Seven steps to becoming an employer of choice

Being an employer of choice is about attracting the right people, effectively inducting them into both the technical and cultural aspects of the business, and – once trained – continually engaging with and developing those individuals throughout their employee lifecycle. In this article, we reveal how to do just that.

Research conducted by the Professional Planning Forum in March shows that – thanks to the recession and the fact that fewer people want to risk leaving stable employment – call centre attrition is now running at just 23%. For less conscientious planners, this news could be the perfect excuse to sit back and let attrition take care of itself. Managers, too, might become complacent rather than constantly honing their training, development and cultural strategies in order to attract and retain the right employees.
But savvier call centres understand that taking their eye off the ball in this way could have serious repercussions. They know that if good agents end up leaving rather than those who should have been managed out, it will be harder for the business to maintain a competitive advantage once the upturn comes.

“Training, development, cultural policies and performance management shouldn’t be toned down just because we’re in a recession,” warns Steve Woosey, Membership Director at the Planning Forum. “If you stop focusing on these things now, you risk becoming the kind of employer that people won’t want to work for in the future.”

So what can organisations do to become an employer of choice – both during the economic crisis and beyond? Here, we outline a seven-step approach that draws on practical experience from some of the country’s best call centres to ensure your organisation remains at the top of its game.

1) Refine recruitment processes
According to Paul Milloy, Head of Contact Centres at British Gas Services, the key is to take an integrated approach. “In 2008, our planning department used historical data to predict staffing requirements for the whole year before it even began,” he says. “We engaged with our recruitment and training teams well in advance, telling them how many people we’d need on what shift patterns. We then fine-tuned this data on a regular basis to account for any changes we encountered at each site as the year went on.”
Milloy says that British Gas – which won a Planning Forum Innovation Award in 2008 for its resourcing strategy – predominantly uses online recruitment advertising as it feels this will reach a wider audience. It also uses an online testing application that focuses on individuals’ personality and values more than their basic skills.

The Planning Forum’s Steve Woosey agrees that this approach is critical to recruitment success. “Just make sure you’ve already identified what ‘good’ looks like,” he advises. “Use behavioural software to uncover the attitude and values of your best performers, and produce from that a template to recruit similar people.”
In addition to this, be honest. “Be clear about what you’re offering and what the job will be like,” says Woosey. “During the recruitment process, bring other agents in to give a ‘real-life’ opinion of the job and environment. People will more likely stick with an organisation if it’s been fairly represented.”

2) Introduce lifestyle planning
If you adapt your operational model to incorporate flexible working patterns, you’re more likely to retain staff in the long-term because you’ll be offering them work that actually suits their lifestyles.
 “We did this in 2007,” says Scott Craggs, Resource Planner at Orange UK, which was presented a lifestyle planning award by the Planning Forum in April last year. “At the time, we were predominantly a full-time employer offering flat eight-hour shifts. The problem was that people would be recruited to work on less popular shift patterns and then immediately ask to change. This meant we were in a constant cycle of recruiting and having inexperienced people working the less popular shifts.”

By exchanging the old shift patterns with a suite of new ones that appealed to different lifestyles, Orange not only ensured it had sufficient coverage for its peak hours, but was also able to attract groups such as mothers with young children who might not previously have thought about call centre work.
The result? “We managed to cut by half the number of people leaving within two years,” says Craggs. “Staff satisfaction rose as well, because people were working hours that suited them.”

3) Hone your induction strategy
New recruits need to be inducted not only in technical skills but also into the culture of an organisation, says British Gas’ Paul Milloy.

“On the skills side, there’s nothing more daunting than learning everything in a classroom and then being pushed onto the floor to take your first live call. The key is to expose people to call handling early on – for example, by listening in on an experienced agent.

“On the cultural side, it’s about giving people an idea of what life will be like working in that business,” he adds. “When we revamped our induction process, we started asking recruits to come in for an evening ahead of their training so they could meet their manager, learn a bit about life at British Gas and see a video that showed an agent talking about her job.”

Beyond this, the business also introduced a process whereby team managers were regularly brought in to chat with new recruits during the induction phase.

“Using this approach, we lost far fewer people before and during the induction process,” says Milloy.

4) Keep employees motivated by providing the right environment
Offering a range of flexible benefits can really enhance the long-term appeal of a call centre. “Kwik Fit Insurance is a good example of this,” argues the Planning Forum’s Steve Woosey. “Employees there accrue points depending on how long they’ve been with the company, which they can then redeem against benefits such as private medical insurance.”

Other ways of keeping staff enthused about their workplace is to offer facilities they won’t necessarily find elsewhere.

“If a call centre provides an on-site restaurant or offers subsidised access to a gym or local child-care service, it can make all the difference,” says Woosey.

5) Ensure staff feel involved

Some call centre managers might feel that canvassing agents for opinions on both the business and the customer service it provides might open up floodgates that can never again be closed. But according to Les Blacker, Head of High Value Customer Services at Vodafone’s Warrington call centre, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

“By getting people to reflect on what stops them being engaged or supporting customers effectively, you can actually discover a whole range of issues you might never know about otherwise,” he says. “Moreover, if you involve agents in coming up with solutions, you might come across fixes that you wouldn’t have considered.”

To ensure this happens at Vodafone Warrington, Blacker runs a project called ‘All About You’ which gives a small team of agents the freedom to talk to their peers about their problems before cataloguing them in a database that is continually monitored by senior staff. Together, agents and managers then work to find solutions to the biggest pain points.

“By doing this, we’ve created a continuous improvement cycle,” says Blacker. “One where people are encouraged to think about how problems can be fixed rather than getting angry or upset that they aren’t being listened to.”

6) Offer progression throughout the employee lifecycle

Call centres are inherently flat structures and typically offer limited opportunities for people to progress into senior management roles. This doesn’t mean these businesses should dismiss personal development out of hand, however.

“At Vodafone, people embark on an NVQ call centre qualification as part of their probation and are given the opportunity to do further professional studies afterwards,” says Blacker. “However, we understand that not everyone will want to continue down this route, so we also support people to take work or lifestyle-related Learn Direct courses which could be anything from a course that improves presentation skills to a foreign language class.

“Essentially, we want to support people to grow themselves as individuals both inside and outside of work,” he continues. “That way, they’ll continue to feel developed throughout their time with us rather than becoming demotivated after the first six months.”

The Planning Forum’s Steve Woosey agrees.

“Remember that development comes in all shapes and sizes. It’s not just about progressing up through the ranks,” he states. “Multi-skilling agents over a period of time can be a good way of developing them, as can offering the opportunity to try other roles within the business – for example, work in the HR or planning departments.”

7) Make sure the right people leave
Call centres, like any other business, lose less people through attrition during a recession. However, few can afford to carry poor performers. “Performance management shouldn’t be curtailed just because it’s tough times, economically,” explains Woosey. “If you have poor performers, they should be managed out and you need to analyse why they weren’t successful. That data then needs to be fed back into the business to refine processes like recruitment and training.”

The same goes for good performers, according to Orange UK’s Scott Craggs.

“We have a much more robust exit interview in place nowadays, which allows us to understand why both good and bad workers are leaving,” he says. “For the exceptional performers, we even offer something called a ‘return ticket’, whereby they can come back to us anything up to six months after having left. If they do come back, they receive part of the bounty that existing staff would get for recommending new recruits. This provides an extra incentive in case the grass hasn’t been greener with their new employer.”

Steve Woosey
Chief Executive 
Professional Planning Forum

First published in 2009 in People Management
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