Monday, November 26, 2018

Contact Center and Back Office Talent Acquisition and the Knicks

By Ron Rhodes

Your former Recruiting team just took you through a PowerPoint presentation in which they proudly announced that Recruiting should hence forth be referred to as “Talent Acquisition.” Great! But renaming the Recruiting team, Talent Acquisition, is part evolution, part trend and part semantics as I observe, yet this is far from unusual.  Evolution, of course, just as we eventually learned to walk upright, our approach to recruiting labor eventually progressed in reaction to the threat of poor performance and waste-driven financial impact stemming from workforce instability. This is especially true in large contact centers and back office organizations given their high human density, spontaneous growth requirements, increasing competition and turbulent levels of employee attrition. Trend, yes, in the same way that we discovered that tattered jeans are so much better than those with durable fabric that covers the skin, we see others do it and think it will look or in this case, sound cool. Semantic, absolutely, if we just change the name of the function without meaningful process or philosophical adjustment, isn’t Talent Acquisition merely Recruiting dressed in tattered jeans?

I have a confession to make. I am a lifelong New York Knicks fan which suggests that I am both, a dreamer and an optimist trapped in a maze of disappointment. You may not see it at first, but this disorder gives me an unusual vantage point from which to view to the topic of talent acquisition in contact centers and back office organizations. True, having spent over 30 years leading centralized customer contact and back office functions, from Business Process Outsourcers to captive operations, from on shore to near shore to off shore to virtual workforce, from pre-IPO to giant global public firms, does inform my perspective. However, most of what I have come to understand about talent acquisition I owe, ironically, to my beloved New York Knickerbockers.

If you are not knowledgeable when it comes to professional basketball, to appreciate my reference to the Knicks, you simply need to know that the Knicks struggle (struggle being code for a more colorful “s” word that fellow New Yorkers would naturally insert). The Knicks struggle year over year in the areas of performance consistency, customer satisfaction, front-line talent and leadership retention.  All of this struggling, however, is not intentional - says the optimist - and yet it is the relentless reflection of a really, really bad organizational process. In Six Sigma Lean terms, New York Knicks basketball is a process that yields a heartbreaking ratio of defects to opportunities while simultaneously generating even higher levels of waste. Just consider the combination of questionable draft choices, bad trades, player melt downs and season ending injuries; then add to these the seemingly erratic changes in coaching philosophy and overbearing executive oversite and you have one of the most over-paid failures in modern sports. Go Knicks! Seriously…go.

I submit to you that professional sports provide a valid index of assessment metrics to help evaluate the effectiveness of an organization’s efforts to acquire talent, key performance indicators (or KPI) if you will. Starting with the obvious, there are playoff appearances, championships, and win/loss ratios. Secondarily, player, coaching and back office retention are crucial factors. And then there are auxiliary metrics like season tickets and sold out ratios, jerseys sales, endorsement deals, all-star appearances, lower levels of bad press and controversy. Let’s stop there.  My point is that teams that consistently win are not just lucky. Despite the overwhelming pressure of aggressive competitive forces, they prevail. They prevail despite their challenges because they make insightful personnel choices that fit their short and long-term direction, they bring on talent and often emphasize character over skill. In the simple, but important words of former Porsche CEO, Peter Schutz, you want to “Hire Character. Train Skill.” Are we still talking about basketball?

The term talent acquisition seems to hold meaning that is almost too obvious. Talent Acquisition is the act of acquiring talent or what we call the department that does it, correct? Well that may be what the Knicks thought and still think, but only because they were focused on the wrong word, acquisition. The focus should be on the talent part and this word should indicate far more than skill or ability. As in professional sports, skill is only a fraction of the talent requirement. Character, work ethic, adaptability to culture, geography, fans, teammates and the long-term strategy of the organization are also critical aspects. Will the player fit? Will the player perform? Will the player grow? Will the player stay? Will the player attract other players with the same profile? If that was not happening before you changed the department name on your business card (to Talent Acquisition), and there has been no meaningful initiative to improve the process, look up the definition of insanity.

Thomas Jefferson began the second paragraph of the US Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…” We can debate the meaning of equal and whether the word men should have really been people some other time. I quote our third US president only to remind us that all people – while I believe equal - are not created the same. If they were, just call the department, Acquisition, and be done with it. Everyone would have the same level of talent.

Diversity is genius, however. People are vastly different and it is therefore essential that companies sift through the shiny rocks to find the real gold, but how:
  • Be Selective. No call/no show is often the highest employee attrition category (not attrition reason) in contact center and back office organizations. In other words, most employees, without prior notice, simply stop showing up. This is especially true when the market is highly competitive so the employee sees multiple alternatives (e.g., the Philippines). HR departments, as a reactive common practice, often flag these employees as “not for re-hire” by their company, permanently locking them out.  Over time, this floods the market with candidates that may be designated “not for re-hire” by several former employers. And here they are at your door. They pass your assessment tests as they did in other companies. They certainly have had enough practice. They may even be offered a higher starting base wage for their…experience. The unintentional result of this is a massive recycle of bad employment habits.
  • Be Proactive.  If your entire sourcing strategy is to place help wanted ads on billboards and job sites, smarter companies may have already beaten you to the prime candidates. Rather than wait to fill staffing requisitions in bulk, for them, recruiting is thoughtful and perpetual.  They have deployed more assertive tactics like win/win partnerships with community and educational institutions. They have recognized that millennials crave challenge and interesting experiences and also realize that not driving harvest initiatives like inter-department employee movement is antiquated thinking. These companies analyze their own data, invest in selection automation and watch the industry closely driving new discovery and continuous improvement. For example, they post all open positions, especially back office and contact center agents. They tolerate the perceived logistical inconvenience of in-house movement, because they realize that ultimately lower recruiting and training costs along with higher customer satisfaction and employee loyalty will be the end result.  Besides, these employees will likely just quit and “take their talents” elsewhere –no call/no show. (Yes, I just quoted LeBron.)
  • Be Smart. Will + potential is far more valuable than skill + instability. Throw out your model that stresses experience as the most critical attribute and move it to desired, but not required. Trust your training, development and coaching to get them up the curve. As for will, job hoppers are trying to tell you something. Listen. Listen when the candidate asks for substantially more than you are offering, but will take substantially less (for now). Listen to their career and educational plans. They are telling you their priorities. Listen to their transportation challenges. Listen when they tell you where their friends are working and what great salaries they earn or how they were hoping for better hours. Listen, track and correlate these utterings to the people on your no call/no show list. Predictable?
  • Be Proud. If brand and reputation matter when you’re marketing products and services, why would they matter any less when you’re trying to attract and retain employees that make you a superior company? Employees want to work for an organization that is known and known for. That is known for success and growth, known for community engagement, known for employee support, opportunity and fun. Invest heavily in this.  All employees want to play for championship teams or teams that undoubtably will be.
So back to those Knicks. In this holiday season, after peace on earth, I wish for the Knicks to understand the importance of true talent acquisition. May they objectively evaluate the things that have them playing less than 500 (more losses than wins) basketball, learn from them and change with guided aggression. And may we all come to realize that prioritizing people over profits is the best way to ensure profits in the long-term.  Happy holidays.


Passionate about mentoring and developing the industry’s future leaders, in 2000, Ron authored Fundamentals of Call Center Management, a guide intended to help entry level managers, as they begin to master their craft. Having spent 20 years with category leaders, American Express, Nestle, Moore Business Forms (now RR Donnelly) and Comcast, Ron's background includes an additional 10 years of key global BPO assignments with TeleTech, Convergys, Stream, STARTEK and now Connext. Ron's international experience includes stints in Jamaica, Canada and currently the Philippines.

Connect: LinkedIn 

1 comment: