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Contact Center
Customer Service
High Volume Recruitment

Interview with a Call Center Veteran: Better Quality Agents Starts at the “R” not the “T”

published by
Chandal Nolasco da Silva
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Interview with a Call Center Veteran: Better Quality Agents Starts at the “R” not the “T”

On Thursday, June 13th, we had the pleasure of sitting down with a senior leader inside one of our largest customer accounts to talk about their journey from agent to RTO Director, and everything learned along the way. For confidentiality, no individual or company names have been shared, and we will refer to our senior leader as “Jane.”

It all started back in 1998 when Jane was in school and she took a part-time job in a collections department. It was there she fell in love with customer service and quit her bachelor’s degree! Jane had a talent and a passion for helping people, which eventually led her to the Recruiting, Training and Onboarding (RTO) department for one of the largest telecommunications companies in the world. She knew then that good quality agents start at the R, not the T. We asked her to share some of these insights and her unique experience with our audience. Here’s what Jane had to say….but first some notes on Jane’s hiring profile and some key moments from the interview below:

Customer Profile:

  • Global telecom company with onshore and offshore contact center partners
  • Hiring 7000-8000 contact center agents each year
  • Administering 400,000 training programs annually
  • Agents have up to ten different technology systems

5 Key Moments in This Interview:

  • “making sure you have the right people in the right chairs at the right time…everyone needs to understand how they’re making a difference in the greater picture.”
  • “Typically we need agents to stay for at least 90 days before we start to see an ROI…we aim to bring agents to proficiency in 45 days.”
  • “Agents don’t realize the impact they have on those metrics just by filling the gaps of silence. Small talk drives results.”
  • “I knew that having strong agents started with recruitment. For so many years contact centers have been focused on developing agents during training, the “T”, but I knew that only goes so far.”
  • “Now we’re going beyond the correlation of which skilled candidates will lead to top performers on the job and asking which candidate profiles are not necessarily top performers but will stick around 5-6 months to achieve profitability…It’s about finding the exceptions now (because the top performers are already a go) and the HiringBranch assessment partnership has allowed us to go deeper…”

Interview with a Senior Call Center RTO Leader

HiringBranch: What advice would you give to other call center leaders?

Jane: It’s about numbers and service level. What’s critical is the customer, and that’s why service level is so important. And making sure you have the right people in the right chairs at the right time. Let your leaders and agents know they’re not just one in a million; everyone needs to understand how they’re making a difference in the greater picture. 

HiringBranch: What’s the best motivation for contact center employees? 

Jane: Compensation. Especially in regions where agents may have to travel a long way, they need to be motivated to do so. In these remote locations, it can be helpful to give agents shuttle services to assist with transportation or even medical staff and health services on-site to help with absenteeism and productivity. In my experience bonuses and payouts are the greatest motivator.

HiringBranch: How important are contact center jobs in these remote regions?

Jane: Contact center jobs are extremely important and provide a means to support families. However, contact center opportunities are typically densified in these regions, giving agents the ability to move around as they please, even using contact centers as temporary work between jobs. So while these jobs are important, it typically isn’t important for an agent to stay loyal to one center or another, they will look for the greatest incentive, or the one that meets their current needs best. 

HiringBranch: When agents leave how does that impact the contact center?

Jane: It affects the contact center’s revenue. Typically we need agents to stay for at least 90 days before we start to see an ROI. With that in mind, we aim to bring agents to proficiency in 45 days.

“Agents now have to use ten different systems and need to support technical, sales, and customer service all at once potentially. They need to have technical skills, people skills, and be able to navigate the processes to solve customer problems, all while the customer is on the line.”

HiringBranch: How has the role of a contact center agent changed since you started your career in 1998?

Jane: Since 1998 the hourly wage for an in-house agent has only increased $2 per hour  The evolution of the salary has crashed because contact centers started contracting. That said, the technology and the job has become increasingly complex! Agents now have to use ten different systems and need to support technical, sales, and customer service all at once. They need to have technical skills, people skills, and be able to navigate the processes to solve customer problems, all while the customer is on the line. So they have to be good at prompting the client through all this, doing it in a certain amount of seconds, and keeping good performance metrics. So the agent stress level is even greater in this position than it used to be.

HiringBranch: How have small talk skills changed?

Jane: When we were on shore, having that small talk was easy. Now offshore it may not be as easy to make that connection culturally. There can be lots of gaps and lots of silence as an agent moves through the systems and focuses on completing the transaction. The challenge then vs now is around recruiting and training.

“Agents don’t realize the impact they have on those metrics just by filling the gaps of silence. Small talk drives results.”

HiringBranch: How important is it to fill gaps in conversation?

Jane: NPS is a metric we look at. Agents don’t realize the impact they have on those metrics just by filling the gaps of silence. Small talk drives results. It’s not just about solving the problem, but also about reassuring the client. We know they have the skills, but what is stopping them? So dead air and hold time are also metrics. Sometimes we prefer the customer be put on hold rather than dead air, although some call centers don’t allow agents to put customers on hold. So agents have to get used to describing what they’re doing as they’re doing it as well. 

HiringBranch: Where do soft skills fit into the picture?

Jane: Soft skills need to align between recruitment and training - typically these are viewed as cost centers by the BPO, not a revenue driver. So we started testing in RTO to see if we could make that link. We asked how can we demonstrate to the business there’s revenue here? How could we put dollar signs to each activity? What does a strong recruitment process bring? Onboarding? Training? We did a lot of pre and post-hiring attribution, which is difficult because it’s not a static environment. To counter that we did cohort analysis according to different recruiting methods, and drilled into every process. 

HiringBranch: So what did you learn about recruitment?

Jane: What attracted me to recruitment from training was that I knew that having strong agents started with recruitment. For so many years contact centers have been focused on developing agents during training, the “T”, but I knew that only goes so far, and it’s the same with coaching. It starts with great agents from the beginning, the “R” - not to mention training can be very expensive and contact centers spend a ton on training.

We started measuring candidates with different skills assessments. We tried the Furst Person assessment that is now part of Harver and we found that the top quartile of candidates recommended to our recruiters were bottom performers, and the bottom were top! So the recommendations weren’t helpful and we had to look at the results over time to see that. Then we started to look at the individual, which can be difficult if departments are siloed, as many are in contact centers.

When we finally found the right assessment tool using HiringBranch, it had a big impact on our recruitment strategy. We can assess in one assessment language and skills together [previously two assessments], and this changed the game for our contact center partners because candidate drop off improved dramatically. At the recruitment level, the partners really appreciate this change in assessment. 

Candidates who do the assessment get a job preview and know what to expect so they don’t drop off later as much either, and this is happening at the “R” level. Making this correlation was so important for us. It changed the entire flow of recruitment.

HiringBranch: Do other departments now understand the link between recruiting and revenue like you do?

Jane: Their challenge is that they don’t do interviews, they don’t hire, their partners do. They are asking their contact center partners to do interviews and our organization only intervenes at the assessment level when it comes to recruitment because we know we can rely on this to remove the bias. Our recruiters see scores, competencies, and performance metrics only - removing the bias. Now we’re going beyond the correlation of which skilled candidates will lead to top performers on the job and asking which candidate profiles are not necessarily top performers but will stick around 5-6 months to achieve profitability. So this is what I mean by looking at trends. It’s about finding the exceptions now (because the top performers are already a go) and the HiringBranch assessment partnership has allowed us to go deeper and optimize the recruitment process more.

HiringBranch: What about quality standardization?

Jane: This is really important for us. We have scorecards and dashboards. We compare all our call centers to look at global agent performance, we do call listening, we do surveys to understand what went well and what didn’t… and so on. Different locations have different challenges so they are not uniform by nature, and we take that into consideration when doing comparisons and instead we look for trends. We have quality checks for every process and ensure the guidelines are being followed, which makes sense given that we onboard 7000-8000 employees every year! And sometimes agents need to be trained multiple times as they graduate to new positions in the company. We assigned over 400,000 continuous learning activities to employees last year.

HiringBranch: Is your agent training centralized?

Jane: All of our agent training is provided by us, and the contact center partners use our content for onboarding.

HiringBranch: Where do you see the future of call center training and onboarding?

Jane: Today training and onboarding is 80% trainer-led, with agents listening to someone presenting. We want to switch that ratio, so it’s 80% self-led and 20% classroom. Younger generations want to touch, do, and move fast, so we needed to change the way we trained to reflect that. We also want to find AI solutions to help with this transition and to go faster.

HiringBranch: What about attrition? What are attrition red flags?

Jane: Each partner manages attrition differently and they don’t necessarily share information. While we don’t focus on attrition, that’s more of a partner accountability, it is something we want to get more involved in understanding. 

HiringBranch: During the interview, you’d said that contact centers think that agent quality is developed at training, the “T”, but with your data do you think the “R” for recruitment is gathering steam?

Jane: Yes. But I’m still working on dusting off the “R” for my bosses. 

Image Credits

Feature Image: Unsplash/Petr Macháček

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