Call Center Pre-Hiring Strategies: An Interview with Kimberly Warrick of New Jersey Shares

The economic crisis has put financial stress on many middle class families. These challenges are often because of unforeseen circumstances, such as a job loss or illness. New Jersey Shares provides relief to people who are not eligible for other types of assistance. It is the only statewide, nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization that provides grants to pay the utility bills of households in need through a statewide network of more than 213 community-based social service agencies operating out of 238 sites. Kimberly Warrick, Client Service Center Manager of New Jersey Shares, oversees New Jersey Shares' two call centers. In this economy, it is crucial for her to assist her call center representatives in providing excellent customer service; because of the increased financial strain on the middle class, Warrick must accommodate a higher call volume at the call centers. Warrick, who shared the New Jersey Shares call center case study at IQPC's Call Center Week this June in Las Vegas, speaks with Call Center IQ’s Blake Landau about her presentation "Pre-Hiring Strategies-Beyond Background Checking to Reduce Turnover Costs and Increase Customer Experience."

Describe New Jersey Shares and their call center operations.

New Jersey Shares is a non profit organization operating for over 11 years in the Garden State. We run an energy assistance program for families and individuals who make over the low income guidelines for state run programs, assisting families in crisis who are struggling to pay their energy bills. We have partner sites throughout the state of New Jersey, mayor offices, State Assembly offices and other non-profit offices, as well as many churches where people can go to apply for our program. These offices are located in all 21 counties, making it easy for people to get the help they need. In addition to our energy program, New Jersey Shares also runs a water assistance program in partnership with United Water in nine states. This is a discount for people who need assistance paying their water bills.

We operate two call centers, one in partnership with Verizon New Jersey in which we administer Communications Lifeline and the Link-Up America Telephone discount program to low income seniors and program eligible families. We have been working in this call center partnership with Verizon for five years. It is a very successful partnership as we maintain and assist over 140,000 clients through the call center, who are currently receiving this discount. With the economy changing almost daily we expect that number to increase over the next year. At the call center we assist these families with the application process, recertification and basic questions and concerns regarding the program.

Our most recent partnership and newest call center is with the State of New Jersey Department of Community Affairs. We estimate that before the year is through we will have handled over 600,000 calls through this new call center. We answer call center calls in relation to LIHEAP, Low Income Heating Energy Assistance Program and USF Universal Service Fund for the state of New Jersey. All of our programs service families and individuals in the entire state of New Jersey. New Jersey Shares slogan of Offering Hope and Delivering Help applies to each of the four programs that New Jersey Shares runs. Be sure to visit our Web site for more information on all of our programs.

How has the economic downturn affected your call center operations?

Since we are in the business of helping people, we have seen a dramatic difference in call center numbers. Our call center calls are on the rise. We have assisted close to 30,000 people in the month of March alone in the DCA call center and even with heating season winding down in New Jersey we are still retaining this kind of volume at the call center in May.

In the Verizon Call Center inquires regarding the program have also jumped. People are out there looking for any means of assistance. The telephone discount program for Verizon is the difference of having a phone or not having a phone. Many seniors have to make difficult choices in this economy, and it is sad that without this program many would not have a phone available to them to talk to family, doctors or for emergency purposes.

You presented on "Pre-Hiring Strategies-Beyond Background Checking to Reduce Turnover Costs and Increase Customer Experience." What was the key take-away from your talk for call center managers?

I provided assistance to call center managers who have to deal with a high attrition rate. We have implemented several solutions in conjunction with the standard interview that have allowed us to better screen our potential call center representatives. During my time at Call Center Week, I shared several ideas that perhaps other call centers might consider. There are many services or options available to call center hiring managers that perhaps are not being used or are being overlooked.

How do you get your call center representatives to bring their "A game" to the phones each day?

We do many different things to inspire call center representatives at Shares. There are many different contests and rewards programs that go on throughout the year. These are sometimes food and sometimes complimentary time-off tickets. Sometimes just the recognition alone is enough to keep them smiling on the phones. Sometimes it is reward enough to know that you really helped a client who called the center and perhaps saved them from being cold or not having a phone. We have involved reps and empower them to be involved in so many different areas of our organization. We use cross-training over the different programs that we administer as well and place our call center representatives where they are most comfortable and successful. Ongoing training for call center representatives is also key.

Knowledge is power and we want our call center representatives to represent New Jersey Shares and all of our programs in a positive well informed light.

How did New Jersey Shares streamline hiring, the interview process and background checking for the call centers?

In addition to conducting an in-person interview we now conduct a phone interview of prospective call center representatitves. After all these are the call center representatives that will be answering phones for your company. We also employ background checking. There are different organizations that offer personality screening through online testing. Which is something else that we have started using during the screening process for call center hires. It enables us to better determine whether or not the client has the right skill-set within their personality to handle the types of calls we receive. Many of the companies that offer these types of tests are able to identify specific personality traits possesed by call center candidates.

What is the number one piece of advice you have for call center management struggling with call volume?

Call center managers cannot allow customer relations associates on the phones if they cannot handle your call center's projected volume. Make sure that you are hiring right, training and following through with weekly monitoring and scoring call center representatives. Really keep that open door policy and be involved with your call center staff. Ensure that the right customer relationship associations are on the phones dealing with your client base.

Listen to a podcast with Kimberly Warrick here.