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Tips For Training, Retaining Back-Office Staff

MIAMI-The best laid battle plans lead nowhere unless the front-line troops buy in.

And that takes turning process-oriented training into a cultural boot camp, said David Driskill, president of Boston-based National Quality Review (NQR) during a panel last week at The National Investment Company Service Association's 25th Anniversary Annual Conference & Expo here.

"Companies have to increase congruence between top-level strategy and the people who are on the front lines," Driskill said.

Training time for back-office operations at companies ranges from three to 60 days, Driskill said, with an average of 28.4 days. And while data shows that average training time has increased consistently since the mutual fund scandals earlier this decade, more important than the amount of time employees spend in training, is the cultural standard it sets.

Companies that successfully communicate organizational values to their back-office staff will not only see a drop in employee turnover, but a boost in customer satisfaction, he said.

"We talk about ownership," said Cyril Hunt, vice president of Van Kampen operations at Morgan Stanley. "If you are the owner of something, we believe you take better care of it," he said.

To foster such pride, lesson number one for initiates of the company's six-week training program is a mission statement that puts work quality above all else. The first three weeks of training, Hunt said, focus on mastering processes, rather than churning out results. Trainees are paired with "buddies," or mentors, to guide them, and must achieve-and maintain-98% accuracy before they are allowed to graduate to working alone.

Of course, mistakes happen, and how employees are trained to address such shortfalls is equally important, Driskill said.

At BISYS, call center trainees don't get scripts, they get feedback. The 300-hour training course includes various different techniques-from teams listening to audio replays and analyzing calls, to one-on-one reviews of an employee's own performance-to expose employees to all 27 metrics the company uses to judge the quality of its work.

"We're not trying to manufacture a score. We're trying to provide a quality relationship," said Alan Collins, SVP of transfer operations at BISYS. "We want to arm them with tools and guidance."

Morale boosters like theme-based events and compensation incentives also play a role, he said. In fact, between 70% and 80% of BISYS employees' bonuses are based on the quality of their calls, rather than the volume of transactions they complete.

Employees have responded by sticking around. While NQR pegs the industry-wide average attrition rate at about 50%, BISYS's call center turnover has dropped to about 20%.

Still, money isn't everything, Hunt said. "We do believe in incentives, and we do believe in bonuses," he said. "But first you have to make them want to do a good job, and reward them on the back end," he said. Hunt cited research that suggests that in any organization, the top 10% of performers will always stay in the top, whether their work is tied to compensation or not. More difficult is getting the remaining 90% to maintain their drive, rather than becoming complacent because they feel locked out of the biggest compensation pools. "It's important to celebrate successes, and to speak about understanding the significance of what it means as an organization and as a team," Hunt said.

Who companies hire counts, too, said Faye T. Howard, SVP at Evergreen Service Co. Candidates for its transfer agency must have certain backgrounds and skills, while call center staff must fit another particular profile. Once they get the job, entry-level employees need to know there is a career path ahead of them, she added.

Besides communicating goals and values to their employees, managers of various departments must communicate with one another. That way, call center managers can convey what complaints they may have heard, so transfer agents, for example, might suggest follow-up questions call center employees should ask to pinpoint systemic problems.

To that end, the company maintains an online "Knowledge Center" where policies, procedures and protocol are posted and accessible to employees company-wide. Managers are encouraged to introduce employees to new policies, but to also refer them to the site, which is updated every two or three weeks.

Focusing on the front lines is not cheap, or easy. "There's no silver bullet," Collins said.

It does pay off, though, panelists agreed, both in terms of retaining institutional knowledge among staff members, and in providing true value-added service to clients.

That value, Driskill stressed, comes not from giving people what they expect, but providing them with what they don't yet know they want-for example a service related to, but not necessarily connected to, the reason for a call to a service center.

"You can move from simple satisfaction to loyalty," Driskill said.

(c) 2007 Money Management Executive and SourceMedia, Inc. All Rights Reserved.