The airline industry always has been fiercely competitive. The economic strife of recent years has made the battle for passengers, and in some cases staff, even tougher, particularly for smaller airlines. A few years ago AirTran Airways was having trouble finding qualified candidates for its reservation centers in Atlanta and Savannah, Ga., which handle more than 6 million calls annually. The company found bottom-line recruiting and hiring results using simulation technology.
“We didn’t want to just accept anybody that walked in, so we spent some money,” said Vince Fulghum, general manager, AirTran Airways. “We screened to look for a product that would help us quantify and have results that we could argue or support both legally and consistently. We wanted to replace some basic skill assessments that we’d used and a pencil-and-paper process, which created a lot of work.”
The product was a contact center simulation from Qwiz Inc., which eliminated the paper-and-pencil portion of pre-employment screening, along with the need to file the results, and offered basic writing and math assessments in a convenient online test environment. Assessment technology helped AirTran screen for candidates who would fit in well in the call-center environment. “It was difficult to determine exactly who was a good fit,” Fulghum said. “Someone would come in for the position and say, ‘Wow. I’m tied to this chair. I’ve got to put this headset on. I’ve got to stay here the entire eight hours and listen.’ I don’t think they fully understood what was going on, and we couldn’t necessarily identify the qualifications that they should have to meet those needs. We used a call simulation as well to identify who our best candidates were.”
Since AirTran began a pilot program, comparing candidates who were tested with those who were not, the former group has shown significantly higher retention rates, faster time to proficiency and higher performance levels. “We’re starting off with a more qualified candidate to begin with, but along with that, the people who scored well have an idea of the position when they go through that process,” Fulghum explained. “They know what to expect, and they know this is something they enjoy, and if they enjoy the position, retention rates are going to be greater and the performance level is going to be higher. There aren’t a whole lot of guesses or missed expectations because the call-center simulation very much matches what’s going on from a training or an instructional education point of view. It was built around our processes and matches what the test is like.”
Fulghum said that a typical call center might experience anywhere from 40 percent to 100 percent turnover per year. “We have consistently managed around 21 or 22 percent for the last two years, and we like that number,” he said. “We’ve reduced the amount of money that it costs to train, instruct and educate, and we’re reducing our recruiting costs because we don’t have to recruit as often. We are also reducing our initial new-hire training costs because we don’t have to hire as often. We’re getting to a faster proficiency level. In anywhere from 60 to 90 days, we’ve got crew members who are on track, and in some cases a large number of them are hitting it right in 30 to 35 days. It used to take six months before we were there.”
The “Strength and Speed System,” as the call-center simulation is known internally, has spawned similar technology use with AirTran’s customer relations group. To further reduce the instances where a crewmember or AirTran employee might inadvertently upset a customer, the company has deployed a call simulation assessment that creates a different scenario or avenue depending on the answer a crew member chooses. The simulation offers solutions based on irate customer tones.
“It’s difficult to train someone how to handle an upset customer without some type of role-play,” Fulghum said. “And role-play is obviously more expensive than a call-center simulation. The technology behind those questions has been a benefit. We’re moving more and more into an e-learning environment. The assessments were used primarily for recruiting, hiring and internal promotions. When we have used it in training environments, it’s a good entry vehicle for our people to get used to e-learning and blended learning until we completely create all of the modules we want to assess.”
AirTran also uses simulation technology to measure calls per hour, keystrokes per hour and errors per call. “It has been really good for us to measure the number of errors per call, because if someone’s making a reservation for travel and we misspell one name, that could very well be a nightmare at the security gate or the counter,” Fulghum said. “One error per call sounds like we’re a little bit rough, but that’s a big deal.”
–Kellye Whitney, email@example.com
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