Answering the Call for Training

By Garry Kranz

Dec. 13, 2007

Sue Morse knows that high turnover goes hand in hand with running customer service call centers. Nevertheless, as senior vice president of human resources for StarTek Inc., Morse—along with her training team—has set out to upset the status quo.

    The best training strategy, she says, is to recruit wisely. Indeed, recruitment tops the list of activities at the Denver-based company, which provides outsourced customer service to wireless telecommunications carriers. Surging consumer demand for wireless products has fueled the opening of three new StarTek call centers in recent years, swelling its roster of service agents to 8,000.

    That growth also presents a challenge: how to find and attract people with an aptitude for a job that can be grueling. Rather than hire people, train them and hope they’ll work out, StarTek is putting more emphasis on assessing people’s abilities during recruiting.

    “Our training starts at the hiring phase. We put people through a screening process that has two parts,” Morse says.

    Step one assesses an individual’s technical competency, particularly computer skills. Yet being a computer whiz means little if a person lacks the desired attributes, such as patience, flexibility and a real desire to help customers. Of greater value, Morse says, is a subsequent personality assessment in which applicants respond to a series of questions designed to elicit their fitness for the job.

    “These are people who are going to be serving people on the phone [and doing so] over and over,” Morse says. “We want to know if they have an attitude that emphasizes service to our clients’ customers.”

Practice, practice
   Unlike some call centers, StarTek goes slowly when preparing new trainees. Before taking a single actual call, agents in training are immersed in a six-week-long simulation of how an actual call center operates. They learn basic skills, such as how to access customer accounts, but also more sophisticated technical information about each wireless carrier’s calling plans, coverage areas, service expectations and equipment. Trainees answer simulated calls and receive immediate feedback from supervisors on how well—or how poorly—they did.

    Those who survive the initial month and a half of training advance to “Academy Bay,” a pre-production environment that has a higher ratio of supervisors to agents.

    “Academy Bay gives supervisors a chance to observe our agents in action and to determine if they are applying what they’ve learned,” Morse says.

    StarTek’s push to improve agents’ skills probably is driven in part by recent business challenges. During the technology boom earlier this decade, StarTek shares traded above $70, but have been tumbling ever since. Earnings growth remains flat.

    Instability in the front office hasn’t helped. The company has had three CEOs since 2001. Amid the shake-up came news that 300 agents were laid off at its Petersburg, Virginia, facility, one of its newer centers. Shareholders were told the layoffs stemmed from one client’s “reduction in volume.”

Managing to motivate
   Call centers represent one of the fastest-growing services industries in the world. More than 125,000 call centers are in operation worldwide, with roughly 75,000 of them based in North America, according to research by Troy, Michigan-based J.D. Power and Associates. Yet turnover among these organizations remains disproportionately high, mostly because of employee job dissatisfaction or burnout, experts say.

    Penny Reynolds, a senior partner with the Call Center School in Lebanon, Tennessee, says call center organizations are desperate for strong managers who can drive employee retention. Higher pay and recognition may be enough to satisfy some employees, while others clamor for more responsibilities in hopes of advancing to higher positions.

    “Getting the right people is the biggest factor for call centers, but it’s up to supervisors to learn the different factors that motivate those individuals,” Reynolds says.

    Some call center organizations are implementing “screening assessment” tools when weighing whether to promote high-performing agents to positions of greater responsibility or leadership, Reynolds says.

    Promoting the right people is an area where StarTek excels, Morse says. All but three of the company’s 19 site directors advanced from other positions within the company. To help them succeed, StarTek provides these supervisors with access to coaching resources to help them build rapport with their employees.

    In addition, company trainers are required to obtain a certification that shows proficiency in adult-learning principals. They also are measured each month on factors such as class attrition, attendance rates and 360 feedback assessments by trainees.

Garry Kranz is a Workforce contributing editor.

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