Overhauling the Recruiting Process at CDW Corp

By Fay Hansen

Apr. 11, 2007

Annual job growth at CDW Corp. is clocking in at 15 percent. The technology products and services provider, headquartered in Vernon Hills, Illinois, reported revenue of $6.8 billion for 2006, up 7.8 percent from 2005, with fourth-quarter sales up 13.5 percent from a year earlier. To support this rapid ongoing growth, the company plans to hire 800 to 1,200 account managers and more than 100 IT specialists and engineers this year.

    In the first three months of 2007, CDW met its recruiting goals and hired more than 300 new account managers, using a new recruiting process launched in December 2006. The new process is the result of more than a year of hard work to restructure the company’s approach to sourcing, assessment, onboarding, training and retention.

    CDW has long benefited from a solid employment brand and a strong total rewards program. As a member of Fortune’s “100 Best Companies to Work for in America” for nine consecutive years and one of Fortune’s “America’s Most Admired Companies,” CDW pulls in more than 20,000 applications a year.

    The company offers competitive salaries, health benefits, 401(k)s, profit-sharing and stock purchase plans, on-site day care at headquarters, free meals for second-shift workers, subsidized on-site cafeterias, product discounts and other highly desirable benefits. CDW’s 5,480 employees are referred to as “co-workers” to reflect the egalitarian corporate culture.

    The recruiting process overhaul began in September 2005, when CDW brought in Dennis Berger as senior vice president of co-worker services and chief co-worker services officer. Berger initiated an evaluation of CDW’s recruiting process in the context of the company’s growth trajectory.

    “When we looked at what our job growth would be over the next few years, we knew we had to change,” Berger recalls. “Particularly for a technology company, we weren’t doing a good job of driving people to our site and then providing the right materials there.”

    Berger led CDW into a six-month process designed to identify weaknesses in its recruiting program and develop solutions.

    “We took a deep dive into our process for selecting talent,” Berger recalls. “We found that it was very recruiter heavy—a lot of muscle but not very smart.”

    Berger and his team began by taking a close look at the qualifications needed to succeed in the account manager position. Under the old recruiting process, a college degree was not required, but recruiting was heavily focused on eight to 10 college campuses.

    “We were recruiting in the wrong places,” Berger notes. Beyond the college visits, recruiters tapped Monster and Yahoo HotJobs, but little else.

Rebuilding the front end
    After a careful re-evaluation of the requirements for the account manager job, Berger and his team found that a high school degree and two to four years of job experience were sufficient basic qualifications, and systematically revised the sourcing approach to reflect those requirements.

   Now, in addition to traditional job boards such as CareerBuilder, Monster and HotJobs, CDW is using radio ads and sourcing solutions such as direct e-mail campaigns through MySpace, Google, LinkedIn, American Student List and other networking sites. Initial results indicate that sourcing through the networking sites is productive.The radio ads are extremely effective on the East Coast, but less so in the Chicago area.

    “We are currently assessing all of this,” Berger reports. “We are pleased with the results. What we have heard back from our recruiters is that they see a huge improvement over the days when we relied on eight to 10 campuses and Monster and HotJobs.”

    CDW also invested heavily in the infrastructure for recruiting account managers. The company hired on more sourcing specialists dedicated to filling the pipeline for account manager candidates, and more recruiters for the account manager positions. CDW now has 25 in-house recruiters who are trained sourcing professionals. It also calls on outside agencies to provide contract recruiters as needed.

    In addition to the re-evaluation of the account manager position and its sourcing methods, CDW conducted an extensive study of turnover. The study revealed that turnover was very high in the first few weeks and at the six-month mark, and then gradually declined up to the two-year mark, when it dropped to near zero.

    “We are now spending more time on the front end of the process to reduce turnover,” Berger says.

   To address the problem of high turnover early in the job, CDW now puts new hires for account manager positions through an extensive onboarding and training program that begins with a daylong orientation focused on the company’s values and goals, and then moves new hires through six weeks of training.

   The fact that turnover was so high early in the job signaled a potential problem with job expectations and fit.

   “We found that we were bringing in people who really didn’t know what the job was about,” Berger notes.

   To reduce this early turnover, CDW increased its focus on ensuring that potential candidates truly understand the job. The company developed a three-minute realistic job preview video that showcases current co-workers describing their roles, responsibilities and the working environment. This video is embedded in CDW’s careers home page for potential candidates to view prior to applying online.

   In addition, CDW abandoned its paper-and-pencil assessment process, which was never customized for the specific skills and traits needed for productive account managers. In January 2007, the company installed a robust online assessment process from PreVisor, an employee selection solutions provider.

    The assessment tools are fully customized to reflect CDW’s requirements on a detailed basis. The assessment was developed through a study of top-performing sales account managers to determine the common behaviors and professional competencies that led to their success. The PreVisor assessment screens candidates on sales aptitude and the work ethic needed to be a successful account manager at CDW.

    “We have feedback from managers that the quality of the new hires is much higher,” Berger says.

    Following the online assessment, candidates go through two interviews, including a behavioral interview with the managers they will work with if hired. Under the old recruiting process, the managers who were building the account manager teams were not heavily involved in selecting the new team members. Now the managers are directly involved and build a relationship with the candidates before the candidates come on as new hires.

Managing attrition
   After six weeks of training, the new hires spend their first six months on the job working in the CDW “sales academy,” where they perform the actual duties of an account manager and receive one-on-one skill development training from sales learning specialists.

   With new hires trained and coached through the early months on the job, attention turns to meeting the two-year mark.

    “We know with certainty that if employees stay with us for two years, they are basically here for life and very productive,” Berger says. “And we want to make sure that we don’t extend the attrition rate beyond 20 to 24 months.”

   CDW brought in consulting firm Watson Wyatt Worldwide and learned that high-performing sales organizations have a natural filter of attrition and a natural attrition rate. New hires who find it difficult to achieve aggressive sales goals actually self-select out of the organization. Once this natural filter runs its course, the organization can have a high degree of confidence in the long-term success and productivity of the sales professionals who made it through.

   CDW is not alone in its efforts to build a more effective approach to hiring by building up the front end of the recruiting and selection process and then following through with thorough onboarding, training and on-the-job coaching. New-hire turnover, a common gauge for quality of hire, is a good departure point for evaluating the entire recruiting process.

    New-hire turnover metrics are based on the number of separations during a time frame that varies by industry. In high-turnover industries such as retailing, the length of service for measuring new-hire turnover might be as short as one month, while health care organizations often use a 90-day mark and other industries use six-month or one-year measures. As CDW discovered, however, the best analysis of recruiting effectiveness may come from a hard look at turnover at all points within the first years of employment.

    Pushing information through to candidates before the application process begins, providing realistic job previews, customizing candidate assessment tools and bringing managers into the selection process can improve quality of hire and reduce early attrition.

    “You have to look at who you need to hire and how you can do it,” Berger says. “We went all the way back to sourcing and then all the way through onboarding to the two-year attrition filter. The point is to understand your process and its gaps and tackle those gaps.”

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