Don’t Reduce People to Numbers… or Should You?


Assessment tools have been an industry standard in human resources management for a while. At times, this may feel cold and very corporate, as one of the beauties of Homo sapiens is that we’re all very unique and also different.

Whether it’s personality assessments, skills assessments, or Google’s famous gauntlet of intelligence tests, as managers, we actually do want a way to predict someone’s performance numerically.

This is more so true in large-scale, people-heavy companies and operations like the contact center world. And in contact centers, this is even more true because, in general, we’re hiring from lower-skilled populations.

I know “low-skilled” is a combination of words that, when said, is kind of a no-no in our industry. But, it’s the reality of who we are as an industry. Let’s not hide from it.

Low-skilled workers have incredible loyalty in our industry, as it can afford them a stable, middle-class life. Instead of hiding, let’s embrace it and determine how it can help us.

One of the key things we can do is to know with whom we’re dealing up front—with robust skills assessment. Right from that start, you can plan the journey your employees will take throughout their employment with you and that begins with pre-employment benchmarking. Seeking the right person for the job through is simply the first step toward workforce development.

Measuring Basic Skills

What are basic skills? There are a lot, but in general, at Fair Trade Outsourcing we group and assess skills into the following key buckets (see the illustration below):

  • Life Skills
  • Basic Skills
  • Management & Communications

In addition to these, you’ll want to assess candidates for “work readiness.” This means they are able and willing to show up for work on time, repeatedly, and be able to work as a member of the team.

Note that, in general, we don’t look specifically at what degree(s) a person has. With robust numerical assessments, you shouldn’t actually care, because if they pass your assessment, then you know you can put them into a training class so they can learn your business.

There are myriad reasons why the numbers matter in low-skilled populations, and why they’re one of the best predictors of success.

Better Job Fit Leads to Lower Attrition and Higher Productivity

In my company, we were able to achieve lower error rates, greater effectiveness at work, and lower monthly attrition because of our pre-employment benchmarking which creates a successful job-person fit.

But, there’s an additional benefit that is overlooked: When agents feel like they are capable of doing the work, because they have the numbers to prove it, they perform beyond expectations. Agents become so confidently involved with their jobs that they display a higher level of work ownership and feel more strongly toward the quality of service they provide. Thus, they reach their KPIs with little difficulty—proof that a better job-person fit leads to better results!

Generally, it takes a year or two for an employee to become fully productive in their role. We’re able to shorten the time it takes our employees to become productive on the floor because of our pre-employment benchmarking. We’re able to hire the right people for the job even when we only have two weeks to recruit and onboard new employees. The whole thing doesn’t last more than a month. By the 30th day, new agents would have adjusted well in their new roles and start gaining ground in reaching their KPIs.

Less Need for Retraining, More Focus on “Upskilling”

With a numeric approach to assessing base skills, a person starts out further ahead in their job than if there’s minimal testing and just interviews. That leaves more time and resources for you to invest in training them for higher-level work rather than filling in the gaps in their knowledge.

Based on data we have collected from our English Proficiency (EP) Up-leveling program, more than one-half of the agents belonging to our high-performing teams scored high in their pre-employment exams. Among the top 20 learners were team leaders of those teams.

After taking our EP classes, the learners were able to raise the quality of their work, achieving key metrics at a more steady pace compared to their performance before they signed up for an up-leveling experience. One agent, in particular, went through the program twice, got his basic salary raised twice, and was promoted to workforce manager because of his remarkable progress.

In every batch of our upskilling training, there’s at least one team leader or manager who excels and a couple of agents who were able to jump two levels higher than their fellow learners. The teams they work with have the lowest attrition rates, with one group boasting less than 1% attrition in the first half of 2019. Another team, which is working with an eCommerce client whose store has been enjoying an FCR of more than 98% in 2019, has had its agents consistently performing well in our capacity-building programs.

So, the sum of it is this: we’re not upskilling employees because they lack the skills or have the wrong set of skills. We are building the capacities they already possess, strengthening their current skills set. And, if they are interested, they can sign up for classes that introduce them to new skills. For example, data entry specialists who didn’t have any customer service experience will want to learn how customer service works in a call center setting.

So, by the time there’s a new account looking for customer support reps, they will be qualified for that job. If they do need additional training, it would be relevant only to the job itself, such as the software they would be using, the workflow they would have to follow, and the processes they would adopt or improve upon.

The key is that the assessments set up the upskilling, the upskilling sets up an agent journey that is productive and a path toward capacity building with the intent of becoming more valuable as a professional, thus allowing them to earn more. It all feeds into itself and the KPIs are better.

Smoother Transition to a New Role or Job

The final benefit of a numeric-based skills assessment program is that when new, higher-skilled jobs open up, you already have the data to understand which internal candidates you should be looking at. It makes the hiring process that much easier.

When the training is generally for a low-skilled job, such as operating a machine and packing up a product, achieving mastery isn’t a problem. Most employees can catch up with the demands of their work. However, when the job requires skills that are more complex, particularly critical thinking, problem solving and creativity, there’s a need to move beyond simply training that person for the job he’s hired to do.

At that point, a workforce development program becomes an effective tool for building the talent that you already have and preparing them for the future of work. According to the Fair Trade movement, this is called “capacity building,” which differs from training, in that the skill being taught isn’t directly related to the job being performed. You’re building up the person as a person, not the person to do the job.

But that also makes them ready for what comes next—and the numbers can help you understand that, especially when you tie capacity building to numeric scores that, with all of the other scores you now have on an agent, give you a clear roadmap of who’s ready for that next challenge.

Training vs. Capacity Building

There’s a lot of power in this idea, which is why it’s been around for so long. When you invest in your people by giving them knowledge and skills not directly related to their job, you build an incredible amount of trust with them. Additionally, you create people who are motivated to grow, so it then becomes clear who your future leadership will be. This is common practice in higher-skilled professions, but should also be the same in the lower-skilled world of the contact center.

Capacity building, as we call it, takes more time to develop. In this context, exposure to learning materials is paired with job experience and mastery takes the employee through different levels. Unlike training, which is done in preparation of a job, capacity building aims to transform an individual for both personal and professional growth. In this sense, we’re not just teaching our employees how to do things but also how to become the person they want to be.

Financial management is essential for everyone, but lower-skilled and poorer working populations rarely have access to the management or personal habits and attitudes that will make them financially successful over time.

At Fair Trade Outsourcing, we’re obsessive about teaching the power of cash flow in household and business budgets. We provide a Cash Flow Management program that teaches agents how to manage their finances effectively. Because of the success of the first batch, we have made this program a prerequisite for our zero-interest microloans for private transportation and small business.

Start Collecting the Numbers from Day 1

Managers can use all the data to benchmark the competencies of every new-hire when they start working for the company. Their scores become the basis for measuring their progress throughout their employment from onboarding to training to upskilling and including capacity building. These scores also become prerequisites whenever employees take a step toward a higher position or whenever they move into another team.

But, you have to have the numbers that make it all work—from the prehiring testing, to the new scores achieved in upskilling, to what is needed to get to that next job. The system needs to be integrated.

If you can integrate it, it will be a true boon to your business. You will see significant positive change in the core numbers for which you’re responsible as a manager of a contact center.