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Keeping Phone Workers Plugged In

Our telephone call center has a high staff turnover rate due to the repetitive nature of the job. We find that once we rotate employees into other positions, they're really reluctant to go back to answering phones. Do you have any suggestions for retaining employees?

-- K.R., Manchester, England

This is a tough problem, and one faced by employers in many industries. First, let's be realistic. Dull, repetitive, high-stress jobs such as answering telephones hour after hour, day after day, typically have high burnout rates. So don't set your expectations too high. You aren't likely to find a stable crew of long-time employees who keep at it for many years.

On the other hand, there are steps you can take to improve your success in hiring and thereby retain more trained employees. And you can make the job more attractive through competitive pay and worker incentives that will increase your retention rate.

Start by adjusting your hiring mindset, suggests Mark Greenberg, chief operating officer at Caliper (, a human resources assessment and consulting firm based in Princeton, N.J. "Employers tend to be attracted to candidates who are ambitious, energetic, and focused. But while those people do wonderfully in job interviews, they won't fit well into these kinds of jobs. They'll get bored quickly and look to move on," he says. "Look for job candidates who are helpful and dedicated, but not mover-and-shaker types. Look for job candidates who are motivated by a desire to be helpful and appreciated. The rewards of [repetitive] jobs aren't all that great, but if these people feel they're helping the customers and they get a 'thank you' for it, that will be a major gratifier for them."

BETTER PAY. Dr. David Weiman, a management psychologist based in suburban Philadelphia, agrees. "Screen applicants to make sure they enjoy a highly structured environment, aren't easily bored by routines, and enjoy talking on the phone. Prior work in similar positions will give you an idea of how well they'll do," he says.

Once you get the best people in your call center, make sure you are paying them a little bit more than your competitors are, says John Uprichard, president of FGP (Find Great People) International (, a recruiting and consulting organization based in Greenville, S.C. "If you're paying $9.50 an hour and somebody else is paying $10.25, your employees will leave. Pay a little above what the market is offering," he says.

Then, build in financial incentives tied to productivity. You could offer special compensation for a certain number of positive outcomes or calls handled per hour, for instance. "Make sure that they have an opportunity to earn more than other people in the company if they perform exceptionally," Uprichard says.

FLEX APPEAL. Offering these employees flexible schedules can also attract newcomers and persuade more seasoned workers to stick around. "These might be single parents who want more time with their children or people with high school diplomas who would like to go back to school. If you can have people job-sharing or working 12-hour shifts, four days a week, you'll boost your retention without costing your company anything," he says. "It's not a glamorous job, so anything you can do to make it more attractive will help."

Rotating employees in and out of the call center can help -- or it can hurt, as you've found. "If you take someone out of the call center and train them in a different area that they love, it will be tough to return them to the call center," Uprichard suggests. "You might put them on a development track, so that when they return they're going [to a position that is] a step up, with more responsibility."

Some companies do rotate all staff members through the call center so they get customer interaction and become more well-rounded employees who know the business better. That's an admirable idea, but you might want to forestall doing that with call-center employees who have been with the company only a short time.

COUNTING THE HOURS. "Let people know up front that they'll be working in the call center for a certain amount of time -- say three years -- and then they can rotate out and possibly move up in the company," Uprichard says.

Or you could give them relief on a regular basis. "Instead of having someone work every day in the call center, you might have them work in other areas of the company one or two days a week. Or rotate on a schedule: Maybe three months in and three months out," Weiman suggests. "That way, they'll know that no matter how monotonous it is, there's a specific break coming."

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