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Should You Hire Your Customers for Customer Service?


The average U.S. call center experiences about 20 percent turnover annually, with some reporting as much as 100 percent yearly churn. This is a significant issue for call centers when you consider that the cost of replacing a single employee can equal three to four months’ pay, and that high turnover can effectively decrease sales growth over time.

While there are many factors that impact turnover in call centers, poor job fit can be a significant contributor. Still, many call centers view hiring simply as a war of attrition: indiscriminately bringing in a lot of people on the assumption that a large number of them will quickly wash out. As Findly Senior Vice President Lisa Bordinat put it, ‟There’s historically been a focus just on hiring people, rather than hiring the right people.”

Internet game producer Kixeye takes a different approach. When they opened their customer support center in Portland, Ore., they decided to hire their customers. Recruiters literally went into arcades looking for gamers to hire, and so far it’s paid off—not one person has quit. In this article, we’ll explore the potential reasons why this strategy, which has been used successfully by a variety of companies, could reduce turnover in call centers.

Customers Want a Long-Term Career With the Company

Lacking a clear path for advancement is one common reason call center employees decide to quit. If an agent only sees meager opportunities to move up within the company, his or her position may suddenly seem more like a dead-end job than the first step in a long, fruitful career.

Customers, on the hand, are more excited about developing a long-term career within the company because they are inherently invested in seeing it succeed. At Kixeye, customers-turned-employees look for opportunities for growth even when there hasn’t been a clear path in support. They have moved between 15 and 20 people from customer service roles into other jobs in the company—from product management to sound design.

‟We treat customer support as a recruiting tool to find people who are hungry and energetic, but maybe don’t have the resume necessary to get the job they’re ultimately interested in,” says Matt McComb, Kixeye’s customer support manager. The company has found that customers have this inherent “hunger” because they are passionate about the product and want to stay with the company.

Wells Fargo is another company that has used this strategy to recruit workers. Robin Schelstraete, an employment branding communications consultant with Wells Fargo, says that while checking accounts don’t typically inspire the same fervor as video games, the bank’s customers have ‟turn[ed] out to be loyal and top-performing employees.”

Customers Are More Likely to Enjoy Customer Co-Workers

Another top reason why call center agents leave is they lack a strong connection with their coworkers. In fact, The Gallup Organization proved in its book First, Break All the Rules that having a “best friend” at work is crucial for employees to feel fulfilled and satisfied in most kinds of jobs.

Hiring customers increases your chances of employing call center workers who like each other because they already have at least one common interest. When McComb visited the Ground Kontrol Classic Arcade to recruit agents, for example, he immediately made friends with a couple of gaming aficionados who hosted a regular video game trivia night at a local bar.

‟Both of those guys now work for us and they introduced us to a bunch of their friends, who also now work for us,” he says. At Kixeye, this shared love for the product—video games—translates into a passionate culture. While this benefit might not translate to every industry (Wells Fargo customers, for example, aren’t likely “passionate” about banking), Kixeye workers feel like they have a support system of co-workers who share interests and genuinely enjoy each others’ company.

Customers Are More Likely to Be Intrinsically Motivated

In Daniel Pink’s book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, he describes the importance of employees feeling intrinsically motivated in their jobs, and how employers can spur this motivation by creating a sense of purpose. While researching the keys to driving this kind of purpose in call centers, Wharton Business School professor Adam Grant came to a realization: it’s all about connecting employees with customers.

“Turn employees into end users,” Grant advised in an article in the Harvard Business Review that cited the project. “Employees who have little experience with the company’s products or services often contribute more after they spend some time in customers’ shoes.”

If employees are already end users, building this kind of connection is much easier than if they have no specific connection to the product other than working for a company that sells it. Kixeye’s customer support staff can easily put themselves in the shoes of the customers they’re assisting because they play the very same games on a regular basis.

Consider the results of an experiment Grant conducted in one call center. He brought in a student to give a five-minute talk to agents about how their hard work made his scholarship possible. Compared to a control group, the performance of the people who spoke with the student shot through the roof. One month after the student came in, the time they spent on the phone doubled and average weekly revenue increased by 400 percent.

Making the bridge between what call center employees do every day and the ultimate results of their efforts may help build job satisfaction, too. Studies have shown that as job satisfaction goes up, employees’ desire to leave a company decreases accordingly.

Benefits Beyond Reducing Turnover

Hiring your customers brings benefits beyond potentially reducing turnover: these candidates can also be easier and cheaper to recruit and train.

‟[Your customers] are the perfect recruiting target,” writes Dr. John Sullivan, a professor of management at San Francisco State University, in a blog post. ‟They are diverse; it costs almost nothing to get a recruiting message in front of them and best of all … they already know and like your company and its products.”

Wells Fargo, for example, uses an onscreen prompt at all of its ATMs to promote open positions. Those who click through get a message on their receipt directing them to a site that details job opportunities.

‟We don’t specifically track how many of our site visitors are prompted to make the visit due to this promotion, [but] we do know that since implementation of the receipt messaging, we have seen a steady rise in the number of unique visitors to the site, resulting in an increase in new job applications,” says Robin Schelstraete, an employment branding communications consultant with Wells Fargo.

Because Wells Fargo puts job notices into its existing customer interaction infrastructure, it costs them almost nothing to get a very targeted recruiting message to would-be candidates. At the same time, it puts their employment advertisement in front of an enormous group of people the company typically wouldn’t be able to reach through traditional job boards: people who aren’t actively looking for work.

Having prior knowledge of and history with your company can lead employees to train up faster, and perform better at their job overall. “If you start someone [who] already uses and loves your product, they have a useful set of experiences they can share,” explains Michelle Cline, a vice president at the call center staffing technology provider FurstPerson.

Kixeye has discovered this benefit firsthand. By tapping into a network of communities based around shared interests, they’ve been able to find people who are already passionate and well-versed in the topics they ultimately talk about on the phone with customers for hours each day.

Assess the Best Ways to Decrease Turnover

Kixeye’s game-loving culture is one reason behind the low turnover at its call center, but it’s far from the only factor involved. McComb says call center positions are often treated as a minimum-wage, entry-level jobs with few benefits. At Kixeye, however, all of the customer support staff are given same benefits package as everyone else at the company.

‟We treat our customer support differently,” he says. ‟Most companies view it as a necessary evil, but we see it as an invaluable way to interact directly with our players.”

What happens after an employee is hired is just as crucial to keeping them happy and productive in their position as ensuring they’re the right candidate in the first place. Bordinat insists that companies must look inward to figure out what’s really driving turnover at their call centers before they can effectively solve the problem.

‟If what’s driving turnover is fit or passion, they can probably improve… by changing their targeting. We’ve worked with companies who have been able to decrease turnover by up to 30 percent by improving their targeting,” Bordinat says.

‟[But] maybe the hiring process is giving prospective employees an unrealistic view of what the position entails, or maybe they’re simply not paying people enough and employees can get a dollar more per hour working down the street. Improving targeting won’t fix those issues.”

In the end, companies must assess their own call centers to identify the factors driving turnover. While there are many ways to decrease churn, recruiting passionate, enthusiastic customers may be one viable solution to this all-too-common problem.

ECBC, AMFI sign CRADA” created by U.S. Army RDECOM CC BY / Resized.

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Aaron Sankin is a contributor to Software Advice.

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