Boosting contact-center performance through employee engagement

Boosting contact-center performance through employee engagement

By Whitney Gretz and Raelyn Jacobson

Companies that can keep service agents on the job longer not only reduce operating costs but also improve customer satisfaction. Actions in four areas can have a profound impact—and they are within every contact center’s reach.

The nature of customer care is changing. Customers are becoming increasingly comfortable with online self-service tools. The remaining live calls to contact centers are often more complicated to resolve, so providing consistent high-quality customer service depends on experienced, knowledgeable agents with proper training and support. Failure to retain these talented employees can have significant repercussions: employee attrition can erode customer satisfaction while increasing operating costs. Each new agent hire is estimated to cost the contact center $10,000 to $20,000 in training, direct recruiting costs, and lost productivity during ramp up.

Since longer-tenured agents have more expertise and institutional knowledge to bring to customer interactions, improving employee retention also has a direct impact on the quality of customer care. New McKinsey research suggests a need for companies to go back to the basics when interacting with their contact-center employees by focusing on engagement and finding ways to increase workplace comfort and happiness. The impact can be striking: satisfied call-center employees are significantly more likely to stay and to refer their workplace to a friend. Those expecting to remain at their company a year from now are nearly twice as satisfied. In addition, satisfied employees are more than three times as likely as dissatisfied colleagues to feel empowered to solve customer issues. These factors have a direct bearing on the quality of customer service and the operational cost to deliver it.

So how can companies ensure they are creating a supportive workplace for agents that also helps to reduce attrition? Our research found that a handful of factors—and not just wages or job-related stress—have the greatest influence on employee satisfaction and retention. Accordingly, companies should focus on improving the factors within their control to make employees feel empowered. Several activities such as the frequency and effectiveness of huddles, the duration of training (or nesting), the opportunities for socializing, and intentional supervision have proved effective. Collectively, these activities can be potent tools to foster a sense of belonging among agents and improve agent retention.

Employee satisfaction and retention are intertwined

Employee satisfaction and retention are naturally intertwined. In all, 38 percent of contact-center agents are extremely satisfied with their job, and another 43 percent are more satisfied than not (Exhibit 1). The levels of satisfaction varied across industries: for example, banking, securities, and financial services had the highest proportion of respondents who reported being extremely satisfied at 52 percent, followed by travel, transport, and logistics at 44 percent and nonhealthcare insurance at 35 percent (which also had the lowest overall percentage of dissatisfied employees). Meanwhile, telecommunications and technology earned the lowest marks, with just 25 percent indicating that they are extremely satisfied.

Finding your happy place: Employee satisfaction by industry

The survey highlighted the impact of employee satisfaction on retention. According to the survey, 61 percent of all respondents expect to be working with their company a year from now, while 19 percent indicated that they were likely to leave their current job within this time period.1 Among those likely to stay, nearly 60 percent are extremely satisfied with their job and company. For respondents who expect to change jobs, 62 percent are notably dissatisfied with their current situation. When it comes to the likelihood of retention, healthcare insurance; travel, transportation, and logistics; and nonhealthcare insurance have the highest expected retention rates. The survey identified five factors that had the greatest influence on retention as well as the top drivers of satisfaction (Exhibit 2).

Employee retention: More than just the money

The top factor, wages and job security, is largely determined by industry and market dynamics, so executives are limited in their ability to differentiate salaries from the competition. Still, contact-center leaders should ensure that agents are aware of and eligible for financial incentives. However, frontline leaders may find it best to train their sights on the four factors they can fully control.

Promotion opportunities

The survey analysis found that promotional opportunities account for 14 percent of an employee’s satisfaction. Care agents who feel trapped in their current role are more likely to pursue jobs elsewhere: the survey revealed that nearly half of agents likely to leave their job have no desire to move into a supervisor role or believe they will not have the opportunity to do so. A lack of interest in promotion could mean agents don’t think they have the skills to be promoted or don’t believe they will be considered for promotion. Since agents who are not interested in promotion opportunities are more likely to leave their job, companies need to focus on this group and help them see a clear career path, become interested in promotion opportunities, and feel their career path is feasible. Employees that move up the ladder will earn higher wages, demonstrating that management can have some impact on wages for high performers.

Management should also strive to understand how the effect of motivating factors may differ for specific agent segments. For example, a recent university graduate who views her job as a career stepping-stone may be much more likely to leave than a more senior employee who has enjoyed a long career and is still working mainly for the sense of community.

Nature and mission

The degree of connection that contact-center agents have with a company’s business strategy and guiding principles are an important factor in retention. About 70 percent of respondents who said they are likely to stay at their position indicated that they strongly support their organization’s mission and enjoy the nature of the work. By comparison, just 25 percent of respondents who reported they are likely to leave felt similarly. Given the importance of this factor, contact centers should seek to promote and reinforce their company’s mission in a customer-centric way on a consistent basis. Leading contact centers are beginning to incorporate meaningful customer reflections at the start of meetings across all levels of the company, from top management and leadership to agent huddles.

Friends and community

At many jobs, a sense of belonging serves as the glue for employees, and contact centers are no different. Respondents pointed to having friends to talk with during breaks and in-office social events as the biggest contributors to an overall sense of community. Those expecting to stay at their current job are three times more satisfied with their workplace friends and community, on average, than those who expect to leave. The facility and common areas—for example, clean break stations that are relaxing and enjoyable—can contribute to a sense of community and influence overall satisfaction. Our research indicates agents need to enjoy their working environments and feel the atmosphere reflects their value as employees.

Stress

Although interactions with unhappy customers can be trying, call complexity and performance scrutiny also contribute to overall stress for agents. Respondents who feel that their supervisor has them under a constant microscope are more likely to leave. Similarly, agents who do not receive recognition for their work and are required to use scripts or disclaimers during calls exhibit higher stress levels and are more likely to leave their jobs. These findings suggest that agents may interpret performance scrutiny more positively if feedback is paired with constructive conversations about professional development and performance recognition.

These four factors apply to all companies, but some industries are inherently more appealing due to the nature of work and mission of the organization.

Agents working in healthcare insurance, for example, may derive additional gratification by helping customers through a challenging time, and their interactions may be more positive and tie directly to their company’s stated mission. Where an industry lacks an inspiring or fulfilling mission and work, companies will need to reinforce the job’s importance in other ways. Friends and a sense of community is one of the top two most important factors in both banking and nonhealthcare insurance, suggesting the work relationships that agents form could compensate for the job’s other shortcomings.

What companies can do to improve retention

Companies have a number of management approaches within their reach to improve the work environment and staff cohesion—and by extension employee retention. Despite the widely recognized impact of these levers, the survey found that in many organizations today they are not implemented frequently. Four areas hold particular promise.

Effective team huddles

Huddles are moments set aside during the workday to encourage frequent peer-to-peer discussions among contact-center agents and supervisors. These regular interactions can effectively promote certain frontline behaviors, reinforce key messages, and increase agent engagement. Although executives are broadly aware of huddles and their strategic value, managers often view them as a waste of time and the first thing to cancel if call volumes are higher than expected. Indeed, 70 percent of survey respondents reported that they experience huddles only once a week or less; 14 percent said they have no regular huddles or meetings whatsoever (Exhibit 3). As with other practices, the average frequency of huddles differs by industry: 49 percent of nonhealthcare insurance respondents participate in huddles more than once per week, and this frequency may contribute to the high satisfaction levels among agents. The next closest industry is banking, securities, and financial services with 31 percent.

No-huddle offense: Frequency runs the gamut

Effective huddles allow for time to facilitate sharing of best practices, clarify and reinforce employee expectations, set fun team goals, celebrate peer performance, and emphasize the critical roles that agents play. If structured properly and held consistently, huddles typically improve both agent happiness and performance significantly (especially among lower-performing employees), which in turn can enhance customer experience.

Frequency of huddles is one part of the equation. But they should also be well-structured, targeted, and thoughtfully facilitated to maximize the return on time invested. Many organizations hold huddles regularly but do little to coach and support managers to run these meetings effectively—a missed opportunity since huddles can have a direct impact on performance. Companies can follow a few guidelines to run effective huddles.

Keep it simple. Focus each huddle on one to two priorities or messages, with one actionable takeaway. Employees should be clear on what insights or coaching to apply to their next call.

Maintain clear, consistent, and actionable KPIs. Huddles are a perfect opportunity to celebrate high performers and employee improvement. Key performance indicators (KPIs) such as average handle time and quality must be aligned with organizational goals. In addition, agents must feel that metrics are truly under their control; if agents are held to a standard they believe they cannot affect, morale and overall engagement will decline rapidly.

Coach the coaches. Many managers have never experienced an effective huddle. By helping them identify the components of a successful huddle and demonstrating how to be effective facilitators, companies can significantly increase huddle efficacy.

Change the focus regularly. Huddles can become monotonous and active participation can drop if nothing ever changes (much like going to the gym). Shifting the focus—either daily or weekly—and challenging agents to achieve short-term goals can help keep the experience fresh. Another method involves managers occasionally asking high-performing agents to lead a huddle, simultaneously recognizing these high performers while mixing things up for the broader group.

Encourage comradery. Managers should always recognize success and improvement to create a fun huddle dynamic that both celebrates and motivates employees.

Huddles can serve as a potent engagement tool to reinforce work importance and organizational mission. At one company, the use of frequent and focused huddles produced a sustainable 50 percent increase in revenue along with higher employee satisfaction. Huddles also operate as avenues to build a sense of community and actively address challenges in the work environment. In turn, this interaction leads to greater employee satisfaction, better performance, and improved customer experience.

Nesting

The period of time that new contact-center agents spend fielding customer requests with the support of supervisors, referred to as nesting, is an important development stage that helps prepare them for the many issues they will encounter. The length of time that agents spend nesting before transitioning to interactions with less direct supervision varies significantly. However, there is a trade-off between the level of preparation and getting agents to the floor quickly. The most common nesting period was one to two weeks, reported by 28 percent of respondents; 11 percent spent more than two months in a nesting environment before joining the ranks of experienced contact-center agents (Exhibit 4).

Leaving the nest: Training duration varies

During the nesting phase, the size of the cohort plays an important role in overall employee satisfaction. Most agents completed the nesting period with a cohort of their colleagues—although the size of cohort ranged from fewer than 5 (32 percent of respondents) to more than 20 (16 percent). But 40 percent of dissatisfied agents had a nesting cohort of 5 or fewer colleagues, suggesting that larger cohorts may lead to increased team cohesion and support.

Companies seeking to recalibrate their approach to nesting to maximize the benefit should keep a few points in mind. Targeted and thoughtfully conducted check-ins held over the course of the first few months of an agent’s tenure can reduce stress even with a shorter nesting period. However, short nesting periods can mean that the sense of community and support so crucial for less experienced agents can fail to take hold. Ensuring nesting cohorts have at least six agents can create this organic support system of peers for new hires.

Socializing

The traditional contact-center emphasis on utilization, efficiency, and performance often does not leave agents with sufficient time to socialize, and this lack of interaction can undermine the shared community and mission among employees. One challenge is that the call-center environment often isn’t conducive to socializing. Breaks are traditionally staggered to ensure adequate coverage for call volumes, and agents are tied to their desks even between calls (in case a call comes in). As a result, activities such as group lunches and flexible break times—common outlets for socializing in other functions—are typically experienced less frequently in the contact center. Therefore, companies must make a deliberate effort to encourage a sense of community.

Social activities can still fit into the broader contact-center performance agenda. The research suggests that efforts to facilitate and promote socializing can significantly increase agent satisfaction. While 66 percent of respondents have at least one opportunity per shift to socialize with coworkers, 16 percent of respondents reported no opportunities at all. Agents who are able to socialize more than once per shift are about two times more likely to be extremely satisfied. Respondents who said they had few opportunities to socialize—once per month or not at all—are three times more likely to be dissatisfied than extremely satisfied (Exhibit 5).

Give me a break: Socializing’s impact on satisfaction

Companies can support socialization by seeking to free agents from time-consuming obligations that do not add significant value. For example, contact-center managers could reevaluate compulsory meetings and periodically replace them with more engaging opportunities (for example, social events such as in-office tournaments) where agents could build comradery. Other tactics geared to performance, such as peer-to-peer coaching where a top-quartile performer is paired with a lower performer, not only serve to increase lower-quartile performance but also instill a sense of community and promote socialization. This rapport allows agents to observe specific behavior (such as time-saving shortcuts) and get answers to questions they may be embarrassed to ask their supervisor.

Supervision

The availability and engagement of supervisors contributes to agent engagement and performance by making them feel supported by a network of more experienced employees. Fifty-seven percent of respondents who reported being able to reach their supervisor within a couple minutes were extremely satisfied compared with just 9 percent who were not. The longer it took agents to reach supervisors, the greater their dissatisfaction. When the times exceeded 15 minutes, just 14 percent of respondents reported being satisfied.

Supervisor presence is important across the board, but it goes far beyond physical coverage. (See sidebar, “Promoting inclusivity in the contact center.”) The real impact comes from supervisors who take the time to provide meaningful coaching, give recognition, and consistently act as a role model. An example of this gesture might include supervisors who occasionally drop off a doughnut or other small reward at an agent’s desk to recognize a good call or specific positive behavior. This gratitude reminds agents that their hard work is appreciated and their supervisor is listening. Further, the presence of supervisors, particularly those who worked their way up from entry-level positions, can offer interested agents a powerful example of the path to advancement.


Calls to the contact center will only become more complex in the coming years, meaning the expertise of longer-tenured service agents will be needed more than ever to provide an excellent customer experience. The stress inherent in the contact center will always take a toll on efforts to retain high performers; that aspect of the job is unlikely to change. However, companies that strive to create a workplace where employees feel a strong sense of community and have the time to connect with peers and supervisors will be rewarded with engaged employees who want to stay around longer. Success in this area will translate directly to better service and happier customers. The best part is that companies already have the tools to boost employee satisfaction—they just need to commit to using them.

About the author(s)

Whitney Gretz is a consultant in McKinsey’s Chicago office, and Raelyn Jacobson is a consultant in the Seattle office.

The authors would like to acknowledge Eric Buesing, McGregor Faulkner, Paul Hurst, Paul Kline, and Mary Snider for their contributions to this article.

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