Hire Staff with the Abilities That Today’s Consumers Need and Expect
By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD
There was a time when hiring managers looked for three key skills in their call center applicants: a pleasant and understandable telephone voice, good spelling, and neat penmanship. Yes, legible writing was key because everything was handwritten.
Then computers arrived and the penmanship requirement was replaced with typing skills. Today these three capabilities remain important, but we need to add more to our list.
We may assume that everyone today knows how to use the internet, navigate websites, and appropriately deal with problems that occur online. Yet we shouldn’t assume this is the case. Instead, test applicants to verify this skill.
I recently talked to a rep who admitted to being confused in navigating her company’s own website. As you can imagine, she wasn’t able to help me.
Social Media Experience
In the same way, today’s call center agents need to be comfortable using social media. And most applicants are. But don’t assume this is always the case. Therefore, it’s important to test them to make sure they have a working knowledge of the social media platforms your organization uses.
Even if their role won’t directly involve communicating with patients and customers on social media, your staff should know how to navigate your social media pages. This way they’ll be ready to assist your clientele if needed—and assume that at some point it will be needed.
Texting and Email Ability
Next, your agents need to know how to compose professional and comprehensible messages for text and email. Using slang and emojis may be fine in casual settings, but it has no place in the healthcare industry. The same applies with spelling, grammar, and punctuation.
Test applicants to ensure their written communication is an asset to your organization and not a detriment to it. Failure to do so will result in misunderstandings and reflect badly on you as a healthcare provider or support service.
As we discussed in the benefits and disadvantages of video calling, we need to hire staff with video in mind. Even if you don’t currently use video in your operation, it’s likely that you will soon. Your employees need to be comfortable in front of a camera.
They must communicate effectively through their body language, in addition to the words they use and their tone. Though their words and tone are all they need when it comes to voice and written communication, video adds the nonverbal component, which is critical for effective communication to take place.
Hire staff that’s video ready—and willing.
In addition to hiring employees with a pleasant and understandable telephone voice, spelling proficiency, and typing accuracy, make sure they possess internet awareness, social media experience, texting and email ability, and are video ready.
This will provide you with a staff poised to help today’s patients and contacts.
Tips to Finding Qualified Staff for Your Telephone Answering Service
By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD
Finding qualified staff for telephone answering services has always been challenging, but it may be more of a struggle now than ever before. Interestingly, we can gain insights from the food services industry.
Before you dismiss the idea, consider that the goal at both restaurants and answering services is to serve people. Also, both industries often tap the same labor pool. What applies to one, readily applies to the other.
My recent experience at restaurants is most illuminating. They fit into three categories.
1. The first are restaurants with quality staff that provide exceptional service.
2. Next are those restaurants whose hiring choices have noticeably slipped in recent years, and their service reflects it.
3. Third are those restaurants who can’t find enough employees and have scaled back their hours or streamlined their menu and options accordingly.
Which staffing scenario best describes your answering service situation?
1. Successful Models to Follow
Restaurants in the first category—those with quality staff who provide excellent service—have several things in common. First, they have modern, well-maintained facilities. Their pride in their operation shows.
Next, they have accomplished managers and supervisors backed by finely-honed procedures.
Third, they offer better compensation packages. These restaurants don’t have “help wanted” appeals hanging in their windows or on their signage. And they have not needed to lower their expectations or hiring criteria to find quality employees.
People want to work for them.
2. Lowered Expectations and Struggling
Restaurants in the second category—those who have lowered their staffing expectations—also have several things in common. Their facilities are acceptable but not much more. They’re not as clean as they once were; areas of neglect are apparent.
Management and supervision are also lacking, seemingly from decreased expectations and accountability. They have “help wanted” ads in their windows, door, and signage. And they don’t pay as much and offer fewer benefits.
3. Essentially Giving Up
Restaurants in the third category—those who scaled back to address their inability to hire staff—are harder to comprehend. The one thing I can identify them having in common is that they seem to have given up finding enough reliable staff.
They act as though being short-staffed is inevitable, and they expect their clientele to deal with it.
One quick serve restaurant I used to frequent will only open their dining room if enough people show up to work. Else they lock their doors and expect everyone to use their drive through. As for me, I just drive to the restaurant down the street.
Another area restaurant struggled for months in a downward spiral of being understaffed, having inconsistent hours, and providing inferior quality food and sub-par dining experiences.
They let all their staff and supervision go, starting over with all new employees. These new hires—who I suspect are being paid more—have restored the level of service that this restaurant once offered.
If you lament the poor-quality applicants you receive and struggle to staff as you once did, the problem may not be with the available workforce. As hard as it is to say, the problem may be an internal issue.
Don’t blame the worker pool when the problem may be internal.
Look at your facility, your management and supervision, and your processes. Once these are as good as you can make them, address your compensation package.
These elements all work together to bring in the workforce you need to best run your telephone answering service.
After Doing All You Can on the Hiring Side, Turn Your Attention to Retention
By Peter Lyle DeHaan, Ph.D.
A college friend recently shared his experience working at his part-time job. Several of his coworkers had quit, and he planned to do so as well. His departure would move his employer from drastically short-staffed to critically understaffed.
She begged him to stay and offered him a significant pay bump, moving him to nearly three times minimum wage for his unskilled, entry-level position.
He accepted. But he quickly regretted his decision.
Three weeks later he quit for good. “She was just too hard to work for,” he said, “and no amount of money would get me to stay.”
He found another job right away. Though his new one doesn’t pay as well, he likes his boss and feels appreciated. He now enjoys going to work. As a bonus, the hours don’t interfere with his school schedule or studying.
Times Have Changed
In a different era, his first boss’s management style would have worked. Yes, she would have churned through employees, but hiring a replacement wouldn’t have been an issue.
Times have changed. It seems every business today is in a hiring mode. They’ve upped their pay, improved their compensation plan, and lowered their expectations. But they still have trouble filling open slots, as well as keeping the employees they do have.
And I hear rumblings—and have personally witnessed it—that some of the employees they do have fall short of expectations and are less than the caliber they once hired.
The common solutions to filling open positions in a tight labor market are to pay more, improve benefits, and be more accommodating. These are good solutions, but a better approach may be to re-examine your management style.
Quite succinctly, is your management style hurting your call center?
In thinking back to past jobs, I’ve had managers who were patient, and others who were demanding; some were kind, and others were tyrants; some were complimentary, and others were condemning. I liked some and feared others. And when it came to compensation, some were fair, and others were cheap.
For the good jobs with great bosses, I stayed with those companies for a long time, working until my situation or their need for me changed. For the other jobs with less-than-ideal bosses, I moved on as quickly as I could.
Each one of these was a learning opportunity, teaching me what to do and not to do when it came to supervising staff and leading people.
When I moved into management, I strived to be a fair boss and treat employees well—to be the kind of employer I wanted to work for.
Though I didn’t always succeed at meeting my goal, I know that most of the time I did. Some employees noticed this and even thanked me for it. And a few told me I was the best boss they ever had.
I’m not sure how my focus on being a desirable boss and worthy employer affected our turnover, but I do know I felt good about myself and the effort I put forth to make the operation a better place to work.
If your call center is short-staffed and you can’t find enough qualified employees, despite paying more and offering more, the long-term solution may be to focus on the retention side of the equation.
Look at your management style. Seek changes that will allow you to have a more positive impact on your staff and lead them in a more effective way.
Peter Lyle DeHaan is an entrepreneur and businessman who has managed, owned, and started multiple businesses over his career. Common themes at every turn have included customer service, sales and marketing, and leadership and management.
He shares his lifetime of business experience and personal insights through his books to encourage, inspire, and occasionally entertain.
With the unemployment rate running so high, businesses needing to hire find themselves in a “buyer’s market.” There are plenty of people looking for work. This results in more applicants to pick from for each opening. High unemployment has also served to limit employment options, thereby reducing worker mobility.
The result is that employee churn rates are – or at least should be – decreasing. Having more applicants to pick from and fewer staff leaving by choice should be indicative of stable workforces. Unfortunately, this may not be the case and even if it is, it affords a false security.
Consider the following employees. Although their names have been changed and some details obscured, all describe the true plights of real people:
Chuck worked in a small satellite office of a large organization. The staff in his office were close and worked together well. They cared for each other and were like family. They helped each other to complete their work and serve clients, regardless of job description and title. Sadly, this idyllic reality ended when corporate closed Chuck’s office to save money. Some people were let go, but Chuck was told that he could work remotely from home. Then Chuck got a new boss, who rescinded that promise. Chuck now commutes 120 miles each day to work. The corporate office is nothing like his old office. Teamwork has been replaced by finger-pointing and blindly following job descriptions; no one cares about the clients – or about each other. One by one, Chuck’s coworkers have quit or are being let go. He fears he is next and is frantically looking for comparable work closer to home.
Carly is a college graduate whose chosen profession currently has a 40 percent unemployment rate. Unable to find work, she went to grad school. Her summer employment offered her a full-time position when she graduated but has been frustratingly vague on the details (right now she is relegated to computer work no one else wants to do). Unfortunately, this job is not in her field of study, nor does it interest her. However, out of necessity, she may be forced to take this job. Even if she does, she doesn’t expect to remain long.
Danielle also recently graduated from college. Her college internship continued after graduation, with the promise of a promotion when the economy turned around. She is now doing the work she was trained for – but without the title, recognition, or pay. This has been going on for a year. Although she is now working full-time, it is at her part-time hourly internship rate – or 40 percent of what is typical. She has polished her resume and is looking for better paying alternatives.
Karl has a full-time job in his chosen profession. At first, he liked his company and earned stellar reviews. However, in his latest review, he scored the lowest in each category. Last year, after their busy season, a coworker was abruptly fired. Karl fears that this year he will get the axe as soon as the seasonal peak is over. He is salaried and was initially told to expect working an additional twenty-five hours a week during the busy season. However, his employers recently tacked on an additional ten hours. He desperately wants to find a new job but has no time to pursue it. As soon as things slow down, he will begin his job hunt in earnest.
Larry greatly enjoyed working in his chosen career, finding it rewarding and fulfilling. However, after a planned move out-of-state, he was unable to find work at his level of experience and education. He eventually acquiesced to a much lower position at less than half the pay. The company promotes from within, so he hoped that he would eventually move into a position matching his skills and have his compensation level restored. Unfortunately, because he was performing a low-level position, he was looked down upon and demeaned by those who should have been his peers, in spite of the fact that he had more experience than some of them. The circumstances became so dreadful that he left, taking an even further pay cut in the hopes of finding a nicer place to work. Once again, he has the expectation to be promoted and, although feedback on his performance is very favorable, there are no current openings, so he could find himself repeating the process.
These people share two common characteristics. First, they do not like their employers or their jobs. Some have been lied to, others have been treated badly, two are significantly underpaid, and all are unhappy. The other commonality is that each of them desperately wants a different job and is working to make it happen. Since they have stellar qualifications and employable skills, their job expectations are not unreasonable. When the economy turns around, they are sure to find better work.
From this we can interpolate that:
Employees are unhappy, but they continue to endure difficult work situations – for now.
Many people are underemployed; they will correct that as soon as companies start hiring again.
Some people are working outside their fields of expertise. For many, this is not a choice but a short-term necessity.
When an entry-level employee sticks around after graduation, it may not mean that they like the company, but that there aren’t any other options.
What does all this mean?
When the economy turns around, many employees will immediately seek to improve their work situations. Some reports indicate that one third of the workforce is waiting to change jobs.
The most employable people (likely the best workers) will be the first to switch; those who lack skills or drive will stay.
There is pent-up worker frustration, which employers will be confronted with when alternative employment options emerge.
What can employers do?
Begin thinking and behaving as though unemployment is low and it’s a “seller’s market.” Treating employees better now, when you don’t have to, will keep them working for you later, when they don’t have to.
Recognize that with downsizing, layoffs, hiring freezes, and consolidations, employees have been stretched and pushed to a near breaking point. Look for ways now to relieve stress and reduce their pressure now.
Talk to employees and really listen. Perhaps there are slights that can be amended, injustices that can be corrected, and oversights that can be righted.
You can take steps now to keep the employees you have, or you can wait for economic recovery and take steps then to find and train their replacements.
My son, Dan, recently completed his first year of college. After spending last summer relegated to working a smattering of part-time odd jobs, he desired a different outcome for this year’s educational respite. He learned that it was important to start his search early to beat out the competition. By working contacts and networking through family and friends, he developed a list of prime prospects. Four realistic opportunities emerged, each complete with an inside contact to guide the process, offer advice, and provide feedback. Dan’s summer employment forecast seemed indeed bright.
During his spring break, he met with each company, submitting resumes, completing applications, and going through interviews. Each opportunity looked promising. Soon he begin to analyze their respective merits and desirability as his ideal summer job, ranking them in order of preference and suitability. With all these encouraging opportunities, it was understandably hard for him to pursue new leads and less desirable options.
Dutifully, he maintained contact with them throughout the remainder of the school year and made plans to meet as soon as school was out. It was during those follow-up meetings that things began to unravel. Due to unforeseen events, two prospects backed away during that first week. Two weeks later, a third bowed out and eventually the fourth fell through. Now he was almost a month out of school and had to restart his job search. Fortunately, the area high schools were still in session, so at least he could get a jump on their impending onslaught of the job market.
It was a discouraging time for him and in the midst of desperation, or perhaps inspiration, he one day resorted to doing an Internet job search. The job site allowed him to conduct his search for businesses within a specified radius of our home. He put in five miles and, although we live in a relatively rural area, he got a match.
What follows is a sad saga of how not to recruit, manage, and treat employees. Within it are lessons to be learned. Here, then, is how to churn employees.
Hide Key Information: The help wanted ad was decidedly lacking in tangible detail. The specific type of work was not given and only vague generalities were provided. The verbiage was along the lines of exciting and rewarding position, working with other professionals at an established and successful company.
In reading this finely crafted prose, it was hard not to get excited and draw the conclusion that one had stumbled onto the most wonderful career opportunity available. For a moment I, too, was taken in by their impressively worded and enticing marketing copy. However, I soon realized it was only grandiose largess. In contemplating what they weren’t saying, I quietly concluded that they were either looking for home-based telemarketers or door-to-door sales staff. As it would turn out, neither was far from reality.
Misrepresent the Facts: Dan responded to the ad and a preliminary phone interview was conducted. An in-person meeting was the next step. Dan was dismayed to learn that it was to be conducted in another city, over thirty miles away. Given the high price of gas and his limited funds, this was a discouraging development for a job represented to be within five miles of home.
Believing that only this initial meeting would be at a distant location, he expectantly proceeded. After three hours of a preliminary group interview and subsequent one-on-one conversation, he was offered a job. He would be selling knives! Then he received more disconcerting news. Three days of training would be held – at that distant location.
At the conclusion of the training, he was then informed that twice-a-week sales meetings were mandatory. Not surprisingly, they were also to be held in the faraway city. Twice-a-day long distance phone calls to his manager, BJ, were also required. It was adding up to be quite expensive for this “local” job. On top of that, he had to buy his demo set of knives at a cost of over $100.
Have Purposeless Meetings: Not to be deterred, Dan gamely proceeded. He made his first sale as soon as his training was complete and headed off to the sales meeting. So as not to interfere with selling, it was scheduled at nine in the evening, which was too late to make appointments. The meeting was not what Dan expected. BJ seemingly did not have a definite plan for the meeting and meandered through it. There was no apparent objective or purpose – other than to see how many staff would comply with his attendance mandate.
Generally the meetings would start late. Often they had little substance. Other times BJ would not be able to locate all his materials or handouts would not be ready. More than once Dan and his cohorts waited while BJ made copies, talked on the phone, or left the room. Once he got mad at the people not present — and chewed out those who were.
Waste Time: During these meetings, individual queries were postponed for afterwards. If Dan waited around to have his questions answered, he might not get home until after midnight. More often that not, he was frustrated with the lack of response to his inquiries, either being deferred yet again or receiving a cocky, condescending retort.
The twice-a-day phone calls were also an exercise in frustration and futility. Dan would alter his schedule to make these calls during the prescribed time frame. Although these calls were required, BJ sometimes wasn’t available or he might respond with irritation at the interruption. During these calls, sometimes Dan was encouraged; other times he could get chastised for not doing more or his communication would be summarily dismissed.
Undervalue Staff: Another problem was that BJ was focused on hiring more sales staff. He gave priority to recruitment and had little left to give his existing charges. From Dan’s original group, the attrition rate was at 90 percent after two weeks. It seemed that BJ viewed staffing as a numbers game. It was quantity over quality; people were expendable and you needed to hire many in order for a few to stick around.
Make Unreasonable Demands: The twice-a-week sales meetings and twice-a-day phone calls struck Dan as unreasonable and demanding, especially since he could see little reason for them and experienced even less benefit from them. Perhaps most telling, however, was BJ’s insistence that they work seven days a week – for a job that was advertised as part-time. All the more infuriating was that BJ often bragged that when he was in the field, he would only sell a few days a week.
Give Bad and Inappropriate Advice: When the sales staff would complain about the cost of driving to the sales meetings and the long distance calls, BJ would dismissingly respond that it was all tax deductible. He claimed to be aggressive in filling out his tax forms and boasted that he generally paid no taxes! He implied that his staff should follow his example.
Don’t Pay What You Promise: Dan was told he would earn a minimum guaranteed amount on every appointment, even if no sales were made. Never once did this happen. The reasoning was not revealed. It could be that there were many loopholes and exceptions in that policy, allowing ample wiggle room to avoid paying the minimum reimbursement; possibly BJ exercised discretion over this facet and abused that power; or perhaps it was merely a false promise.
Arbitrarily Refuse Training: Dan’s initial training covered product knowledge and how to do a demonstration. He was instructed to ask for referrals after every presentation, regardless if a sale was made. Dan was accumulating leads, but had not been trained on how to follow through on them.
He ask BJ what to do. BJ’s response was that it would be covered at the sales meetings. Except that it wasn’t. Dan had pretty much given up on the sales meetings and asked BJ directly for assistance. BJ’s unexpected rejoinder was, “Since you’re not coming to the meetings anymore, I’m not going to tell you!”
Despite all of this, Dan did well selling knives. He enjoyed making presentations and doing demos. This resulted in a high closing ratio, and he quickly earned a boost in his commission rate. Soon after Dan embarked on his knife-selling adventure, another job opportunity availed itself. It was part-time – mowing lawns and doing landscaping – and only expected to last for three weeks. Wanting to keep his options open, Dan balanced both jobs. He soon witnessed that not all bosses were like BJ. His landscaping boss was easygoing and flexible. He and Dan quickly established a rapport and worked well together. Although the job was never more than part-time, it happily continued for the rest of the summer.
Dan is still a knife salesman, though it has now become so part-time as to be negligible. Still, he is keeping it open as an option for the future. If only he had received the additional training he needed and been treated with a bit of respect and dignity, the outcome would have been quite different.
[Epilogue: Dan was just notified by BJ that the office will be “temporarily shut down” and the sales reps reassigned to other offices; BJ will go back to being a field rep.]