Off Center
In last week’s “Off Center” post, I listed some of the best agent recruiting practices I’ve seen during the 17 years I’ve spent breaking into contact centers illegally. Seven or eight of you even read that post. The rest of you I assume were too busy scouring the local highway underpasses in search of people to fill vacancies in your center.

While a comprehensive and strategic recruiting program is certainly key to attracting the right type of agents your contact center seeks, careful assessment of all applicants is still essential to make sure that they truly have what it takes to endure customer abuse, cramped cubicles and headset hair for years on end, or at least through orientation.

High-Tech, High-Touch Hiring

After the recruitment and early screening phase, the best-run contact centers utilize a holistic blend of technology and hands-on human tactics to help select the best candidates for the job. These tools and tactics include:  

Realistic job previews. Research has shown that one of the most common reasons why employees leave a contact center within a year – besides the night terrors and indigestion – is a disconnect between what the employee envisioned the job entailing and what it actually involved. It’s very common for contact centers – eager to “sell themselves” to prospective employees – to shade over some of the less desirable aspects of the job (e.g., the pay, the customers, the hours, the customers, the back spasms, the growth opportunities, the customers) during the recruiting and hiring phase. While this tactic may help the center attract and acquire new agents, it usually doesn’t take long for those new agents to realize that the “positive culture” they were told about refers mostly to what’s growing in the breakroom refrigerator. 

Top contact centers develop comprehensive job previews that show – and sometimes even let prospective agents experience first-hand – the attractive as well as the challenging and mundane aspects of work in a front-line customer care environment. Job previews can take several forms, including but not limited to:
  • Detailed tours of the contact center
  • Listening in on actual customer calls 
  • Videos of agents on the job
  • Candid conversations with the center’s existing agents
  • Readings from diaries of recently deceased agents.
The goal of job previews is not to deceive candidates, nor to scare them away. A good video-based job preview, for example, could include an agent handling a call with a happy and satisfied customer, then a call with a customer with a complex issue that isn’t easy to resolve – all followed by a casual conversation with the agent about what medications they take to cope with all the calls in that second category.

Pre-hire agent assessment tools. Hiring solutions specialists have made big advancements in applicant assessment software for contact centers in recent years, helping to make agent selection more of a science than a roll of the dice.  

Today’s best pre-hire agent assessment solutions are primarily web-based and can be taken by applicants anytime, anywhere. Most are complex product suites with a range of modules and reporting tools that contact centers can customize to fit their specific dysfunctional culture. Following are some of the common key components of the leading pre-hire solutions:
  • Skills assessment. Assesses a candidate’s ability to listen, enter data accurately and solve problems in a state of total panic.
  • Personality assessment. Ensures that candidate’s general traits, values and attitudes don’t match that of a serial killer or professional hockey player.
  • Work habits assessment. Gauges the level of dependability, professionalism and customer service orientation, as well as the willingness to not whine about weekend shifts or numbness in the extremities.   
  • Motivation assessment. Assesses a candidate’s ability to lie about how excited they are to handle call after call for hours on end.
  • Call simulations. Much like a flight simulator, call simulators enable call center managers to see if a candidate takes off and lands smoothly or crashes and burns in realistic customer support situations.
Multi-tier interviews. As powerful as today’s pre-hire assessment solutions are, in the end, people – not technology – hire people. Assessment products are great for helping to separate potentially qualified candidates from potential sociopaths, but live interviews with key supervisory and management staff is still the best way to ensure your center is hiring highly capable agents who don’t spit when they speak.

A multi-tier interview process is the method of choice in most top contact centers. This process begins with each candidate who makes it through the screening and early assessment stages completing an initial interview with a member of the center’s supervisory staff, who pleasantly asks a series of behavioral-based questions before viciously insulting the candidate’s mother. This is to see if the candidate can handle the level of abuse and psychological torment indicative of a customer service environment.

Candidates who impress the supervisor are invited to interview with one (or more) of the contact center's managers. Those who don’t flub up this second interview then get passed on to one or more of the contact center’s senior managers – e.g., a director and/or vice president – who ask a few additional key questions while polishing their golf clubs.

Following the final interview, the management and supervisory staff involved gather together to discuss each candidate and decide who makes the cut. They then ask HR to check each lucky candidate’s references, criminal background and pee before extending a job offer. 

Note: Some centers even get their most experienced agents involved in the interview process – tapping their intimate knowledge of the front-line position. Doing so not only makes for more comprehensive interviews, it shows senior agents that the organization truly values their insight and input despite barely paying them a living wage.  

Agent recruiting is hardly a hot topic these days. With so many people out of work and in need of jobs, most companies feel the contact center won’t have any trouble filling seats if needed. But customer satisfaction and advocacy – the ultimate goal of nearly all contact centers – is not about merely filling seats; it’s about filling seats with people who have the skills, knowledge, adaptability and commitment to make customers not want to strike them.  

True, some such sought-after people will be among the glut of applicants who come knocking on your center’s door in search of a job. But why not be proactive and target such qualified individuals as part of a focused, strategic recruiting program? The best contact centers I’ve seen do just that, and consequently save themselves a lot of time and urine-testing in the initial hiring phase.

Five Elements of a Successful Agent Recruiting Program

Incorporate the following elements into your agent recruitment efforts, and I guarantee that you will endure far fewer resumes written in crayon or applicants who incessantly drool.

1) “Ideal agent” profiles. Before beginning the actual agent hunt, leading contact centers take the time to document exactly what they are hunting for. They do this by creating an “ideal agent” profile for each position (customer service, tech-support, sales, e-support, social media, etc.) they are seeking to fill. This entails listing the key attributes of their top-performing existing agents, realizing that all those agents just applied for jobs in Marketing, and then panicking that you’ll never find reps as good as them.

When creating your ideal agent profile, be sure to seek input from supervisors and experienced agents. Doing so not only results in a more comprehensive profile, it shows staff that the company truly values them despite damaging their wrists, eyes and spine on a daily basis.

Keep in mind that it isn’t necessary for all applicants to match every attribute on the ideal agent profile; it’s great if they do, but it’s also unlikely. Be happy if you can attract applicants who match even just a few of the key attributes, who show the potential to learn/obtain some of the others, and who don’t smell like onions.

2) Employee referrals – with results-based incentives. It may be a traditional and old-school method, but it’s still around for a reason. According to contact center professionals in various studies, employee referrals are the most effective, reliable and affordable recruiting method at their disposal. This is not all that surprising; after all, misery loves company. Thus it’s only natural for over-stressed agents to want to drag their best friends down into their personal occupational hell along with them.

To help pare down the number of unqualified referrals submitted by staff, forward-thinking contact centers offer small cash incentives (or other alluring perk) to agents whose referrals end up being offered and accepting a job. In some centers, additional incentives are often provided when the person the agent referred performs at a high level, stays with the job for a predetermined minimum amount of time (more than three days), and never once sobs on the phone with a customer.

3) E-cruiting. No recruiting program in these digital days is complete without the use of web-based methods. “E-cruiting” is essential, not only because it reaches more candidates than traditional recruiting practices and saves time and trees, but also because most people worth attracting and hiring today ONLY seek jobs online. The most talented younger members of the workforce eat, drink and sleep the web and social media, and they want a company that embraces the same cool communication methods and channels that they have grown up on. Therefore, top contact centers today post alluring job listings on their company's Twitter and Facebook pages, in various contact center and customer service groups on Linked In, as well as on their own corporate website and renowned job search sites like CareerBuilder, Monster and Simply Hired.

In addition to getting more reach for your recruiting buck, e-cruiting is very helpful in screening candidates early on for email and chat writing skills as well as for their ability to analyze online content and instructions. Any candidate who, during the application process, demonstrates the inability to spell or use proper grammar, or who uses “LOL” even just once in a text-based interaction, should be immediately eliminated from the running for work in the contact center and instead passed on to the manager in charge of hiring public relations personnel.

4) IVR-based recruiting. Many contact centers use their IVR system for more than just annoying and alienating customers; they use it to promote job openings, too. Yes, typically the goal is to get customers in and out of the IVR as quickly as possible (unless they are making an automated transaction that makes the company money); however, hold-times are inevitable – so why not make it up to waiting customers by offering them a job? In this economy, half of them probably need one. “Press 1 to access your account; press 2 to speak to a live agent; press 3 if you are unemployed or hate your boss.” 

5) “Stealing” staff from local contact centers. Some centers take a “this town ain’t big enough for the both of us” approach when it comes to competing with other local contact centers for talent. Targeting other centers’ agents may seem a bit cutthroat, but let’s face it – individuals with ample customer care experience are at a premium, thus it’s worth at least trying to lure local agents over to your side of the street.

Leading contact centers do this in as subtle and as graceful a manner as possible. Drugging and/or kidnapping are used merely as a last resort.

Effective agent-luring approaches that won’t land anyone in jail include:
  • Offering a work-at-home opportunity to talented agents in the region.  
  • Encouraging your existing agents to talk-up your center and brag about how spectacular the carpeting and lighting is.
  • Advertising how your contact center uses the most humane methods whenever an agent needs to be put down.
  • Regularly spraying the outside of your contact center with the scent of fresh donuts.

Plenty more information on best practices in agent recruiting and assessment are covered in my book, Full Contact. You can check it out here:

10 Reasons Your Contact Center Should Use Home Agents

1) Better employee retention. Most agents who plan on quitting to take a better-paying job – such as janitor or migrant farm worker – will reconsider if given the freedom to handle calls naked.

2) Expanded recruiting reach.
When seeking candidates for agent positions, you will no longer be limited to dropouts from just local high schools/colleges.

3) More flexible staffing/scheduling.
Such immediate access to their workstation makes it easy for off-duty home agents to work odd shifts and to save managers’ butts after inaccurate forecasts.

4) Higher productivity and quality.
The extra sleep and not having to suffer through rush-hour traffic enables home agents to stay focused and energized throughout the entire first half-hour of their shift.   

5) Decreased facility expenses.
You can grow the contact center without expanding walls, the parking lot, or the toilet paper budget.

6) Improved attendance.
Absenteeism and tardiness will drop, assuming you select reliable agents who don’t suffer from long-distance sleepwalking.

7) Enhanced disaster recovery.
No longer will road closures brought on by blizzards or Justin Bieber concerts bring employees and the contact center to a standstill.

8) Increased ability to tap “alternative” labor pools.
Going virtual provides job opportunities to qualified candidates who might otherwise be unable to consider contact center work – e.g., individuals with physical disabilities, older workers, or people deathly afraid of cubicles and industrial carpet.

9) More environmentally responsible.
Using home agents reduces vehicle pollution and gasoline/oil consumption; also conserves water since agents will no longer need to bathe, brush their teeth, wash their clothes or clean their wrist brace.

10) Improved call center aesthetics.
You can rid the center of the least-attractive and worst-dressed agents without losing their valuable skills and experience.

Show me a call center that does not bother to measure Service Level – and do so correctly – and I’ll show you a call center that likely struggles in practically every key area of customer contact management. Service Level is THE metric for gauging accessibility, and as such it is tied to and has an immense impact on customer satisfaction, workforce management decisions, call center budgeting/costs, and agent sanity.

Service Level (SL) is defined as X% of calls (or chat sessions) answered in Y seconds. A common (but NOT an industry standard!) SL objective is to answer 80% of all customer calls in 20 seconds – typically stated as “80/20”. This means that out of every 100 calls, the call center aims to route at least 80 of them to a live agent within 20 seconds. If the agent to whom a call is routed is not alive, its best to dispose of the body immediately before it affects the health and/or morale of others on the team.

So why doesn’t every call center strive to answer 100% of calls in 20 seconds (or 15 seconds, or 10 seconds)? Well, while doing so would positively delight customers, they would not remain delighted for very long, as the company they are calling would likely go out of business. To deliver on a 100/20 or 100/15 SL objective, a call center would require a daily staffing budget bigger than the CEO’s country club dues. (The exception, of course, is emergency services call centers – e.g. 911 centers – which must answer 100% of calls in a very short period of time by law, and are thus staffed/funded accordingly.)

Such infeasible SL objectives aren’t even necessary; most customers don’t mind waiting 20 or 30 seconds or even a little more before reaching a live agent – especially if they are informed beforehand of the expected wait. That’s why many of the best call centers implement a “visible queue” tool – an automated attendant that tells callers the estimated time until an agent will be available. Studies have shown that call centers with visible queues are 74% less likely to be burned to the ground by a disgruntled customer, and 26% more likely to not be burned to the ground by a disgruntled customer.

Now, an 80/20 SL objective does not indicate that the center ignores or doesn’t care about what happens to the 20% of calls not answered in 20 seconds; it simply means that those callers may experience longer wait times and be given a chance to sing or hum along with the call center’s on-hold music. Top call centers focus on side metrics such as Longest Current Wait Time and # of Customer Curse Words per Hour to ensure that no callers are being avoided like the plague, and to stay abreast of call volume trends that may require real-time action to evade an accessibility crisis and/or customer revolt.

Selecting an SL Objective

So, what is the right SL objective for your call center? I have no idea – and neither does anybody else outside of your organization (except perhaps for an experienced consultant familiar with the ins and outs of your operation). The best SL objective depends on several variables specific to your center: Your average call volume; your customer’s expectations and tolerance levels; your staffing budget; as well as the SL objective of competing call centers in your industry (though, still, you don’t want to just play copy-cat, as other key variables may differ).

That is not to say that there aren’t some common SL objectives shared by many centers – e.g., 80/20, 80/30, 90/20, 90/30. However, just arbitrarily picking one of these objectives without first conducting careful analysis of your call center’s resources and your customers’ expectations will often lead to either very angry callers (and agents) or very angry executives (and stockholders) – or both.

Keep Quality in the Equation  

Of course, no conversation about SL is complete without mentioning quality. You could take the time to carefully select a solid SL objective and consistently achieve that objective (without going too far over, as that indicates costly over-staffing), but it won’t mean jack squat if those calls that are routed quickly are being handled sloppily. Accessibility means nothing without quality. Getting seated immediately at a trendy, popular restaurant is great, but not if the maitre d' laughs at your tie, the waiter spills your wine, and the cook burns your steak.

Leading call centers understand this, and therefore never let efficiency supersede proficiency and professionalism. From the moment a new agent is hired, these centers indoctrinate them into a customer-centric service culture where things like empathy, accuracy and not comparing customers unfavorably to microorganisms are strongly emphasized and coached to. When such behaviors and values are encouraged and embodied, fewer mistakes are made, fewer call-backs are required, and fewer agents and customers burst into flames – thus making it much more likely that the call center (assuming good forecasting and scheduling has occurred) will meet or even exceed its SL objective.