Off Center
 
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Wanted: Agents with the inherent skill and agility to respond to social customers in 30 minutes or less, and dazzle them in 140 characters or less.

Up until relatively recently, social customer service reps were considered purely mythical beings – like Santa Claus, or home agents who bathe regularly. However, with customer demand for support and service via social media rapidly growing, social customer service agents (let’s call them SCSRs to save us all some time) have become a reality.

A necessity even – at least in organizations that aim to stay ahead of the competition and keep the number of viral tweets about their poor or non-existent social customer service down to around zero.

What this means is that contact centers that haven’t already done so need to start recruiting and hiring viable SCSRs, or at least to start thinking about doing so. Of course, they can’t do such things effectively until they learn the “anatomy” of an SCSR. What does an individual who deftly monitors and smoothly handles customer inquiries and tirades via Twitter, Facebook and other social sites “look” like? What skills and traits do they require to not only survive but also thrive in the social role?


Key Attributes of an Ideal SCSR   

Following are five things to look for in agents worthy of maintaining your contact center’s “social” life:   

Social savvy. You want reps who not only have active accounts across a broad range of social media, but who also communicate relevant information in a tactful manner via such media. Take a look at each SCSR candidate’s personal Twitter and Facebook accounts. If you see that they have a habit of posting inane or offensive updates, or if they appear to have had multiple infractions of “TWI” – Tweeting While Intoxicated – they’re probably better suited for your IT team than for your Social Customer Service team.

Built-in ‘analytics’. An important aspect of social customer service is being able to determine which customers (and potential customers) to engage with – and how. While some of this should be covered in SCSR training, you want reps who have the intuition and logic needed to make smart social decisions on their own. A good SCSR must be able to quickly analyze and assess customers’ social inquiries, comments and rants, and then provide customers with the answers, explanations and verbal sedatives they need.   

Excellent (and efficient) writing skills. Social savvy and keen analytical skills won’t mean much if your SCSRs write like somebody who failed fifth grade English composition. Don’t assume an agent knows how to write just because their job application and resume featured only minor spelling and grammatical gaffs. A good SCSR not only writes clearly and succinctly, but also conversationally. It’s called social media, not corporate media or academic media. Customers like and expect social responses that are casual yet professional, not rigid and robotic.

A customer service soul.  Even someone with exceptional writing skills will fail in an SCSR role if they don’t truly care about and eagerly want to assist the customers with whom they interact. It’s more important to be courteous and empathetic than captivating and clever in the social customer service sphere. Captivating and clever is nice in small doses, but it won’t get you far with customers who are on the brink of bringing your brand to its knees with a flaming Twitter campaign about how your service makes them want to a learn a deadly martial art.    

Multichannel agility. I know, I know, you thought we were talking only about agents who deal with social customer interactions. But the truth is, a good SCSR doesn’t deal in tweets and posts alone. Often, interactions that start off on Twitter or Facebook need to be quickly moved to chat or voice – particularly when the issue/inquiry in question is a complex one that requires the customer to provide detailed and private information, or when the customer is fuming and using language more fit for drunken sailors than for public consumption. Furthermore, it’s likely that the volume of social media contacts your center must handle won’t be large enough to keep SCSRs busy their entire shift, thus, it’s good to have ones who are able to hop on the phones or don their chat hat and rock the customer experience regardless of channel.    

Did I miss anything big? Please share your SCSR “anatomy” lessons in the comments section below.



 
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The best managers realize a contact center cannot succeed without skilled, motivated and mostly sober agents manning the phones (and other contact channels). These managers work hard to develop and sustain hiring programs that ensure the front line is forever staffed with service stars who stick around for longer than the first pay period.

But I’m not here to talk about hiring success. When it comes to agent recruiting, assessment and selection, success is much less common than failure... and it's more fun to talk about the latter.

With that in mind, following are 15 signs your contact center’s hiring practices need work:

15) A common question among new-hires is whether their work schedule will interfere with their dog fighting competitions.

14) Your contact center recently underwent renovations to expand the exit interview room.

13) Candidates typically celebrate a job offer by firing off a few rounds of ammunition out back.

12) While playing hide-and-seek in your contact center, your eight year-old kid secretly answered several customer calls – and outperformed all your agents.

11) You’ve implemented a work-at-home agent program because most of your job candidates are under house arrest.  

10) Your average agent tenure is measured in minutes.

9) Your two most critical selection criteria when assessing agent candidates are “has a pulse” and “wears clothes.”

8) Your most effective recruiting method is begging.

7) Your best agent is your IVR system.

6) The final stage of your agent selection process involves a coin toss.

5) The top candidate from your last recruitment effort applied from federal prison.

4) You promoted the aforementioned candidate to supervisor his first week on the job.

3) Your most valuable applicant assessment tool is a drug-sniffing dog.

2) You hired the aforementioned dog as a team lead.

And the number one sign your contact center’s hiring practices need work is…

1) While reading each item on this list, you thought to yourself, “It’s funny because it’s true.”


For those of you looking for (slightly) more serious and insightful resources on agent recruiting and hiring, check out the following links to previous blog posts:

Active Agent Recruiting: Take Hiring by the Horns
Separate the Reps from the Replicas: Improving Your Pre-Hire Assessment Process
The First Key to Agent Retention? Your Hiring Program


There’s also an entire chapter dedicated to the topic of recruiting & hiring in my Full Contact book.





 
“Why is morale so low?”
“Why can’t we hang on to our best agents?”
“Why do we lose so many new-hires during or right after initial training?”
“Why are some of our agents carrying around voodoo dolls, and why am I suddenly experiencing such sharp pains in my face and back?”

If you often find yourself asking one or more of the above questions, it’s likely due to one or more of the following issues:

1) The metrics you measure (and enforce) are killing agents' spirit and the customer experience. Your agents bought into the “customer-centric” culture you sold them during recruiting and came on board excited to serve, but then the center started slamming them over the head with rigid Average Handle Time (AHT) objectives and Calls Per Hour (CPH) quotas their first day on the phones.

Focusing too strongly on such straight productivity metrics – and punishing agents for not hitting strict targets – kills agents' service spirit and compels them to do whatever is necessary to keep calls short and to handle as many as possible. This includes rushing callers off the phones before their issues are resolved, speeding through after-call work and making costly mistakes, and even occasionally pressing “release” to send unsuspecting customers into oblivion. You need to start emphasizing metrics like Contact Quality, Customer Satisfaction, First-Call Resolution, and Adherence to Schedule (the latter is a productivity-based metric your agents actually have control over). Do so, and you’ll be surprised how things like AHT and CPH end up falling in line anyway. Oh, and better do it soon – before your agents AND your customers decide to leave your company in the dust.   


2) Your quality monitoring program emphasizes the “monitoring” much more than the “quality”. Your supervisors and/or QA team are too focused on your internal monitoring form and not enough on how customers actually feel about the quality of the interaction they recently had with your center and agent. All agents see are subjective scores and checkmarks on a form that is likely better suited for measuring compliance than quality.

To get agents to embrace the quality monitoring process, let them have some input on what the form should contain, and, even more importantly, start incorporating direct customer feedback/ratings (from post-transaction surveys) into agents’ overall quality scores. For some reason, agents prefer it when a customer – rather than a supervisor – tells them how much their service stunk. Who knows, some agents might even try to improve.


3) Your contact center doesn’t fully embrace a culture of empowerment. Your contact center has failed to recognize and/or act on the fact that agents possess a wealth of insight, and know your customers better than anyone. It’s time to start empowering agents to use that insight and knowledge to improve existing processes and come up with new ones. This is probably the best way to continuously better the center while simultaneously making agents feel respected and valued. You’ll be amazed by the positive impact their ideas and suggestions will have on operational efficiencies, revenue and customer satisfaction. And because empowerment greatly increases engagement, you should see a big reduction in agent attrition and arson attempts.   


4) Coaching & training continuously get buried beneath the queue. Agents are eager to continuously develop and add value, but your overworked supervisors can’t find the time to stay on top of coaching and ongoing training. Your center needs to begin exploring feasible and effective ways to fit coaching and training into the schedule, such as using “just in time” e-learning modules, creating a peer mentoring program, and empowering agents to take on some supervisory tasks – which will free supervisors up to conduct more coaching and training while still giving them time to go home and visit their families on occasion.  


5) Agent rewards & recognition programs are uninspired – or non-existent. You’re merely going through the motions in terms of motivating and recognizing staff – futilely hoping that such stale incentives as cookies, balloons and gold stars will get agents to raise the roof performance-wise. It's time to revamp your agent rewards & recognition programs with proven approaches like: a Wall of Fame that pays tribute to consistent high performers; opportunities to serve on important committees or task forces; nominations for external industry awards for agents; fun happy hours where agents get to socialize and receive public praise for their concerted effort; and inspired events and contests during Customer Service Week and National Kiss Your Agents on the Mouth Day.     


6) You're handing the wrong people a headset. Maybe you are actually doing all the positive things I’ve suggested thus far, and are STILL struggling with low agent engagement and retention. Well, then you may want to take a close look at your recruiting and hiring practices. Regardless of how well you train, empower and reward staff, if you are attracting and selecting sociopaths and others who aren’t cut out for contact center work or your company culture, you’ll never foster the level of agent commitment or performance that’s required to become as good a customer care organization as your customers demand and deserve.   


A slightly different version of this post originally appeared on the “Productivity Plus” blog put out by the very good people at Intradiem.

 
Managers today realize no contact center can succeed without highly skilled, engaged and (mostly) sober agents manning the frontline. In the best centers, the hiring program is handled less like an agent acquisition process and more like an agent retention tool. After all, taking the time to recruit and select the most qualified and committed candidates is one of the best ways to reduce costly negative attrition among the agent ranks. Rushing through the hiring process may enable you to quickly get bodies in seats to meet the center’s staffing requirements, but those bodies aren’t likely to stick around for long or perform well if you don’t first take the time to ensure that they are attached to heads that are filled with what it takes to succeed in a customer care environment.

I’ve worked with many contact center managers who boast about how their “positive corporate culture” and “powerful brand” results in job candidates lining up outside the door at all times. These managers don’t fear agent turnover too much because they know they have an endless supply of applicants itching to fill the void whenever a space opens up on the frontline. But what some of the managers fail to realize is that just because the line for jobs is long doesn’t mean it’s teeming with talent worthy of interacting with the organization’s valued customers.

Having a large pool of applicants to pick from provides an advantage only when the contact center has the tools in place to separate the real reps from the replicas. These tools include: a focused recruiting process that doesn’t miss alternative yet viable labor pools; proven screening and assessment techniques and technologies that identify which candidates possess the aptitude and attitude to succeed in the dynamic inbound contact center environment; and realistic job previews that show candidates exactly what the job entails so they can make an informed employment decision.  

In this economy, having swarms of a job applicants buzzing around at all times isn’t anything to brag about, and it certainly doesn’t indicate there’s anything special about your organization. If your agents are quitting despite the poor job market, then you definitely don’t have anything to brag about. And yes, agents will leave – regardless of the economic outlook – if they feel like they aren’t cut out for the job, can’t keep up with the persistent demands of customers, and/or discover that what the organization “sold” them during the recruiting and interviewing process isn’t at all reflective of the reality of the agent position.

What does give you bragging rights is having an entire team of agents who are committed to the mission and vision of the contact center and the larger enterprise, who are dedicated to resolving issues and delivering exceptional customer experiences, and who are eager to help bring others like them into the organization.

In my 18 years covering the contact center industry, I’ve seen those kinds of agent teams. I’ve seen them time and again, but only inside of organizations that view their hiring program as, first and foremost, a powerful retention tool.       

 
_ Agents are a contact center’s most vital resource. A recent landmark study revealed that if it weren’t for contact center agents, there would be nothing to keep headsets from simply falling to the floor and breaking. Another key role agents play is providing quality service that keeps customers coming back and buying stuff.

With agents playing such a critical role in the success of your contact center and organization as a whole, it’s paramount that you take the time to hire the right people to cram into your cubicles. Too many contact center managers – pressed to fill seats and cover the phones – rush through the agent assessment and selection process. These managers then act surprised to find that the candidate they hired is unqualified, unreliable and/or unconscious.

To help ensure that the frontline folks you hire are top-notch, I’ve come up with two key multiple choice questions that you need to ask every applicant, along with focused analysis of what each answer option indicates. I guarantee that incorporating these two questions into your assessment process (and heeding my advice based on the answers selected) will lead to a big improvement in the caliber of agents you bring on board. If, by chance, you are not completely satisfied with the results, let me know and I’ll gladly send you a list of all the things you probably did wrong on your end.

Now, on to the aforementioned multiple choice interview questions:

1) What is the primary reason you want to work as an agent in our contact center?

a) I’m looking for a challenging yet rewarding opportunity to utilize my strong customer service and problem-solving skills to drive loyalty and revenue.

b) I have always wanted to work for your fine organization and believe that starting out in a customer-facing role would be a great way to begin.

c) The voices in my head keep telling me it’s the right thing to do.

Be weary of applicants who choose “a”, as they are obviously very arrogant and egotistical. “Oh, I’m great. Look at me I’ve got strong skills.” How obnoxious. Certainly not cut out for the agent position, which requires humility and selflessness. Turn them down flat, or maybe refer them for a job in Marketing.

Forget those who choose “b”, too. They are stalkers. They’ve had an unhealthy obsession with your company for years and are now looking for a chance to get inside and control it like some crazed puppeteer.

Applicants who choose “c” are where it’s at. They show creative potential and a refreshingly different mindset. It’s important to hire a diverse group of people, including those who require a padded workstation free of any sharp objects. And since they already have voices in their head, they are much less likely than others to become overwhelmed during peak calling periods.


2) The most important thing to remember when dealing with angry customers is…

a) To offer empathy and support via such statements as, “I see what you mean”,  “I understand your frustration”, or “If I were there I would hold you close.”

b) That you are the person the ACD has chosen to take charge of the situation and turn a negative customer experience into a positive one.

c) That no matter how furious the customers are and how loud they yell, they’re going to die some day.

Applicants who choose “a” here are the same people who always say that everything is going to be okay, even when you tell them that you have to move to Detroit or can’t afford an iPhone. They are deceptive and dangerous. I not only recommend not hiring these types of people, but I suggest you immediately fire any existing employees who respond to this question in the same way.

As for applicants who select “b”, run – don’t walk – in the other direction. Trust me, you don’t want “everything-happens-for-a-reason” people interacting with your customers. They’ll use the concept of “fate” to defend their every action in the contact center. “I’m not sure why I told that caller to bite me before hanging up on him – I guess it was just meant to be.”

Those who choose “c” have the right idea. They are able to keep a level head in times of strife and are thus less likely to burnout and alienate customers. In addition, their obsession with the futility of human existence typically leaves them with few friends, which means they will rarely complain about the schedule interfering with their social life. 


 
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.