Off Center
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.       

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: