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[This guest post was written by Ashley Verrill, an analyst for Software Advice, as well as the managing editor for the Customer Service Investigator blog.]

Many call center operators assume that turnover is just a fact of life. No amount of training or incentive will ever truly mitigate the trend, so why try?

While retention will likely always be a challenge in call centers, researchers have discovered a few psychologically-based tactics that have proven successful. Recently, we interviewed several call center technology experts, hiring strategists and other thought leaders to investigate these emerging trends. We’ve analyzed three here.

Encourage (Measured) Autonomy

Zappos is known worldwide for the quality of its customer service. The founder, Tony Hsieh, literally wrote the book on the topic, Delivering Happiness, which staked claim on The New York Times Best Sellers list for 27 consecutive weeks. I interviewed the company’s Customer Loyalty Operations Manager Derek Carder, who attributed this success in part to his team’s longer than average work tenure. How do they do this? They emphasize personal ownership of each call and strategic thinking.

While most call centers value quick time-to-resolution, Zappos encourages call center agents to spend as much time on the phone as they deem necessary to satisfy the customer. They are still required to spend at least 80 percent of their time interacting with customers, but it doesn’t matter if that’s 100 calls or 20. The worker is asked to build rapport with each caller, but they have autonomy in that they figure out the best approach for doing this.

Carder gave the example of a customer who called to find shoes for a wedding. Zappos didn’t have the shoe in stock, so the agent looked at four other sites. They didn’t have them, either. So, she called a mall, talked to the manager and found a store that had the right pair. She purchased the shoes and personally mailed them to the customer. While the agent did receive a “Happiness Experience Score” (a Zappos performance measurement), she used her own best judgement to design the tactic for solving the problem.

Give Them Purpose

“High performance is that unseen intrinsic drive, the drive to do things because they matter,” says Daniel Pink, a best-selling business author of newly released To Sell is Human, a book about the changing world of work. “I believe that includes three elements: autonomy, mastery and purpose.”

Giving workers purpose can mean at least three things. The first is literally giving them a philanthropic purpose. Appletree Answers, for example, experienced some serious growing pains several years ago after acquiring a few competitors. The call center grew to 350 employees and shortly afterwards experienced a turnover rate of 97 percent.

The company tried attacking the problem with competitions, games and other incentives. But nothing worked until they launched the Dream On program in 2008—an initiative aimed at encouraging employees to help each other achieve their dreams. Six months and 100 dreams later, attrition decreased to 33 percent, $1 million was saved in hiring and training costs and the company experienced its two most profitable quarters ever.

In addition to creating this kind of purpose at work, Dr. Adam Grant, a management professor at Wharton and author of Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success, conducted a series of call center experiments that proved the effectiveness of “outsourcing inspiration.”

This tactic is based on connecting workers with the actual recipients of their efforts (the customers, clients, or other people they speak to everyday) as a means for generating motivation. This can be done by literally having agents meet these people in person, or by showcasing customer photos, sharing their stories and having agents describe their own positive experiences with customers.

Dr. Grant said connecting call center workers with beneficiaries “appears to be a promising catalyst in the art of motivation maintenance.”

A final way to enforce purpose is through giving workers a stake in the overall success of the business. Pink suggested one tactic – creating a “genius hour,” or asking agents to leave the phones for one hour every week to come up with improvements in processes, new ways to handle workflow or other ideas.

Hire for Successful Personality Traits

One final way call centers can reduce turnover is by hiring the right people. This sounds obvious, but if you are just looking at work history, this might be your mistake.

An emerging field called “workforce science” is based on hiring people for their personality traits. Researchers analyze the behaviors of the most successful workers, then uses those to identify what personality traits make a candidate psychologically-predisposed to being ideal for a specific kind of work environment.

“Analytics allows business operators to continuously challenge assumptions about how to expand and manage their workforces profitably,” says Dr. David Ostberg, vice president of workforce science at Evolv, a San Francisco-based data analysis and workforce probability firm.

Evolv’s researchers have discovered that many traits commonly screened for in the hiring process don’t accurately predict job performance. For example, their experts analyzed data from 21,115 call center agents and found that “previous employment duration is a very weak predictor of how long a new hire will stay on a job.” Instead, the data shows that a person’s creativity, curiosity and ability to multitask correlate more strongly with how long they might stay on the job. While call centers each have unique requirements, most traits identified as predictors of retention are relevant to all of them.

What tactics have you found most successful to addressing turnover? Join the conversation with a comment here.

Ashley Verrill is an analyst for Software Advice, as well as the managing editor for the Customer Service Investigator blog. She has spent the last six years reporting and writing business news and strategy features. Her work has been featured or cited in Inc., Forbes, Business Insider, GigaOM,, Yahoo News, the Upstart Business Journal, the Austin Business Journal and the North Bay Business Journal, among others. 

Angela Irizarry

Angela Irizarry is the President and Chief Operating Officer at MetricNet, where she is responsible for managing day-to-day operations, strategic planning, and new client acquisition. She also oversees the company's sales and marketing efforts and manages its intellectual property and online resources. Angela has been with the company for 10 years and has over 20 years of experience in business development and strategy. She has been featured in Fortune magazine and has received recognition for her work in competitive and trends analysis from executives at a variety of Fortune 100 companies. Angela is a dynamic and accomplished professional who consistently delivers exceptional results for MetricNet and its clients. She has a wealth of industry experience and a track record of success in driving business results, particularly in the financial services, insurance, and healthcare sectors. Angela is highly skilled in communication, problem-solving, and project management, and is committed to delivering the highest level of service to MetricNet's clients.

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