Training & DevelopmentPeople Management

The Science Of Hiring The Right Agents

New selection strategies for improved performance and retention.
Kevin Hegebarth, HireIQ Solutions Inc.

Kevin Hegebarth, HireIQ Solutions Inc.

A customer’s initial and often lasting impression of a company’s brand is formed by his or her interaction with a customer service professional. Many companies have launched cross-departmental “customer experience” initiatives designed to help ensure that every customer interaction is exceptional. Despite predictions from industry experts over the years that most customer interactions would be handled via “self-service” channels—the web and IVR, for example—the demand for contact center agents remains robust. Customers often use the web to do their basic research, but then use the live-agent channel to negotiate the “final mile” to finalize the transaction.

Much of what has been written recently regarding the customer experience is focused on the technology side of the equation. Technologies such as voice of the customer surveys and CEM (formerly known as CRM) systems offer a seamless, integrated view of all customer interactions (especially focused on social media interactions), and a wide variety of customer self-service applications are cited as essential to delivering an outstanding customer experience. As a result, companies spend millions, if not billions, of dollars annually on such technologies.

However, in many cases, a truly exceptional customer experience is delivered not by technology (not directly, anyway), but by a living, breathing agent. Agents who possess excellent communication and critical thinking skills; who project that they are happy, enthusiastic and motivated; who are experienced and welltrained; and who are vested in the outcome of the customer interaction. For many companies, this often means the difference between an outstanding customer experience and a merely pedestrian one. Staffing a contact center with the right kinds of people who can regularly exceed customer expectations is an ongoing challenge.

Attract the Best for Exceptional Customer Experiences

Organizations have spent years and lots of money trying to perfect their attraction and selection processes with mixed results. According to leading industry expert Paul Stockford of Saddletree Research, industrywide turnover has remained fairly steady over the last several years at around 30%. Some organizations report lower figures; some cite attrition numbers exceeding 100%. Furthermore, much of this turnover occurs during the critical training and within 90-days posttraining period of an agent’s tenure. Persistent and early turnover like this is generally indicative of a mismatch between job content, supervision, employee expectation and performance, or poor recruiter foresight into how to identify a job candidate who will be successful long-term.

Many companies have invested millions of dollars over the years in rigorous pre-employment screening processes that are intended to measure candidate technical skills, personality, cognitive, behavioral characteristics and their ability to work well in a team environment. Yet, as evidenced by Stockford’s surveys, attrition hasn’t changed much over the years, implying that these tactics haven’t been entirely effective. Furthermore, many companies have tried a variety of these kinds of assessments with mixed results. Some work well, for a time, and others seem contraindicative—those job candidates who are predicted to do well actually perform poorly and vice versa. Does that mean that these tools are a waste of time and money? Not necessarily, but it does suggest that a different approach should be explored to improve performance, increase retention and deliver an outstanding customer experience.

It’s important to view the contact center environment a little differently than most teams. The overall performance of the team is not necessarily dependent on crisp, synergistic interaction among its members. Rather, the primary factor for customer experience success is for each member to independently and effectively interact with those outside the organization, namely its customers. While team unity and chemistry is desirable, a typical contact center can function.

Perhaps the best way to think about this is to contrast a football team with a gymnastics team. For a football team to be successful, each unit needs to work well with every other unit—the offensive line needs to block and execute its assignments correctly; receivers need to run their routes effectively; and backs need to read the defense and look for openings. Only by doing all of these things well will the team be successful, and team chemistry is important to achieve that goal. A gymnastics team, on the other hand, is built on individual performances. Each member needs to expertly execute their routines to garner the highest scores. And while team chemistry is desirable, it’s not essential to the team’s success.

Therefore, the best prospective contact center employees are not necessarily those with the best technical skills or those who can necessarily work well as a team, but those who have the right emotional makeup and personality to deliver excellent service in the high-pressure crucible of today’s contact centers. To improve agent retention and performance, companies need to adopt a different view of agent recruiting and deploy different tools to do so.

Affective Process and Job Performance

A significant development in organizational dynamics over the last several years is the notion of “affective processes” and how they impact job performance, turnover, teamwork and leadership. Affective processes encompass a wide range of phenomena including discrete emotions, moods and dispositional traits. One of the leading researchers in the area of affect in organizations is Dr. Sigal Barsade, Joseph Frank Bernstein Professor of Management at University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. Her research, and that of her colleagues in the field, establishes links between employees’ affect and the impact on critical organizational outcomes. Certainly a short article like this can’t do justice to the extent and results of this research, but it does offer insights into another factor when considering an employee’s and potential employee’s contribution to the job.

Fig1theaffectivecircumplexFigure 1: The Affective Circumplex   

FIg2 Job types mappedFigure 2: Job Types Mapped to Circumplex

In the contact center world, critical organizational outcomes include the customer experience, customer satisfaction, sales conversion, first-call resolution and other measures that the company might deem relevant. Influencing these outcomes by identifying agent behavior that affects them helps to improve overall contact center performance. Identifying these early in the agent lifecycle ensures that the right agents are placed in the right jobs with the right teammates to facilitate the desired outcomes.

Furthermore, an agent’s emotional state can often be discerned by a customer, which can have a positive or negative impact on the customer experience. While emotions can be transitional, everyone exhibits a relatively stable, underlying tendency to exhibit positive or negative moods or emotions. This is referred to as dispositional affect and, when measured outside the presence of a specific stimulus —during an interview, for example, where the candidate’s emotional state is relatively stable—provides valuable insight into how that candidate fits into the organization.

According to this research, affect can be represented by a circular graph called a circumplex (see Figure 1). The coordinates an employee occupies on the circumplex has an impact on his or her teammates, customers (in the case of the contact center example), and others in the organization.

Using Affect During Recruiting to Identify Best Job Fit

Taking this notion a step further, it’s fairly easy to see that common types of contact center jobs more or less neatly occupy specific areas of the circumplex (see Figure 2).

Those roles where customers require assistance with problems or issues call for agents who are generally more relaxed, exhibit empathy and are less excitable. Roles where the company is trying to sell products or services tend to require agents who are more energetic and pleasant—who wants to buy something from someone who sounds sad or grumpy? Collectors don’t necessarily need to be highly pleasant to effectively do their jobs, but they do need to be assertive.

It all sounds a bit complicated, but the task can be made significantly easier through the use of advanced audio analysis technologies that have been tuned to identify the likely affect of an agent or job candidate. For those companies that record prehire telephone interviews, for example, this model can be used alone or in conjunction with other prehire assessments to improve the candidate selection process and increase the likelihood of excellent downstream performance and tenure.

Companies that adopt this approach during the interview process can ensure that applicants are matched to their best-fit job roles. A candidate applying for a customer service role, but who exhibits the emotional characteristics that are better suited for a sales role could be encouraged to consider the sales job, if one exists. Many positions today are “hybrid” roles where an agent may be required to upsell a product or service in the context of a service call. Identifying those candidates who would be well-suited for either role will help improve performance in this area.

Ideas for Action

Include affect measurement in prehire assessment. When used in conjunction with other prehire assessments, discerning a job candidate’s likely affect is a powerful indicator of likely job performance and job fit.

Recruit and hire for the long term. Recruiters don’t intentionally hire job candidates who will wash out early in their tenure, but industry data and company experience suggest that, since most attrition occurs shortly after hire, a longer-term view needs to be taken during the recruiting process. Identify recent hires who have stayed longer and use the their prehire profiles as a model for future hires.

Match a candidate’s emotional makeup with the correct job. Identifying applicants’ affect during the recruiting process helps prevent putting them into a job that they are poorly suited for. Performing this “job fit” analysis before making the job offer improves the chances that a new-hire will be retained longer and will perform well.

Create teams with similar affect. Even though contact center teams are not as dependent on each other for success as other teams, organizational research, like that referred to in this article, suggests that the performance of teams improves when its members have similar emotional characteristics. This notion extends to the supervisor-subordinate relationship within the team as well.

Well-skilled, well-trained, motivated and enthusiastic agents will always be key to delivering remarkable customer experiences. Adapting the prehire process to include screening for emotional disposition will help to ensure that agents are placed into the job roles they are best suited for, with teammates and supervisors who are most like them and are afforded the greatest opportunity for success.

Further Reading: Dr. Barsade’s article, “Why Does Affect Matter in Organizations?” provides an excellent perspective on the topic. It be found on the Academy of Management Perspectives website at http://amp.aom.org/content/21/1/36.short

Kevin Hegebarth is Vice President of Marketing and Product Management for HireIQ Solutions, Inc. He has over 30 years’ experience in developing and marketing software and technology solutions designed to improve the hiring, performance, and quality of customer care professionals.

– Reprinted with permission from Contact Center Pipeline, www.contactcenterpipeline.com


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