Contact Center Hiring And Recruiting On A Budget

This post was originally published on the ICMI blog on January 26, 2015.  Click here to read the original article along with more great customer service and call center resources.

budgetMy entire career in customer service has been in a small contact center.  Given that snippet of information, there are a few things you can assume about my situation:

  1. We have a small team and therefore relatively low turnover.  How low?  I actually went all of 2014 without hiring anyone.
  2. We don’t have a full time HR person which means that my team is responsible for recruiting and hiring their own.
  3. At a small, growing company, everything is done on a budget.  Everything! This means that wherever I choose to recruit, I need to get the most bang for my buck.

As I mentioned, it had been a while since I had to hire anyone.   Recent growth and change at Phone.comrequired me to hire eight new positions.  Thinking I needed a challenge, my boss asked me to hire half of those positions in our west coast office and the other four in our east coast office.   No problem!

I’m pleased to announce that we hired eight awesome new customer service representatives, and while I feared my leadership team may up and quit, they didn’t!  How did I do it without breaking the bank you ask?  I’m going to share the secret sauce with you today.

The Recruiting Process

My favorite way to recruit is always employee referrals.  The reason for this is that customer service representatives love to work with their friends.  If you’ve built a productive team with a great culture, they will never refer people that don’t fit in perfectly.  This is an absolutely fantastic way to hire new people.

In this most recent round of hires, the referrals were a bit slow.  At that point, I turned to Craigslist.  For $25, you can post a job and you will have no shortage of resumes to sift through.  I recently wrote a post about how not to apply for a customer service job.   When you post on Craigslist you may have to do a lot of sifting and those insights will help you find the diamonds in the rough.  In this most recent round of hires, seven of the eight positions came from Craigslist.

The Hiring Process

Once we narrowed it down to the candidates that meet our requirements, here are the next steps.

  1. Typing Test- Our customer service team is required to do quite a bit of typing, even while they are on the phone.  We have them go to http://typingtest.com and take a free, two-minute test.  All other things being equal, we will hire the faster typist.  This can be communicated by email before you even interview them.
  2. Phone Interview- The next step is to call the candidate and talk to them over the phone.  Assuming you are hiring for a contact center, you’re listening to see if they are friendly, well spoken, and good at carrying on a conversation.  This only needs to take about fifteen minutes.  If you weed a few people out here, you are saving them the time and trouble of driving all the way to your office.  If you want to take this a step further, video hangouts using a platform like Google+ also work well.
  3. The Interview- Our next step is to bring them to the office for an interview.  The secret here is to have two or three folks in the interview with you.  More often than not, the other people in the interview catch red flags that I, on my own, would have missed.
  4. The Peer Interview- Either with a follow up phone call or a second interview right after the first, we have the candidates meet with a potential coworker or two.  Again, coworkers who are a part of the culture will be very picky about who they want on the team.  This is a good thing.

The end result of this process is a group of CSRs that are a fit for your culture as agreed upon by a team of people.  At this point, the candidate also understands what is expected of them and is really, really excited to join the team.  Notice that while there was a bit of time involved, we got the candidates we wanted without breaking the bank.  Happy hiring!

Jeremy Watkin is the Director of Customer Service at Phone.com with 13+ years experience as a customer service professional. He is also the co-founder and regular contributor on Communicate Better Blog. Jeremy ranked #85 on the Top 100 Most Social Customer Service Pros on Twitter by the Huffington Post in 2013. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn for more awesome customer service and experience insights.

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Remember, You’re Memorable!

fingerSarah McLachlan sums it up in her song, “I will remember you. Will you remember me?

And, our customers sing this to us each and every time they walk into your store or pick up the phone to call your support center.

That’s a lot of singing going on!

True Story:

I helped a customer fix a confusing billing issue about a year ago.The customer went on with her service with us, but then moved away a few months ago due to other frustrations with the service.

However, after trying out other providers, she sent me an email that said she remembers our company and while she ran into some hiccups, she was a lot happier with us and she’d like to return to our service.

  • If your customer has a positive experience with your company, they’ll remember this and be loyal to your brand.
  • If your customer has a negative experience with your company, they’ll remember this and not buy your brand.
  • If your customer has more positive than negative experiences with your company, they are more likely to continue giving your brand a shot.

But, there’s also the word of mouth element here. No matter if your experience was positive or negative, if your name comes up, someone will have a comment about it and share it. If one customer with a lot of friends has a bad experience, that’s a lot of customers you’re unlikely to ever see at your door.

This also applies with your internal customers: your coworkers!

Let this post serve as a short and sweet reminder that your direct experience with your customers will have a lasting impact. You are MEMORABLE!

That said, what will YOU do differently today when assisting a customer?

Jenny is the Customer Success Manager for Phone.com with almost a decade of customer service experience. She is co-founder and a regular contributor on Communicate Better Blog.

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Kicking “Buts” And Slaying Giants

gladwellFinish the following sentences.

I would like to read more, but…

I would like to exercise more, but…

I would like to go to finish my degree, but…

I would like to have a great day, but…

I would like to be happy with my life, but…

I would like to make an impact in the lives of others, but…

How many of those sentences were you able complete as is?  How many were you able to kick the “but” to the side?  The sad and true fact is that there are so many wonderful, positive things many of us want to do with our lives until that silly “but” creeps its way in.  All of a sudden, there’s an excuse not to do something great and instead stay in our current situation.

In the book, David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell shares countless examples of people who faced seemingly insurmountable odds, the likes of which few overcame.  And yet a select few did overcome and proved to the rest of us that it can be done–albeit a different way.

Among the many amazing stories he shared was that of David Boies.  Boies struggled through his school years with dyslexia.  Determined to be a lawyer, he made it through law school avoiding the insane amounts of reading by leaning on something similar to Cliff Notes.  He has overcome his inability to read well by honing an amazing ability to listen and memorize.  He is an incredibly successful lawyer, winning cases in front of the US Supreme Court!

This is just one of many examples of people who took a disadvantage and found another route toward greatness.  The fact of the matter is that if you really want to do something, no obstacle is too great.  So let me take a stab at this one.

In the short term, “I want to have a great day tomorrow, but I haven’t been feeling well.”  Instead I’m saying “I want to have a great day tomorrow and am choosing to say at least five encouraging things to the people I work with.”

In the long term, “I want to write a book based on our customer service blog, but I don’t have time.”  Instead I’m saying “I want to write a book and I’m going to put my goal on the calendar now.”

Those are real life scenarios.  I barely scratched the surface of David and Goliath.  Give it a read and do share what buts you’re kicking to the side in favor of achieving a goal you once thought impossible.

Jeremy Watkin is the Director of Customer Service at Phone.com with 13+ years experience as a customer service professional. He is also the co-founder and regular contributor on Communicate Better Blog. Jeremy ranked #85 on the Top 100 Most Social Customer Service Pros on Twitter by the Huffington Post in 2013. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn for more awesome customer service and experience insights.

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The R.O.A.D. To AWESOME Customer Service Training

roadIn December, I shared a post about On-Boarding Without Over-Boring with some tips to help leaders ensure that their new employees have a memorable first day.

The trick:

Keep it fresh, fun and casual, but make sure policies and other business-y stuff is clearly communicated and understood.

So, when Phone.com took on the challenge of hiring four brand new customer service representatives in an office 3,000 miles away from our regular support office, I took on the challenge of training them. In one week.

So, what worked and what didn’t? I just got back (escaped the blizzard) and maybe it’s too early to tell (be on the lookout for an update post on this in the near future).

If you’re a call center looking for tips to create a new training plan for your new customer service representatives, get behind the wheel and take a drive on:

The R.O.A.D. To AWESOME Customer Service Training

Be Real

Everyone has their own learning style–we need to be realistic here. While one on one training may not be an option for everyone, being aware of various ways to train different products at your company is important. Perhaps this means taking the hardest material and breaking it down, training the same thing using more than one learning style:

  • Verbal, discussing the product with the leader and group
  • Hands On, using the product in a real situation
  • Visual, looking at pictures and following instructions
  • Solitary, doing reading alone and learning the how-to your way

Your realistic approach allows you to be creative with how you teach and cater to the various types of people on your team.

Be Organized

Schedule out your training plan! I can’t stress this enough. It gives your trainers a guide to follow and it gives your new team structure. They are prepared to move from one item to the next. We used Google Docs to generate a schedule for each training item, also including breaks, to ensure we had ample time to discuss each topic. The format we attempted to follow was:

  • Overview of product/training item
  • Hands on time to test it out and see how it really works
  • Discussion with group and leader
  • Self Study (watching webinars, reading materials, etc.)

Be Adaptable

Things may not always go as planned. It’s bound to happen to the best of us. Being adaptable when issues arise and finding the next route to take swiftly and surely isn’t easy but it’s necessary. Plus, you can use the changes that arise as hints on how to modify your training plan in the future. For example, if there is an item you trained on for thirty minutes that ended up with discussion questions from the team that lasted for an hour, chances are there’s not enough material on the item in the first place and it needs to be re-evaluated.

Be Dedicated

Know that your goal as a leader in training your new employees is to ensure their success in your company. While yes, it is up to the individual to retain the information and take the training seriously, you must show them that you are dedicated and motivated to make sure they have all the information and resources they need to do their job. Dedicate yourself solely to this training and make sure that once your representative picks up their first customer call, they feel confident!

Training plans are always a work in progress–people change, times change and products change. But, if you stay on top of it and keep driving, even when bumps or potholes find you on your path, you’ll continue to create incredible customer service representatives to assist the customers of your product.

Jenny is the Customer Success Manager for Phone.com with almost a decade of customer service experience. She is co-founder and a regular contributor on Communicate Better Blog.

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Monday Motivation: Don’t Forget To Laugh

This guy could use a laugh.

This guy could use a laugh.

Last week I shared a bit about my most recent experience running a marathon.  Somewhere around mile ten in the race, a guy named Greg came up behind me and asked “Why can’t you hear a pterodactyl going to the bathroom?”  I thought for a moment, started laughing, and correctly answered him with, “Because the ‘P’ is silent.”  He proceeded to tell about ten more equally sophisticated jokes.

For all I know, any joke at that stage of a marathon is funny.  The amazing thing about what Greg did was that he took our minds off the arduous task of running 26.2 miles, and for a split second turned our thoughts toward laughter and camaraderie.  There is incredible power in laughter, and that power is compounded when you are laughing with someone who’s in the same boat as you.

Lately, I have been opening meetings and interviews with an ice breaker question.  It’s rarely a serious question and more often than not it’s something intended to help us get to know each other better and even start the day laughing together.  On occasion, I even ask people to tell a funny joke they’ve heard recently.

Work and life can be incredibly difficult–all the more so when we are alone and unhappy.  Let’s make an effort to be the type of people who instigate laughter with those we are doing work and life with.  Life is too short to be unhappy and alone.  Heck, the work day is too long to go through it unhappy and alone.  Happy Monday!

Jeremy Watkin is the Director of Customer Service at Phone.com with 13+ years experience as a customer service professional. He is also the co-founder and regular contributor on Communicate Better Blog. Jeremy ranked #85 on the Top 100 Most Social Customer Service Pros on Twitter by the Huffington Post in 2013. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn for more awesome customer service and experience insights.

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Is Contact Center Turnover Cause For Celebration?

I originally wrote this as a guest post for one of my heroes in the contact center world.  Melissa Kovacevic is a brilliant customer service and contact center thought leader.  Read my original post and other fantastic posts on her blog.

turnoverRegardless of the size of your contact center, turnover hurts. But in the small contact center where the sense of community is strong and turnover rates are low, it really hurts. We are getting the most from every agent so when an agent gives their two weeks notice or gets promoted to another department, it’s not likely that we’ll be ready with a suitable replacement in time—leaving a void in our customer service operation. Furthermore, we’ve invested a lot of sweat equity in their development, only to see them leave the team or even the company.

Before I go any further, I want to identify the two types of turnover we typically encounter.

Bad turnover is when employees are fired, laid off or simply leave for a number of other negative reasons.

The turnover I want to talk about today is the good turnover. Allow me to break down the two types of good turnover in our contact centers:

The Internal Promotion- In these cases, the agent has proven that they are first and foremost a fit for the culture of the organization and secondly, that their skillset can be an asset to another part of the business. Depending on their abilities, they might move into marketing, engineering or perhaps an area of management.

The External Promotion- In these cases, the right opportunity within the organization didn’t exist and the employee went out and landed a job with a marked increase in both responsibility and compensation.

Regardless of the type of good turnover you face, it presents a challenge for the contact center leader and can cause a great deal of stress. I’m here to tell you that any response other than celebration in the face of good turnover is selfishness!

Before you check out completely, hear me out. I’m fresh off a situation where one of our most productive agents left for another company where he landed a marketing job that doubled his salary. He would have been foolish not to take the job and we were in no position to match the offer. While we didn’t promote him to a marketing position, we did allow him opportunities to gain experience with key skills required in his new position– making the jump possible.

As contact center leaders we should always aim to celebrate in the success of our employees.

How do you get to a place of happiness you ask?  Here are three actions that should be a part of your leadership style in the contact center:

1. Understand the strengths of your employees- Great leaders gain clear understanding of the unique strengths that each employee possesses. By understanding their strengths, you can then put them in positions to succeed.

2. Set goals with your employees- Is answering call after call, day after day, year after year really a goal? Maybe for some it us, but many people are using customer service as a stepping-stone to their ultimate career. We need to understand that and support them in achieving their goals.

3. Seek opportunities for your employees- In our contact centers we’re always aware of the ever-present need to get the calls answered and it is a challenge to give any agent time away from the phones. Whether it’s involving an employee in a meeting, brainstorming session or project that takes them off the phones, don’t underestimate the benefit of giving your employees a broad range of experiences.

At the end of the day, great leaders put their people in the best possible position to succeed given their unique skills and abilities. If you’ve successfully done this, good turnover will be cause for celebration and an opportunity to lead their replacement toward their ultimate career goals!

Jeremy Watkin is the Director of Customer Service at Phone.com with 13+ years experience as a customer service professional. He is also the co-founder and regular contributor on Communicate Better Blog. Jeremy ranked #85 on the Top 100 Most Social Customer Service Pros on Twitter by the Huffington Post in 2013. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn for more awesome customer service and experience insights.

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3 Observations From The Eye Of A Customer Service Twitter Storm

twitterstormWhen a customer tweets me directly to report that they are receiving poor customer service, I listen–all the more when they copy my boss on that tweet.  In a recent case, a customer was working through an issue with one of our agents via chat and after twenty minutes of chatting, took to Twitter to voice their displeasure with the situation.

After tweeting back to the customer to let them know I was looking into the issue, I walked the ten foot journey over to the agent chatting with the customer.  She explained the issue and that they had just resolved it.  To my delight, she worked with one of our leads and they resolved it in exactly the same way I would have done it.

Upon returning to my desk, I tweeted the customer again to let them know I believed the issue was resolved and asked them to let me know if it wasn’t.  I then got to be the beneficiary of a praise tweet from the customer when I literally did nothing.  One of the perks of being in leadership I guess.

Why did I share this story with you?  In this age social media customer service, this is a great case study for a few reasons.

1. Customers don’t always wait for the phone call to complete before turning to social.  The customer’s issue was in the midst of being resolved, but not fast enough.  I would think the chat would have ended before they turned to Twitter.  They didn’t!  We took too long and they turned to Twitter in order to speed along the process.  This is once again a reminder that customers have a louder voice than ever and we need to be on the ball.

2. Everyone in your company had better be ready on social media.  I spend a lot of time building my personal brand on Twitter but never try to hide the fact that I am the Director of Customer Service for Phone.com.  If a customer wants to hunt me down, it’s really not that difficult.  This customer quite possibly opted to contact an employee at the company for fear that the customer service Twitter account was being monitored by the same people doing the chat support.

3. Don’t let complaints send you into a Twitter panic.  Customer service is hard enough as it is and it’s so easy in the midst of a public complaint to go berate someone on your team.  While we can work on getting faster, I’m more proud that my team got it right and on the first try.  By giving my team the benefit of the doubt, it was a non-issue in our contact center– and in the public face, it ended up becoming a positive.

The only issue that remains is learning from this situation, identifying the root cause, and improving our system so customers don’t reach this level of frustration before contacting us in the future.

Jeremy Watkin is the Director of Customer Service at Phone.com with 13+ years experience as a customer service professional. He is also the co-founder and regular contributor on Communicate Better Blog. Jeremy ranked #85 on the Top 100 Most Social Customer Service Pros on Twitter by the Huffington Post in 2013. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn for more awesome customer service and experience insights.

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2 Ways To Even Out Those Spikes In Call Volume

Having trouble staffing for call volume that looks something like this?

Having trouble staffing for call volume that looks something like this?

I had lunch with a consultant friend of mine today and we got to talking call centers.  He mentioned that a client of his had a question and I thought it would be a great topic for discussion.  Here it is:

We are generally staffed well enough to handle our call volume but find that we regularly have spikes that we can’t handle.  Those spikes lead to excessive wait time and a poor experience for our callers.  What do you do to handle those?

That’s a terrific question.  Let’s assume that your boss won’t sign off on overstaffing your customer service staff at the risk of overspending and underutilizing your agents.  Let’s also assume that asking your customer service leaders to drop what they are working on to take calls is not a sustainable solution.  Given those assumptions, here are two things you might try.

Use the Queue Callback feature in your ACD (Automatic Call Distributor)

We are currently using Five9 which is a cloud-based ACD platform.  With Five9 we give callers the option to request a callback rather than sitting and listening to hold music.  Customers whose issues aren’t urgent can hang up, go about their business, and rest assured that they will get a call back from the next available agent.

Use a third-party service on top of your ACD

Fonolo is a third-party, cloud-based solution that you can lay on top of your ACD.  You can place the Fonolo widget right on your support page.  Callers can input their phone number, account information, and the department they would like to reach and Fonolo will do the heavy lifting for them.  It will call in on behalf of the customer and the caller will receive a call when they are connected with customer service.

In both of these cases, you haven’t fixed your call volume spike but you have definitely improved the caller’s experience.  You also evened out the call volume for your staff and allowed them to be better utilized.

What is your company currently using to manage call volume spikes and improve the experience for your callers?

Jeremy Watkin is the Director of Customer Service at Phone.com with 13+ years experience as a customer service professional. He is also the co-founder and regular contributor on Communicate Better Blog. Jeremy ranked #85 on the Top 100 Most Social Customer Service Pros on Twitter by the Huffington Post in 2013. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn for more awesome customer service and experience insights.

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Anticipating Your Customer’s Needs Creates Delight

nameHere’s my typical routine for my morning commute.  As I approach the freeway, I survey the scene to see how long the line is to get on the freeway.  If it’s backed up, I take the escape route which just happens to have a Starbucks where I can work and wait for the traffic to die down.

Today was one of those days where I got to “escape.”  As I walked in the store, I could see my favorite barista, Lupé was behind the counter.  In his hand he had two tall cups stacked together just waiting to see what kind of tea I was going to order today.  I’ve been loving the new Teavana selection they’ve been offering and opted for the Emporers Clouds and Mist Green Tea.

Any choice is the right choice when Lupé is your barista.  After a friendly conversation about the weather, I was on my way and fast.  Thanks to Lupé I have the perfect thing to write about too.

Raise your hand if you have a favorite barista at your coffee shop of choice?  The great ones learn your name, know a little bit about your life, and have a good understanding of your preferences.  Here are just a couple benefits to this practice in customer service:

1. Caring for and knowing your customers builds a connection to your company.  I keep coming back to this quote from Dale Carnegie because it rings so true for me:

“Remember that a man’s name is to him the sweetest and most important sound in any language.”

2. Anticipation of a customer’s needs leads to a frictionless customer experience.  Removing the friction in the customer experience makes it easier and more efficient for a customer to do business with you.  In fact, Shep Hyken said it really well in a recent video.

What are you doing to get to know your customers?  Take a moment to learn and remember their name, preferences and maybe even one other factoid about their life that you can come back to.  In a call center environment such as mine, this makes taking good notes about customers all the more important.  Teams can work together to get to know the “regulars” and help them feel like regulars.

Studies have shown that customers who like to do business with you will continue to do business with you.  Actually, I just made that up–but it’s true.

Jeremy Watkin is the Director of Customer Service at Phone.com with 13+ years experience as a customer service professional. He is also the co-founder and regular contributor on Communicate Better Blog. Jeremy ranked #85 on the Top 100 Most Social Customer Service Pros on Twitter by the Huffington Post in 2013. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn for more awesome customer service and experience insights.

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An Exercise In Continuous Improvement

A shameless, sweaty selfie of yours truly at the finish of the Carlsbad Marathon.

A shameless, sweaty selfie of yours truly at the finish of the Carlsbad Marathon.

I ran and completed my sixth marathon yesterday.  Yes my legs are quite sore today.  Thanks for asking.  It was a beautiful day for running in Carlsbad, California.  One goal that stood out above the rest for me was to finally break the 3:50 mark.  My personal best was a 3:51 effort at the same race a couple years ago.

As runners often do, I reflected on my last marathon, a 4:20 effort on a difficult course, and decided to try a few things differently to see if I could run a great race and shave a couple minutes off my personal record.  Here are the three major changes I made to my routine:

1. Lose 10 Pounds- Running with excess weight can’t help us go any faster and over the last year I have turned gaining weight while exercising consistently into an art form.  It was time to lighten my load and see if that improved my speed and endurance.

2. Cut The Carbs- To lose the weight I cut a bunch of carbs–mostly breads, candy and desserts.  Snacks looked less like candy and more like fruit, veggies and nuts.  I immediately noticed a difference each morning when I set out for a run.  Given that carbs are known to cause inflammation in the body, I noticed marked improvement in my muscle recovery after long runs.

3. Fuel Differently- I switched from packaged energy gels during my runs to medjool dates dipped in sea salt.  Yes, I was that guy carrying a ziplock bag with the unknown substance.  I made the switch after realizing that the calories and key electrolytes (potassium and sodium) were almost identical.  When in doubt, go natural!

Over the course of my training, I was totally consistent with these three goals.  During the race, I knew it was going to be close and while the marathon was no less painful, I ran strong and was elated to cross the finish line in 3:49 flat!

I’m a huge fan of continuous improvement, or as they say in Japan, kaizen.  In running, business and in life, it’s critical to step back, find ways to improve, set goals, stick to those goals, evaluate and then try again.  This is a continuous process that never ends.

It takes a lot of courage to try new things–especially if the current method is working well enough.  If you commit to this discipline of continuous improvement for long enough, you will be stunned at your improvement over time.

I ran my first marathon five years ago in 4:17.  Having improved that time by 28 minutes leaves me rather proud of my progress.

Jeremy Watkin is the Director of Customer Service at Phone.com with 13+ years experience as a customer service professional. He is also the co-founder and regular contributor on Communicate Better Blog. Jeremy ranked #85 on the Top 100 Most Social Customer Service Pros on Twitter by the Huffington Post in 2013. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn for more awesome customer service and experience insights.

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