A support center has two principle assets: a robust, well-managed knowledge base and talented people. Support centers typically invest significant time and effort into training and developing specialists, supervisors, and managers; a support center leader’s job is to ensure that this time and effort are not wasted.
Whether yours is an internal help desk or service desk, or a customer-facing product support center, frontline specialists are the face of the overall support organization, and even the entire company. Furthermore, frontline specialists are the talent pool for support center supervisors and management, and for senior support technicians elsewhere in the support organization. As a result, a well-designed talent management or leadership program is vital, and it definitely needs to include, and begin with, the frontline specialists.
However, there is a significant risk associated with hiring entry-level employees, who typically have little experience on which to base the decision to commit to a long-term relationship with a company. Interviewing, credit checks, and background checks all expend organizational resources. Given the level of attrition in a typical contact center, the hiring costs can be significant.
A better approach to the open hiring of new employees is to use a staffing company, or several companies, to feed you talent. In addition to giving you time to observe the candidate’s behaviors and performance before actually making a hiring decision, the staffing firm is responsible for the interviewing and hiring costs, and accepts the majority of the risk. It’s the “try before you buy” approach to staffing, and it has certain benefits and challenges.
A Better Hiring Process
Given that your frontline specialists are the face of your support center, you need a steady supply of talented, competent, customer-friendly specialists. Consequently, you need a hiring process that ensures you attract the best specialists to your organization. Unfortunately, a hiring process extensive and exhaustive enough to identify these specialists would be far too expensive and time-consuming for most support centers.
Hiring also comes with risks and potential costs. A problem employee can present the support center with a host of challenges and difficulties. Once an employee, a specialist will typically enjoy the protection of the company’s HR department. Time spent handling a problem specialist is time supervisors could be spending coaching more valuable employees; in serious cases, the organization may end up going through a protracted termination process, expending further capital. Furthermore, problem specialists can be a negative influence on others and can impact customer satisfaction.
To mitigate the costs and risks associated with the hiring process, a staffing firm is an excellent resource. Staffing firms bear the costs of advertising for the positions, scheduling and conducting initial and follow-up interviews, conducting background and credit checks, and providing initial training. As the principle business of staffing firms is, after all, staffing, the hiring process is more efficient and executed at a lower cost than it would be in the support center.
From the standpoint of the staffing firm’s contribution to risk mitigation, several decisions hinge on the center’s aversion to risk. Should the staffing firm hire the specialists as employees or as contractors? Should the staffing firm provide supervision or management, or should the staffing firm specialists be supervised or managed by support center leadership? What criteria must a staffing firm specialist meet to be considered for hire by the support center?
There are many choices to make when developing a talent management strategy that includes a staffing firm (or firms). Having the staffing firm provide its own supervisory and management service has its advantages. The staffing firm is responsible for schedule adherence, coaching, counseling, and specialist-based key performance indicators (KPIs). If you are using more than one staffing firm, the firms should operate separately so you can weigh them on their own merits; you can even perform champion-challenger evaluations to make sure you’ve selected the best staffing firm for your center. Additionally, if you do choose to have the staffing firm provide leadership, it’s a good practice to have the support center’s management team interview and approve the staffing firm’s leadership candidates.
However, one drawback to this approach is that what you are really looking for is a staffing pipeline; in other words, to hire the best of the staffing firm’s specialists into your support center. If the staffing firm manages your specialists, it will be hard for you to evaluate them for permanent positions down the road. Furthermore, there will always be some difference your support center’s supervision and leadership and the staffing firm’s. This can be addressed by designating a development period, when the candidate is moved under a support center supervisor for closer observation and additional coaching. During this period, the specialist remains an employee or contractor of the staffing firm; thus, if he or she does not perform well, the specialist can be released without going through your company’s termination process. If you choose to implement a development period, be sure to physically relocate the candidate to the support center (assuming you have a separate area for the staffing firm’s employees). Should the specialist “make the grade,” this will ensure a smoother transition and easier integration with the team.
Another very important consideration is the criteria used to evaluate a specialist’s suitability for either the transition to a development period or a permanent position. You want to collect feedback from all appropriate supervisors (e.g., the staffing firm, the development supervisor, etc.), and you may also want to get feedback from some of the other specialists. You should also take into consideration the individual metrics relevant to that position, such as schedule adherence, on-call resolution rate, average talk time, etc. Quality assurance and customer satisfaction scores should be factored in, too, as should timing (i.e., how much time the specialist spends under the staffing firm’s leadership and under the development supervisor). Six months, from on-board to hire, is fairly typical, but be sure to negotiate this period upfront with the staffing firm.
Finally, know that a staffing firm that hires specialists as employees, rather than contractors, is likely to be more invested in your success. Likewise, specialists are likely to be more engaged with the staffing firm when they are employees, not merely temps or contractors. This is a more stable relationship, as terminating employees requires much more careful consideration when you can’t just move them to other contractor positions. This, in turn, creates a more stable workforce and staffing pipeline.
Remember, your principle goal is to reduce the risk associated with hiring a specialist, and the pipeline approach, with a staffing firm as your partner, is an excellent way to minimize this risk.
Finding the Staffing Partner
Finding the right staffing partner—a partner that will work with your leadership team—is crucial. Given the risks and costs associated with their business model, no staffing firm likes to see their specialists hired away after four to eight months. Any staffing firm will need some incentives to keep the talent pool stocked. However, if the pool is large enough, the steady business may be enough incentive. Otherwise, there are several ways to incentivize a staffing company. The best approach is to provide incentives on the back end. For example, if your company offers a hiring bonus to employees who refer candidates that are eventually hired, treat the staffing firm as you do any other employee and have the bonus allocated to the staffing firm upon hire. If not, budget for your own incentive program. Another approach is to pay slightly above market rate for staffing firm specialists. This will add costs to your bottom line, but you can mitigate these costs by setting a pay rate that provides an incentive while still coming in below what you would pay in hiring costs.
There are intangible incentives, too. For example, become a reference account for the staffing firm. This won’t cost your organization anything, but it may significantly benefit the staffing firm. Also, consider signing an extended contract; be willing to commit to a long-term partnership.
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Your specialists are the face of your organization or company, so it is imperative that you have the best specialists. Staffing firms can reduce the costs and risks associated with hiring these specialists. But be sure to choose a staffing firm that is going to be a long-term partner for you, so that both you and the staffing firm benefit from the relationship. A win-win in the staffing area will ensure that your support center receives a steady supply of much-needed talent.
Brian Flagg has thirty-one years of IT industry experience, including eighteen years of support center leadership experience, including experience transforming and leading global contact centers for IBM and Target. He recently joined Cincom Systems, Inc., as a senior client executive for customer engagement management solutions. Brian has written a number of articles on support center excellence, and was recently invited to join a subcommittee of the HDI International Certification Standards Committee, tasked with reviewing and updating the HDI Support Center Standard.