Paying lip service to the concept of customer service is not delivering the bottom line benefits expected by shareholders. Board-level visionary statements, combined with massive investments in CRM software, may reflect a growing awareness of the need to improve customer retention and increase customer value. However, there is little evidence of improvements in the quality or relevance of actual service delivery, argues David Allenstein.

High levels of staff attrition combined with inadequate investment in training and skills are fundamentally undermining the delivery of the customer service vision. If organisations truly want to drive up customer value and deliver improvements to the bottom line, they need a board-level commitment to call centre staff career development that ensures corporate messaging and branding is entrenched in every aspect of service delivery.

It is only by taking the lead in creating high-quality, motivated and relevant service that senior management can ensure the customer-focused corporate vision is being achieved.

For the past decade, organisations across every vertical market have been at pains to emphasise their commitment to customer service. Significant investments have been made in CRM solutions in a bid to drive up customer retention and increase customer value.

Yet throughout this process, investment in customer-facing staff has hardly changed. Whilst most call centre operators enjoy a good induction process, many organisations will spend no more than £150 a year to provide ongoing operator training. It is any wonder that call centre levels of staff attrition are amongst the highest in any sector?

According to a report from ContactBabel, agent retention rates have decreased for the fourth year running to 23 per cent, with 43 per cent of contact centres reporting a problem with staff turnover.

Yet the cost of call centre staff attrition is significant. With average new agent salaries breaking the £14,000 mark for the first time in 2006, recruitment costs are increasing. Furthermore, as the report comments, low retention rates impact negatively upon customer satisfaction levels and first call resolution rates, as well as being a very significant cost to the business. In addition, only 13 per cent of departing staff go to a competitor's contact centre, creating an industry-wide drain of skills.

People first

Acceptance of high levels of staff attrition is ridiculous. A good call centre operator is highly productive and motivated, successfully meeting customer needs and adding value through cross-selling and up-selling. But it takes a good six months for these individuals to become truly effective. With tenure rates dropping, organisations are rarely retaining their most valuable and efficient staff.

Instead they are enduring a constant, expensive cycle of recruitment. Too often top operators are promoted to team leader positions without the right training or skills to undertake the role, reducing job satisfaction and undermining team morale, leading to further staff churn.

Of course, the industry recognises that training has a role to play in reducing staff attrition. Yet, whilst many companies are investing in government-funded qualifications such as NVQs, in too many cases the training policies are ad hoc. Furthermore, organisations are struggling with the complexities of government funding that restricts training to the under 25s or those with less than Level 2 qualifications, making it difficult to deliver consistent, call centre-wide training policies.

In addition, while standard contact centre qualifications - such as NVQs - provide a good opportunity to demonstrate commitment to staff development, there are limitations associated with generic standards. These courses do not reflect the attitudes and policies of each organisation; indeed, staff may actually have to undertake different ways of working to match the external qualification requirements.

Breaking the chain

However, timely, relevant and high-quality staff training is essential if an organisation is to meet its vision of customer service delivery. Well-trained staff are not only better motivated and committed but support the customer-intelligent organisation, fulfilling their own potential and transforming the quality of service delivery.

Yet this can only be achieved if training evolves from today's tactical approach towards one that is embedded within corporate processes. A coherent training strategy has to be driven by a board level directive to ensure messages truly reflect the corporate vision of customer service.

And to achieve this vision, organisations need to understand current levels of customer intelligence, namely how well messages are communicated, problems solved and customer issues addressed. Only a board-level review to determine gaps in understanding and delivery can effectively assess the extent to which brand values are being communicated to the customer.

Clear path

Limiting the delivering of this key messaging to the initial induction is not enough. Indeed, the only way organisations can reverse the trend of high levels of call centre staff attrition and develop an organisation that truly reflects the customer service values and goals, from top to bottom, is to build an on going framework of business-relevant training.

It is by combining existing nationally recognised qualifications that give staff an easily understood development framework with company-specific messaging that an organisation can offer a strong platform for career progression while entrenching core values. This company-specific accreditation will directly reflect the way the organisation wants operators to communicate with customers, with tailored steps and processes.

Offering staff members a clear route to develop from operator through senior operator to team leader and manager is proven to transform retention levels. It ensures that good people are identified early and fast-tracked with the right skills to enable effective promotion.

In addition to transforming the levels of morale and effectiveness and driving down staff churn, a strong career development pathway also provides a highly successful approach to improving recruitment, enabling an organisation to cherry-pick the best candidates.

Critically, by driving a pathway approach to training from the top, an organisation can create a call centre operation with the skills and motivation to deliver the corporate customer services vision.

David Allenstein is managing director of Best Practice Training & Development.