SurpriseBlack Friday — the orgiastic start of the holiday-shopping season — fast approaches, and companies are prepping in the usual way: high-volume seasonal hiring efforts. According to Forbes, Target is looking for 18,900 seasonal employees this year; Sears needs 9,200 temporary helpers, and Toys “R” Us wants to fill 8,600 positions — and these are only initial listings, not necessarily the final numbers. These employers will likely hire many, many more seasonal employees as the final quarter progresses.

“You see the articles every year … Amazon’s going to hire 80,000 people and [Macy's and Wal-Mart are going to hire tens of thousands of people] just in a four-month sprint to get through the remainder of the fourth quarter and into January,” says Ray Bixler, CEO and president of SkillSurvey. “You need to have the appropriate people to man the phones and get the orders out accurately — otherwise, you’re going to be spinning your wheels, replacing orders that were mis-sent, or leaving revenue on the table when people aren’t trying to upsell [customers].”

According to a recent study conducted by SkillSurvey, it’s that latter point that companies need to really worry about when hiring seasonal customer-service associates: 31 percent of seasonal candidates need to improve their “ability to encourage customers to upgrade or buy new products or services by offering them more options,” and 27 percent “need to work on their ability to give customers specific recommendations about company products and services, based on information about the customer.”

“Are [your seasonal hires] able to upsell people when they’re offering all the buying signals possible?,” asks Bixler, with whom has spoken previously. “If the answer to that is ‘No,’ then you’re probably leaving revenue on the table, and that money will be spent elsewhere.”

American Express’s “2014 Global Customer Service Barometer” supports Bixler’s suggestion: 74 percent of customers say they spend more money with companies that have given them great customer service in the past, and 68 percent of customers say they are willing to spend more — up to 14 percent more — at companies that provide “excellent customer service.” Conversely, 37 percent of customers say a single instance of poor customer service would motivate them to bring their business elsewhere.

“At the end of the day, whether we have large companies with large customer service centers, or small companies that have customer service people inside the building, they want to know, ‘Hey, where are the most common areas of development … we should be looking at?” Bixler says.

Knowing seasonal hires’ strengths and weaknesses ahead of time can help employers make more strategic decisions about how they deploy or train these workers. Given that most of these hires will only be with the company for a few months, time is of the essence.

“If you hire a customer service person, and they are very strong at selling, you might want to actually give them an opportunity to sell more where appropriate,” Bixler explains. Similarly, he notes that companies will want to see where candidates have “areas of development or issues that must be resolved if you’re going to bring the person on,” which would allow employers to identify the sorts of immediate training their seasonal hires might need. 

Bixler suggests that companies looking to learn as much as possible about seasonal candidates before hiring them should take the reference-checking process seriously.

“The definition of a reference — if followed appropriately — is someone who has managed the individual, or supervised the individual, or sat next to the individual at their last job,” Bixler says. “They’d be able to witness that applicant’s previous experiences in a way that is telling.”

Bixler says that employers should invite references from numerous colleagues and managers, which would allow them to glean quite a bit of relevant information on candidate strengths and areas for improvement.

But a lot of employers are hiring thousands and thousands of workers at once. They may look at this high volume and feel they don’t have time to be checking references — especially not multiple references per candidate.

“They know they should [check references],” Bixler says. “All of them know they should, but when they say they don’t have time to do it, therein lies the very reason why a SkillSurvey-type solution is one they can then turn to.”

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