Customer service from the representative’s side

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photograph of Mary Jo Monahan
Mary Jo Monahan, MSW, LCSW
ASWB Chief Executive Officer

I want to brag about one of ASWB’s most visible yet unseen teams: the candidate services representatives who staff our call center.

Providing customer service to exam candidates is a large part of what ASWB does, Monday through Friday. Our Candidate Services Center representatives handled 69,485 telephone calls in 2018. Think about that number. Despite a growing number of online registrations annually, candidates are still placing approximately 70,000 calls per year to talk to another person—not a chatbot—about the licensing exams.

While service provided is visible, the staff experiences in providing service are unseen. It’s a story that should be told, not only because I am proud of the work the team is doing but also because you should be aware of steps your association is taking to ensure that ASWB continues to provide a professional, safe, and ethical atmosphere and experience for both staff and exam candidates.

CSC staff are the folks who talk to exam candidates when they register to take their high-stakes licensing exams or have questions about the examination process or requirements. These front-line staff also handle emotionally charged calls from candidates who do not pass the exams. Despite receiving the brunt of emotions and rude behavior from candidates who fail the exams or feel stress about taking a high-stakes exam, the staff has responded professionally and respectfully. As needed, they escalate their concerns to supervisors and to me.

Message from the CEO

Increasing challenges prompt a call for expertise, support

Over the last three years the call center staff has received an increasing number of challenging and sometimes troubling phone calls from candidates. In 2018, these calls ranged from expressions of frustration, anger, and “righteous anger” to rude phone behavior such as name-calling, swearing, and hanging up. Shockingly, three calls included threats of self-harm.

Although ASWB continually trains our call center staff to follow high-quality customer service standards, we realized that we needed to do more to help staff both during and after they handle callers expressing such high emotions. As a support and solution, I hired a nonprofit consulting group, the Nonprofit Risk Management Center in Leesburg, Virginia, to conduct a limited scope risk assessment of ASWB Candidate Services.

Two consultants spent a full day on the ASWB campus observing and interviewing staff, conducted various telephone interviews, reviewed our internal policies and procedures, and conducted independent research. The CEO of the consulting group presented the results of the study and recommendations to the ASWB Board of Directors during the Board’s April meeting in Arlington, Virginia.

I am sharing an overview of the findings and recommendations with you because our exam candidates are your constituents and you should be aware of trends we are seeing. I am also sharing because I want you to be as proud as I am that your association is representing you well.

Trends and insights set the context

Seven trends and insights emerged from the consultants’ study.

  • Despite more candidates taking advantage of online registrations, the annual call volume remains steady because more candidates are calling with questions or to express their concerns and anxieties about “getting it right.”
  • Callers’ level of emotion is likely tied to the high-stakes nature of the licensing exams. Callers become aware of needing to follow specific rules and timelines to register for and take the exams. Other frustration points center on fees, the controlled testing environment, and the restrictions placed on candidates waiting to retest.
  • The process of becoming licensed may be overwhelming for candidates because of the complexities involved in multiple steps with the licensing board, ASWB, and the test administrator. This is more likely the experience of candidates who have not been exposed to licensing during their social work education or job experiences. The consultants suggest that as a result of feeling overwhelmed, candidates are giving themselves permission to vent their misunderstanding, anxiety, frustration, and anger on CSC staff.
  • Candidates are passionate about their chosen career as social workers and their pursuit of licensure because of a desire to help others. The consultants conclude that “the conversations with the Candidate Services team may have greater emotional content or stakes than conversations with more traditional service call centers.”
  • ASWB exam candidates, more than the general population, are often experienced and skilled at self-advocacy, and they have learned through their academic preparation and job experiences how to speak up for themselves, to seek information to accomplish their professional goals, and to disagree with rules when they have concerns about injustices. The consultants posit that this may be a “key driving force behind the anger and frustration” expressed by some callers who protest exam requirements or rules or who seek redress after one or more failed attempts to pass the exam.
  • Suicide deaths have increased steadily during the past 20 years, despite growing awareness and treatment strategies. Among those ages 15–34, suicide is now the leading cause of death. This demographic fits with the ASWB candidate population. Since the publication of the U.S. Surgeon General’s National Strategy for Suicide Prevention in 2001, public awareness of suicide and suicidal ideation has increased significantly, although the consultants also found a recent study concluding that social workers “felt unprepared to work effectively with clients at risk.”
  • Candidates who have less experience talking on the phone may be more inclined to become emotional or give themselves permission to engage in rude behavior. The consultants’ research showed that in 2015, time spent texting was five times the amount of time spent on phone calls.

Strengths of call center staff and procedures

The consultant team recognized the following strengths that ASWB has built into its call center procedures and policies.

  • “We were impressed to discover that the ASWB staff team is unified in its commitment to treat callers with respect and kindness in all circumstances, even when these qualities are not demonstrated in return”
  • ASWB has created a “culture of psychological safety” for staff to share their ideas and concerns, and in addition, has built a strong learning culture
  • ASWB has clear, up-to-date policies and resource materials and ASWB’s Operations Safety and Security Procedures Manual is a “best in class” resource covering myriad safety topics

Risk management recommendations

The consultants provided the following recommendations to mitigate and continue to manage risk.

  • Continue the established After-Action Review Process of Difficult Calls and formalize in policy
  • Create a reference guide for staff that captures frequently asked questions and answer prompts
  • Support ASWB staff’s intention to send an email follow-up to candidates who are not successful with clear options for next steps
  • In addition to ongoing training in customer service, provide educational briefings to the CSC staff on trends in the regulation of the social work profession and candidates’ educational preparation

Next steps

I am pleased to report that staff is already working on incorporating these recommendations and updating processes. In addition, the CSC is receiving positive feedback from candidates about the excellent job they are doing. Read more about the Candidate Services Center commitment to customer service.

I hope you share my pride in your association and staff!