SI Review: September 2011

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After the Assignment

Tips for productive exit interviews with clients and workers

By Margaret Steen

Once a temporary worker has completed an assignment or been brought on in a permanent position, you may think your staffing firm’s job is over. But in fact, both the worker and the company where he or she was placed can still give you valuable information.

If done right, post-placement interviews can help you improve your customer service, place the worker again and even get new business.

“The staffing industry is one of those businesses where knowledge is power,” said Scott Wintrip, founder and president of StaffingU, which provides training, coaching and consulting for staffing and recruiting firms.

These exit interviews are standard practice at some staffing companies. Some even call to check in with their clients and the workers they have placed in the middle of a long assignment. Experts say firms that don’t follow up after a job is over, or those that do so only if a customer has complained, are passing up a valuable source of information.

“Staffing owners miss this opportunity because they don’t put the right emphasis on it,” says Lynne Mesmer, CEO of Creative Management Consultants, which consults to the staffing industry. “They don’t do it, or they don’t do it enough, or they don’t do it the right way.”

Experts offer the following advice about how to get the most out of exit interviews.

The Players

First, who conducts the interview is important. Postassigment interviews could be conducted by the staffing firm’s owner, an employee of the firm or an outside consultant. The key is to be sure the person was not involved in the placement.

Sometimes people hold back because they don’t want to hurt the feelings of the people they work with, Wintrip says.

Mesmer performs this service for her client staffing firms. “We have found that the customers, whether it be a temporary employee or the client, seem to be very, very open and honest and willing to talk to a third party,” she says.

Meanwhile, it’s important that both the worker and the client get a chance to provide feedback. Ideally, you would interview both at the end of each assignment, Wintrip says. But this may not be realistic. Mesmer recommends a combination of spot-checking — randomly choosing some recently completed assignments for evaluation — and focusing on certain clients.

How to choose those specific clients? Staffing firms often check in with their largest clients, or those with whom they hope to do repeat business. They will also add a client to the list if there has been a complaint or a problem.

For each client, try to talk to the person who supervised the temporary worker. That’s the person who will really know how well the placement worked.

Methods

While the easiest way is to send an evaluation form or a link to an online survey, these methods are easily ignored.

Many staffing firms “send it out like it’s bulk mail,” Mesmer says. “They don’t make it important.” The result: very few responses. “People don’t have the time; they’re too busy,” says Amy Munroe, chief operating officer of Staffing E-Trainer, which offers training to the staffing industry.

Most experts recommend trying to either meet with the client and worker in person or talk on the phone.

Phone calls and in-person meetings are so time-consuming, however, that they may not be feasible for every assignment. One possibility is a mix of approaches, says Barbara J. Bruno, CEO of Good as Gold Training, who trains recruiters and runs her own staffing agency. Call the people involved with your key accounts and send surveys to the rest, she advises.

Participation

Whichever interview method you choose, it can be difficult to get participation. “You would think it would be easy to get information from both the candidate and the client, but unless they see why it would benefit them, it’s impossible,” Bruno says. It’s important to set expectations from the beginning.

“My whole philosophy centers on maintaining close relationships” with clients and workers, says Stephen Grant, founder and principal of the Stephen-Russell Group, a consultant to staffing companies. Temporary employees, for example, will be more likely to take the time to talk if they feel that the interview “is not a burden, it’s more of an interest in their situation, in their career development.”

This is important — even when a temporary employee has taken a permanent position. “Nothing is forever,” Grant says. You want that employee to think of your firm when he or she is looking for a new job down the road.

Bruno recommends explaining early on that you’ll be asking for feedback.

“You have to set the stage before you place somebody in a job,” Bruno says. Explain what you’ll do for the worker and what you expect in return — including feedback. This works with client companies as well.

It’s crucial to explain how giving the information will help both parties. You can tell client companies their feedback will help you identify the best candidates to send them in the future, for example. You can tell workers that their feedback will help you fine tune which opportunities you’ll present to them.

Bruno suggests using the phrase, “I take my direction from you,” which empowers both the client and the candidate.

It’s also important to make clear what you’ll do with the information — including what you’ll keep confidential. For example, Wintrip suggests explaining that you compile all the feedback so no one person’s answers are singled out. “I want to make it safe and easy for that person to be as direct and honest as they can be,” he says.

If you’re sending out surveys that you want workers to fill out, an incentive may help, Bruno says. A bus token, a Starbucks gift card, a $10 gift certificate once the survey is completed — any of these may help increase your response rate.

“People do things for their own reasons, not because they’re trying to help us,” Bruno says.

Client companies may be motivated by a promise to share trends in the industry with them. So if you survey enough clients in the same industry to get a handle on trends, compile that information for those who answered your questions — without identifying any of them individually.

Make it Count

Experts advise asking no more than 10 questions — so you need to make the most of each one. Well-designed interviews can help you learn about flaws — or areas for improvement — in your own procedures; definitely fix them. It will improve your business practices and impress the client or worker who pointed them out.

“When temporary employees give you feedback about something that they’d like to see changed, and they see the staffing company making that change, it’s pretty powerful stuff,” Mesmer says. The same is true for client companies.

Also, in some cases you may learn something from one party that would be helpful to the other: an employer explains why an employee wasn’t offered a permanent position, for example, or an employee has an idea for how the company where he or she was placed could save money.

If you can share this without breaking a confidence, by all means do so, Munroe says. “My purpose with the call is to try to make my partnership stronger with them. I’m building a long-term relationship.”

Pitfalls to Avoid

Although you should always try to talk with the person at the client company who actually supervised the workers, instead of the HR representative, this may not always be possible. “Unfortunately the information will at times be limited, because their experience will have been limited as well,” Wintrip says. If this happens, go ahead and get as much information as you can from the HR rep.

It’s also tricky to strike the right balance between getting information about possible future business and turning your exit interview into a sales call.

“If someone mentions a need, you don’t want to go into a high, hard, fast sales pitch,” Wintrip says. There’s nothing wrong with asking, “How can I help you with that?” But you don’t want the client to think you were being deceptive about your true purpose when you asked for feedback.

Exit interviews help you improve your business — and also find new employees to place and openings to fill.

Well-done post-assignment interviews can help you make sure you aren’t slipping and ceding ground to competitors. “It’s an incredibly competitive business,” Grant says. “All it takes is one little slip for the other guys to come running in and take the business.”

You can also learn about your clients from the employees who worked there: “You find out everything that’s going on in these companies,” Mesmer says.

Talking to the supervisors at your client company will expand your range of contacts in that company, Munroe says.

Finally, making the effort to ask for feedback will likely make a good impression with both clients and employees. Mesmer, for example, often hears from the companies she calls on behalf of her clients, “Wow, I’m just impressed that they bothered to follow up.”

“If somebody’s thinking they don’t have time to do this, they can’t afford not to,” Wintrip says.

Margaret Steen is a freelance writer in Los Altos, Calif., who writes about business and the workplace.

[SIDEBAR]

Exit Interview Questions

Depending on the format of your interview, you may want to use a numerical scale for answers, or just let the person reply. Experts offer these suggestions for specific questions to ask after an assignment is over:

Questions for employees:

  • If you’re taking an assignment with another firm, why are you moving on?
  • How did the actual job duties and work environment compare with how we presented the assignment to you?
  • Would you want to work for this company again?
  • Were the working conditions safe?
  • What else should I know about the company and the work conditions?
  • Was our communication with you positive and timely?
  • What other departments in the company use contingent workers? Who are the hiring authorities?
  • What problems does the company need to solve?
  • We’re looking for people to fill positions in these fields. Can you recommend anyone?

Questions for clients:

  • If the employee was not offered an available permanent position, why not?
  • How did the employee’s abilities match up with what we promised?
  • Was the employee a good fit for your company?
  • Would you want this employee to work at your site again?
  • Was our communication with you positive and timely?
  • Is there a service that has been provided to you by another staffing company that we did not provide that you would like to have?
  • What else can we help you with right now?

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