Contact Center Talent Management needs a rethink. What’s critical and how can technology help?

Martin Hill-Wilson

September 14, 202310 min read

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Martin Hill-Wilson, a prominent thought leader in the customer service and CX space, shares his approach to rethink talent management in a contact centre. 

Let me start with a story about the connection between health, well-being and productivity. In 2019, a UK study of 1,793 BT telesales workers showed a causal link between happiness and productivity. Every unit increase in colleague happiness resulted in three added sales per week: a 12% productivity increase. 

This article is an exploration of the people who fix customer problems across the world. What their current and emerging needs are, and where technology plays an enabling role in keeping them happy, engaged, and productive. As anyone who has sat in their shoes knows, it can be a tough job. Often frustrating and rewarding in equal measure.  

So why do I think contact centre talent management needs a rethink at this moment in time? 

Table of Contents

How we got to where we are

Back-to-back crises have reshaped people’s work-life priorities. 

For instance, the number of people working from home in the US tripled between 2019 and 2021. As you might have noticed, bosses are now trying to herd their teams back into office-based work life. However, there is apparent reluctance. 

Interestingly, new language has appeared to express this change of heart and mind.  

Commentators now talk about ‘the great resignation’, ‘quiet quitting’ and ‘presenteeism’ (when employees are present at work, but they're not doing their job or being productive). All suggest there are deeper issues in the contract between employee and employer that now need addressing.  

Changing signs of employee-employer relationship

For a start, there are more alternatives than ever before. Why not earn a living as an Airbnb host or social media influencer in preference to a corporate 9-5? This is something quite a few people have already discovered, which only adds to the shrinkage of available talent for mainstream organisations.  

McKinsey’s 2023 global report on the ‘State of Organisations’ offers this observation.  

The Great Attrition is affecting workers of all levels. All types of employees across all income levels, from managers on the front line to leaders in the C-suite, are leaving their jobs. No role, level, or industry is impervious to the trend. Moreover, expectations are high that it will continue. When asked about expected voluntary attrition over the first half of 2023, almost 40% of our survey respondents say they expect the rate at their organization to be higher than that seen in the first half of 2022.  

Does the recruitment and retention of contact centre colleagues mirror these broader societal trends? The quick answer is yes. I’ll explain in more detail later.  

And then there are customers and their moods. Gallup reports a steady rise in the global stress levels we experience daily. In 2009, 31% identified with this emotive state. By 2022, we reached 44%. No doubt stoked by the crises mentioned earlier.  

Our brains behave differently under threat. We trust less. We are less open to collaboration. We are less tolerant of uncertainty and, therefore, more likely to feel anxious or angry when things don’t go well.  

We all know what this feels like– trying to get an issue resolved while stuck in a tense headspace. Too many dead ends and obstacles due to hastily executed digital-first initiatives make It frustrating for customers to get to the right outcome.  

The net result? All those frustrations are soaked up by the people trying to help.  

“No surprise then that frontline resilience and well-being have become a service leadership challenge as never before.”  

In this respect, the isolation of home working can be challenging when there is no collective energy to keep someone motivated. Or the serendipity of a welcome intervention from a keen-eyed team leader who spots the aftermath of a problematic customer conversation.  
 
And finally, the types of customer conversations are shifting. As self-service scales as it ought to, customer-facing teams can expect more complex and emotive conversations – ones that really matter to loyalty and advocacy. The stakes get higher.  

No doubt they become more rewarding, but this trend also raises questions about the type of people needed and how they should be supported in terms of skill development and resilience. And how we enable them to deliver effective, personalised interactions.  
 
In summary, contact centres live in the eye of a new storm. To help exit this state, contact centre leaders must understand and master these people management challenges as part of a broader review. Then, pinpoint how technology can help them nurture a happy, productive workforce.  

Let’s find out how.  

Getting to the root cause of what’s really going on

It’s easy to spot the symptoms telling us something has dramatically changed in people’s motivation to work. Here in the UK, I’ve listened to many contact centre leaders bemoaning the greater difficulties in sourcing and successfully onboarding new staff. Mind you, it was never easy. The industry is well known for its absenteeism and attrition. Few candidates see the role as one for life – more as a stepping-stone to other career paths. 

But over the last few years, a new reluctance has taken hold. Conversion rates show it. From initial interest to attending an interview or assessment day. From assessment to training. From training to going live. From going live to still being there after twelve weeks. They are melting away in more significant numbers than ever before.  

During this phase of understanding candidate expectations and trying to fulfil them as an accommodating organisation, attention has become focused on flexibility. When and where the work happens.  

We’ve all heard why work-life balance can improve when there is less/no office commute. We also know how complex lives, especially for those with caring responsibilities, need more flexible/shorter shifts to make everything work. Happily, we now have AI-infused planning and scheduling that can match demand and supply patterns as close to real-time as needed.  

And for those moments of peak demand that cannot be met through in-house recruitment, there is always the opportunity to use the GigCX employment model, which offers the ability to earn money whenever, wherever (using CCaaS) for those attracted to that lifestyle.  

Clearly, the choice of where to work still matters. Since February 2022, remote jobs posted on LinkedIn received more than half the applications, even though they accounted for less than 20% of the job postings. 

So, does greater flexibility fully explain things? Or is there more to unwrap? 

Remember that stat on the growing levels of stress mentioned earlier? It turns out people experience less stress according to how engaged they feel at work. That global average of 44% experiencing ‘a lot of stress the previous day’ dips to 30% when they feel engaged and rises to 65% when they feel actively disengaged.  

And here is another clue as to what really causes people to quit their jobs.

Gallup research (State of the Global Workplace 2023) reports that the percentage of employees watching for or actively seeking a new job varies according to engagement levels. 43% (when engaged) versus 61% (when actively disengaged).

Engagement levels vary in other ways. 

  • Engagement declined in the U.S. and Canada and rose in South Asia during 2022. 

  • Europe had the lowest employee engagement globally. 

As a contact centre leader, it is also worth noting that the Gallup research shows stress is higher in younger workers and exclusively remote and hybrid workers. It’s also sobering to read that they estimate low engagement costs the global economy $8.8 trillion – or 9% of global GDP.  

So, what is this telling us about what is really going on?  

While the post-COVID discussion has centered on flexibility, the research suggests there are deeper needs to be surfaced. Gallup analysis finds that engagement has 3.8 times more influence on colleague stress than work location. Feeling enthusiastic and involved matters more in reducing stress than where they are sitting. In other words, motivation and improved performance are more about management issues than location issues. 

Put simply, people are leaving and are reluctant to join organisations because work experiences do not satisfy them. COVID broke the spell. And now being engaged tops the ‘what matters’ list of needs.  

Enabling Engagement

Let’s start with clarity on what engagement means in a measurable, actionable way.  

True engagement means your people are psychologically present to do their work. They understand what to do; they have what they need; and they have a supportive manager and a supportive team. They know why their work matters. They are work-ready.  

I like this definition for its clarity. As a manager, it tells me what I need to do to support this mindset in terms of role modeling the right behaviours, the issues I need to tune into and the type of facilitation I’m expected to provide. 

Of course, this is a team effort involving specialist input from other colleagues: L&D (learning and development), quality management, service improvement, ERG (employee resource groups) etc.  

Collectively, this team offers input and opportunity for someone to feel clear about their career path and other ambitions, their strengths and weaknesses, and a program for self-improvement.  

To be engaged, colleagues should feel included and experience they belong to something that makes them motivated, proud and fulfilled. This might sound like a North Star ambition. Nonetheless, it is what the best of the best have developed in terms of high-performing cultures. 

So, having made it clear that engagement will always be about great managers and leaders, let’s explore how technology enables this to take root and thrive.  

How to leverage technology to improve agent engagement
  • If we think about engagement across the colleague lifecycle, the first touchpoint is noticing and responding to an offer to join your contact centre. People know how to shop for jobs as well as any other kind of online shopping. So, make it easy for them.

  • Use the same approach as you offer customers. Include conversational self-service. Use generative AI to spot and fill knowledge gaps in their questions. Adopt a social media mindset. Think UGC (user-generated content) and have colleagues post their experiences of working there. Be visual: Channel the TikTok and Instagram vibe.

  • Make your culture highly visible. Put engagement at the centre of your pitch. Have assets ready to show what their journey will look like for the first year. Ditch the job ad in favour of designing a certain experience. What do you want them to feel and think while deciding if you are the organisation to join?

  • Assuming you get them to turn up for assessment and onboarding, show them how you develop personalised learning pathways and performance milestones as their first career development game plan. And how competencies and mindsets are taught, implemented and improved using conversational analytics, personalised dashboards and face-to-face reviews.

  • Introduce them to their workspace. Show how a unified desktop reduces stress. How agent assist helps every step of the way during their conversations: suggesting the next best actions in terms of prompts, sales opportunities, compliance hints, workflow, data and knowledge, how the chore of admin is reduced through automation. And how their dashboard provides them with insight into their ongoing performance augmented by expertly designed gamification that inspires.

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  • Then, talk about the power of teamwork and how this happens in your version of hybrid working. How they can connect and collaborate with colleagues. How tough conversations and signals about their well-being are proactively picked up and responded to so they don’t feel ignored and isolated.

  • Then, move on to the benefit of real-time coaching. And how it works based on the same prompts. And the way that Generative AI is used to spot improvement opportunities from their customer conversations. And then design personalised micro-based learning modules as part of their ongoing development. In the same way, Generative AI auto curates the relevance and completeness of their contact centre’s customer knowledge management system.

  • Finally, talk about flexibility and how they can self-manage their schedules. Within specific guidelines, of course! 

One topic you will need to return to often is how to deal with the types of customer conversations they increasingly face. Remember when I mentioned the rise in stress and how the brain works? And how live conversation (voice or text) is becoming more complex and emotive than in the past? 

Explain the new game plan. 

“The goal is to leave customers with memorable outcomes. Taking someone from a negative state of mind to a positive one. This requires empathy, deep listening and an extensive emotional vocabulary.” 

Explain that the same skill set also applies to vulnerable customers and other personas with certain sensitivities triggered by negative experiences. 

In other words, inspire them with the challenge and how you can support them to win. In fact, all the technology innovation I’ve just described provides them with the space and means to entirely focus on satisfying this aspect of customer needs and expectations.  

We are at the start of a new era. Developing evidence-based insight into how successful conversations are constructed and how they influence outcomes and memory. Both front-line staff and their coaches will be pioneering in this respect for the rest of us. An engaging prospect for everyone involved!  

Closing Thoughts

It should be no surprise that the employee challenge looks just like the customer challenge. The reasons why they stay or leave organisations are strikingly similar.  

It’s about value exchange and the quality of engagement. In the context of the colleague challenge, this requires an inclusive culture able to support individual needs and aspirations while ensuring the satisfaction of purposeful work. It needs a human-centered approach enabled by technology.  

Get it right, and they are more likely to stick around and prove their value. Satisfied colleagues are more than three times as likely as dissatisfied colleagues to feel empowered to solve customer issues. Their greater ability and institutional knowledge affect the quality of customer service and the operational cost of delivering it.  

It’s all about enabling engagement, wherever you happen to be. 

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