A mere 275 shopping days until Christmas! While you may have a while before you need to address your holiday cards, the time is approaching rapidly for you to implement a staffing plan to handle the holiday rush in your call center. Whether you’re a traditional retailer whose peak is in December or a gardening supply cataloger in the midst of the spring order frenzy, you’ll want to back up six months or so before your peak to put the wheels in motion for your seasonal call center hiring.
DEFINING THE IDEAL AGENT
Many performance problems and personnel issues down the road can be avoided by simply getting the right people in the positions in the first place. The first step in the process should be to write a comprehensive job description for each position. Part of this description will include the necessary knowledge, skills, and attributes needed for the job. Types of knowledge requirements may include such things as basic telephone etiquette, customer service experience, sales experience, Internet experience, product knowledge, knowledge of the company, and industry knowledge.
Personality attributes are also an important factor in defining the ideal person for a position. Unlike knowledge or skills that can be acquired, attributes are elements of a person’s personality that are innate or developed over a long period of time and not likely to be as easily shaped or changed. Some of the personality attributes desirable for this role are stress tolerance, adaptability, assertiveness, attention to detail, and friendliness.
Another important consideration in defining the job is to identify aspects of the job and the environment that may be less than desirable and assess candidates’ motivation to accept these conditions. These considerations may include a confined workspace, the repetitive nature of the work, the precise nature of the work schedule, and ongoing monitoring.
Finding a person with the appropriate skills and attributes who will also be content with these unique work-environment conditions is one of the biggest predictors of job success. While the “can do” elements of knowledge and skills are certainly important to make sure a candidate has the basic capabilities to do the work, the “will do” elements of personality attributes and environmental fit are still more closely correlated with job success, even in the short term.
ADVERTISING THE POSITION
When it comes time to advertise the position, you may have a ready supply of current employees’ friends and family, or you may have to search a little harder. Expanding your search might include exploring temporary staffing agencies or contractors, school internships, professional associations, public employment services, outplacement programs, retirement agencies, other call centers in the area, and the general market of job-seekers.
If yours is like many call centers, you turn to students to fill seasonal positions, especially part-time positions. While call centers have long since realized the benefits of a part-time college student workforce, some are taking the student definition one step further and considering the use of high-school students as part-time staff. Many call centers have found that some high-school students have the personality, service outlook, and computer skills to make them good entry-level employees.
You may want to think beyond the usual classified advertising to attract a wide base of candidates. Although more expensive than print advertising, radio and television spots can be very effective in getting the word out about available positions. To attract candidates that live in the area within a fairly close radius of the call center, billboard advertising can be very effective. In addition, simply hanging a huge banner on your building can announce your search for seasonal staff. Call centers effectively use handbill distribution at malls, while others have found announcements at sporting or school events to be an effective method of advertising short-term openings.
Be clear in your advertising about what you’re looking for in terms of job longevity. Outline the scope of the job and the short-term benefits you can offer. The call centers that have the most success at securing effective seasonal staff are those that provide attractive benefits associated specifically with the short-term work window.
SCREENING AND INTERVIEWING
Initial telephone screening is essential, since it most closely reflects the applicant’s ability to communicate over the telephone. Many call centers miss this opportunity by focusing on a written application as the first screening gate. However, the smart recruiting team will focus on either live calls or at least a voice mailbox to weed out unsuitable candidates before taking time with a résumé/application review.
Conducting an effective interview is critical to making a good hiring decision. You and your interview team should plan interview questions in advance and ask them consistently of all candidates, rather than just let the interviews flow freely. Asking the wrong questions can result in a poor choice of employees and may be legally troublesome as well. In preparing for the interview process, create and examine questions carefully to ensure that they are related to the job analysis and description and are geared specifically to the attributes you’ve deemed desirable in your temporary staff.
To ensure that your candidate is a good fit for the job and working conditions, you may want to consider doing some aptitude testing. This testing could screen for basic skills or could be more intricate to test for more advanced capabilities. Simple aptitude tests can be accessed via the Internet, or done at your company’s site during the interview process. Determine up front what skills are needed as a minimum, considering the short duration of employment. Unlike a longer-term position, where some skills can be taught, seasonal hiring may not provide you with enough of a training window to get people up to speed in needed skill areas.
Tools that allow a candidate to “test drive” the call center job through simulation testing are useful for this review. The simulation may have the candidate hear caller contact information such as name, address, and phone number, and require entering the data as quickly and accurately as possible. Or the candidate may be presented with several sample comments from a customer and asked to select appropriate contextual responses.
Once you have narrowed your choice of candidates, it’s time to review all the possibilities, make a decision, and then extend an offer. The evaluation process should stay focused on job skills. If there is an even match between candidates, the evaluation team might consider each candidate’s enthusiasm, willingness to work undesirable schedules, and other factors as the potential “tie-breaker.” The timing of an offer should be immediately following the decision to hire, so the candidate isn’t lost to another job opening.
SEASONAL STAFFING ALTERNATIVES
As you begin to staff to meet seasonal demands, there are tried and true approaches to meeting this need. One obvious source of candidates is a contract staffing or temporary agency. This is a particularly attractive option when staffing demand is only for a short period of time. Putting the responsibility for advertising, screening, and testing in the hands of an expert has some real advantages. The higher staffing cost of this alternative is generally outweighed by its advantages: hiring expertise, staffing to meet schedule definitions, and the ability to reject a non-performing employee with fewer legal hassles relating to employment.
Another option is to consider routing the surplus calls to an outsourcer. While the per-call cost may be higher, the benefits to outsourcing the additional call load can be tremendous. With their staff’s specialized expertise, an outsourcer can likely get up to speed quickly to handle your calls, and be able to provide you with a full set of management reports to monitor efficiency and quality. Just beware that some outsourcers have a six- or twelve-month minimum contract commitment, so they may not be as viable as seasonal partners as you might expect.
Finally, some call centers have come up with the creative solution of an arrangement to share employees. If you can find a call center in your area with peak demand in another part of the year, you may be able to keep a person gainfully employed for half the year with you and the other half with the other company. You can both benefit from the other company’s training programs, and the employee benefits from year-round employment, as well as from more variety in her job as she moves from one company to another. Join local networking groups and investigate the other call centers in your area to see if this might be a viable alternative for you. If employees are leaving you to join another center, you may want to consider the “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” strategy — it may benefit you both.
Penny Reynolds is a founding partner of The Call Center School, a Nashville, TN-based consulting and education company. She can be contacted by phone at (615) 812-8410 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.