Finding that special agent

With legislation like "do not call" and the evolving responsibilities of contact center agents, screening for the right employees has become more important than ever.

Recruiting talented call center agents, putting them in the right position to succeed and ultimately retaining

them, are among the biggest problems for call center managers.

Managers are haunted by questions like does a good inbound agent make a good outbound agent? Can someone who has focused on service for years make the transition to sales as companies push up-sell and cross-sell? How do you compensate them once they do?

Also, the advent of "do not call" and multiple channels for customer contact has added to the complexity of recruitment.

"It's a big problem," said Berta Banks, partner with Banks and Dean, a Toronto-based call center consultancy and system provider. "Most call centers say, 'it's OK, I have a 22% turnover rate.' It's an issue of acceptance."

But companies don't have to accept turnover rates like that, Banks advises. As organizations make the transition from a service to a sales- and relationship-building culture, they need to identify the proper traits and competencies of agents, Banks said.

It comes down to screening for the right type of agent.

"Many call centers hear complaints that people are stressed out," Banks said. "You tend to be stressed out when you're in the wrong job."

Qualities to screen for in a call center agent:

-- Attendance and punctuality
It's difficult to determine who will show up to work once they've been hired, but most call centers are driven by time and need agents to work the hours they've been hired.

-- Comfort with a headset
Agents need to wear these all day long and some people just don't like it.

-- Working in a close-knit environment
A traveling salesperson used to working alone may not fit in.

-- Comfort with conflict
Agents need to be able to deal not only with angry customers, but customers who aren't giving them the answers they're looking for.

A recent survey of call center agents at 300 companies by the Service & Support Professionals Association showed that, of the top performers, 10% are actively pursuing other jobs and 51% would consider another job opportunity.

With the best agents so willing to switch jobs and with so many unhappy with their jobs, it is important for call centers to keep their top agents happy.

One frequent mistake call centers make is that, while they continually turn over agents, they keep the same people managing them. When a turnover occurs, organizations should look at the people in charge as well as the frontline workers, Banks said.

In addition, many managers are tasked with interviewing applicants. In a call center with high turnover and a lot of applicants, this is an inefficient use of a manager's time. Instead, they should be coaching people and running the call center.

One company, Atlanta Gas Light (AGL), relies on a staffing agency to bring in recruits, then hires them on a temporary basis with a chance to become permanent.

"It takes the administrative burden off of us," said Lee Lively, manager of performance solutions. "In the past we've had applicants lined up around the corner."

AGL expects a portion of an incoming class of agents won't stay with the company despite a salary that is higher than the industry average, Lively said. Those that are hired tend to remain. The call center generally looks for problem solving skills, professionalism, flexibility and telephone mannerisms.

As the call center business changes and evolves, AGL has had to evolve with it. When Lively began working with the department two years ago, the quality monitoring staff -- people who listen in on calls -- were hired externally. They had good soft skills, but they did not know the internal processes at AGL, Lively said.

So the company brought in a new group of quality assurance reps. These employees had previously worked as customer service agents and were put through a rigorous application process, which tested to see if they could deliver feedback and communicate with and coach an agent, Lively said.

To determine the right agent attributes for a call center, companies need to find out what they already have and which attributes work, Banks said. Call centers need a continuous system of reporting best practices and improvement. And companies need a CRM system for their agents, she said.

Banks separates screening and selection in the hiring process. She added that screening can offer robust information and should provide a quick profile so companies can see how a person fits in. (see sidebar)

Many call centers ask if applicants have previous call center experience, and Banks said this question knocks out a lot of people as qualified agents. However, the best agents are already employed with another company, Banks said.

FOR MORE INFORMATION:

Learn how Continental has retained agents by creating a career path

Get some advice on turning service people into salespeople

Dig deeper on Call center agent

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