Telemarketing's Labor Puzzle (1,501 words)
by Mary Ann Falzone
Second only to the quality of your front-line supervisory staff, the quality of your telephone representatives is key to the success of any phone sales, service or support program. Your reps are quite literally the voice of your company!
Finding great phone talent, whether from inside or outside your firm, is not always easy. And if your call center is located in a tight labor market with low unemployment and/or a labor pool that's unsuitable for your telephone applications, the search for raw talent can be a daunting one.
The key to success is to use a combination of traditional and non-traditional ways to identify, attract and screen phone talent, then to pay careful attention to training and retaining new recruits.
The first question that should come to mind in recruiting for telephone assignments is how to identify the particular application(s) you'll need to support. A cold-call sales program to consumers requires a very different set of skills, experience and resources than one to take incoming technical support or service calls from current business customers. Even within a sales application for the same target market, it takes a very different profile of representative to make outbound unsolicited calls than it does to take inbound self-qualified calls.
In determining the skills and motivations required of the workforce, examine the characteristics of your target market, the market's relationship to your company and what you have to offer, and the complexity of the call and the tools required. Simpler applications, which require fewer skills and resources from representatives, are those in which the following conditions exist:
• Strong affinity with the target market.
• There's an existing relationship with your company.
• Application is non-sales (service, support, referral, research, etc.) or "low sales" (upsell, add-on, etc.).
• Prospects self-qualify (they contact you).
• Lower-level sales application to non-technical target does not require complex knowledge base and can be
completed in one call.
• Application doesn't require high data access or capture.
More complex applications, requiring more highly developed skills from representatives, involve such factors as:
• Sophisticated, high-level decision makers.
• Low awareness of your company.
• No prior relationship exists.
• Prospects must be identified and qualified (you contact them).
•Application requires multiple calls and a lengthy sales cycles.
• Data from disparate sources must be accessed and captured.
The key is in matching the application's required skills to the available labor pool and offering a level of compensation and work environment that will attract and keep those recruits who are likely to perform consistently over time.
IDENTIFYING PHONE TALENT
A good rule of thumb is to match the communication ability and experience base of your phone representatives to that of your target market. Of these two factors, communication ability (and the ability to absorb information quickly and retain and communicate it accurately) is much more important than actual experience.
Here's a sales application example. Applicant A illustrates great sales skills, is computer literate and savvy (knows the jargon) and hangs out with programmers who are deeply technical, though he is not himself a technician. Applicant B has the same experience and technical skills as the programmers in your target market. B is more analytical and reserved and approaches the sales process as a technical problem to be solved. Nine times out of 10, applicant A will outsell B, who would be more comfortable in a technical support or problem-solving environment (and could act as an excellent post-sale resource, after A has closed the deal).
Clearly identifying the phone talent required for your application is the first step in succeeding in a tight labor market. If you have an existing call center with ongoing programs, start by profiling your top performers to find similar recruits. If possible, investigate the many pre-employment assessment tools on the market that have proven successful in telephone intensive environments. If this option is not financially viable, do a less formal assessment: If you had to clone your best reps, what would the clones sound like during telephone screening? What kind of background, education, experience and skills would they have? What would their interests, hobbies or affiliations be? What goals would they have for the future? Why would they work (to support a single-parent family or buy extra gifts for the holidays)? It may surprise you to find that your top performers are not carbon copies of each other, but they do have things in common: why they have chosen this job, what keeps them striving and some basic core values.
This exercise serves two important functions. First, you'll be building a proven profile of the kinds of people who work well within your calling application and your company environment, so you can look for similar applicants. Second, you'll get to know your reps, so you can motivate them even better. The extra attention will give them a sense that the organization cares about them, which encourages them to try harder and stay in the job longer.
SEARCH & RECRUIT TACTICS
So where do you look for more of the same great phone reps? Call center employee referral programs work well when you (1) identify to your reps up front the specific skills and abilities you seek and (2) offer greater rewards on the back end only for those recruits who actually work out in the job. Without this extra effort, you may be rewarding mediocre reps for bringing in mediocre reps.
Front-line supervisors and managers should be the backbone of your recruiting effort. These key individuals should be trained, encouraged and compensated for recruiting all the time, everywhere they go. To this end, they should all have business cards to hand out with your recruitment line telephone number hand-written on the back of the card.
Augment your management recruitment efforts with appropriate, creative print advertising that should be cycled and tested constantly. If your recruitment effort consists of the same two-inch column ad under the same "telemarketing" heading in the same newspaper every week, what you're really paying to advertise is: "We're always recruiting because we can't keep people!"
Test different ad sizes and graphics, including display ads. Try a "recognition" ad that profiles one of your top performers and why he or she loves her job. Place ads under different headings.
Non-traditional advertising can also bring in quality applicants at a lower cost. Consider bartering arrangements with local businesses. In exchange for distributing coupons for your local pizza parlor in employees' paychecks, for example, you can have your recruitment flyer distributed with every pizza.
Make the most of the community groups that you have found your best reps to be affiliated with. Many local organizations have placement offices or job hotlines. Take the time to establish good relationships with their key contacts and give them positive feedback about the recruits who work out well for you. Work with these organizations to post recruitment signs and print hiring notices in their publications or flyers.
Whatever method you use to spread the word about your call center position, be sure to ask potential applicants to call your company so you can screen them by telephone first. It's the quickest and best way to tell what kind of impression they will make over the phone with your customers. If you'll be handling these calls live, make sure you identify and train recruiters who have proven that they can pick out the winners and sell the position, the company and the next steps in the process (faxing in a resume or coming in for an interview). If you can't take the calls live, use a dedicated voice mail line to screen out the best applicants for a return phone call and interview.
Investments in innovative recruitment advertising, processes and screening staff always pay off in the long run because you start off with the highest possible raw materials—-the on-phone talent that will drive your success from that point forward. It's amazing how much time and money companies waste trying to motivate phone reps who do not have the skills or aptitude for the job.
Since most upper management usually needs convincing on this point, closely track and quantify your recruitment, initial training and retention strategies. How much does it really cost to attract, screen and train staff? How long does it take to get them up to speed? How long, on average, do reps stay in the position? Within high-volume outbound sales environments, for example, some managers have found that recruits who make it through training are most likely to leave a call center at the three- week and three-month marks.
Additional mentoring, monitoring, coaching and incentives can provide a great return on investment if they help keep productive representatives on the job and motivated during these critical periods.
Mary Ann Falzone is president of Falzone & Associates, Chalfont, PA, a call center consultancy specializing in live representative and automated voice response telephone programs. She can be contacted at (215) 822-8941 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.