Smart Hiring Helps You Staff Smart Reps

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Given the tightening labor market and the growing demand for more sophisticated and expensive skills, it's more important than ever that you screen, recruit and hire smartly.


Whether you need representatives for phone contact, e-mail, chat or some combination, knowing where to look for candidates and how to screen them will pay off in enhanced retention and a greater likelihood of success with customers.


Many customer service centers continue to rely on want ads or employment agencies, and these approaches still work if the market has some play. But it's no longer enough just to say, "Get me more reps." Whether you're partnering with an internal human resources department or external placement agencies, make sure they understand what you need now. And if you've been working with a longstanding job order, it's time to review it -- you may have to update your requirements to include newer skill sets or at least the potential to develop them.


All recruiters should be aware of the following sources:


* If you're looking for reps to handle e-mail or work online, post your job openings at online employment services; it's much easier if candidates are already familiar with the medium they'll be using.


* Contact local senior centers and residential communities. Retirees today range in age from the mid-50s on up. Many are seasoned workers you can count on for above-average punctuality, attendance and production. And now that the federal government has eliminated the earnings cap for Social Security recipients, more retirees are anticipated to re-enter the workforce.


* As the pickings get slimmer, your state's department of labor may be another good source. Affiliated community agencies may have programs that help people prepare to re-enter the workforce. Sometimes, tax breaks are available. And you can even help the sponsoring agency establish the specific kinds of training you need, including customer service techniques, computer literacy and even Web work.


* High school students are another possibility. They may need some extra supervision, but they're likely to have good computer skills and plenty of energy.


If the job currently entails using all customer contact modes, even if some candidates aren't suitable for the primary medium, they may still work out extremely well in the others. A candidate whose primary language isn't English, for example, may have a heavy accent but be a whiz at e-mail correspondence and text chat. At the same time, be realistic about skill deficits. If some e-mail candidates send a poorly written cover letter, your trainers and supervisors will be hard-pressed to make them good correspondents. Or if the applicants are brusque during phone screening, it's unreasonable to expect they'll do better in phone interactions with customers.


As part of interviewing, ask candidates to describe their daily activities. You might say, "Tell me about what you did during a typical workday, from when you started your shift till you went home." If you only ask what they were responsible for, they're likely to give you a job title and canned descriptions, and you won't really know what they were doing.


Then ask which of their daily tasks they liked and which they disliked to judge whether they can be satisfied and comfortable in the job you have in mind for them. Someone who needs variety and likes shifting around among different tasks during the day may not be happy answering e-mails for seven and a half hours straight or talking with customers by phone for that matter.


Be sure to ask applicants questions about their experience with customers to gauge their service beliefs and attitudes. You might ask, "How did you handle irate callers?" or "What did you do when customers wanted something outside policy?"


Be cautious with candidates who are negative about conditions where they previously worked; they're more likely to feel that way about your business only too soon.


Review their schedule availability early in the process while they're still working hard to create a good impression and before they think they've got the job. Even if you have to factor it down later, it's not going to get any better than it is at this moment.


Here are a few ways to test for practical skill levels:


* Use audiotapes or scripted samples of actual call dialogue so candidates can role-play responses or key in customer information. If you use real customer information to ensure sample validity, never allow outsiders access to actual customer records. Instead, prepare examples composed of only one field taken from any customer record -- e.g., one customer first name, another customer last name, a third customer street number, fourth customer street name, etc.


* Give applicants copies of e-mails or other written correspondence --with identifying information removed -- and ask them to create written responses.


* Use actual catalog pages, ad slicks, television ads, etc., and ask candidates questions that can be answered solely on the basis of information in the pictures or copy. This verifies comprehension and literacy.


* If the job includes any form of up-selling or making offers, you can provide a full description of a commonly understood product or service that you offer and ask the candidate to suggest that you buy one, either orally or in writing, depending on the primary medium of the job. This step ensures reading comprehension and the ability to initiate an interaction.


If at all possible, take all candidates on a brief tour of the customer service operation. If you're considering them primarily for phone work, let them monitor a few calls from a central location or even plug in side by side with a rep so they can experience the environment and get a sense of the work.


Have candidates sit with an Internet rep and encourage them to ask questions about the job and the company. Time with potential peers is useful to all parties. Candidates will ask about things they wouldn't ask in a formal interview, and your current employees may spot problems that might not have been obvious, or they may even find a potential star.


After the candidates have seen the real world, you'll both have a much better idea if they and the jobs are suited to each other.
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