Building a Retention Organization

By Kelli Massaro

Retaining top performers is essential to call center success. The challenge is to create a positive work culture that sustains, nurtures, and engages employees – both as a team and individually. Retention is a multifaceted issue that is affected by both intrinsic factors (individual needs) and extrinsic factors (organizational/departmental systems that support employees). Retention strategies need to address both.

The intrinsic elements of employee satisfaction were discussed in the article, “Employee Satisfaction: The Manager’s Role.”  Designing a foundation that supports both personal and job satisfaction results in high retention rates and benefits your operation. The rewards include reduced turnover, high-level customer service, excellence in quality, and increased productivity. Simply put, satisfied employees stay, and high retention directly impacts the financial bottom line. To achieve a positive work environment, managers must purposely deploy a range of strategies that address retention’s multiple factors.

Hiring Right: Most call center turnover occurs with the first three months, so hiring well from the start is of utmost importance. Assessing job applicants for job fit and essential skills is crucial to help ensure new employees are positioned to succeed. In addition, providing new hires with realistic job expectations, consistent training, ongoing mentoring, and social integration helps to support them through their development phase.

Addressing Extrinsic Retention Factors: A number of organizational and system factors influence your ability to affect employee satisfaction and retention. Considering how to maximize each element (as listed below) for your call center setting may increase overall satisfaction. Some items may not be within your control; however, many can be implemented without additional cost.

Compensation:  Call center staff should be paid comparably to their counterparts within the different organizational departments. In some organizations call center staff are paid less, contributing to the workforce feeling devalued. Recent national surveys have shown that approximately half of the healthcare call centers pay their triage nurses on par with other hospital nursing staff. Human resources may also perform marketplace surveys to insure that salaries are competitive with similar community organizations. Arm yourself with this data before presenting your case to HR or senior management.

Opportunities for Professional Development: Encouraging staff to take advantage of continuing education can boost motivation. It can also help employees stay challenged at work. Positioning education and training as a privilege or benefit (not a mandatory obligation) will stimulate interest. If allowed to earn their way toward advanced training and awarded a chance to participate, staff will be more likely to attend and share what they’ve learned with their colleagues.

Career Ladders are useful in attracting new staff. The perception of advancement opportunities to positions such as team leader, senior agent, preceptor, educator, or middle manager is important in retention. Rewarding your top performers with a promotion, even if not monetary, may be just as crucial to employee satisfaction as appropriate pay. In smaller call centers, the organization chart may be relatively flat. If advancement opportunities are limited, you may need to be creative in offering a lateral career path. Horizontal advancement that promotes employees to positions of new titles, which offers new responsibilities, certification, or additional training (such as computers, software, customer service, communication, or clinical) can be developed and used as part of an incentive and reward program.

Alternative Work Environments and Job Diversity: Telecommuting, or working from home, is an opportunity many call centers are eager to explore (or already have in place). The benefits are greater staffing flexibility and employee satisfaction, increased productivity, and decreased turnover. Another satisfier, as well as a burnout prevention strategy, is to explore options for staff to work outside the call center. At St. Barnabas Health Care Link in New Jersey, staff re-energize by working at community health fairs. This allows face-to-face interaction, promotes the work they do, and “gets them off the phone” for a day. Offering paid time for completing call center projects can unveil and highlight staff’s individual talents. A call center manager in Michigan stocks a drawer with one-to-two hour projects for staff to work on during lulls in call volume. The project materials and instructions are in a sealed envelope, along with a project ‘thank you’ gift, such as gift certificate, cafeteria pass, or movie tickets.

Schedule FlexibilityCall centers that can help employees balance their personal and business lives with schedule flexibility will positively influence staff satisfaction. Exploring alternative schedules such as split shifts with telecommuting, creative weekend shifts, or working a ‘9 months on, 3 months off’ schedule can offer family-friendly choices to the employee. Customized schedule rotations and self-scheduling with a staff committee are other innovative ways to give employees input and promote positive morale.

Call Center Environments:  The call center environment also affects staff satisfaction. Optimizing the physical environment (based on employee feedback) such as noise level, workstations, ergonomics, lighting, and temperature, can help employees be more productive, efficient, and prevent work-related injuries. In Austin, Texas, the staff opted for “low light days” for stress reduction. The center’s overhead lights are left off one day per week. Team members have individual desk lamps to use if they prefer a well-lit work area. Break rooms should be amenity-rich, convenient, and promote a “homey” feel. Many centers report having quiet rooms (No talking please!) for reading, thinking, or napping.

Promoting a relaxed work atmosphere also promotes positive morale. Do people have fun at work and enjoy being there, or is stress and negativity palpable? Creating a fun atmosphere with perks like Pajama Day, Jeans Day, Ice Cream Sundae Day, potlucks, and celebrating birthdays can contribute toward making the atmosphere a lot less stressful. Sharing humor on a daily basis reminds everyone to smile at work!
Recognition and Appreciation: Based on a CallCenterCareers.com survey done in 2001, recognition for hard work is nearly as important to employees as receiving better pay. This illustrates that recognition can be a powerful motivator, and employees like to work for organizations that appreciate their contributions.

Incentive and award programs may be organization-wide, departmentally created, or a combination of both. Acknowledgment for an individual’s contribution can range from verbal recognition and small gifts (including non-monetary awards and gift certificates), to pay-for-performance incentives or bonuses. Rewards can be tied to meeting individual, team, and/or organizational performance targets.

Belynda Delgado, manager of St. Barnabas Health Care Link, describes their incentive program that was started more than two years ago. The incentives tie into both individual and team performance goals. Monthly, she presents a gift certificate to the individual with highest number of converted physician referrals and rewards the department for meeting team objectives. She sees the reward program as “healthy competition between individuals, a report card for their team/individual performance, and a way to increase teamwork and promote the team environment.” Each year, she also offers an employee bonus that is proportional to meeting both individual and departmental goals.

She believes in showing staff she values them; she says “thank you” to everyone at the end of the day for the work they’ve done. This simple gesture shows that she is grateful to the many small acts that her staff performs every day. Sometimes the most valuable things in life are free!

In conclusion, call centers should employ a range of strategies to create positive, fun, and stable workplaces. To foster optimal retention, the organizational culture should recognize employees as its greatest asset. By using tools such as employee satisfaction surveys, exit interviews, and organizational culture assessment surveys, call centers can glean valuable insight into factors impacting employee retention. Implementing creative methodologies that address both system and individual factors involved in retention yield positive results and result in more engaged staff. In turn, your staff will treat callers and patients in ways that positively influence customer service.

Kelli Massaro, RN, works as a triage nurse for The Children’s Hospital of Denver. She is also the communications director with LVM Systems; she may be reached at kelli@lvmsystems.com.

[From the April/May 2008 issue of AnswerStat magazine]