by Sharon Florentine

Intensive Interview Process Ensures You Hire Top Tech Talent

Jul 10, 20148 mins
CareersIT JobsIT Leadership

Almost anyone can craft an impressive a resume, nail a phone interview and even ace an in-person interview. The key to finding and retaining the right talent is a rigorous (even stressful) screening and hiring process.

While many organizations struggle to retain top talent in a tight employment market, some firms are using intensive, rigorous hiring and training practices to ensure both that their hires are the right fit and that the employee stays for the long term.

“We haven’t seen anyone come through our door with the full skill set to do this job right off the bat,” says Joe Puckett, director of recruiting and training, Vitalyst.

Vitalyst, previously called PCHelp, is a 22-year-old application and device support helpdesk and migration support system with approximately 450 active clients, says Lori Zelko, Vitalyst’s senior vice president of marketing. The firm requires a specific type of person (not necessarily related to the technical and administrative skill sets), Zelko says, and that’s the focus in much of the hiring, interviewing and training process.

Hire for Fit, Train for Skills

“When we interview someone with the intent to hire, we know we’re going to have to train them,” Zelko says. “That’s a given. So, we don’t worry about that aspect too much at first – what we focus on is a certain personality type; we focus on, ‘Can they survive the training programs and handle all these processes?’ and just as important: ‘Are they willing to do so?'” Zelko says.

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“We’re looking for people who can give us and our customers a flawless service experience, first,” says Puckett. “That speaks more to a ‘type of person’ we’re looking for, not an existing skillset, so we use a series of tests and training programs: ‘normed’ tests that are template and geared to accurately identify the results we want,” he says.

In addition to a full background check, potential hires at Vitalyst must also go through a Wonderlic pre-employment assessment test and a series of four interviews, says Puckett.

Intensive Interviewing Pays Off

“Our process involves four interviews; the first is conducted by a productivity consultant. The potential hire meets with the consultant so they get a sense of the ins-and-outs of the job they will be doing. Then, there’s a team leader/supervisor interview, then there’s a company-wide interview that includes people from our recruiting and training department and one of our administrative folks, and finally there’s a fourth interview to go into detail about their specific job,” Puckett says. Once those steps are completed, he says, it’s much easier to gain a clear picture of the candidate and if they’ll be a good fit for the company.

“If we get to that point, we can be pretty sure they fit in. But at this juncture, they also need to decide if they fit, and if they want to continue – if they’re not happy with where they are and what they’ll be doing, there’s no point in going further. It won’t work out for either the company or the employee,” he says.

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If candidates do decide to continue, Puckett says, what follows is a three-month, proprietary training program to address both technical skills and customer service training, says Puckett. The training focuses on honing candidates technical knowledge as well as their interpersonal and problem-solving skills, and helps develop critical thinking, too.

“We want a person who’s fully satisfied by helping others, and who also has a deep problem-solving bent,” he says. “Some of the training courses are focused on learning the software suites they’ll be supporting for customers, but it’s also about understanding what they don’t know, where they can turn to find answers, and how to apply critical thinking skills to solve customers’ problems,” he says.

Puckett adds that the dropout rate is fairly low for candidates who go through the program, and while the average training period is three months, that can be modified depending on each candidate’s needs and aptitude.

“The standard amount of time is three months, but sometimes it can take a bit longer, or can be accelerated,” Puckett says. “If we feel a person will be amazing but might need a little more support, we put in the time to get them there. We know that investing in our people is the best thing we can do for our business, because that’s what’s going to give the best results for our customers,” he says.

Hiring for the Customer Experience is Key

While this type of intensive, up-front hiring and screening process can work for almost any industry, it’s especially important for firms that are mostly customer-facing, says Maren Donovan, CEO of Zirtual, which provides staffing of virtual assistants worldwide.

“The ‘normal’ hiring process is broken, the way we see it,” Donovan says. “We see and hear so often that companies don’t want to spend the money to do this kind of screening and training upfront, but that’s counterproductive. If you’re constantly hiring the ‘wrong’ people who leave in just a few months, or who aren’t the right fit, you’ll end up spending more in the long run than if you’d just done it ‘right’ to begin with,” Donovan says.

Calling a Candidate’s Bluff

“So often, candidates can bluff their way through these traditional interview processes; companies only figure out after a couple months that the person isn’t good at their job or is a poor cultural fit,” Donovan says. An intensive, rigorous screening and hiring process can help reduce the number of bad hires and decrease turnover rate, she says.

Zirtual’s hiring process is focused on determining how well potential employees will perform their day-to-day responsibilities, so the process starts by asking them to leave a 60-second voicemail outlining how they’d benefit the company and clients, why they want to work with Zirtual and why they’d be a perfect fit, says Donovan.

“If you’re working for us as a virtual assistant, you must be able to follow instructions; that’s one of the key things we’re looking for during this stage,” Donovan says. “From there, once we’ve reviewed their voice mail, we send an email with detailed directions that they must follow to the letter. If anything’s amiss, the candidate is disqualified,” she says. This might sound harsh, but at this point in the process the candidate will be putting his or her best foot forward, and if that’s not up to par, it’ll only get worse, she says.

Hiring for the Long Haul

“This is when they’ll be trying their hardest; if they’re making small mistakes now, they’ll almost certainly make larger mistakes down the line, and we need to separate the wheat from the chaff early on,” Donovan says.

If candidates make it through this stage, they are assigned a task to perform for a “client,” Donovan says. These tasks are to further test candidates’ ability to follow instructions but also are geared toward digging into their core values, strengths and how they would use those in their employment, she says. The same task is sent to all candidates, whether that’s booking travel, doing research for a “client” presentation or looking up available dining options in a specific areas.

This part of the process is scored, and only those who receive an 85 percent or above move on to the next phase, says Donovan, which involves phone interviews. The final step of the process is an interview that involves Donovan herself, and is usually sprung on the candidates at the last minute.

Stress Test Highlights Potential Issues

“During this second phone interview, I’m brought in and I get to put my ‘stamp of approval’ on the hire,” she says. “It also serves as a stress test – they don’t know they’ll be speaking with the CEO, and so this becomes a great way to gauge how they deal with the unexpected and being in a position of stress and under pressure,” she says.

What businesses can learn from these examples is that people are their most important asset, Donovan says. By focusing attention and resources on the initial stages of their employment, she says, employees are far more engaged and buy into the company’s mission and values.

“If you invest in your people from the very beginning, and demonstrate that commitment to helping them do the best job they can at a place that is right for them, they become personally invested in the company,” Donovan says. “They feel very special, and they are willing to go the extra mile for you because you have done so for them,” she says.