Tag Archives: Hiring Call Center Agents

Can’t We All Just Get Along?

By Sherry Gouel

Hiring the right person for a job is one of the most difficult tasks business owners face. There are so many factors to consider: experience, reliability, work ethic, honesty, professionalism, and the list goes on. Adding the wrong person to your team can be detrimental to the daily work environment, but it’s not really possible to predict if a candidate will work out.

There is another important question to keep in mind during an interview. Besides work skills, does this candidate have people skills? It’s one thing to complete a task well, but can this person work with others?

As with any new job, there is always a training period. A worker can eventually learn the necessary skills to accomplish their work, but if they don’t get along with their coworkers, it will affect the mood around the office. Call center agents must be team players, and tension between workers has a negative effect on the office atmosphere. Having staff that gets along and works well together reflect well on the business and how clients are treated. Having staff that gets along and works well together reflect well on the business and how clients are treated. Click To Tweet

Inclusiveness is an important factor in the workplace. An employee can be great at their job, be punctual, professional, and reliable, but if they cannot integrate with coworkers and be part of the team, it’s unlikely their employment will last. We’ve all met someone that for inexplicable reasons we cannot connect with. We might say, “They just rubbed me the wrong way” or “Their attitude just irritates me.” First impressions happen quickly and are difficult to change. We don’t set out to feel negatively about anyone, but it’s difficult to change our minds about our initial dislike. We tend to avoid this person and make no effort to give them a chance to prove themselves differently.

This lack of connection is difficult to change. It’s best to be proactive by looking for initial signs of friction during the interview rather than finding out a month after hiring them. Getting staff members involved in the interviewing process may help reduce future problems by testing the dynamics between existing staff and new additions. This doesn’t guarantee that there won’t be problems, but it may detect tension that could cause problems.

While no one knows if the candidate will be the right fit, there are a few things that can help. First have a list of questions to ask. Then, keep in mind that while part of the interview process is determining how comfortable and confident you feel talking to this candidate, you aren’t the only one that should be doing the interviewing.

Have existing staff join in to see how they relate to the candidate. It is often during small talk that we get to know and connect with another person. Following the interview, ask your staff how they felt about the interviewee; listen to their feedback and read between the lines. If you’ve narrowed down your choice to a few people, have your staff weigh in on this decision. It will hold them partially accountable in making sure this person gets the proper training and helping them to succeed.

Imagine a different scenario if your staff is not included in the hiring process and the new employee either lacks the people skills or doesn’t connect with coworkers. Will there be any effort to help the new worker feel part of the team? On the contrary—they may do things to exclude or alienate the new employee, hoping to make them quit. Losing employees and having to hire new ones comes with a cost.

If including staff members in the interview process is difficult, then extend the interview time by showing the candidate around the office. Stop at a few stations and allow some of your staff to show the candidate what the job consists of. All it takes is a few minutes of interaction to allow your staff the chance to meet the potential candidate and have a say in the hiring.

No one can predict whether a newly hired worker will be the right candidate, but these steps can better the chances. While a recruit may appear perfect on paper, remember that compatibility with the existing staff is just as important.

Sherry Gouel handles sales and marketing support for Szeto Technologies.

Ask Kathy: What Are the Best Methods for Recruiting?

Many employers hire candidates from the Internet. Although not a bad idea, not all good candidates are online. You cannot rely completely on the World Wide Web for all your recruiting needs; recruiting ideal labor takes work.

Having a hiring plan is a great step in achieving stronger employment. It also provides competitive advantages, such as lowered costs, successful hires, and reducing employee burnout. Here are effective tips on recruiting ideal labor:

Set Clear Requirements for the Position, Not the Person: The first step to finding the best candidates for a position is to have a compelling vision of what the job entails. Be specific with your job descriptions; ask hiring managers what the person really needs to do to be successful. Remember that the best candidates will only apply to a position that offers growth opportunities.

Establish a Powerful Pitch: Your pitch needs to attract the best candidates for the job. For example, “Are you willing to explore a job position that is clearly superior to what you are doing now?” Most of the qualified candidates will answer yes. Using this approach every time you talk to a qualified candidate will help you hire the best among the rest. Also, use this in your advertising to extend your reach in recruiting ideal labor.

Take Advantage of Resume Databases: To avoid wasting your time on resume databases, make sure to only call your top candidates on the first week of recruiting before someone else hires them. For the rest of the qualified candidates, you can send them an email with a compelling description of the job. Send the email to anyone who qualifies for your requirements and include a call-to-action for them to respond.

Make Appealing Advertisements: Traditional job descriptions are obsolete. Do not bore candidates with traditional advertisement that list skills and work experience; instead use creative titles and describe what he or she will be doing and learning. Include possible growth opportunities. This strategy is effective in recruiting the ideal person.

Phone Interviews: For call center agents, conduct a phone interview first; for at-home agents, conduct two phone interviews before meeting them in person.

Kathy Sisk, founder and president of Kathy Sisk Enterprises Inc., is a trainer and consultant, contributing thirty-five years of expertise to the telemarketing, sales, and customer service industries.

[From Connection Magazine Sep/Oct 2015]

When the EEOC Comes Knocking…

By Abena Sanders

As a call center manager, finding an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) charge in your inbox may cause fear and confusion. Is the company being sued? We didn’t discriminate against anyone…. This is completely ridiculous! What do I do now?

1. Don’t Panic – Be Informed: The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is an independent federal agency that has the responsibility of preventing and investigating discrimination in the workplace. The federal government has tasked the commission with enforcing several statutes, including:

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act: prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin

Equal Pay Act: prohibits wage discrimination between men and women working in the same establishment who are performing under similar working conditions

Age Discrimination in Employment Act: prohibits discrimination against employees age forty years and older

Fortunately, an EEOC charge does not have to lead to full-scale panic. Before filing any discrimination lawsuit, a potential plaintiff must “exhaust” his or her administrative remedies by filing a charge with the EEOC. This is a fairly routine act that any employee who has the slightest inclination to sue under the statutes administered by the EEOC must perform. The filing of a charge does not mean that the company is culpable of discrimination or that the EEOC believes that the charge has any merit. Rather, filing a charge merely signals the beginning of the investigation process.

2. Draft a Position Statement: Assess the charge very carefully to determine which statute the “charging party,” or employee filing the complaint, claims has been violated and on what basis (race discrimination, retaliation, etc.). The charging party must state the facts that form the basis of his or her discrimination complaint within the charge.

In the documentation accompanying an EEOC charge, the EEOC will sometimes ask if the employer is willing to engage in the mediation process. Far more often, however, the EEOC will request specific documentation and a “position statement” from the employer, thus beginning the investigation process. A position statement is simply a short narrative setting forth the nature of the company’s business, the charging party’s employment history, any applicable company policies, and an explanation or rebuttal of the facts set forth in the charge.

A position statement should be drafted persuasively, because it is the employer’s first (and sometimes only) opportunity to set forth in a cohesive way why any adverse employment action taken against the charging party was legal (for example, past disciplinary history, violation of company policy, or the company’s legitimate business needs). The position statement also gives the employer an opportunity to append relevant documentary evidence to help his case. In sensitive or complicated cases, the employer might seek legal counsel to assist with drafting the most effective position statement incorporating applicable laws. At certain points in the investigation, the EEOC may ask for additional information to provide as a supplement to the statement.

3. Be Prepared for an On-Site Investigation: Sometimes a position statement will be sufficient to allow the investigator to determine the merits of the case (particularly if the statement is drafted well). However, the investigator may also demand an on-site visit. Unfortunately, an on-site investigation signifies greater interest in the case on the part of the EEOC. Cases involving multiple charging parties or potential class-action treatment will nearly always invite an on-site investigation. While on-site investigations typically are rare, the EEOC has been using them with increased frequency.

During an on-site visit, the EEOC investigator may ask to tour the call center facility to get a sense of the floor layout and to review relevant files. The investigator will almost certainly ask to speak with certain employees who have been named in the charge, the position statement, or in any interviews conducted with the charging party. However, prior to the visit, an employer should request that the investigator provide a list of the employees he seeks to interview so the company’s managers will be prepared for the process to come. The company’s attorney or other representative is entitled to be present in any EEOC interview of company managers.

4. Take a Number and Wait Your Turn: An EEOC investigation can be an agonizingly slow process. Because of the condition of the economy, the EEOC’s caseload is at a record high, meaning that investigations may extend for months, if not years. Speaking practically, the overextended state of the bureaucracy is not a negative development for an employer. With the passage of time, cooler heads may prevail and the employment situation may resolve itself less formally.

After 180 days from the filing of a charge have passed, any charging party has the right to request a Dismissal and Notice of Rights from the EEOC – even if the investigation has not concluded. If the EEOC receives such a request, it will close the investigation, and the employee will be free to file a complaint in the appropriate court within ninety days. Again, the issuance of a Dismissal and Notice of Rights at the request of the charging party is not an indicator of employer guilt; it is a necessary administrative hurdle for the potential plaintiff to jump before he can legally sue.

When the investigation is complete – provided the charging party has not already requested a Dismissal and Notice of Rights – the EEOC will make a determination as to whether there is “reasonable cause” to believe that discrimination occurred. If there is no reasonable cause, the EEOC will issue a Dismissal and Notice of Rights letter to the charging party. While this is the best possible outcome for an employer during an EEOC investigation, the charging party still has the option to sue within ninety days. More problems arise if the EEOC determines that there is reasonable cause. In such an unfortunate case, the EEOC will issue a Letter of Determination to both parties, instructing them to cooperate with the EEOC in resolving the charge. If such conciliation fails, the EEOC has the right to bring its own lawsuit against the employer or give the charging party clearance to sue.

While handling an EEOC charge may be an administrative hassle, it does not have to cause undue anxiety or disruption. A charge does not signify that a discrimination lawsuit necessarily will be filed; rather, it is a signal to an employer that the wheels are in motion. Being aware of your rights and responsibilities as an employer at the EEOC investigation level will place you in the best position to defend your employment decisions going forward.

Abena Sanders is an attorney with Fisher & Phillips. Based in Atlanta, she focuses on the representation of management in employment litigation and administrative proceedings arising under Title VII.

[From Connection Magazine June 2012]

The Business Case for Virtual Interviewing

By Kevin Hegebarth

Despite the continued soft economy, contact center hiring has remained strong. According to Saddletree Research, the contact center industry has added over 40,000 new jobs in the past two years. Nearly 11,000 of those jobs were added in the second quarter of 2011 alone. Furthermore, according to a recent survey by the career community website Careerbliss.com, customer service representative was the number two comeback job with an average salary increase of more than 26 percent over 2009. Technical support representative was ranked tenth, with a 16 percent increase. These statistics indicate that contact center jobs are in high demand and employers are paying a premium for qualified labor.

Despite this seemingly good news, contact center turnover has changed very little over the past ten years. Many companies report turnover of 100 percent or more, which means they are replacing their entire agent population every year. This is expensive in terms of customer satisfaction and costs to recruit, train, and coach new agents. Whether the primary mission is service, sales, collections, or technical support, contact center operations need to sustain a robust pipeline of candidates with excellent communication skills to handle customer interactions quickly and satisfactorily.

The Hiring Process: Customer service employees form a customer’s first and lasting impression of a company. Therefore, finding those applicants with excellent communication and customer service skills are paramount. Many companies use recruiter-initiated telephone interviewing to gather basic information about a potential employee’s qualifications, as well as gauge their fitness as a company representative. This process can be time-consuming because a recruiter must often make several attempts to reach a candidate. It’s also expensive in that recruiters often spend upward of twenty minutes or more on a live telephone interview. What’s more, it’s likely to capture only a small subset of quality candidates due to pressures to fill positions quickly, limited time on the part of the recruiter to perform such tasks, and the availability of candidates to participate in a live phone interview. Using virtual interviewing technologies can not only reduce the cost to recruit new agents, but can also increase the number of qualified candidates in the hiring pool and dramatically improve the quality of agent candidates.

Virtual Interviewing as a Recruiting Tool: Virtual interviewing is a simple process that is generally used in place of or to augment the live telephone interview. Hiring companies can post a link for conducting an online interview on their own job board or a commercial job board like CareerBuilder or Monster, or they can invite candidates to participate via email. Using media-rich Web and voice-response technologies, candidates use a Web browser and their telephone to be guided through a series of text-response and voice-response questions designed to collect their basic qualifications and record their responses to a variety of scenarios they might expect to encounter.

Virtual interviews are typically conducted in two stages. The first part is generally text-based, during which the candidate may be asked a number of questions that are designed to collect his or her basic qualifications for the job. Failure to answer one or more of these questions correctly may “knock out” the candidate from the application process and prevent them from moving to the voice-response stage.

The voice-response stage is designed to allow the candidate to answer a number of questions regarding their prior experience, knowledge of the job, and response to common customer service scenarios. These open-ended, free-form questions allow the applicant to answer in their own words and in their own voice. Answers can be as long or as short as the candidate desires. The responses are recorded and cataloged for a recruiter to review and evaluate at a later time. The recordings can also be shared with a hiring manager or other stakeholders, as appropriate.

Once a candidate has successfully completed both stages of the virtual interview, a recruiter can review the applicant’s responses and score the interview. This process is similar to the quality-monitoring process that occurs in just about every contact center – interactions are recorded, reviewed, and scored against the standards of the organization. A recruiter can greatly increase the number of interviews conducted in this manner, resulting in a larger and better quality talent pool from which to choose.

Reach More Candidates Cost-Effectively: Since recruiters need only to review successfully completed interviews, significant time and labor savings can be realized over traditional phone interviews. Consider that a recruiter may have to make several attempts to reach a candidate before actually conducting the interview, and that the interview itself may take twenty minutes or more to complete. Consider also that many interviews start with a recruiter asking some basic qualification questions. If a candidate is unqualified, the recruiter has wasted valuable time.

Virtual interviewing can weed out unqualified candidates through the text-based qualification stage and never expose these applicants to a recruiter. Furthermore, virtual interviews tend to be shorter in duration – as little as five or ten minutes – meaning recruiters can evaluate many more candidates. This is especially beneficial when there are many positions to be filled or they need to be filled in a short time frame.

Many exceptional candidates may already be working and are difficult to reach during the hours that most recruiters normally work. Virtual interviewing is an “always on” application, which means candidates can interview at a time when it is most convenient for them. Companies that use virtual interviewing can therefore reach many more of these potential employees, thereby increasing the overall quality of the talent pool.

The Many Benefits of Virtual Interviews: Virtual interviewing is not intended to replace every step in the contact center hiring process, but it can provide significant benefits, especially for those organizations that have significant hiring requirements. These benefits include:

  • Reduction in recruiter time to conduct interviews: Recruiters often have other valuable job tasks to do such as onboarding, training, coaching, and discipline. Virtual interviewing can free up the recruiter’s time to handle these higher-value activities.
  • Expanded candidate pool: With the “always on” nature of virtual interviews, a candidate interview even when a recruiter is not available. In fact, a recent study discovered that nearly 40 percent of one company’s best candidates interviewed outside of normal business hours.
  • Greater consistency: Each virtual interview is conducted in exactly the same way, using the same questions. Any inadvertent recruiter bias is removed from the interviewing process, which means that each candidate is evaluated fairly.

Kevin Hegebarth is vice president of marketing and product management for HireIQ Solutions, Inc. He is a frequent contributor to industry publications and has spoken at numerous industry events on the topics of workforce acquisition and optimization, the role of social media in customer service, and innovative human capital management strategies. He is an AIPMM certified product manager and is a co-inventor of two US patents. Kevin can be contacted at kevin.hegebarth@hireiqinc.com.

[From Connection Magazine March 2012]

Jobs4America: How Intrepid Leaders Are Jump-Starting Job Growth in America

By Jim Kohlenberger

As Americans, perhaps the single biggest challenge facing us today is generating new jobs here in our own country. In times of great challenge, America has always turned to innovation for creating new jobs, new industries, and new opportunities for the future.

Having served in two administrations, most recently as chief of staff of the White House Office of Science and Technology, I’ve long understood the critical link between innovation, a smart broadband infrastructure, and the jobs and prosperity it can enable. Broadband today is to job growth what electricity and the telephone were to earlier generations – a breakthrough technology that can fuel entire new industries.

That is why – with millions of Americans looking for work and new broadband-enabled technologies sweeping across the country, transforming the way contact centers operate – a group of forward-looking business leaders have launched a strategic new effort to create jobs in America.

This new coalition, called Jobs4America (which I am privileged to lead), is comprised of contact centers working to create a combined 100,000 U.S. contact center jobs over the next two years. Members of our new coalition are setting meaningful goals for creating a specific number of jobs here in America, and we are challenging companies big and small to join in this campaign to help invest in America and create more American jobs.

Broadband innovation isn’t just a vital spark that improves our lives and transforms the way we work and live, it’s an economic driver that can create the new jobs and industries that are essential for winning the future. Over the past fifteen years, the Internet has generated as much growth as the Industrial Revolution generated in fifty years.

At a time when our economy is struggling to pick up steam, Jobs4America is demonstrating the power of broadband and the importance of contact centers by helping put Americans back to work.

The response has been amazing. New contact centers are signing up to join the effort in droves, Washington is taking notice, and new opportunities are on the way. This industry is now creating more than 4,000 new contact center jobs each month, and with more than 30,000 jobs created since the beginning of 2011, the contact center has a proven record of fueling positive economic growth.

And it’s having an impact. It’s helping to revive some communities hardest hit by the economic downturn. You see it across the country, in Michigan and Florida, California and New York. You see it in homes across the country, where broadband is creating new employment opportunities for homebound people with disabilities, veterans, seniors, and stay-at-home parents, for example.

This effort wouldn’t have been possible without the leadership of FCC chairman Julius Genachowski, who, together with Carl Grivner, the former CEO of XO Communications, first came up with the idea for the effort. Broadband deployment and adoption has been a central focus of the Genachowski FCC. Working with the private and public sectors, millions of Americans are now experiencing the newfound benefits of broadband. As he said when he joined us at the coalition’s launch, “This initiative involves meaningful job creation that will have a meaningful impact across America…. I applaud your strong efforts, and I applaud all the businesses that are part of the Jobs4America coalition.”

When Americans call, it’s often to a contact center looking for answers. Today, Washington is calling. They are calling for more jobs. I’m proud to be working with forward-thinking companies who are once again ready with the answers.

This is your moment – your opportunity to shine and to demonstrate the vital role that contact centers play in our economy and for our job future. Be a part of something big – visit Jobs4America.net today.

Jim Kohlenberger is the executive director of Jobs4America.

[From Connection Magazine November 2011]

Filling Your Call Center with Proactive, Self-Reliant Agents

By Luis Echevarria

Direct response is a scripted environment, but every client would love to know they have an army of agents who think for themselves in the call center selling their product and managing customer needs and expectations. These agents would have been trained to put themselves in the caller’s shoes and, as a result, know how to close the deal, save the sale, or solve a difficult customer service issue.

This confident, high standard of performance is a team effort, however, and not up to the agent alone.  While call center management should take care in picking agents who already have sales competency or call center experience and who approach the position positively, there are key ways in which you can boost any agent’s level of confidence and responsiveness on the phone and thus increase their sales. During my time managing call centers, I have discovered three components that are an absolute necessity in creating thriving, self-reliant agents:

A Proactive, Considerate, Sensible Outlook: Although upbeat, optimistic attitudes are important and encouraged, what is integral to being a top-performing, thoughtful agent is the ability to be proactive.

First, an agent must be confident enough to be proactive with management whenever they see room for improvement. They should be assertive enough to make suggestions on offers, scripts, or whatever may be on their mind.  Similarly, an agent must be self-assured enough to work smoothly with a customer on the phone, especially on up-sells and cross-sells.  In both of these situations, agent thoughtfulness and consideration should be encouraged. This is advantageous when dealing with cultural nuances, and this empathy is especially important when agents are easing the customer into a sales conversation and evaluating the best path to a successful outcome.

It is vital to employ agents who embody this empathetic, vibrant, sophisticated personality and who can think on their feet and solve problems quickly when the need arises.

Providing the Best with the Best: The equation is simple: call center agents can perform at their best when they are working with the best possible technology available.  Even the best agents are not necessarily going to be able to pick up every call that comes in.  Advanced software allows outbound callbacks to be automatically queued when call volumes are high, calls are not answered quickly, or customers abandon their call. This allows agents the time it takes to carefully handle each call and finish the sale, and it affords them the peace of mind to know they can simply dial back the calls they missed in the interim.

If you are careful, do your research well, and take the time to implement, leading technologies such as this will allow your agents to perform at maximum levels. You will not only be raising the confidence and ease that agents feel in every one of their interactions, but in turn you will gain a substantial return-on-investment.

Reward for a Job Well Done: Every call center should have a compensation plan in place that rewards performance and positive behavior, and every marketer should opt for a call center that does.  Why?  Because performance rewards empower agents to achieve outstanding results and ensures that everyone in the call center will do the best job possible.  HR will focus on hiring the right kind of employees – those who stick around and perform above the norm. The training department will produce agents who are ready to perform as they leave the classroom. Operations will be motivated, from manager to supervisor to agent, to make sure that goals are met. Even the IT staff will keep operations functioning at the highest level.  This happens best when each individual in the organization has income at risk.

In my experience, the system that works best is one in which more than half of the agent’s wage is based upon performance and incentives.  The agent is not only encouraged to do their best for the sake of their own paycheck, but is then rewarded in some way when they do exceptionally well.  This is ideal for both the employee and the company. Additionally, the culture of the company as a whole will be geared toward the success of the clients.

When you provide agents and support staff with the best possible tools to do their job, the outcome will be simple: the best possible product for your call center and your clients.  While everyone wants agents who think for themselves, the truth is that employees are only self-propelled and self-assured enough to get the job done right when they know they have the tools and motivation necessary to do so.

When you take these steps, you will see results – and you’ll be glad you did.

Luis Echevarria is CEO and cofounder of Vixicom in the Dominican Republic.

[From Connection Magazine Jul/Aug 2011]

Are We There Yet?

By Tori J. Miller

Those who run a call center in today’s economic times have a low turnover rate. They also enjoy large pools of diverse applicants that cross several generations, including baby boomers, generation X, and generation Y.  As a result, new employee class sizes have been small, while longevity in the workforce has enabled supervisors and managers to build better relationships with agents. Productivity and efficiency increases have resulted less need to add staff.

Running call centers these days is not like it was ten – or even five – years ago.  Today, technology can record every call, enabling call centers to mine call data to determine how many times during a call a certain word was said. This provides an understanding of what callers are saying without having to rely on asking the agents. Additionally, call centers can trend why customers are calling by looking at the steps that are performed on an agent’s desktop.

Companies have spent millions of dollars making sure that they have the best technology to assist their customers in order to remain competitive in their industry. Have companies given this same focus to understanding the new generation of workers that are using this new technology in the call centers?  Are we preparing for an economic turnaround and lower unemployment rates? Are we educating our supervisors and managers about who our new workforce is so we can recruit them and retain them? Do companies know if their culture and benefits are attractive to the newest members of that workforce, generation Y?

The Generation Y Profile: Gen Y (also called “nexters” or “millennials”) consists of individuals born between 1977 and 1994 (the date range is sometimes reported as 1980 to 2000). This generation of workers has been taught to question authority; they have been taught to expect constant feedback; they are the generation most wanted by their parents; and they have a strong need to feel valued. Gen Y employees work well in a team environment. They have grown up with computers, they love technology, and they use it for social networking, which is an important part of their daily lives.

Gen Y workers are results-oriented, and they typically do not focus or care about the method used to achieve those results. This generation is open to any new technology as long as they perceive there is a real value or benefit to them. Gen Y employees contribute to their 401ks at the same rate as boomers do today. Because this is the result of seeing their parents lose their retirement, there is a strong need for long-term fiscal planning.

Communication with gen Y focuses on the easiest and most efficient way of communicating. If they can instant message someone a quick question and get a quick reply while multitasking, why should they be forced to call into a queue for help, only to wait on hold?

When it comes to questioning a process, procedure, or policy, they will not hesitate to go straight to the CEO with their question. Following a chain of command is not something that gen Y has been taught to do. They don’t understand the need to do this and will question why.

Gen Y wants to learn from and be inspired by their leaders. They want to know that their leaders are continuing to learn so that these executives can turn around and teach them. If their supervisor does not have the necessary technical knowledge and does not have the coaching skills to help change behavior, the gen Y employee is lost.

Socializing and being able to network while at work is expected by gen Y. This group of workers is not loyal to the company; they are loyal to the people they work with. By providing activities that allow coworkers to get to know each other, a natural network is created. These networks can be powerful tools to attract and retain good gen Y employees.

Flexible schedules are also important to this group of workers. Call centers are especially challenged with this gen Y need since they are staffed according to when customers need to reach their clients. How does your call center measure up? Here are some key questions call center directors should ask themselves:

Socialization: Does your company allow employees to surf the Web during downtime? If the answer is no, how will the gen Y employee be able to stay connected with their friends, whom they consider their families? Is there any harm if they are not on a call with a customer? Gen Y sees this no differently that the person reading a book or knitting at their desk between calls.

Schedule Flexibility: Does your company encourage flexible scheduling so that employees can take time off without using vacation or personal time? If not, how will the gen Y employee be able to fulfill their need to spend time with family and friends who are their number one priority? Do you allow agents to swap schedules? Do you encourage schedule swaps with other employees? When your call center is overstaffed, do you allow agents to leave early or come in late without pay?

Earn More, Work Less: Do you have the opportunity to increase sales in a technical environment? Can you pay commissions and show how these commissions can add to their income? This extra money can compensate for the time they take off without pay.

Benefits: Gen Y workers don’t plan to stay at their jobs for a long time, so providing agents with sick time and expecting them to save it up for a rainy day is boomer thinking. What is your call centers’ average accumulated sick time? Gen Y employees feel that sick time is a benefit owed to them. They will use it instead of losing it when they leave. Give it to them, plan for it, and let them schedule it.

Feeling Valued: Are your supervisors trained to understand who the gen Y worker is? Do they understand the importance of showing them how their work brings value? Do they understand the need for constant feedback? Do they know how to be teachers and coaches? Do they understand how to take feedback, present it to higher levels, and recommend process changes?  Listening to feedback is important because it tells you what your employees think and what needs to change to stay in sync with gen Y.

So – are we there yet? This is a question to continually ask ourselves. Personally, my answer is not yet, but we have a good start. We need to take this a step further and look at company policies and benefits to see what can be changed to attract and retain this new generation of worker. It’s not just about what happens in the call center, it’s about the overall company benefits and culture. At 71 million strong, gen Y are the future leaders of our companies, and we need to figure out how to change the work environment in order to keep a competitive advantage.

Tori J. Miller is a senior director of customer care, operating a 250-seat call center for Bright House Networks, as well as a master’s student at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida.

[From Connection Magazine Jan/Feb 2011]

The Effects of High Unemployment

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Peter DeHaan, Publisher and Editor of Connections MagazineWith the unemployment rate running so high, businesses needing to hire find themselves in a “buyer’s market.” There are plenty of people looking for work. This results in more applicants to pick from for each opening. High unemployment has also served to limit employment options, thereby reducing worker mobility. The result is that employee churn rates are – or at least should be – decreasing. Having more applicants to pick from and fewer staff leaving by choice should be indicative of stable workforces. Unfortunately, this may not be the case and even if it is, it affords a false security.

Consider the following employees. Although their names have been changed and some details obscured, all describe the true plights of real people:

Chuck worked in a small satellite office of a large organization. The staff in his office were close and worked together well. They cared for each other and were like family. They helped each other to complete their work and serve clients, regardless of job description and title. Sadly, this idyllic reality ended when corporate closed Chuck’s office to save money. Some people were let go, but Chuck was told that he could work remotely from home. Then Chuck got a new boss, who rescinded that promise. Chuck now commutes 120 miles each day to work. The corporate office is nothing like his old office. Teamwork has been replaced by finger-pointing and blindly following job descriptions; no one cares about the clients – or about each other. One by one, Chuck’s coworkers have quit or are being let go. He fears he is next and is frantically looking for comparable work closer to home.

Carly is a college graduate whose chosen profession currently has a 40 percent unemployment rate. Unable to find work, she went to grad school. Her summer employment offered her a full-time position when she graduated but has been frustratingly vague on the details (right now she is relegated to computer work no one else wants to do). Unfortunately, this job is not in her field of study, nor does it interest her. However, out of necessity, she may be forced to take this job. Even if she does, she doesn’t expect to remain long.

Danielle also recently graduated from college. Her college internship continued after graduation, with the promise of a promotion when the economy turned around. She is now doing the work she was trained for – but without the title, recognition, or pay. This has been going on for a year. Although she is now working full-time, it is at her part-time hourly internship rate – or 40 percent of what is typical. She has polished her resume and is looking for better paying alternatives.

Karl has a full-time job in his chosen profession. At first, he liked his company and earned stellar reviews. However, in his latest review, he scored the lowest in each category. Last year, after their busy season, a coworker was abruptly fired. Karl fears that this year he will get the axe as soon as the seasonal peak is over. He is salaried and was initially told to expect working an additional twenty-five hours a week during the busy season. However, his employers recently tacked on an additional ten hours. He desperately wants to find a new job but has no time to pursue it. As soon as things slow down, he will begin his job hunt in earnest.

Larry greatly enjoyed working in his chosen career, finding it rewarding and fulfilling. However, after a planned move out-of-state, he was unable to find work at his level of experience and education. He eventually acquiesced to a much lower position at less than half the pay. The company promotes from within, so he hoped that he would eventually move into a position matching his skills and have his compensation level restored. Unfortunately, because he was performing a low-level position, he was looked down upon and demeaned by those who should have been his peers, in spite of the fact that he had more experience than some of them. The circumstances became so dreadful that he left, taking an even further pay cut in the hopes of finding a nicer place to work. Once again, he has the expectation to be promoted and, although feedback on his performance is very favorable, there are no current openings, so he could find himself repeating the process.

These people share two common characteristics. First, they do not like their employers or their jobs. Some have been lied to, others have been treated badly, two are significantly underpaid, and all are unhappy. The other commonality is that each of them desperately wants a different job and is working to make it happen. Since they have stellar qualifications and employable skills, their job expectations are not unreasonable. When the economy turns around, they are sure to find better work.

From this we can interpolate that:

  • Employees are unhappy, but they continue to endure difficult work situations – for now.
  • Many people are underemployed; they will correct that as soon as companies start hiring again.
  • Some people are working outside their fields of expertise. For many, this is not a choice but a short-term necessity.
  • When an entry-level employee sticks around after graduation, it may not mean that they like the company, but that there aren’t any other options.

What does all this mean?

  • When the economy turns around, many employees will immediately seek to improve their work situations. Some reports indicate that one third of the workforce is waiting to change jobs.
  • The most employable people (likely the best workers) will be the first to switch; those who lack skills or drive will stay.
  • There is pent-up worker frustration, which employers will be confronted with when alternative employment options emerge.

What can employers do?

  • Begin thinking and behaving as though unemployment is low and it’s a “seller’s market.” Treating employees better now, when you don’t have to, will keep them working for you later, when they don’t have to.
  • Recognize that with downsizing, layoffs, hiring freezes, and consolidations, employees have been stretched and pushed to a near breaking point. Look for ways now to relieve stress and reduce their pressure now.
  • Talk to employees and really listen. Perhaps there are slights that can be amended, injustices that can be corrected, and oversights that can be righted.

You can take steps now to keep the employees you have, or you can wait for economic recovery and take steps then to find and train their replacements.

Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of  Connections Magazine. He’s a passionate wordsmith whose goal is to change the world one word at a time.

[From Connection Magazine April 2010]

Seniors Helping Seniors Is Proving to Be Effective

By Claudia Timbo

Typically, the best person to go to when seeking help is someone who has been there before.  At Corporate Call Center (CCC), we have applied this notion to our hiring practices. Our business model includes hiring and training retired executives and senior citizens to guide other seniors through today’s increasingly complex health insurance landscape. This “seniors helping seniors” strategy has generated extraordinary success.

The model is resonating with a growing number of companies requiring our services. In today’s market, companies are shifting from in-house customer service operations to outsourced providers in order to improve customer support, reduce costs, leverage advanced technologies, and connect with customers across a variety of mediums.

Another big factor driving demand is the rapidly growing senior population, which according to the U.S. Census Bureau will double to 70 million over the next twenty years. Baby boomers, representing 28 percent of the U.S. population, are entering retirement age. These numbers are spurring exceptionally high demand for services directed at helping seniors. For instance, an increasingly higher number of seniors will be enrolling in and trying to grasp the ever more complicated Medicare Part D prescription drug benefits and Medicare Advantage plans. Assisting seniors with these tasks requires highly skilled and specialized customer service representatives. On this front, our older professional staff is unmatched.

Many of our senior employees are from high-level positions in the insurance, healthcare, and financial industries. Their experiences and our ongoing training program enable them to effectively communicate and address the needs of senior callers.

In addition to their experiences and professional expertise, older professionals are capable of connecting with senior callers on a more personal level. Inherently aware of problems facing seniors, they are able to engage in more positive and successful communications. Callers are naturally more comfortable speaking with representatives they know have backgrounds and experiences similar to their own. They can sense that they are speaking to peers who empathize with them and feel passionate about helping them.

For older professionals, working in our call center is a positive experience both personally and economically. Seniors often become disappointed with retired life. Their jobs with us are rewarding and provide them with a sense of purpose while helping others. This also enables them to earn extra money – an opportunity that holds extra appeal during a downturn in the economy.

Furthermore, our flexible scheduling appeals to older professionals who do not necessarily want to work forty hours a week or more than twenty-six weeks a year. Since we are open from 8 a.m. to 2 a.m. seven days a week, employees can choose from a variety of shifts. They have time to partake in hobbies and interests, and many like to travel in the off-months.

We currently employ over 500 seniors during the open enrollment season from September 1 – March 31. At any given time, seniors account for over 60 percent of our staff.

Hiring older professionals means enlisting employees who are excited to learn and bring positive attitudes to their work. Our extremely low turnover rate is proof of their reliability and dedication. Seniors also bring a wealth of professional and life experiences, which significantly increases the quality and efficiency of their services.

Our unique approach to customer service creates a winning scenario for all involved. The senior staff’s ability to provide superior service satisfies callers and clients alike and has played a significant role in our success. In turn, we provide meaningful employment to hundreds of seniors who eagerly use their skills and knowledge to assist their peers, who are then better able to make critical decisions that may affect their health and financial well-being.

Claudia Timbo is founder and CEO of Corporate Call Center, a teleservices and call center company specializing in providing highly trained, licensed, and credentialed customer service representatives for the insurance and healthcare markets.

[From Connection Magazine March 2009]

Assessment Tools: What They Do and Why You Should Be Harnessing Their Power

By David Ostberg, PhD

Just as frontline call center agents are highly influential in forming lasting, positive impressions, high agent turnover rates significantly damage a call center’s ability to maintain service levels and create a positive caller experience. When the exorbitant costs of hiring, training, and lost productivity are added to the mix, it is easy to see why reducing agent turnover is a high priority.

In addition to agent turnover, the other dominant problem that hinders a call center’s operation is suboptimal agent productivity. In most cases, the root causes of both these challenges result from a poor job fit or a lack of the skills that are critical success factors for specific agent positions. Selection assessments and screening tools can help address these issues by providing vital information about job applicants that directly relates to employee productivity and retention. A call center’s selection and hiring process should address the root causes of turnover by answering key questions such as: Are the agents a good fit for the job? How well will they perform? How long will they stay?

In general, assessments are designed to capture information which relates to an individual’s likelihood of behaving or performing in certain ways in the future. These tools do so by measuring three different kinds of candidate data:

1) What can they do based on their personality, natural abilities, or aptitudes?

2) What have they done in previous jobs, activities, and educational or training settings?

3) What do they want todo in the future, based on their interests, motivation, and preferences?

What Applicants Can Do: As far as what applicants can do, assessments are designed to measure stable characteristics associated with a job applicant’s personality and natural abilities. For example, some jobs may be more suitable for individuals who are extroverted and less risk-averse, while others may require that an employee be highly detail-oriented and task-focused. However, every human being is unique, with differences landing somewhere along a continuum of each of several personality and ability dimensions. Assessment experts can develop tools to accurately measure where an individual falls on various job-relevant dimensions of personality or ability, creating valid predictions about how a person may behave in various situations. The unique benefit to these types of assessments is that predictions can be made about future behavior in roles in which the applicant has no previous experience. As a result, these “can do” measures are usually the most appropriate type of screening tool for hourly jobs and should comprise a significant part of the assessment solution.

What Applicants Have Done: Concerning what applicants have done, assessments are designed to measure an applicant’s previous experiences, past behavior, education or training, and accomplishments. Examples include resume scoring for education, relevant work history and skills training, behaviorally oriented interview questions that focus on how an applicant handled a specific situation in the past, and job-specific knowledge or skills tests. These types of assessments are based on the principle that future performance is best predicted by past performance. For hourly jobs, the most appropriate “have done” tools include basic qualifications screening questions and behaviorally oriented interviews.

What Applicants Want To Do: Finally, regarding what applicants want to do, assessments are designed to measure differences in an applicant’s motives, aspirations, preferences, and interests. These types of tools are less effective for predicting productivity, but they are well suited to predicting job and culture fit, employee satisfaction, and retention. Realistic job previews fall into this category, as candidates can take a “sneak peek” into the actual organization and job and opt out of the selection process if something looks particularly undesirable or ill-suited to their interests and expectations. Measuring motivation and preferences is valuable for almost any level of job, but again, this primarily relates to employee satisfaction and retention rather than productivity and performance.

An Assessment of Assessments: Some common criticisms of selection assessments are that they don’t work, they’re not fair, and they’re too “fake-able.” However, research indicates that a well-designed set of assessments can predict performance and early retention more accurately and fairly than traditional subjective approaches. Assessments help remove any bias that hiring managers and recruiters unintentionally bring to the process. Further, assessment item formats – such as those utilizing a balance of appealing or “socially desirable” response options – have been developed which truly minimize an applicant’s ability to “game” the assessments or figure out which answer is ideal. In fact, using closed-loop analytics, assessment developers can identify which items are susceptible to faking and can subsequently modify or replace them with content that is more effective. Also, research demonstrates that low levels of faking in any part of the selection process (including face-to-face interviews) do not affect validity in a significant way.

Although a wide body of evidence demonstrates how powerful and accurate well-designed assessments can be, there are, unfortunately, many poorly crafted, inappropriately applied assessments on the market. As a result, and in accordance with the Uniform Guidelines on Employee Selection Procedures and the Principles for the Validation and Use of Personnel Selection Procedures, organizations need to take the steps necessary to ensure that any assessment strategy they use is valid for their environment and jobs. In addition to reviewing relevant job analysis reports and test validation manuals, test administrators need to confirm that the assessments are effective within their organization by analytically evaluating the impact the selection tools and processes have on their performance outcomes.

Further, because so many unproven, poorly designed assessments and selection “solutions” are available today, it is critical that organizations take the time to investigate how the tests were developed, and who developed them. Although many vendors take a “one-size-fits-all” approach, no assessment is as effective and accurate as one that has been designed and validated by experts for specific positions within specific industries. Because previous experience is less critical in most hourly jobs, a call center selection system should typically focus more on screening for behaviors (“can do”) and motivation levels (“likes to do”) and less on cognitive abilities and technical skills (“has done”), as might be the case with higher-level, salaried jobs.

Conclusion: No single “perfect” solution exists for every selection challenge, but a well-thought out, well-designed process that uses selection science and incorporates multiple components – such as a realistic job preview, qualifications screening, validated assessments, and behaviorally oriented structured interviews – can dramatically improve the quality of hiring decisions. As a result, organizations that choose to invest time and resources into evolving their selection processes will see a significant improvement in the productivity of their agent workforce, while improving retention and reducing the burden on their hiring and training staff.

Taking it one step further, call centers need to evaluate the impact that selection tools are having within their organization by harnessing the power of closed-loop analytics and on-demand reporting and should require that their selection solutions enable them to do so. By improving call center agent selection and hiring, the right pieces can be put in place to drive measurable improvements throughout the organization and get ahead of competition.

David Ostberg, Ph.D., is an Industrial and Organizational Psychologist with 10 years experience designing and evaluating selection systems for companies in service industries. A member of the American Psychological Association and Society for Industrial & Organizational Psychology, Dr. Ostberg is currently the Vice President of Selection Science for Evolv On-Demand.

[From Connection Magazine November 2008]