Many customer contact organizations have implemented Workforce Optimization (WFO) as an operational strategy to improve the performance of customer care professionals once they are on the contact center floor.  However, an agent’s relationship with a company begins well before he or she handles their first interaction.  Therefore, a sound WFO practice starts well before then with the recruitment and hiring of agents who demonstrate the necessary skills and abilities to be successful.  In this paper you will learn ways to ensure your recruiting practices accurately reflect the true requirements of your call center positions and how operations and talent acquisition can more effectively collaborate to drive up operational performance and drive down attrition and turnover.

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Introduction

Call center technology has evolved significantly over the last thirty years or so.  The rationale for much of this investment has been to make the customer service experience more efficient, reduce voluntary attrition, and to manage labor cost.  As a practice, Workforce Optimization (WFO) has been around almost as long as call centers have.

An integrated technology approach to WFO is fairly recent, having been pioneered by Witness Systems starting with its acquisition of Blue Pumpkin Software in 2005 and subsequently by NICE Systems with its acquisition of IEX and Aspect Software with its acquisition of TCS.  Today, either through partnerships with other best-of-breed application providers or through suite-solution providers such as Verint and NICE, WFO has become an integral component of many call center operations worldwide.  However, WFO is limited in scope to the interval when an agent is performing their duties on the call center floor.  An agent’s relationship with a customer service organization begins long before then.

The hiring process is often overlooked as a key step in implementing an effective WFO strategy.  Depending on a company’s hiring and onboarding cycle, an agent’s relationship may begin several months prior to handling the first customer interaction.  Understanding the hiring process, having an awareness of all the steps necessary to effectively hire and onboard new agents and linking operational key success factors with the hiring process are essential to a successful WFO program.

The High Cost of Hiring

Despite the investments made in technology, costs associated with call center hiring remain high.  Labor consumes the majority of a call center’s budget – up to 80% in some cases – making agents its most costly, if not valuable, resource.  Yet, comparatively little is actually spent to ensure that any given agent hire is well qualified, a cultural fit for the organization, and is likely to return value to the organization before he or she leaves for greener pastures.

Another factor that contributes to the high cost of hiring is the fact that the talent acquisition (“HR”) and operational management (“the call center floor”) tend to be siloed within different functions in an organization.  This results in frequent misalignment regarding what should be common goals – the recruiting and hiring of well-qualified agents.  Exacerbating this problem is that each organization tends to have significantly different performance measures that have little, if any, common ground with the other.  For example, recruiting is often measured on such metrics as time to fill, cost to hire, and requisitions filled.  The call center is measured on such metrics as service level, customer satisfaction, and schedule adherence.  It is rare when one set of measures links to the other.

This disparity of objectives results in the recruiting organization believing it is performing well against its goals while the operations organization finds itself either with marginally performing agents or saddled with higher than desired attrition.  Unless both organizations work together to understand the needs and the constraints of the other, neither will be able to achieve its goals to their fullest potential.

The Agent Lifecycle

The agent lifecycle notion means that companies take a broader look at an agent’s tenure than just his or her time on the call center floor.  It includes all the pre-hire activities that a candidate is subject to, onboarding and offboarding and, of course, the operational WFO cycle that helps measure the agent’s day-to-day achievement against performance goals.

Since the WFO cycle is well known and broadly adopted, even if some of the fine details are different between organizations, this paper will focus specifically on the pre-hire activities and the events that transition an agent onto – and off of – the call center floor.

Recruiting Cycle

Recruiting well-qualified agents can be a very difficult job.  Recruiters are frequently pressured by their stakeholders to quickly fill classes, often with very little notice, and find themselves consuming valuable time on the generally unproductive task of trying to conduct initial telephone screening interviews.  Many of the best candidates are working at the same time as the recruiting staff, which effectively puts them out of reach unless the company adopts innovative approaches to reach them during non-working hours.

Understanding the recruiting cycle and how it links to operational performance has been shown to improve overall quality of hire and make a company’s WFO strategy more effective.  Moreover, understanding the steps in the recruiting cycle, and the time interval involved in each, will help both organizations find common ground upon which to improve the overall process.

The recruiting cycle tends to reflect a funnel-like approach.  More candidates are sourced than are actually needed to fill the number of open positions.  A certain proportion of candidates are disqualified (some will self-disqualify) at each step, ostensibly leaving only the best-qualified applicants at the end of the cycle.

In this hypothetical, to onboard 70 new agents means that the recruiting team must fill the top end of their hiring funnel with 1,000 candidates – that’s a ratio of 14 candidates for every 1 hired and onboarded.  The process can take 35 business days at a cost of $1,188 per new hire.  Add to this the actual cost of onboarding training, which might run as high as $6,000 per agent, and it’s easy to see that hiring can be an expensive proposition.  Furthermore, combining the recruiting duration (35 days in the example above) with the length of a typical onboarding class – 2 to 6 weeks – means that it could be as long as 2-½ months before the “newly hired” agent is on the phones handling real customer interactions.  Reducing agent attrition avoids these costs and the savings goes directly to the bottom line.

Looking more closely at the hiring cycle, we find a sequence of four general steps:

Sourcing

There’s an old adage that to be a successful fisherman, one needs to go where the fish are.  This especially applies to sourcing of qualified customer contact professionals.  A company’s website careers page will capture active job seekers – those who know what they are looking for and where to look – as will the leading career sites such as Monster, CareerBuilder, Yahoo! Jobs and the like.  However, passive job seekers – those who wish to change jobs, but haven’t yet acted on the urge – will overlook these channels.  To reach them, companies should look to a wide variety of social media outlets to generate interest.  Facebook, with over one billion users at the time of this writing, is a good place to start.  Companies that use a liberal mix of active and passive strategies, such as TeleTech, will find itself with a healthy pipeline of candidates.

Linking operational performance results with candidate source will help the organization understand where the best candidates are coming from.  Creating a holistic, lifecycle view of each agent, beginning with when they first enter the company’s recruiting process will help the organization know where the best place is to look for the next class of agents.

Screening

The screening step tends to be the longest in the process and the source of frustration for candidate and company alike.  Many companies accept online applications, but the extent of the recruiting process tends to end there, leaving the applicant to wait until a recruiter gets around to reviewing the application and attempt contact, presuming there is interest.

Screening typically includes some initial effort to gauge a candidate’s basic qualifications for the job.  This is normally done through a recruiter-led telephone screen in which a recruiter asks the agent candidate a series of questions that are designed not only to validate the candidate’s skills, but also to gain some perspective on his or her communication style, energy and personality which are critical success factors in most customer-contact positions.

The screening step is frequently one that takes the longest since it is often difficult to reach candidates to conduct these live screens.  Some companies have reduced this interval by allowing applicants to complete on online, guided virtual interview in which the applicant records responses to a series of job-related questions that are later reviewed by a recruiter.  This is convenient for the candidate and recruiter alike and often reduces this interval by 70% or more.

Assessing

Once screened, successful candidates normally find themselves facing a more rigorous assessment step.  This can range from a series of live telephone or in-person interviews with recruiters and key stakeholders such as supervisors and hiring managers.  The purpose is to gain a more finely tuned perspective on a candidate and his or her skills and competencies for the desired position.  These may be evaluated and scored – in a manner similar to that of quality management on the call center floor – and shared amongst the hiring team to ensure calibration and consistency.

Many companies also use one or more skills, cognitive, behavioral and personality assessments in an effort to determine cultural fit and to provide an early warning to potential performance issues down the road.  The use of these commercially available assessments should be carefully balanced against the needs of the business and the requirements of the position.  Many of these assessments are brief, can be taken online and are excellent predictors of success in a specific role.  Others can be lengthy (up to 90 minutes in duration); so specific as to focus only on one small aspect of the job; or expensive – some can run $100 or more – adding to the overall cost of recruiting.

Hiring

Once a candidate has made the short list of desirable applicants, there may be a couple more gates to navigate before a formal offer is made.  A background check and credit check may be performed, especially for those positions where customer financial data may be involved.  A drug test may be involved and documented proof of citizenship may also be required.  Again, these need to be closely tied to the requirements of the position as well as the policies of the hiring organization (or its clients, in the case of outsourcers).

Transitional Stages

Onboarding

Now that the job offer has been extended and accepted, the new agent enters the first of two transitional stages – the onboarding process.  Ranging from a couple of weeks to several weeks, this is normally the time when the agent gets his or her first taste of what the job is really going to be like.  It is also the stage where a large proportion of attrition occurs.  It’s also when attrition tends to be the most costly.  At this stage, the agent has yet to return any value on the recruiting investment, so he or she has been pure cost to the organization.

The onboarding process should reinforce all the commitments and expectations set during the recruiting process and should continue to present a realistic view to the job the candidate has been hired for.  This is not the time for surprises.  One of the leading reasons why agents quit during the onboarding stage is a misalignment between expectations and reality.  Vet these candidates earlier in the process – not later.

Offboarding

It’s rare to find someone whose long-term career goal is to be a call center agent.  That said, it’s not all that unusual to find long-tenured agents in certain industries.  Nevertheless, there comes a time when agents are going to leave – whether it’s to a competitor who is willing to pay a little more per hour, or to a position of greater responsibility and authority in the organization.  This is the time to collect all the relevant performance attributes of the departing agent and start the process of finding his or her replacement.

For those leaving the organization, conducting structured exit interviews can help uncover areas of dissatisfaction or inconsistent expectations that might not otherwise be evident.

Linking key operational performance metrics with the relevant pre-hire components enables the recruiting team to focus on those components that have already proven to be successful.  This helps to streamline the initial hiring process, thereby reducing its cost and the time-to-hire, as well as increasing the overall quality-of-hire.  Over time, the result will be a dramatic improvement in operational performance, reduction in attrition and improved agent motivation.

Mapping Operational Performance to Hiring Process

The heart of workforce optimization in today’s call center tends to revolve around common measures by job position.  Some measures are common across all positions, such as average handle time, schedule adherence and customer satisfaction.  Others are unique by position: customer service, for example, might be measured on first call resolution, while sales positions might be measured on conversion rate.  In any event, the contact center is one of the most frequently measured operational departments of any customer-facing enterprise and billions of dollars are spent each year on hiring, technology, training and performance measurement.

This makes the call center environment the perfect lab to link the “before” and “after” image of agent performance given the volume of agent candidates throughout an organization and the myriad data points that are collected throughout an agent’s tenure.

Using a sales position as an example, a company may screen for particular sales skills – persuasion and objection handing, for example – may perform behavioral assessments for desirable sales behavior, and then measure the agent’s actual sales performance over time.  Using big data analysis, the organization can pinpoint which screening tools (or questions) and which assessments yield the best predictor of superior sales performance.  Subsequent candidates would be subject to this “recipe” of recruiting steps with a high level of confidence that those who perform well during the pre-hire phase will likely demonstrate excellent sales performance once on the floor.

Benefits

Companies that adopt an agent lifecycle view to WFO tend to report improved operational performance; reduced attrition; increased customer satisfaction, sales and service performance; and reduced hiring costs.  Furthermore, those companies tend to have a more holistic awareness of the true impact of agent attrition, especially the time-to-hire cycle and time-to-proficiency.  Linking the hiring process with observed operational results means that better qualified and more motivated agents are hired in the first place.  Leading industry analyst firm Frost & Sullivan also suggests that companies that take a lifecycle view of agent tenure make better planning decisions and distinguish themselves from their competitors as a result.

Ideas for Action

Clearly articulate realistic job specifications, position expectations and a profile of the ideal candidate.  Identify the skills the candidate is expected to possess, the measurements and coaching that will be available and the expected job progression path.  Map these to specific assessments or steps in the hiring process to ensure they are measured early in the agent’s lifecycle.

Set expectations early and often.  Comprehensive expectations for agent performance should be reinforced early and often.  Provide an all-inclusive realistic job preview throughout the entire recruiting phase of the agent lifecycle.  These expectations should include topics such as performance measurement, attendance and schedule adherence, coaching, training and avenues for advancement.

Forecast your hiring needs before you need them.  It’s not unusual for it to take upwards of 45 days to recruit and hire a qualified agent.  Factor in another 45 to 60 days for onboarding and training, and soon it’s 90 days or more before that agent arrives on the call center floor.   It may take an agent another 30 to 90 days to become proficient and begin to return real value to the organization.

Foster an atmosphere of collaboration between key stakeholders.  As mentioned earlier, recruiting and operations often have different objectives, however they should share one common goal: to ensure the best available talent is hired and retained.  Sharing recruiting goals and the factors that constitute an excellent applicant can mean a world of difference.

Link post-hire performance metrics with pre-hire activities.  Creating this linkage improves the overall recruiting and hiring process by enabling recruiters to focus on those forward-looking indicators of success.  It also allows the organization to select the sourcing, screening and assessing activities that are most directly relevant to the company’s open positions.

Identify and measure the key characteristics of high-performing employees.  By collecting these critical success factors, and sharing them with the recruiting team, organizations can pinpoint the best-fit sourcing, screening and assessment strategy, which will result in the highest possible quality of hire.

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