Call Centers: Heaven or Hell?

If Dante were alive today, one of his circles of hell would be a call center. Low-slung buildings in forgettable office parks in places where unions are scarce and land is cheap, the only thing missing are the demons and pitchforks. “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”

This is the commonly accepted vision of call centers, or at least my dystopian view, and there is no doubt there is some truth in it. But things are changing. Heaven they may not be, but they certainly aren’t hell.

A faithful reader of Psychology at Work, Holly Aker, has alerted me to the positive things happening in the world of call centers. Retention and productivity are improving through the use of psychology to aid in recruitment and management.

Call center retention can be a tricky thing, as Holly and her colleague Ashley Verrill acknowledged in a discussion with me (they work at softwareadvice.com, a company that helps companies pick the right software). Lots of call centers try gimmicks like “gamification” that provide short-term relief and may keep a worker around a couple of weeks longer than normal, but they don’t improve retention in the long term.

This requires a different approach, according to Holly and Ashley. They provide examples where psychologically based tactics improved long-term retention dramatically, including one I have written about before: infusing jobs with a sense of larger purpose and meaning.

Appletree Answers is a telephone answering service for small businesses. Not surprisingly, its operators are based in a call center. A few years ago, the company experienced a huge increase in turnover after a series of acquisitions. It had grown from a handful of workers to more than 350, and unity among the team completely disappeared as the newbies came on board without the shared sense of mission of the first employees. Not surprisingly, the high level of turnover killed their returns because the cost to train new employees is a huge expense item for call centers.

Then something interesting happened. The company launched Dream On, a charitable-giving program that encouraged employees to help each other “reach their dream.” Sure, it sounds kind of hokey, but after six months attrition decreased to 33 percent and they saved $1 million in hiring and training costs over the same period. A lot of money for a small company. Not surprisingly, the company experienced its two most profitable quarters ever. And maybe did some good in the process.

Another strategy is to hire people who are psychologically suited for working in a call center. Evolv, a San Francisco-based data analysis and workforce probability firm, discovered that many traits commonly screened for in the hiring process for call centers don’t accurately predict job performance or retention. Sound familiar? Their experts analyzed data on 21,115 call center employees and found that “previous employment duration is a very weak predictor of how long a new hire will stay on a job.” In other words, if you just look at job history for clues about a candidate’s propensity to stay in one place you are barking up the wrong tree.

Look instead to find what personality traits successful call center workers exhibit and recruit for those traits. Evolv’s analysis, which tech writer Janna Finch showcases in a recent article, showed that a person’s creativity, curiosity and ability to multitask correlate strongly with how long they might stay on the job. Simple, free and online personality tests like the Values in Action survey of strengths are excellent ways to measure for these traits. Companies that have adopted this hiring approach have seen solid increases in productivity and retention, according to Evolv.

OK, I am not ready to move to an office park in central Florida and man a headset for eight hours a day, but maybe call centers aren’t the hell I assumed them to be. Modern workplace practices based on meaning and psychological fit are making big strides and improving retention and productivity in progressive companies. I appreciate Holly and Ashley bringing this to my attention, and encourage other readers to contact me with article ideas.

But write, don’t call.