Customer Service & Retention

Gold Collar Workers…

1 Jan, 2003

By: Rhonda C. Proctor

In the mid ‘80s and through the early ‘90s there was a lot of buzz in the academic, human resources and organizational development circles about gold collar workers and their expected impact on global business. With the 2000–01 downturn in economies of the world, a hush has fallen over the topic, perhaps because most analysis focused on the value of gold collar workers in the IT industry—and there hasn’t been much to cheer about lately. Today, the topic of the gold collar worker is resurfacing as a viable way for contact centers to secure top-notch talent, differentiate themselves in the marketplace and better serve their customers. Here we’ll take a look at the re-emergence of the gold collar worker: who they are, where they can be found and what you have to be prepared to do to recruit and retain these highly sought-after professionals.

What Is a Gold Collar Worker?

The term gold collar worker won’t be found in any popular dictionary, and it hasn’t yet become a common phrase in the business lexicon. It was made popular by Professor Robert E. Kelly of Carnegie Mellon University in 1985 in the title of his book, which addressed how a new type of employee should be managed. Information disseminated since then finds that the term is broadly used to describe highly skilled and portable, college-educated knowledge workers who perform at peak performance and demand special perks along with high pay. Until now, most writing on the topic categorizes these workers demographically as Generation Xers employed in the high-tech sectors of business who can easily find employment anywhere. These workers are fast horses, so to speak, and it is implied that unless management policies change, companies might be in for a very bumpy ride.

In the contact center business, the term gold collar worker is morphing into a slightly different beast—a thoroughbred racehorse of sorts. More often than not, it refers to agents who have a blended professional background with dual performance specialties. These workers are uniquely qualified to meet customer needs through other forms of professional expertise and accreditation. In the July/August edition of Contact Professional, we profiled American Healthways of Hawaii, which hires and trains qualified medical professionals (such as registered nurses or dietitians) to be agents, and then arms them with the necessary skills to be effective contact center agents. This is seen in other areas as well: brokerage services contact centers staffed by licensed financial advisors; computer companies whose sales and help desk agents have extensive high-tech background and expertise; outsourcing firms staffed with representatives whose experience and skill set match specific client requirements. It’s even seen to a lesser degree in highly qualified CSRs who have an English degree to ensure they can conjugate a sentence and spell words correctly in preparation for email communication with customers.

So, depending upon the industry and functional position, gold collar workers in contact centers typically possess two distinguishing characteristics:

• Dual specialties of a contact center agent and another area of focus related to the mission-critical activities of the center; and

• Enhanced skill set, professionalism and productivity based upon personal or career background, education or experiences.

The key then for the contact center industry is whether companies are prepared to handle these gold collar racehorses in a way that supports their development needs and the long-term goals of the company.

Where Are Gold Collar Workers Found?

Gold collar workers are not necessarily found in any one city, region or nation. However, they are often concentrated in communities where the labor pool is supported by a college, or where the educational opportunities and academic scores are correspondingly above average. For example, the leading distributor of radio controlled hobby products, Hobbico, has located its headquarters and call center in Champaign, Ill., home to the University of Illinois. This Big Ten school has more than 33,000 students on campus and is consistently ranked as one of the top engineering colleges in the United States. It is not uncommon to find an engineering student on the floor at Hobbico taking customer calls. Although not reflected in their educational curriculum, these representatives are likely better able to troubleshoot dealer or customer challenges about making a machine run, even if it is a radio-controlled car, plane or boat.

At AT&T Wireless in Orlando, Fla., there is a steady pool of labor from the University of Central Florida. The company focuses recruiting efforts with the college and consistently employs educated team members as agents. Further, agents receive a free phone as a perk. This makes them uniquely qualified to address customer questions and concerns first-hand. Why? Because they’ve lived the AT&T Wireless experience—and they’ve truly become the experts.

Hawaii is an example of an area where gold collar workers emerge, in part, from its intelligent workforce. Economic development experts and area promoters underscore the fact that Hawaii has more people per capita who speak Asian languages than anywhere in the world outside of Asia. Many residents are proficient in Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Tagalog, in addition to English. Language training is a focus of several higher education programs. The multi-lingual workforce offers a clear gold collar advantage for global companies serving the diverse Asian markets. In addition, Hawaii is recognized for its high-tech infrastructure including fiber optics, telecommunications and higher education research institutions, designed to produce a continuous supply of highly skilled, technologically savvy workers. Couple this with the fact that Hawaiian workers have the lowest absenteeism in the nation (Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism) and it’s easy to see why there is an abundance of gold collar workers in this paradise.

Though not distinguished by the label, gold collar workers are being touted in many offshore outsourcing operations as well. Kerala, India, has 32 engineering colleges in the state, from which many contact center workers are recruited. Jamaica encourages contact centers to locate in the country because their gold collar workers innately understand customer satisfaction techniques. Says Julian Robinson, Manager of Investment Promotions for JAMPRO, a firm that promotes the development of offshore business in Jamaica, “Our employees innately know how to please customers and make others feel good—it’s just part of the culture here.” Jamaica is an example of a gold collar workforce whose expertise may not be learned in a formal education setting, but rather from a core personal and cultural value system passed on from one generation to the next.

In each case, the education and environment of the physical location help shape the quality of workers employed and the suitability for contact center jobs. However, if you can’t find gold collar workers in your community, you may need to adopt some new approaches to recruiting, selection, employment, compensation and retention—or consider the outsourcing option.

No One Said It Would Be Easy

Recruiting the gold collar worker can be a paradigm shift, and for some centers it requires changing from employing a “warm body” to take calls to employing a skilled professional to enhance and develop the relationship with the customers. How can this challenging task be accomplished?

Contact center recruiting specialists recognize that hiring the gold collar employee can be tough, but are quick to note that it’s not an insurmountable task. Some say that recruiting these workers is similar to recruiting athletes. It requires scouting and a courting period long before the candidate officially becomes available for hire. This, many believe, may be a key differentiator for progressive contact centers, but on the flip side, can pose real economic as well as opportunity costs for centers faced with high turnover.

Richard Bencin, president of Richard L. Bencin & Associates, an Ohio-based call center executive search firm, believes that in most cases recruiting this type of worker must be an internal, rather than an external, process driven by search firms. This is because most companies aren’t interested in using search firms to recruit their telephone sales representatives, since the cost-benefit simply doesn’t exist yet. “What most contact centers do instead is focus on hiring gold collar managers, to develop the gold collar workers, and this is typically where the search firm comes in,” says Bencin, adding, “and in the market today, there is a lot of that paper on the street,” referring to the management-level positions in specialty areas such as brokerage services and high tech impacted by the downsizing of the past two years.

Because these managers are fast horses themselves, they may be better equipped to manage the gold collar worker than is the traditional contact center manager. Matt Cooley, partner of TC Kokua, a customer care services provider in Maui that employs gold collar workers, suggests that these individuals, “probably need more creative space than the average employee…materials and training go only so far, then it''s up to the problem-solving skills and attitude of the worker.” Clearly the role of the manager-coach is an important aspect of developing these workers.

Based upon what the experts say, there are some common threads that emerge for successfully employing gold collar workers.

1. Adopt an approach for recruiting gold collar managers who can effectively manage the gold collar staff.

2. Understand that the selection process for a gold collar worker adds a new dimension to your traditional hiring process. Jeff Furst, President and CEO or FurstPerson, a national employee hiring, staffing and selection firm, explains: “The fundamentals of hiring a strong agent are still key, but you also have to look at the motivational fit and the transfer of competencies to the call center job. For example, nurses recruited to be telephone patient consultants may be motivated by the physical activity in the hospital—moving from room to room, interacting face-to-face with people on a personal level, etc. You have to make sure they can handle a job that requires hours of sitting and no face-to-face patient interaction.” Selection processes including live simulation and role-plays can help assess the fit of more complex skills.

3. Recognize that traditional perks may not be the most salient benefits for gold collar workers. Consider alternatives such as mechanisms for making money fast, engaging them in fulfilling work, and creating a fun and exciting work environment. Remember to ask them what they want, not deliver what you think is good.

4. Consider adopting more flexible schedules for on-site staff and resources for virtual contact centers. Many outsourcing firms now classify their remote agents as gold collar workers. They allow agents to choose the assignments that are most rewarding and in alignment with their areas of expertise. This almost always means increased agent productivity and satisfaction, which easily translates into customer satisfaction and profits (not to mention the decrease in the physical cost of facilities).

5. Plan for extensive and intensive ongoing training. E-learning seems to be an appropriate outlet for the gold collar worker who values a more self-directed approach to learning and can be done on the agent’s own schedule when most appropriate for their needs.

What Will They Cost You?

In most cases, employing the gold collar worker can be more costly than the traditional agent, but most contact centers find it a valuable tradeoff. American Healthways recognizes that the prevailing wage for telephone service representatives won’t suffice for their highly specialized agents who have medical industry credentials. For professionally certified computer or licensed brokerage sales agents, it’s not uncommon to hear of them making over six figures per year, influenced, of course, by variable compensation plans. An article titled, “Gold Collar CSRs” which appeared in Catalog Age, June 1, 2001, cited that gold collar CSRs, “…will be able to command salaries of at least $50,000 a year or $25-$60 an hour rather than the $8-$15 an hour most CSRs currently make.”

If an outsourcing alternative is chosen because your center lacks a localized gold collar labor pool, it too may cost more than traditional outsourcing. Says Tim Houlne, CEO of Working Solutions, the world’s largest outsourcer of virtual agents, located in Dallas, Texas: “The wage of our agents must be consistent with the marketplace and the demand for the skill set. We never really look at them as a ‘normal’ set of CSRs.” He notes that his entire business is based upon the ability to bring gold collar agents to the client’s unique project. “We take the skill set needed for the project and recruit around it, not the other way around. Of course for us, this is easier to do in a remote environment.”

But the wage of the gold collar worker is driven, in part, by how the contact center defines the term in their culture. For example, says Cooley, “At TC Kokua our gold collar workers are basically problem-solvers with an ability to think technically -- and simultaneously they communicate in a warm ‘Aloha’ manner.” He emphasizes that in his environment the cost of gold collar workers is not higher than average. He believes that because these workers “self-motivate and contribute in many ways to make the company a success,” that the turnover rate is lower which reduces overall employee costs as well.

While not yet fully matriculated into the nomenclature of businesses today, employing gold collar workers provides a clear competitive advantage for contact centers seeking to increase their level of professionalism, niche marketing, customer satisfaction and bottom line. But employing them may require a shift in the traditional employment and compensation models in order to achieve the desired results. In the end, it begs only one question: Is the industry willing to pay for it? My best guess is that only time will tell.