Our industry does a nice job of illustrating the functions agents perform inside a call center or from work-at-home. However, we often overly focus on what they do versus analyzing and understanding who they are, an error that could contribute to some of the staffing and retention problems we currently face.
How can we effectively recruit, train, develop, and retain talent if we don't know who we are hiring or why they're applying for a call center job in the first place? With our industry's continued frenetic growth and recent staffing shortages, we have become so fixated on headcount that we often end up treating the hiring and training process as a production assembly line. We fail to acknowledge that applicants come to us from all walks of life, each with their own unique story.
Perhaps the dynamics of our industry and the financial models we operate under, have contributed to the relatively impersonal way in which we approach call center agent talent acquisition practices. Although the roles and responsibilities of call center agents have evolved since the dawn of the industry decades ago, the "human" element will always be the bedrock of call center services within business process outsourcing (BPO).
There is a lot to unpack on this subject, and we'll do our best to cover some key points. Let's jump right in.
Who is applying for call center jobs today?
People applying for call center agent jobs in the U.S. vary by gender, age, race, education, and location. Using a database of 30 million profiles, Zippia, a career research firm, estimated there are over 417,188 call center agents currently employed in the U.S. (We believe this figure is underestimated.) Most are women (71%); men make up 24%, and 7% identify as LGBT.
The majority of agents are white (60.6%), followed by Hispanic or Latino (18.9%), and Black/African American (11.3%) respectively. The average age is 40 or higher.
Education levels vary too. Although most only have a high school diploma (37%), 21% have an associate degree and 26% have a bachelor’s degree.
Notably, Zippia found that New York City and Houston are currently the epicenters for jobs, although Arizona is considered the best state to find employment in the industry.
If you interact with call center agents in the U.S., then you know firsthand the diverse makeup of the agent population - from millennials to individuals near retirement age and career call center professionals to persons seeking short-term employment.
For many, the call center job is a last resort, and for others an entry-level position. Some are seeking longer tenure and career advancement into management, while others do not see themselves working in a call center long-term.
If you work with nearshore/offshore call centers, then you know that a call center job in most other countries is not viewed as a last resort. In general, it is held in high regard — a profession. For many, however, the call center job is their only option. In countries with persistently high unemployment, call centers provide meaningful employment, compensation, and career opportunities.
What are call center agents’ perceptions or expectations?
We often participate in call center agent focus groups in the U.S. and worldwide, and these interactions reveal a lot. Today's call center agent has more in common with you and me than you might think.
Most agents want a sense of purpose regardless of the comp package, amenities, and benefits. They want to be appreciated and rewarded, work in a professional, pleasing environment, play a meaningful role as a contributing team member, and be treated with dignity and respect. They don't want to be embarrassed about working a call center job. They want to hold their heads high and even carve out a career path.
It is true that many agents view call center jobs as a short-term way to pay bills. It is indeed a transient step for a majority. Interestingly, however, I know many peers (including me) who started in our industry the same way. We initially took the job expecting it to be a stepping stone, and that one small step turned into a fruitful call center industry career.
What is the general perception of call centers?
Let's keep it real. Ask the average person what they think a call center is, and right away, they assume it is an offshore boiler room staffed by ill-trained, heavy accent individuals who could care less about resolving your issue. You and I both know how wrong this perception is, but, unfortunately, our industry is partially responsible for fostering the stigma.
At one point or another, each of us has heard call centers referred to as the bottom rung of the employment ladder. Sadly, I've listened to senior executives at brands and BPOs alike make this reference throughout the years. I have even heard an executive refer to call center agents as the "hired help." Obviously, this is a cynical, misguided, and dare I say, uneducated point of view.
On the flip side, most executives and senior leaders I know personally do not share this view. Many started as call center agents, so they know how difficult the "job" is and sincerely appreciate the agent. Many others spend a lot of time interacting with internal or outsourced call center agents and leadership, so they have firsthand knowledge of the vital part these individuals play within the customer service organization.
Do U.S. agents lack appreciation for the call center job?
It feels cliché now to talk about staffing shortages and labor market challenges, but we must continue to shed light on this along with the sustained impacts caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Considering all marketplace challenges, is it true that today's call center agent in the U.S. does not have the same appreciation for the job as they did years ago? Does job satisfaction or lack thereof contribute to our industry's hiring and agent retention challenges?
It is unfair to generalize, but if you compare the typical U.S.-based call center agent with their nearshore or offshore counterparts, I have to agree to an extent that appreciation for the job is likely higher in global markets. But is that the fault of the U.S. call center agent or should it be expected?
We tend to look at call center agents as a herd of dispensable, likely short-term workers who will come and go. We train them en masse, hope they stick around, and often, see them off unceremoniously if they underperform or we no longer need them. Maybe the lack of appreciation for the job has a lot more to do with the operation's leadership and business practices, not just the agent's indifference toward the opportunity.
When comparing the U.S. to global outsourcing markets, should we not also consider many factors, including but not limited to socio-economic conditions, labor market saturation rates, cultural elements, advancement opportunities, perceptions about call centers, and more? Clearly, the scale is tipping in the direction of nearshore/offshore markets as it relates to job growth in the outsourcing industry.
While cost is a major factor, it is not the only consideration when outsourcing work to nearshore or offshore countries. Brands seeking nearshore and offshore call centers are also looking to tap into labor markets where the call center job is viewed as long-term, not transient, and where the average agent is applying for the job with career aspirations in mind. We're just not seeing this in the U.S. today like we used to years ago.
The agent experience — small things matter
We will delve into creative ways to improve the agent experience by promoting an agent-centric culture in a future article. For now, I would like to point out a few things that could help call center operations curate their approach to the unique needs of today's call center agent:
- Agent satisfaction surveys - How many call center operations bother to take internal CSAT or NPS surveys of their employees? Not enough, I assure you.
- More focus groups - Frequent agent focus groups are essential to improving the agent experience, especially now that we are in a virtual, work-at-home environment.
- Internal social networks - Give your agents a platform to express themselves internally and form peer groups.
- Replace the term "agent” - Consider renaming the agent to something more creative, like advocate, team leader, associate, ambassador, champion, adviser, game-changer, etc.
- Career path - Be more assertive about promoting the idea of career advancement, increases in pay, management positions, and so on.
- Best workplace culture - Why should the applicant come to work for you versus umpteen other call center operations or non-call center jobs competing for their skills?
- Exit interviews - Many operations already do this, but not enough.
- Social responsibility - Is your organization in tune with your employees' social and purpose-driven needs?
- Avoid burnout - Be more mindful of the agent's mental and physical health.
- Have fun - Treat your employees to non-business, team-building activities.
Is the call center job harder today than before?
Is the call center job harder or easier today than years ago? Hasn't our industry evolved and progressed to a point where we should be producing better trained and skilled agents than in years past? There was no such thing as a knowledge base, Slack, or other advanced tools when many of us started in the call center industry. In fact, today's advanced tools were not available just a few short years ago.
BPOs report to us that they are seeing a rise in agent burnout and attrition, especially on more intense and complex programs requiring longer than "normal" training times. Perhaps burnout is also happening because of the supply chain and service issues the U.S. and world are dealing with today. Customers are more impatient, and who can blame them? The stress is felt all around, but eventually, the frontline call center agent bears the brunt.
Imagine sitting in a cubicle or at home fielding hundreds of calls in a typical eight-hour shift, often receiving little praise for a job well done. But you'll hear every form of complaint and expletive from customers, especially today. The frontline agent is often a punching bag for the customer, whose discontent should be aimed directly at the company and its service issues — not the call center employee.
Can you be a call center agent today?
We are pre-programmed to downplay the role of a call center agent as "just a job." Then we lament over line adherence, soaring attrition rates and our inability to fill training classes. Maybe the lack of appreciation is a sign of the times.
Imagine if there was an "Undercover Boss" reality show requiring us to work as call center agents to identify with the job. Yours truly started as a call center agent, so I know the plight firsthand, as do many of you.
Unfortunately, not everyone in our industry or those associated with it has grassroots understanding or appreciation for what a call center agent must endure. Granted, agents receive compensation and are the "center of the universe" at many call center operations, which is great. But as I stated earlier, remuneration is not the only thing that attracts people to your call center operation or keeps them motivated enough to stay.
Should we blame ourselves for ill-trained agents?
I realize call center agents are imperfect. I've heard calls where the agent simply did not possess the skills or preparedness to resolve the customer's issue. I’ve also heard many calls where the agent's frustration toward the customer was palpable. There will always be rogue agents who do not follow the rules and should be dealt with. However, most agents genuinely want to help the customer but many simply lack the proper training and coaching.
Perhaps the agent was rushed out of training or should not have been hired in the first place because their skill set did not match what the job called for. And what about leadership? Clearly, organizations are struggling to put the right leaders in place across all functional areas. Remember that old phrase — agents quit their leaders, not the company.
Again, call center operations in the U.S. today are so focused on meeting headcount requirements and service levels in the face of severe staffing shortages that they are not curating their HR and training practices to ensure agent teams have the necessary training to deliver a best-in-class customer experience.
This is the fault of the operation, not the agent.
Let's work harder to bond with the most important asset in call centers: people.
Let's band together to change the prevailing perception of the call center as a last-resort place to work. All call center operations need positive industry advocacy to attract and retain the best agents. Creative recruiting on social media channels and online forums can assist.
Providing the right culture and client branding can also help connect agents to the companies they will represent — often a huge selling point for job seekers. Don't merely focus on putting warm bodies in seats — use better-recruiting practices, including personality and emotional intelligence testing, to identify the right talent.
The tight labor market has many workers rethinking their options and potential career paths. Let's make call center jobs desirable again!