5 Ways Customer-Care Operations Can Thrive Amid U.S. Labor Challenges
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5 Ways Customer-Care Operations Can Thrive Amid U.S. Labor Challenges

Lance Zingale
Lance Zingale
Chief Customer Officer & GM, EMEA
Sykes Enterprises, Incorporated
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John Updike said: Every blessing is a mixed blessing. That’s clearly the case with today’s booming U.S. economy as companies struggle to take advantage of growth opportunities amid a tight labor market; and customer care tends to get squeezed even tighter than other areas.

On one hand, there are more customers to serve. On the other, it’s getting harder to hire and retain the people you need to take care of those customers. Even with advances in automation and artificial intelligence (AI), quality customer-care agents remain indispensable for providing advanced-level service. In fact, their jobs require more complex problem-solving skills than ever as customers handle most basic issues on their own through self-service or chatbot assistance.

So how can you attract and hold on to qualified customer-care specialists at a time when wages are increasing and competition for talent is high? In my opinion, it takes getting back to basics by strengthening your employee value proposition. The first step is to put yourself in your employees’ and candidates’ shoes and ask: “Why would I choose to work here?” According to the book “The War for Talent,” you’d better have a compelling answer.

Whether you’re running your own customer-care center or working with a BPO provider to serve your customers, these five strategies will strengthen your employee value proposition to stand out in today’s competitive labor market:

1. Keep pay competitive in your market.

Make sure your pay rates are competitive by conducting a current study on wages in your region. Market conditions change so rapidly and drastically that data more than a year old will be meaningless. If the facts show your base pay is below market, there’s a strong case for bringing rates in line quickly to keep your experienced people and attract new hires. Remember that customer service agents are your front line with customers, and the cost of providing poor service is higher than ever in today’s world of social media.

Consider increasing earning potential by adding performance-based incentive pay opportunities. Depending on your operation, you can tie incentives to add-on sales and customer satisfaction (CSAT) scores. Just make sure incentive plans are carefully structured to be simple, fair and achievable. This motivates employees to increase the win-win-win behaviors that best serve the customer, company and employee’s paycheck.

While most companies, including SYKES, already offer shift differentials for evenings and weekends, you can also explore deploying interval rates to increase pay during peak demand periods. Think of how Uber increases rates at times when rides are in high demand. Can such a model work in customer care?

2. Increase scheduling flexibility.

Study after study shows that today’s workforce ranks flexibility as a significant factor in making employment decisions. Even small steps to increase scheduling flexibility can produce surprising results in terms of employee retention and reducing absenteeism. For example, at SYKES, we’ve seen absenteeism drop as much as five percent after implementing a program that allows employees to make up hours without penalty for time they needed to take for personal emergencies. All the original sites that implemented the program saw absenteeism decrease after just one month. This program not only demonstrates to employees that we understand that “life happens,” it enables them to still take home a full paycheck.

Other strategies for improving schedule flexibility include:

  • Easy shift swapping that allows agents to trade shifts via self-service
  • Custom scheduling to work around personal responsibilities such as military service, school or other special needs
  • Work weeks of four 10-hour days
  • More part-time options
  • Ability to jump on/off for work-at-home agents who need to log out for short periods
  • Advanced systems that make it fast and easy for agents to access flexible scheduling tools via their PC or a smartphone app

3. Review benefits offerings.

There are several ways companies can bolster the employee value proposition through benefits options that go beyond basic healthcare. Additional benefits and employee perks can help drive long-term loyalty and retention. Here are just a few options to consider:

  • Attractive 401(k) savings programs with a company match that rewards longevity
  • Tuition reimbursement and employee student scholarship programs
  • Optional low-cost benefits like short- and long-term disability, cancer insurance and hospital indemnity
  • Free personal financial–management education
  • Creative employee benefit ideas like free “deskercise” balls, onsite health screenings, healthy vending machines, etc.

 4. Revamp training.

When customer growth meets a tight labor market, training plays a critical role in getting new hires up to speed quickly. When new and experienced agents are getting the kind of training they need to deliver great service, both the customers and agents are happier, which can lead to higher retention on both sides. But when training is boring and ineffective — think: death by PowerPoint — new hires are slow to become proficient, don’t retain the information or simply drop out.

At SYKES, we have a dedicated Chief Learning Officer (CLO) who has helped us reimagine customer service training to be highly engaging, active and memorable — qualities that are essential when working with today’s workforce. In case after case, we’ve found that a science-based, interactive learning approach delivers more value through increased speed to proficiency, reduced turnover and training costs, and more engagement and connection to customers. For example, after our team of architects revamped a leading retail bank’s new-hire training program, their agents hit proficiency targets within just 45 to 60 days, compared to more than 90 days with the previous program. Agents also reported feeling 40 percent more prepared once on the production floor.

5. Give employees good managers.

As the saying goes: People don’t leave jobs, they leave managers. According to Gallup polls, a bad manager is one of the top reasons employees quit. In the care industry, our specific challenge is that while many top-performing agents advance to team lead roles, they often don’t have the management skills necessary to be successful. They contribute great work as individual team members, which helps them get promoted, but now they need to excel at leading a team. It’s important that the organization focus on helping newly appointed team leads with that transition by:

  • Ensuring team leads know when and how to coach effectively
  • Strengthening management-to-agent communication skills
  • Making sure leads set clear job priorities and expectations upfront
  • Providing a clear assessment and advancement plan that agents can follow to become a supervisor themselves

Finally, keep in mind that while there’s no magic formula to winning the talent competition, it’s a challenge that requires new ways of thinking and active collaboration across all areas. Make sure your HR and recruiting teams are empowered with strong support and involvement from workforce management, IT and training. This is an issue that requires attention and input from the CEO to the supervisors and representatives who know what’s most important on the front lines of customer care.