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Article : A Lifecycle Practice For Attrition

Who cares about attrition? It depends.
If it concerns the effort involved in hiring 30-50 percent of the workforce every six months, human resources does.

  • If it concerns the length of time it takes for new hires to become adequate, supervisors do.
  • If it concerns how much all this costs, operations certainly does.
  • If it concerns the impact of attrition on customer loyalty, the executive suite should care about it.

What is becoming clearer to leading organizations is that the impact of attrition is usually underestimated because of multiple, partial owners, but itis absolutely necessary to control.

What can be done to manage this many-headed beast?
The owner of the customer experience faces the greatest impact from rampant agent attrition, and therefore should own the attrition solution. Studies show that poor customer service leads to customer defection. It is a fair assumption that a constant influx of new agents can not provide the same level of customer service that a steady core group of agents properly hired, trained and coached can. These basic principles form the foundation for a practical approach to attrition across the lifecycle an approach that rallies all the players around the same goal and measures their progress accordingly.

The lifecycle approach is based on addressing different attrition factors at different stages of the agent lifecycle. Solving the challenges at each stage requires different tactics, but the underlying strategy for each relates to the larger goal of retention.

In approaching each stage of the agent lifecycle, it is important to determine which of the factors the organization can or is willing to change. Attention to the fewest factors with the largest impact will yield the largest return, in the shortest timeframe. These few key indicators should be measured at each of the lifecycle stages, in addition to measuring attrition separately at each stage to get a true picture of progress.

The best practices for attrition are outlined in the context of each stage of the agent lifecycle:

  • New hire
  • Agent-in-training
  • Agent on the job
  • Proficient agent

New Hire
Incorrect expectations, wrong skills and wrong personality "fit" are often given as the top reasons new hires leave the job, either voluntarily or involuntarily. In a recent survey conducted by Knowlagent, only pay ranked higher. The other three can largely be addressed by more effective screening during the hiring process.

The figure below outlines a candidate screening process for eliminating three of the top reasons for new hire attrition. By obtaining objective information about a candidate early in the process and providing the candidate with expectations of the job, time is spent only with the candidates who are capable of doing the job and committed to moving forward in the process.

This screening process has two components.

Candidate Learns About the Company
Often new agents have no idea of the pressures, expectations and environment of a call center. Some companies try to address this issue by allowing candidates to tour the floor, sit side by side at agent desks, etc. For many this isn’t feasible, either because of customer privacy concerns or because of the time spent with candidates who may not choose to move forward.

As early as possible, standardized details about the company and the position should be available to the candidate in order to help them determine their level of interest in the position. Key to this step is allowing candidates to experience a preview of the job by providing access to a realistic representation of the calls an agent receives and the actions the agent is required to take on typical and even difficult calls. This step of the process is best suited to the beginning of the screening process to minimize the time spent with candidates who are not interested in being considered.

Company Learns About the Candidate
The objective of the early screening process for the company is to learn if the candidate meets minimum requirements, and assessments provide the most objective way to determine that. Although many companies use assessments, they are typically at the end of the process, after recruiters and hiring managers have invested time in a candidate. A more effective use of assessments is to screen multiple candidates, not to confirm or invalidate a decision on one. The key assessments in this process are for personality and cognitive fit and base skill level.


Personality fit is uncertain ground with many hiring managers. That is because often the attributes that are being hired for are not truly personality traits, but general, hard to measure characteristics like "customer-service focused" or "friendly." Additionally, when assessments or other methods are used to determine personality, they typically try to find people who most closely match high performers. This approach is risky as pin-pointing the reasons for a star agent’s success is much more difficult than naming the characteristics that make low performers fail.

Base Skill Level

If a candidate doesn’t possess the minimum requirements needed for the job, that candidate is set up for failure. Assessments of some type are often used to try and determine who has the basic skills to perform the job.

Skills assessment thresholds should be based on existing high, average and low performers. Setting thresholds too high may exclude too many viable candidates, and setting them too low may include too many with a high chance of failure. The right threshold is based on an individual skill’s correlation to performance as well as its relative importance to the business.

New Hire Retention Plan

Key Questions

  • What skills are basic requirements?
  • What skills can I train?
  • Which few traits prevent success?
  • What is my decision process for retention-based hiring?

Key Measurements

  • Compliance to hiring process
  • New hire attrition
  • Early performance data


Once expectations and fit are addressed, the biggest risks to attrition and performance for agents-in-training are related to on boarding and the nesting environment. If agents are unprepared and are not able to perform to standards out of new hire training, they become an attrition risk. If new hire training takes too long, costs become unmanageable. The key is balancing these two concerns.

With an overall retention goal across all stages of the agent lifecycle, new hire training should be linked to how an organization hires and be based both on the profile hired against and the individual needs. Layering new hire training in this way meets the needs of both cost and proper preparation.

Layer One – Cognitive Profile and Skill Thresholds
Using an example profile of a hiring company, let’s take one of the trait components and one of the skill components to take through this first layer. This example model identifies and excludes fast learners as a high attrition risk since they may quickly become bored with the routine calls at this center. It also has a critical skill need for listening and typing.

The new hire training based on this profile might be a week longer than another similar job because the profile eliminates fast learners, and the agents hired would need the additional time to understand and practice the concepts covered. A high threshold on listening and typing would ensure that new hires come in with an appropriate level of these skills and could therefore begin learning the applications and specific call flows right away.

Layer Two – Individual Assessment Results
At the individual level, hiring assessment results coupled with training pre-testing enable organizations to move away from "one size fits all" new hire training. By creating tracks or paths within the new hire curriculum, new agents who have more skills and experience can "test out" of particular areas and be placed into nesting and move to the floor more quickly. Adopting a blended learning approach in new hire training is key to making these paths of learning logistically possible. Additionally, offering both instructor-led and e-learning means that the learning style needs of more new hires are met. As new hires gain increased confidence in this more "individualized" approach, early attrition is reduced.

Agent-in-Training Retention Plan

Key Questions

  • In what areas is the agent already prepared?
  • Which content covers 90% of calls?
  • What training will be online?
  • What practice will be simulated?

Key Measurements

  • Time to proficiency
  • Day one performance
  • Early attrition

Agents on the Job

Performance Link
Once agents are on the floor, performance shares a symbiotic role with attrition. More than 250 call center leaders responding to a survey Knowlagent conducted in the second quarter of 2008 indicated that low performers make up almost 50 percent of overall attrition.

This high percentage of low performers proves a commonsense view most people have about performance and attrition. People do not like to fail. Therefore, when agents lack confidence in their ability, they are more likely to attrite. And obviously, low performers are more subject to involuntary attrition. The call center is a dynamic environment with customer service level driving many of the day-to-day decisions on the floor. When training is scheduled, it is often canceled due to call volume demands. Low performers already struggling become more overwhelmed as policies and procedures change, new products are rolled out, etc. This environment makes it difficult, if not impossible, to move lower performers along the performance curve, thus contributing to the ongoing battle with attrition.

For those low performers who cannot be moved along the curve with training because of traits or other factors, it is probably beneficial that they attrite and are replaced with better fit agents who will be more likely to stay. As hiring efforts focus on screening out poor fits from the start, more average and high performers join.

So how do you improve the performance of the agents on the floor given the aforementioned challenges of the call center environment?

Best Practice Training
The best practices for improving performance form the foundation for improving satisfaction and ultimately retention. Since changing behavior is the only way to achieve sustainable results, all of the following principles are geared to that end. These principles are illustrated below.

Too often training is an infrequent occasion as opposed to a consistent, systemic part of the call center operation. In a recent survey by Knowlagent, almost 40 percent of call centers reported training agents between one and four times a year. Many centers provide agents with access to a learning management system or knowledge base with the hopes that agents will go get the information and knowledge they need. Considering the enormous pressures to meet service levels, it isn’t hard to figure out why so much of what is scheduled doesn’t occur and why agents don’t often take the initiative to get the information they need before they need it. The underutilized asset in this equation is down time between calls. Pushing training to the agent desktop during small pockets of down time is the only way to ensure training happens frequently.

Even if training is provided frequently, a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t provide maximum value. If the center and the agent invest time in training, it should meet the needs of both. An agent does not want to be trained on something that isn’t relevant to their needs, and the center doesn’t want to train an agent on an area at which he or she excels if there is another area that needs improving. Basing individualized training on performance meets the targeted criteria and provides the highest value.

Easy to Digest & Apply Immediately
Adult learning theory asserts that short learning interventions that can be immediately applied have the best chance at retention. This concept is clearly important in a fast-paced environment like the call center where the unplanned nature of calls gives agents less control over their day than most. A 15-minute learning break allows a short respite for some targeted information that is used on the next call for maximum reinforcement.

Measurable Impact
One of the keys to success in any endeavor is measurement, and nowhere is a culture of measurement more prevalent than the call center. Giving all players a view to their performance, and an understanding of how they impact that performance through training, provides the measurement and guidance needed to underpin a successful performance improvement initiative at the individual agent level.

Consistency has two applications in this context. The importance of regular communications cannot be overestimated in keeping agents informed and engaged. Additionally, the consistency of message in those communications and training is important. E-learning provides a conduit for regular communications and removes the possibility of different teams getting different messages or levels of information from supervisors, team members or even trainers.

Agents on the Job Retention Plan

Key Questions

  • How do I prioritize training?
  • How do I make training relevant?
  • How do I make training stick?
  • How do I ensure consistency in training and communications?

Key Measurements

  • Amount of training delivered
  • Low performers moved to average performers
  • Training directly linked to performance improvements
  • Mid-stage attrition

Study after study shows that the supervisor-agent relationship has one of the largest impacts on retention. Additionally most supervisors were high-performing agents who were promoted to supervisor, without much training in how to manage and coach performance. Many supervisors attest to being overwhelmed with the administrative burden of the job, which leaves little time for coaching. In a survey on coaching conducted by Knowlagent, 71 percent felt they did not have sufficient time to coach every day, with 80 percent spending less than two hours a day on all coaching activity. In instances where there is performance coaching, it is typically not consistent from team to team.

True Coaching
What gets called coaching on many teams is really managing without much guidance on improvement. 80 percent of executives indicated in a study by Knowlagent that they do not believe supervisors have all the right skills for coaching. Because they lack the experience and often the training to do so, supervisors rarely have the skills to coach for improved performance and behavior change. Improving these skills with training is critical to making an impact on performance and attrition.

By its nature, coaching should be targeted, but it’s difficult for supervisors to keep up with all team members’ performance and customize coaching accordingly. By linking to KPI’s, coaching instances can be targeted to performance trends that indicate problems as well as those that indicate opportunities for enhanced performance. Supervisors with access to personality assessment results can even leverage that information to help them tailor their coaching.

The demands on a supervisor’s time are many. And often the lower performing agents take up a disproportionate amount of that time. To meet the needs of all experienced agents, time must be uncovered and exploited for both agents and coaches to interact on performance problems as well as enhancement opportunities. Finding pockets of call volume down time for agents and available time for supervisors to meet and work on coaching plans and activities creates the time needed to provide frequent coaching.

Unless it is actionable, much of what is called coaching is merely advice, perhaps applicable, perhaps soon, perhaps not. Basing coaching on the call flow creates actionable coaching. The steps to this process are:

  1. Break the call down into key steps.
  2. Identify the step where the agent struggles.
  3. Identify the behaviors needed to execute the step successfully.
  4. Develop a plan to change those behaviors.

Using this process provides a clear context and specific actions.

Because most coaching happens on an ad-hoc basis, similarly performing agents can receive very different types and levels of coaching. Nearly 50 percent of supervisors surveyed can not define their coaching process. Creating standards and baking them into center processes ensures that agent performance and retention efforts are individualized to needs and achieve consistency in application.


Even though it is one of the greatest points of leverage with the agent, coaching is largely unmeasured, an anomaly in the call center. By embedding a measurement system that shows how much, who and what is getting coached as well as its link to performance, constant improvement through coaching becomes systemic in the center.

Individual Accountability
With the experienced agent, training results may reach a plateau, and more individual plans might be required to reach higher levels of performance. But without a skilled coach and without a mechanism to take ownership for increasing performance, proficient agents may be left adrift, becoming dissatisfied with the prospects for improvement and/or advancement. There are areas where agents can work independently to improve, and in others, they may require supervisor intervention to get the full benefit of coaching. Creating a partnership for performance between the agent and the supervisor provides the ownership needed at a more experienced agent level and provides a framework for creating and sustaining improvement.


The impact of agent attrition is felt in many areas of an organization, but rather than galvanizing efforts to reduce attrition, this situation often leads to silo efforts and unclear expectations across the organization. Once the scope and scale of the problem is acknowledged, a central goal organizes the efforts carried out across the lifecycle of the agent. These efforts can be summarized as:

New Hire 4Stop hiring the wrong candidates by utilizing the right information as early as possible.

Agent-in-Training 4Give agents the best chance to succeed with the right preparation.

Agent on the Job 4Create satisfaction by improving performance.

Proficient Agents 4Enable supervisors to partner with agents to provide meaningful coaching and strong relationships.

Key to each of these steps along the lifecycle is asking important, foundational questions that help uncover contributing factors to attrition and determining which of those have the most impact on the problem. Focusing efforts on those key areas will yield the most results, and the measurement of the progress against those key areas ensures that the most important lead indicators receive the right level of focus.

With a central goal coupled with a focused approach to reducing attrition across the agent lifecycle, all of the key stakeholders involved in the customer experience will see improvement in each of their arenas of focus as well as an overall improvement that benefits the entire organization.

About Intradiem:
Company LogoIntradiem is a complete Intraday Automation solution provider for frontline workforces including Contact Center, Back Office and Retail. The SaaS-based solution automates intraday management and real-time processes and turns frontline workforces into real-time workforces that can adapt and respond to changing conditions and events throughout the day. The result is a more agile frontline workforce that can adjust in real-time to deliver a dramatically better and more consistent customer experience at reduced cost. Over 250,000 frontline workers use Intradiem's solution every day.
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Published: Thursday, May 14, 2009

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2023 Buyers Guide Knowledge Management


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