that is okay with us. The fact that those agents or coaches had an employment experience with us that helped them grow professionally is a sign that we’re hiring great people who are engaged, high-performing, and highly motivated. If an agent or coach leaves us to go to an equal job with another employer or take a step backward in their career, that is concerning to us and we examine those circumstances very closely. Yes, there are also quits and terminations that result from the occasional low performer or bad attitude, but it’s critical to understand that not all attrition is created equal.
It’s a dangerous myth that a company-wide attrition rate will tell you something about the company’s hiring and retention practices, the caliber of people they employ, and their training and engagement strategies. The truth is, when an outsourcer has 20 different clients of varying industries, services, and sizes, an average attrition rate just isn’t effective.
Your first step in discovering a more accurate attrition rate is to ensure you’re comparing apples to apples. The turnover rate for a roadside assistance project three times the size of your tech support project just isn’t going to compare (and the average rate between the two won’t help you much either.) When you’re writing a contact center RFP, any questions about attrition should be related to projects that are similar in scope, size, and industry.
It’s also important to find out how an outsourced partner analyzes their attrition rates and what the root causes are. At Blue Ocean, for example, we have seen a direct correlation between attrition rate and speed of launch. If we compromise the early, important work related to agent profiling, recruiting, and training to meet a launch deadline, it almost inevitably impacts the turnover rate some 6-18 months later. Likewise, a client’s level of collaboration in the implementation process will also influence the attrition rate. If both parties are committed to investing the time and resources to develop a solid agent profile and training program and if the timeline provides the recruiting team with sufficient breathing room to get the right people in place, that will pay off in spades down the road.
Ultimately, an apples-to-apples comparison should not only include industry, size and scope of the project, but also details that relate to the big picture. It is possible to build a strategic partnership with your contact center, and the quality of this relationship has a major effect on attrition.
Hopefully it’s hit home by now that the question you do not want to be asking is, “what’s your contact center attrition rate?” it is simply too vague and it’s open to interpretation. Whoever’s answering your RFP could pick and choose from a variety of scenarios, including quit rates, involuntary turnover, or both. They might zero in on similar projects, or they might choose company-wide rates. They might calculate the average attrition rate based on the last five years, or focus on the last 12 months. In answering questions about attrition rates, contact centers will want to portray themselves in the best light. If you don’t get specific in what you’re asking, it’s likely you’ll end up comparing apples to oranges. You’re probably not going to get a meaningful answer, you won’t necessarily get the same kind of answer from your various bidders, and it doesn’t guarantee that your program will have a similar experience with the partner you choose.
Specific questions about contact center attrition are great, but so are questions that fall just outside of the realm of attrition. You’ll get a bigger picture when you also start asking about agent tenure or about hiring stats like referral rates. Or take a different tack altogether and dig deep with questions about employee engagement which has a significant influence on attrition … Keep reading for more on that topic.
The trickiest thing about the concept of attrition is that it’s not always a bad thing. It’s easy to associate turnover in the contact center with a bad working environment or low performers, and assume, therefore, that all turnover is negative. But retention does not necessarily equal engagement.
The truth is, if we put more value on improving our attrition rates than building a great employee experience, we would be working hard keep agents even if they had become disengaged. But with disengagement comes underperformance and low quality customer service. In short, we’d be doing you a disservice. If, however, we build a workforce of employees who are highly engaged while they’re here and then leave for the right reasons, we consider that a win-win scenario.
So, go ahead and ask about attrition, but balance it out by asking about employee engagement, and get specific on those questions too. Get a clear picture of the employee experience and ensure that you’re aligning your partner’s culture with your own.
At the end of the day, attrition isn’t going away. But we can stop acting like it’s a dirty word. When you accept the reality of a minimum turnover rate, it opens the door to developing a strategic partnership and bearing mutual responsibility for maintaining that minimum and managing the workforce and employee experience appropriately.