Reducing Staff Turnover

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It’s no secret that turnover is high in the tech support industry.

Jason Sloderbeck, vice president of service delivery at Positive Networks, a software company that enables remote access in the workforce, estimates that the rate of help desk turnover is roughly 30 percent to 50 percent.

“From my perspective, that’s too high, not acceptable,” said Sloderbeck, who added that his company strives for a rate of less than 20 percent. “Software is a service business.”

The problem, Sloderbeck said, is multifaceted.

Staff members often complain of boredom, which stems from a kind of double-whammy repetition: They’re on the phone all day, and they’re answering the same questions and fixing the same problems while they’re on the phone all day.

As a result, many firms hire with the expectation that the new recruit will quit before the year is out, creating a depressing work environment in which employees feel dead-ended.

“It shows very quickly when a company doesn’t really care about its call center,” Sloderbeck said. “It’s an attitude thing.”

Such a high rate of turnover can also end up costing the company a bundle, what with recruiting and initial training fees.

“There’s a huge benefit in retaining the people that you have,” Sloderbeck said. “And you can’t just compete by paying them better. You actually have to compete by providing a better work environment or some incentives along the way.”

To that end, Sloderbeck highlighted some easy, effective ways to encourage employees to stick around.

Break the Cycle
To alleviate the monotony that plagues call centers, make sure staff members aren’t spending all day on the phone.

“Rotate some responsibilities,” Sloderbeck said. “Take 10 to 15 percent of their time and let them do some sort of face-to-face interaction around the office, even if it’s helping out with the phone system, helping out with general IT, or alternating e-mail or chat with phone [duties].”

Sloderbeck added that internal support can also yield instant positive feedback, which helps boost employee morale.

Also, try to make sure each employee is solving new, interesting problems at least some of the time.

“Some of that you can help, some of it you can’t,” Sloderbeck conceded. “[But] you don’t want it to be the same problem over and over.”

Part of relieving the boredom might include tackling tougher problems, which ties in with Sloderbeck’s second tip: You should make sure to offer career advancement.

Take It to the Next Level
Showing staff members they can advance is crucial. One way to do that is to allow lower-level employees periodically to shadow higher-level employees.

“What I hear a lot when we hire people in from other desks is, ‘I worked Level 1 or Level 2 for two years and I was able to solve a lot of the problems, but they made me escalate when it got to a certain point,’” Sloderbeck said. “And that gets really frustrating. You can’t let your new guys try to do advanced troubleshooting, but there’s a balance, I think, in letting people advance by working on harder problems. If you realize it’s a learning thing, if you can make that sacrifice, it helps the employee.”

It’s also important for managers to remember that it’s not the dream of every help desk employee to work his way up in the tech support field. Some, Sloderbeck points out, might want eventually to be software developers or sales engineers. So when you’re hiring, take the interviewee to meet others within the company who have transitioned from tech support to other departments.

“If you don’t have examples of that, people don’t believe that you’re really interested in helping them grow,” Sloderbeck said.

All Work and Some Play
Whether they’re spending hours seated at their desks or working to diffuse angry callers, help desk employees need outlets for blowing off steam.

Sloderbeck suggests investing in recreational equipment for the office.

“We’ve got a table-tennis table within 15 feet of our tech support team — and an arcade machine,” Sloderbeck said.

However, creating a fun, recreational atmosphere doesn’t have to break the bank.

“You can take a pretty small amount, like $100, but go spend it on Nerf guns,” Sloderbeck said. “It’s not expensive, but it shows them that you’re interested in them being interested in their jobs; [it] shows them that you really do value them and they’re a key part of your business.”

Accentuate the Positive
“You’re only going to get one happy comment for every 10 great support experiences,” Sloderbeck said. “So when you get one of those, it’s got to be a big deal.”

If a compliment comes in, spread the word across the company, including the sales desk: Not only does it encourage company unity, but it also extends and strengthens confidence.

Highlighting accomplishments also helps instill a positive work ethic among the staff, which usually breeds more compliments in the future.

“Service really is kind of cool and sexy right now,” Sloderbeck said. “So take advantage of that and get your employees excited.”

Plan Strategically
Finally, don’t be afraid to be tactical in your compensation. Rather than hiring at a standard salary and giving a raise after 12 months, which is a long time in the service industry, Sloderbeck recommends hiring at a slightly lower salary but guaranteeing a raise every quarter.

“That first year is certainly critical in employee retention,” Sloderbeck said.

Rather than hiring at $30,000 a year, you could start a new employee at $28,000 with a $1,000 raise every three months. At the end of 12 months, his salary is $32,000, although because the raises come in gradually, you actually end up paying him only $30,000, Sloderbeck said.

“It hasn’t cost you any extra, but it forces your manager to do quarterly reviews, and it gives those employees an incentive for sticking around. People don’t want to leave if they’re only a couple months away from a raise — it doesn’t even matter what the amount is.”

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