Tech & Work

IVR helps virtual shopping mall with seasonal hiring frenzy

Faced with hiring hundreds of people every holiday season, virtual retailer QVC got help from a workflow automation tool. Here's how it implemented the tool to save on the yearly hiring process.

When QVC, the world’s leading virtual retailer, ramps up for the holiday season, it supplements its call centers with up to 2,000 temporary employees to handle the enormous influx of phone orders. Telecasting 24 hours a day, seven days a week to 85 million households in the United States, the virtual shopping mall receives over 150 million calls a year—which in 2002 led to nearly $4.4 billion in sales.

“People drive our business,” said Russ Giordano, director of HR operations and services for QVC. “We operate four large customer service call centers. And to meet our commitment to our customers, we need to have lots of people taking calls and solving problems.” To keep staffing levels where they needed to be, especially during seasonal peak times, QVC used to channel a major portion of its recruiting dollars into advertising and hiring temporary HR personnel to help with applicant screening and hiring.

“It’s not easy to find the temporary recruiters to work in your HR department,” explained Giordano. “And because manual screening is so labor-intensive, we’d have to start the process sooner.” With the time gap between interviewing, hiring, and the start of the employment, QVC found itself losing candidates who couldn’t afford to wait for the job to begin.

Solution was very near
The time had come for the West Chester, PA-based electronic retailing giant to shift its protracted recruiting strategy to a just-in-time hiring practice. So the HR department looked for a vendor that could help them make it happen.

As it turns out, QVC already had the tool it needed. In 1998, with business booming, the televised shopping service needed to find a new labor market for another call center. At the time, QVC had a facility in West Chester, PA; one in Chesapeake, VA; and one in San Antonio, TX. “We narrowed our search down to three cities,” recalled Giordano, “but we needed to find out where we could do really well from a labor perspective.” So QVC ran blind ads in three labor markets: California, Florida, and Pennsylvania. The recruitment ads gave a job hotline number to call, which tied into an interactive voice response (IVR) system developed by Tampa, FL-based HRMC, a company specializing in automated candidate screening and assessment tools. HRMC’s Acclaim system talked applicants through a carefully scripted interview, recorded their responses in a database on an HRMC server, and categorized the information for further analysis.

“Based on the volume of responses and how people answered the questions,” said Giordano, “the Acclaim system helped us make our decision as to where our next call center should be.” In 1998, QVC opened its newest telecommunications center in Port St. Lucie, FL.

“Because of what I was able to learn about the labor markets using the Acclaim system,” said Giordano, “I began thinking that this could really help us with recruiting at our already existing sites.” So Giordano set up a pilot program for QVC’s San Antonio center, the company’s largest facility with a permanent staff of about 1,300 and a need for an additional 900 entry-level order takers during the height of the shopping season. Giordano felt this would really put the technology to the test, especially since San Antonio is considered the Mecca of call centers and competition for temporary labor is especially fierce. While other retailers in the area were promising hiring bonuses of $300 or more, QVC ran a single ad in the local paper, handed out business cards with the job hotline at a local job fair, and met its numbers with no problem.

“We’re a pretty appealing company, but at the same time, we hire hundreds and hundreds of people at every site,” stated Giordano. “The Acclaim system has just enabled us to do that much more efficiently and much more in a real-time, just-in-time way.”

Overcoming the objection to impersonal screening
Because QVC prides itself on customer service, Giordano was initially reluctant to have an impersonal electronic voice be a candidate’s first contact with the company. “We’re more into personal contact,” said Giordano. “We don’t have a front-end voice recognition unit for our customers calls. You get a person, unless you purposely choose to go into our voice response unit.” Fifty percent of QVC orders are handled via operator assistance, 40 percent by automated ordering, and the remaining 10 percent online at Using a machine to screen candidates seemed to fly in the face of corporate culture.

But according to Giordano, the concern turned out to be unfounded. Candidate feedback was very positive. Applicants didn’t miss the personal contact. In fact, they liked the convenience of calling into the IVR system as soon as they read the ad. And they liked the idea of being able to hang up at any time if it turned out that the job didn’t seem to be what they wanted after all.

“It is so easy to apply,” said Giordano. “You don’t have to drive anywhere to pick up an application, fill it out, put it in a slot, and wait for somebody to read it. You just pick up the phone, listen to what we have to say, and—if you’re interested—continue through the dialogue.” The self-selection process saves a lot of time. Applicants learn a certain amount about the job QVC is looking to fill and the pay rate so they don’t end up sitting through interviews for jobs they ultimately aren’t interested in. And recruiters don’t end up scheduling interviews with candidates who look good on a resume but really don’t have the qualifications for the particular job.

Fine-tuning the script is key
To ensure widespread acceptance of the technology by the HR staff at each call center, QVC involved its HR teams in creating the IVR scripts. With help from HRMC’s HR experts, QVC developed a list of questions that satisfied its selection criteria. Giordano said that HR checks the scripts on a regular basis—especially before the hiring season begins—to ensure that they’re as effective as possible. “We actually call the job hotline and go through the phone interview,” explained Giordano, “and check for efficiencies in the script, like whether to move questions up or down in the queue to improve how the interview branches.”

When applicants apply via phone or the Web—an option added to QVC’s recruiting strategy in the past year—they're led through an interactive experience that approximates human dialogue. The Acclaim system evaluates callers in real time as the interview progresses, ranking them on an ongoing basis from most-suited to least-suited according to the requirements of that specific position. By the end of the interview, the workflow automation tool can actually schedule the caller for the next step in QVC’s recruiting process, such as arranging an appointment for a face-to-face interview with HR personnel. The Acclaim system can even be programmed to provide driving directions and later automatically contact scheduled candidates with a reminder of their interview appointment.

“Because the selection process is automated and centered on information obtained through a job-specific interview, rather than the contents of a resume designed to market the individual,” said Ron Selewach, president of HRMC, “the vetting and hiring process is easier and faster.” HR staff at the various QVC sites can search the database for candidate pools germane to their location and job openings. They can locate candidates meeting ad hoc specifications or simply view candidate listings, their credentials, and interview responses for specific positions.

Giordano concurred. “We hire between a thousand and two thousand seasonal, temp employees for our call centers each year,” said Giordano. “The time lag between receiving an applicant’s call and hiring is minimal with Acclaim. In essence, the system has enabled us to achieve our goal of just-in-time hiring.”

An added advantage of the myriad reports available to QVC from the Acclaim system is the ability to do sophisticated analysis on applicants and hiring practices. At the click of a mouse, the HR department can see such things as inadvertent discrimination patterns and other concerns that might leave the company vulnerable to employment sanctions.

Is automated candidate screening right for every company?
According to Giordano, implementing the HRMC Acclaim system has helped QVC significantly reduce the amount of money it channels into temporary recruiting staff and recruitment advertising dollars. But he cautions that what makes the decision such a fiscally sensible one for QVC may not apply to every company.

He suggests that before embarking on an automated candidate screening strategy, an HR department needs to think about the volume it will be putting through the system. In his opinion, the lower the volume, the more expensive it is to run a system like Acclaim. He recommends that company HR departments factor in the labor costs and the advertising costs to their recruiting program. Determine whether those expenses can be eliminated because the Acclaim system will handle it. If a company ultimately decides that it makes financial sense to proceed, he cautions that it run a pilot before introducing it to the company at large.

“Run a pilot on a few jobs and see how it goes,” said Giordano. “Work the kinks out. You’ll always have script changes when you run a pilot. You might think you have the perfect script, but then applicants go through it and you get some feedback that will help you make it better.”

Expanding the recruiting reach
While QVC first launched the Acclaim system to recruit seasonal order entry positions for its call centers, its initial success with the technology has led the electronic retailer to broaden its use. Today, QVC uses the Acclaim system to recruit packers and material handlers for its distribution centers and screen candidates for sales associate positions at its retail outlets.

Giordano attributes the success of its new distribution center in Rocky Mount, NC—opened in 2000—in part to the Acclaim system. “The ability to attract quality labor is a very important thing in a labor-intensive business like ours,” said Giordano. The Acclaim system is an integral part of that strategy.

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