Anyone who has worked in or around Customer Service will tell you there is a grudging acceptance that high attrition rates go with the territory. It’s often blamed on early career staff joining to get a foot on the career ladder before moving on to ‘bigger and better things’.

While it is true that attrition is to be expected to a certain degree – especially across entry level positions – I don’t believe that means it should be the defining characteristic of our industry, especially if Customer Service is to be valued as a career rather than a stop-gap.

In an article published earlier this year by customer experience vendor, NICE, author Paul Chance highlights the scale of the issue. “Attrition in the contact center is high – 25% to 40% on average – but can reach 100% in some contact centers, such as ones operated by business process outsourcing companies (BPOs)”. Even more worryingly, he goes on to say, “In fact, the 2020 Contact Center Pipeline Survey found that attrition is the No. 1 challenge for contact centers – yet most contact center leaders have no plans to address it”.

The impact of attrition for employers is two-fold. Firstly, they don’t get the full ROI for the cost and time associated with the hiring and onboarding of new employees, and secondly, when the organisation is left without enough of the right people to perform existing or emerging roles it impacts their ability to meet client demands and differentiate through their most valued asset – their people.

The article points to a series of problems that contribute to high attrition rates in Customer Service. The majority – like employee disengagement or excessive pressure and stress – would seem to stem from workplace design and organisational culture. Addressing such issues can take time and sometimes even a change in strategic direction. Yet there are two in particular that I know employers can address in the short to medium term: appropriate candidate selection and career growth and development opportunities.

As Paul Chance writes, “…survey after survey finds employers complaining about how difficult hiring is.” A popular approach among employers for dealing with the problem involves the increasing use of data science through algorithms to source and evaluate candidates for specific roles.

The NICE article links to an in-depth article by Professor Peter Cappelli, director of the Wharton School’s Center for Human Resources. Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Professor Cappelli sounds a note of caution about the role of software in the hiring process. “The rise of data science-driven algorithms to find and assess job candidates is promising because they are not constrained by prior theory and results, but worrying because data scientists seem to know so little about the context of employment.”

That contextual understanding, or the ‘human element’, is critical in not only hiring the right people but ensuring that they stay. In Customer Service hiring, candidates may be faced with a number of online questionnaires and assessments to determine their suitability for a role. These may be technical, psychometric or soft skills tests. What many of these evaluations do is determine whether someone meets the criteria for a specific role at a specific time. I believe this simplistic view of employment contributes to the high attrition rates we see in our industry because it does not take into account what the employer and employee need in the future.

Instead of looking at whether a candidate is right for that specific role, what about whether they are right for the organisation two to three years down the line? As Professor Cappelli highlights, “The big problem with all these new practices is that we don’t know whether they actually produce satisfactory hires.” In other words, are the people who pass likely to stay for long enough to not only make the outlay on their time to competency worthwhile but also to fill other, newer roles later on that will save time and effort in the hiring process as businesses leverage internal hiring at a higher rate than they do today?

As Professor Cappelli suggests, organisations are right to be cautious about relying solely on software for making hiring decisions. A binary (Yes or No) approach to hiring may reject candidates who are over- or under-qualified at that time. Say you’re recruiting for a Level 3 support engineer and the candidate fails the ‘Level 3 skills questionnaire’, the algorithm may discount them from the process. But they may be an excellent candidate for one of your Level 2 support engineering jobs as well as being someone who is looking to grow their career with an organisation that will invest in them. In other words they could be a valuable Level 3 hire in the future who has gained valuable experience through the Level 2 role.

The importance here is to close the loop on the hiring process by recognising the human factor in the whole process. Hiring assessments should combine the best elements of data science in this field with practical know-how from hiring managers. Evaluations should look at how people think, their working preferences and potential future plans as well as their current technical skills.

A person is not always ready-made for a role but this doesn’t mean they won’t be among the best hires for your organisation. Instead of checking whether they can perform just a specific role, it clearly pays to understand what is important to them and why they would want to stay. In many cases it is not simply the hourly wage but feeling valued and seeing their future growth prospects.

And this leads on to ways that employers can change the impact of the other factor contributing to high attrition rates: a lack of development opportunities. As I wrote in a previous post on career growth, poor development prospects can have significant damaging effects on the organisation, including attrition, productivity and costs. Looking at career progression through the lens of an employee and investing in career pathways is clearly beneficial.

However, identifying candidates who will stay because they feel they can progress their careers with you will only reduce attrition if it is backed up by real action on individual career pathways.

I believe leaders need to pay attention to both sides of the coin. One, the human side of the employment process and, two, longer-term development for employees to reduce attrition. Until organisations do this, they will continue to see people leave and not solve the knock-on impact of attrition in customer service.