Smart hiring

 by Vilis Ozols, MBA, CSP

This article has been reprinted in various trade publications and corporate newsletters. (click here for information about reprinting these articles)

One of your strongest tools in increasing your collections is to improve your hiring and interviewing. The reality is that with better hiring you have better employees and are less likely to have to deal with turnover and attrition and more likely to have someone who will become a better and better collector the longer they are with you.

Have you ever been fooled by a candidate?

Doesn’t it seem that as the person conducting an interview we are at a disadvantage? The truth is that in some ways we are. Candidates can study a myriad of books and take classes and career counseling sessions to prepare for an interview. They take their background and history and position it in the best light, accentuating (sometimes perhaps even embellishing) their accomplishments and downplaying, hiding or sometimes even omitting any signs of negatives in their past. But there are some things as an employer that you can do to bring the equation back into equilibrium and to help make your hiring a strength to build your agency on.

What’s the best indicator of future success of a candidate?

This is a question that comes up often in hiring, in human resources roundtable discussions and in sports coaching. Let me give you my take on it. I believe that the best indicator of future performance is past success. If you are hiring someone and if their entire interview and resume review suggests that they have not experienced successes in any aspect of their past endeavors, it is highly unlikely that being in your employ they will suddenly be a star producer. One of the biggest mistakes we make in hiring is expecting someone with no record of success to be awesome this time around. Let’s face it; these are usually the candidates, who are the most charismatic, say the right things and yet have not delivered in the past. So the first secret of successful hiring: If the candidate has no record of past success and you hire them … it is buyer beware time.

Have more than one person interview the candidate:

A simple strategy is to have more than one person be a part of the interview process. It is much more difficult to fool a group of people. Additionally, multiple perspectives will usually yield a better answer. Another strong technique is to require a candidate to sit through more than one interview. Candidates can easily to make up ideal answers one time, but it gets harder to stick to a façade on successive interviews.

Interview in Context:

The bottom line in collections is that the candidate will be on the phone a lot and needs to be competent on the phone. So when you’re interviewing, at least some part of the interview should also be done on the phone. The impression they leave with you on the phone is more important and more in context than the one they leave in person. Ask them to call you back on Monday at a certain time and see how they do.

Benchmark against Your Stars

One of the things they teach candidates in a “taking an interview” workshop is to realize that all employers are looking for the same things and will ask essentially the same questions: “Where do you expect to be in five years? What’s your biggest accomplishment at your last job? What’s your biggest weakness?”, etc., etc.  If you fall into the trap of looking for the same basic things and asking the same basic questions, you’re likely to get the same basic employee if you’re lucky … and more likely to get repeated bad-hires instead.

There are a couple of solutions for dealing with memorized answers that position a candidate with skills or attributes that they may not really have. The first approach as an interviewer is to use a different and ideally more appropriate set of benchmarks to measure what you are really looking for in a candidate. This way candidates do not know the specifics of what you’re looking for and you can be more objective in rating your candidates.

Here’s how it works. Sit down with your management team and identify who the stars in your organization are. Then make up a list of four or five attributes that these stars have that sets them apart from the mainstream employees. Now what you do is set up a simple chart that you use to rate each of your candidatures on a ten point scale in these five key areas. The interesting thing is that you may have a somewhat non-traditional list. Some of the things that may show up are: Does things right away, doesn’t procrastinate, sense of humor, doesn’t get stressed, sets high goals, is very competitive, has great follow up skills— to name a few.  So now when you are interviewing, you are rating the candidates in a nontraditional way that puts you at an advantage and doesn’t allow the candidate to prepare for the interview to fool you.

The Waterfall Questioning Technique:

Have you ever watched an attorney in a courtroom drama ask questions? They go to school to learn how to interview effectively. Notice what they do. They will ask the witness a question that the witness is expecting.  Their goal is to lock that witness into the story. Then they ask secondary, tertiary, ancillary and tangential questions getting into the details of the story. The reality is that the first question they asked wasn’t the information they were looking for. It was the sixth or seventh question that they really had hoped to get the answer for to make their case.

As an interviewer we can use this technique to really understand a candidate and measure them against our hiring criteria. The secret is to ask the first question that the candidate is expecting. Once the candidate has locked themselves into a story you then ask follow up questions using their answer as a jumping off point, water falling down to the desired information that you are really looking for. This is particularly effective when looking for something that the candidate wasn’t really expecting.

Let me give you an example: Most candidates expect the interview question: What’s your greatest weakness? They have practiced their answer and usually come up with something like: “I work too hard. Early in! Late to leave! It’s just a weakness that I have.” Most interviewers leave it at that and they have settled for a “canned” answer that tells them nothing about the candidate (except what the candidate wants you to believe).

Here’s how you make this work to your advantage.  Let’s say the real skill that you are looking for is “someone who is constantly striving to be better at what they do.” The “what’s your biggest weakness?” question is a great one. See, you’re not looking for their biggest weakness; you are looking to lock them into a story about their weakness that you are now going to ask how are they “constantly striving to be better at what they do” types of questions. Some waterfall questions you might ask after they give you the pat “I work too hard” answer are: “So, what have you done to correct that?”  “How have you improved in that area in the past year?” “What where your goals in dealing with this issue and how well have you done in reaching those goals?”

Real World Questions:

The final technique that you can use to gauge a prospect is to use real work examples or situations from your collections floor and then rate your candidate on how they did with their answers. I like to pick situations that your “stars” tend to handle really well, and that your mainstream employees may struggle with. Interestingly enough, there doesn’t even have to be a “right” answer. Maybe it’s a situation where the debtor really gets into a pickle through an internal error you’ve made and your candidate is the one that got the call to resolve or deal with the issue. Maybe it’s a garnishment that has an extra zero in it, or a payment schedule that was supposed to end, but went an extra month and got withdrawn from the debtor’s bank account– causing other checks to bounce. Even though there may not be a “right” answer, there may be a “best” answer, an “ideal” way, or a desired set of skills that you are looking for and this is what you are rating the candidate on. You can have fun with coming up with these types of questions. Just be consistent and present the same scenario to each of your candidates.

The goal is not to be deceptive in these techniques but to use them to peel away the layers of a canned or prepared set of answers that a candidate might try give you. Remember Dante’s definition of insanity: “If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten.” If your current interviewing techniques are yielding higher than desired attrition, maybe it’s time to take a non-traditional approach to the way you are interviewing and assessing your collection candidates.

Vilis Ozols, MBA, CSP, ( president of the Ozols Business Group in Southwest Florida (Orlando, Tampa, Sarasota), is a motivational business speaker and leadership consultant. He is the author of 3 books, he’s a former pro beach volleyball player and he has spoken to businesses in all 50 U.S. states.