Older workers looking for a career change or to defer retirement are a key target for the customer experience sector, which is looking to challenge the idea that frontline roles are only for the young.
The call centre sector has always skewed to younger workers, with the average age of employees up to six years younger than in the Australian workforce overall.
But as workplace and social changes enable greater flexibility — and labour shortages remain acute — the sector is increasingly looking to older workers to meet surging demand for customer service.
It’s a shift that offers new opportunity to those with some years and runs on the board, including people looking to add customer service to a mix of other work and commitments.
But it also requires employers in the sector to recognise the immense value older workers can bring to the field.
“COVID changed everything, particularly the labour market dynamics,” says Zahra Peggs, Chief People and Corporate Affairs Officer with TSA Group.
“That pipeline of young tech-literate talent that would normally feed a contact centre really shifted dramatically during COVID and the competition for resources forced us to start looking at different talent pools and thinking about what we needed to do to adapt our business to attract them.
“Older workers represent a talent pool that we think is really valuable and we want to try to retain them in our business and increase their representation.”
It’s a significant shift for the sector, which has 28,000 workers in Australia, with more than two-thirds female and an average age of 34.
In contrast the average Australian worker overall is more likely to be male and aged 40.
Australian labour statistics suggest that every group is under-represented, and just 12 per cent of workers are over 45 compared to nearly one in five in the broader market.
Ms Peggs says that lack of diversity is a challenge for the sector that TSA is working hard to address.
“We’re in a customer service industry, servicing Australian customers,” she says.
“We’re able to do a better job of that if we’re representative of the customers that we’re serving.”
Challenging perspectives to widen the net
One issue TSA and other contact centre providers face is the perception that the sector is “a young person’s job”.
Ms Peggs says often there are fantastic roles that are open and suitable for all ages, but people might self-exclude on the assumption that the role is either for a younger demographic or will come with technology they won’t know how to use.
“One of the things we’ve had to think a lot about is tech literacy,” she says.
“We’re a systems-based environment and we’re effectively operating many businesses within our business, so we have our core systems and processes and then we ingest the systems and processes from our clients as well.
“That’s a pretty complex environment for most people to be working within and to be transparent, we haven’t always got our approach to training and developing people, particularly older generations, right.
“We found we were having otherwise brilliant customer service focused individuals making the decision to leave because they found that environment too confronting. That has encouraged us to invest in our training and development, and provide much greater support for team members as they graduate from the classroom into taking calls, so they don’t just have assistance with customer engagement, but with systems engagement as well.
“That simple change has had a big impact on job satisfaction and their confidence in their roles.”
Mature workers are worth their weight in gold
While attracting older workers can be difficult at first, Ms Peggs says the difference they make in frontline roles is remarkable.
Whereas younger workers might be more comfortable with interacting via text, social channels or digital responses, Ms Peggs says there’s a warmth and authenticity that older workers offer via phone that’s not easily taught.
“That ability to engage in the art of conversation is something that this older, more mature demographic is capable of demonstrating without significant investment in training and development to get their confidence up on the phone,” she says.
“Obviously people are all different but we’re representing clients who have to deal with their customers sensitively, sometimes during the most challenging experiences in their lives.
“Having people with innate lived experience and empathy is absolutely the apex of what you are looking for when you’re going to market.”
There are other benefits for call centre businesses as well.
Traditionally, the sector has had a relatively high turnover, a reflection of its young workforce, with Gen Y and Gen Z workers changing employers at a faster rate than older workers.
Older workers are stickier, provided employers can deliver what they need.
TSA Group Customer Service Team Member, Charlie, is grateful to be working again after retiring from a school teaching career five years ago.
“I was bored, and I felt like I needed to get back into the workforce, so I started applying for call centre jobs,” he said.
“I had gotten to the point where I thought I was too old to be employed and that all my experiences have gone to waste, but TSA saw something in me.”
Charlie says he’s grateful to be interacting with people again.
“My favourite part of the day is dialling, talking to customers, and helping them find solutions to their problems,” he said.
“I go home at the end of the day, and I might be tired, but I feel like I’ve helped somebody – and to me, that’s a win.”
A very different sector post-COVID
Ms Peggs says understanding what matters to older workers is key to engaging and keeping them.
While COVID exacerbated labour shortages across sectors, it also ushered in a new way of working that supports the push to broaden opportunities for older demographics.
The introduction of remote working opportunities has enabled semi-retirees or return-to-workers to add contact centre roles and call centre work into their week, and employers are generally more supportive of flexible hours.
Ms Peggs says that means some workers might combine grandchildren caring duties with a couple of shifts a week while others see it as an opportunity to earn some additional income or find new financial independence.
From July 2022, pensioners can also take on extra paid work — earning up to $490 a fortnight before affecting their pensions.
“Being able to offer flexibility around working hours is a really big thing, coupled with working from home, because it means people don’t face the hassle of a commute each day,” she says.
“If you are in the transition to retirement phase of your life, you might have 25 hours or 30 hours a week where you’re working and productive but the rest of your time you are looking after the grandkids or just enjoying life.
“You also might have people, often women, who might not have worked much while raising a family and now either have free time or perhaps want some additional income coming in.
“Offering flexible options is a really important accommodation we understood that we needed to make for this group to be successful and it is one of the key insights we have learned over this period.
“There is absolutely a really valuable talent pool there. But there are accommodations that you need to make in your business practices to attract and retain them.”
TSA are Australia’s market leading specialists in CX Consultancy and Contact Centre Services. We are passionate about revolutionising the way brands connect with Australians. How? By combining our local expertise with the most sophisticated customer experience technology on earth, and delivering with an expert team of customer service consultants who know exactly how to help brands care for their customers.