Cy Edmondson, ThinkSales Magazine, Call Centre Sales Staff Retention Tips

Call centres are among the industry sectors with the highest staff turnover. In South Africa, that figure is estimated to be 20% per year. Given the cost of replacing experienced staff, it’s obvious that prevention is better than cure.

Managers can prevent the employee exodus by looking after their valued staff properly, and providing engaging rewards that offer employees incentives for achieving long-term goals.

It’s a strategy that has worked wonders at industry award-winning iChoices Call Centre Outsourcing. The company offers a variety of call centre solutions to customers across all sectors, from renting facilities, desks, chairs, computers and associated technologies to a complete outsourcing solution. Staff turnover here is a mere 6% per year. Dynamic sales manager, Cy Edmondson explains how incentives and rewards – coupled with sincerity – could well prove to be the best strategy for staff retention.

Vital Stats

  • Name: Cy Edmondson
  • Age: 38
  • Designation: Sales Manager
  • Company: iChoices Call Centre Outsourcing
  • Industry: Call centre outsourcing
  • Bio: Edmondson comes from a corporate background and has 17 years of contact centre experience. He has won numerous awards, including leader of the year at Discovery Health. He is also a professional speaker who helps organisations to grow and develop their staff.
  • Team Size: 750 people; 550 are on-site, 200 work off-site at client premises

How do you grow your people?

Being a call centre agent is one of the most stressful jobs in the world. There are a lot of irate customers out there. Keeping staff can be very tough. It all starts with recruiting people correctly. We believe that every time a potential employee comes into contact with iChoices, the experience is important; be it via an advert or walking through the building, every single touch point is imperative.

The people we employ must want to work here, rather than have to. That’s why we place such emphasis on the environment. They have to walk in and think “this place is great”. That is very, very important. Also, they meet different team members at each round of interviews, and straight away they get an understanding of how the culture of the business works, just by engaging with people doing the recruitment.

Next, it’s about training. How is the training conducted? Is it about the employee, or is it just about telling them what to do? Is it engaging? Is it informative? We work hard to get that right.

Once they have passed the induction phase, they move into the incubator stage. They are on the phones and taking calls, but they know there is someone around to help them. Over and above all of this, we have a life skills coach who is always available, and discussions are completely private.

Our team leaders are approachable and they have to have high-level people skills to be appointed to that position. At middle to upper management level, we also recruit on the basis of the person’s ability to transfer know-ledge. The ability to train people in hard skills is one thing, but to be a good leader in this environment, you have to enjoy working with people and transferring knowledge. These are traits we insist on.

Taking care of employees is a 
priority in your organisation. What are the basics?

In our industry, ergonomics are important. The norm is to provide about five to six metres of space per agent, but we provide eight to ensure people are comfortable and have enough privacy and personal space. There’s also a pause room for short breaks.

Parking is right across the street. We run a wellness programme which is popular. There’s a “Hush Room” where people can go to get away from it all. They can have treatments like facials, manicures or a head shave, and pay with “Hush Moola”, which is what the call centre agents earn when they have done a fantastic job. We don’t just say “well done”; we give them the opportunity to really treat themselves for good performance.

We have a canteen in the building that offers a full meal for a reasonable cost. Also, we have well equipped meeting and training rooms fitted with the latest technology and stylishly furnished. Outside we have an entertainment area with darts, a pool table and a braai facility, as well as a smokers’ room.

These are basics, but they are important. The environment is attractive. It caters for people’s needs and makes them want to be in the workplace. Our training rooms simulate the call centre environment, so people are able to sit at the computers and learn the technology and the processes in a real-world scenario. As an outsourcer, we have to provide an environment that is conducive to excellence and meets the standards of world class best practice.

How do you address poor performance?

People don’t always get things right. That’s why you need quality assurance aligned with the support you offer to employees. If an agent is not doing well, we pull them off the phones immediately, and the team leader will coach them. Note, I said coach, not performance manage. We find out how the agent is doing and how they can do better. We suggest alternative approaches, and involve the team leader every step of the way. The agent feels that they are actually wanted in the company, and not just another number.

How do you ensure that incentives are distributed fairly?

We give incentives every month and at the end of the year there are awards for staff who really achieve. This year we’re giving away 
R1 million in prizes, which is significant for a medium-size organisation. Prizes include exotic trips overseas.
Distributing incentives equitably is key. You have high, mid and low level earners. The top people are easy to deal with. But it’s the people at the lower end who really need to be motivated to do better, such as those who go from achieving 50% of target to 80%. That’s a significant improvement.

Once you start to create that culture of learning and growing, and you demonstrate that it’s not just about the five people at the top, you start getting somewhere. It’s the 80/20 principle and the logic is simple – if I focus on improving the 80% of our staff who need to grow, I can turn that 20% who do all the great work to 40%, and so on. That’s what has changed our graph so significantly and increased performance.

How do you ensure that staff remain excited about what they do?

There are various ways. We have grading scales, beginning with the fire starters who are able to work their way up through various ranks to the level of high flier. That’s the wow level. It’s where you come up with your own ideas and present them to the board. High fliers are encouraged to think creatively. We give them the parameters, but within those limits they can do what they want, always with our support and guidance in the background.

We’ve also created call skill levels. The most basic skill is being able to record a customer’s contact details. Once an agent has mastered that, we’ll try to up-skill them, depending on the requirements of our client. We give our people different perspectives on how they can do the job, always with an emphasis on empowering them. As you empower people, it becomes clear that you can’t give skills to just anybody – that person has to desire growth. Leadership is taken, not given. People who want to step up to the plate are the ones we actively grow.

Three ways to keep employees engaged

1. Managing one-on-one

Edmondson has “wazzup?” sessions with staff, introduced by the company’s life skills coach Debbie Higgs. “I’ll sit down and ask an employee how they are doing; literally, wazzup?”, he says. “This is an informal session that’s aimed at creating habits that allow people to understand who they work with every day. In many organisations there is no engagement between managers and employees. You can only remedy that by engaging with your people on a regular basis. It’s not just talking shop.  It’s talking about your dog, your kids, your wife, your new car – things that are real and genuine. The point is to be sincere. It’s a process that won us an innovation award in the industry.”

To deliver a great quality service, he adds, you must have passion, and you must like and relate to the people around you. It’s not a case of, “I come here to do my job and I go home”. Everything Edmondson does is about ensuring that there is no “them and us”.

2. Don’t focus on monitoring all the time

Focus on what’s working, and compliment your team. Performance management should not be your key concern. Instead, highlight what’s working. When a client sends a compliment don’t file it, share it with everyone and celebrate. Public recognition is a big thing. People like to be recognised, but remember to be genuine in how you say thank you. It’s not hard to say well done. If the agent is not available, write a thank you note. “I am not saying that we can never performance manage, however the culture of trying to catch you out should not be the key driver in delivering better performance.”

3. Lead from the middle

Our management team is encouraged to lead from the middle, not drive from the front or push from the back. That is support.  A leader hires people who are potentially better than them.


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Monique Verduyn

Monique Verduyn

Monique Verduyn is a freelance writer. She has more than 12 years’ experience in writing for the corporate, SME, IT and entertainment sectors, and has interviewed many of South Africa’s most prominent business leaders and thinkers. Monique has a Master of Arts degree in literary studies and creative writing. Follow Monique on Twitter at @monverduyn.
Monique Verduyn

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