One of the most challenging jobs in our sector is that of the front line customer contact centre agent – or Customer Support Consultant, as we call the role here at Ascent. It’s a job that has seen significant change in recent years, and the requirements can prove to be too much for some, which can lead to high employee turnover. This can become a downward spiral that’s difficult to break, as pressure on maintaining SLAs and KPIs often don’t allow enough time to be invested in the role.

Like many others in our industry, we noticed some time ago an increase in employee turnover, particularly in our customer support consultant roles, which we have now improved.

When we stood back and looked at why this was happening, we realised that our colleagues who directly engage with customers who are dealing with debt have been on the receiving end of so much change in our sector in recent years. As a result, they have needed to pick up a raft of new knowledge and skills, such as more detailed  and robust affordability checks, identifying vulnerability, dealing with mental health, signposting and avoiding customer detriment, to name but a few.

There’s also ever-greater oversight and interrogation of what they do, as quality and customer assurance processes have become more in-depth and challenging. Calls are increasingly listened to and scrutinised. As a backdrop to all this, you have a workplace that combines Generations Z, Y, X, and Baby Boomers, all with varying expectations and needs to balance.    

To improve our employee turnover, we recently implemented a fundamental change in approach, which has been really successful. We have found that root-cause analysis actually works – to reduce turnover, you need to make better hiring and recruitment decisions. So we changed our recruitment methods. Previously, we used multiple recruitment agencies, shortlisted candidates by CV and carried out 45-minute interviews. Now, we use one specialist retained recruitment agency, operate half-day assessment centres which include individual and group assessments, and take a strengths-based skills approach to recruitment. We test for resilience, educate applicants about how things work within our business, and also spend time on their expectations of the role. That way, we have a better understanding of what kind of employee we are getting, and crucially, they also understand what kind of role they are accepting.

The next significant area for us to improve upon was investment in training and development. Here, the life lesson of ‘failing to prepare is preparing to fail’ definitely rings true. If colleagues fail, they don’t feel great; perhaps they go off sick or even leave the business, and lo and behold, you’re looking to recruit again. So we made a conscious decision to over-recruit initially, which would allow time for new colleagues to receive our improved, extended on-boarding training – now 12 weeks long, with a clear route and framework to competence, boosted by our adding additional training resource. New colleagues are now as confident as they can be when they ‘go live’ on the phones, and able to cope well with all the potential scenarios they may encounter.

While I do think recruitment, training and development are certainly the ‘biggies’ when it comes to reducing employee turnover – especially if you want to see noticeable changes quickly – there are other areas which can also make a difference.  We have been working on improving our leadership skills, communication within the business, recognition and reward schemes, our office culture, providing development opportunities for colleagues and indeed our office environment. All this helps to ensure that when you bring good people on board, you keep them.

There are many costs to high employee turnover. The time and money spent recruiting and training replacements is the most obvious one, but it also has an impact on your customers, who may find themselves dealing with less experienced staff as new recruits get up to speed with their role.  

In the debt sector, customers are interacting with us at what is a very difficult time for them, so I reckon we owe it to them to try everything we can to reduce our employee turnover. In doing so, we can provide customers with the best possible experience in the hands of skilled, knowledgeable and motivated people. We believe our employees will display genuine care for our customers when they feel safe, supported, knowledgeable and confident themselves – and that is our aim.

Niall Gilhooley, Chief Executive