3 Tips for Great Contact Center Staffing: The People Perspective
Getting and keeping the right number of chairs filled is key to the bottom-line success of any contact center. Assembling the ideal number of staff to meet SLAs while not over spending is heavily dependent on forecasting. The more accurate the forecast, the more cost-effective staffing levels will be. A baseline contact center staffing plan developed around reliable historical estimates is the optimal starting point. With it, managers responsible for its execution will play daily rounds of “if it fits, it sits,” adjusting for inevitable fluctuations.
Contact Center Staffing & Workforce Management
This aspect of workforce management depends on hardcore statistical analysis. It is greatly simplified by choosing effective workforce management software to automate forecasting and scheduling. But once the numbers have been crunched and the levels have been set, a potentially more complex aspect of staffing emerges. Beyond the mathematics, science and assumptions of staffing is the art of choosing the right people.
Defining “the right people” requires an intimate knowledge of your call center culture, customer profiles, operational plans and revenue expectations. Since the pool of job applicant is often larger than the needs of the center, you’d think the numbers would work in a hiring manager’s favor. Just look at the British call center industry, which, in 2012, posted 260,000 jobs. Seven million people applied for them. Even when anticipating a turnover rate in excess of 30% annually, that’s a sobering statistic. (At GCS, we had similar results when staffing a large urban call center: we hired 700 people out of 10,000 applicants.)
The sheer amount of competition for work often pushes applicants to stretch the truth about their qualifications and to also keep their personalities under tight wraps.
Testing helps. Psychometric tests combine aptitude testing with behavioral evaluation to determine a candidate’s strengths and weaknesses. This can be a tremendous asset to call center hiring managers. However, the practice is hardly widespread. As the Harvard Business Review points out, worldwide, companies spend less than $750 million a year on psychometric testing. Harvard researchers theorize that testing before hiring can save significant time and money by taking the “test before hire” approach. Apart from psychometric testing, new hires are typically evaluated on solid base criteria, including cognitive ability, willingness to learn and adapt, eagerness to work, physical skills (ie: keyboarding) and work history. Adding smart behavioral questions into the hiring process can be an effective alternative to testing.
More costly and equally important to finding the right call center employees is failing to screen out the wrong ones. A recent study of over 58,000 workers in 11 global companies showed retaining a toxic worker is nearly three times more costly than hiring a single superstar performer. And that’s without factoring in customer dissatisfaction, lowered employee morale, and in some cases, the cost of litigation.
There’s near universal agreement toxic employees have profound impacts on productivity, culture and organizational bottom lines. But some of those impacts, believe it or not, are easy to view in a positive light. Consider these mind-bending findings from the Harvard research:
“From our study, it seems clear that toxic workers originate both as a function of preexisting characteristics and of the environment in which they work. In particular, we found consistent evidence that those who seem overconfident in their abilities, who are self-regarding, and who claim rules should be followed, are more likely to become toxic workers and break company and legal rules. Thus, one strategy for managers is to screen potential workers for these traits to reduce the chance of hiring toxic workers. However, we also found that toxic workers are more productive, at least in terms of the quantity of output. This could explain why toxic workers are selected and are able to remain in an organization for as long as they do.”
Finding the toxicity within a call center (or any organization) can be difficult. Managers may not be able to immediately see toxicity in action. Toxic people can be extremely self-aware and clever, able to hide their behavior from management. Co-workers may be reluctant to speak to management about their toxic colleague for fear of reprisal or being branded a rat by others. Less seasoned managers may not have the skills to deal effectively with toxicity. In some cases, the results achieved by a toxic employee who produces at a high level may be strong enough for a manager to turn a blind eye to their personality and its impact on others.
If the hiring process makes it impossible to identify and exclude toxic applicants, the next best thing is to train managers to quickly spot toxic behaviors. This allows the organization to nip the behavior in the bud and replace the employee.
One thing is for sure – toxicity will always negatively hit the bottom line. GCS recently took over the management of a call center whose SLA performance had plummeted to about 40 percent from a desired 95 percent. The center was inundated with toxic staff, customers were feeling abandoned, and most workers felt they were toiling at a dead-end job.
To purge the toxicity and turn the contact center around, we applied three significant strategies:
- We chose employees based on personality traits needed for customer service and other specific job functions.
- We created a management candidate program to give agents a sense of empowerment and opportunities for career advancement.
- We instituted a high frequency, low-density coaching and training program for managers and agents.
By focusing on personality, we were able to whittle down the number of potentially toxic employees. One of our most important principles at GCS is to hire nice people – an objective that sounds easy, but isn’t. To us the extra effort it may take to effectively screen out toxic workers is well worth it.
We also believe there should be a way up in an organization. For good workers to be consistently productive, a sense of worth and organizational mobility is essential. Putting together a management candidate program is just one way to make employees feel hopeful and positive about their careers.
Once employees are trained to do the actual work required in their jobs, daily coaching and reinforcement is an essential for developing talent. For busy call centers, it’s important to maximize productivity, and breaking down learning into manageable “bite sized” installments makes it easier to manage. Our self-directed online training program breaks down customer service basics into convenient, short sessions to minimize “away” time. The program focuses on developing and internalizing successful interpersonal or “soft” skills that can challenging to teach, are often generationally different and usually inconsistently applied in a larger organization.
From a people perspective, there are three keys to great call center staffing:
1) Hire nice people. Weeding out bad influences is far easier during the hiring process than after. Define your customer service objectives, and then develop your screening strategy to draw workers with a corresponding mindset to your call center. The ability to be productive is just one aspect of a potentially misleading metric, so hire for personality as well.
2) Develop meaningful goals. In a toxic environment, working towards rewards can lead to an unnecessarily cutthroat atmosphere. Take the time to understand your staff and develop goals that inspire and have meaning to them as human beings, not simply call completers.
3) Train, train, train. Give workers every opportunity for on-the-job training. Make every day an opportunity to develop a customer service attitude and mindset. Offset classroom learning with self-directed activities. If you give your employees opportunities to excel, they will.
Keeping a contact center’s chairs filled with the right people is as important as keeping them filled with the right number of people. Mathematics and science will make any contact center run, but the art of staffing will make it fly.
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