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Balance at Work

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Below is one of the original Harrison Assessment case studies from 30 years ago! For those too young to know, the CES (now called Centrelink) is the Australian government employment service.

We revisit this case today knowing that employers and recruiters continue to struggle with assessing job fit.

The Challenge

It was 1990; BP and the Australian Commonwealth Employment Service (CES, now Centrelink) had a problem. They were jointly running a program to provide long-term, unemployed teenagers with jobs as forecourt attendants at their service stations (gas stations). The government provided the customer service training followed by 3 months of subsidised salary, while BP provided full time jobs for successful trainees. Initially, only 1 in 5 trainees were still employed at the end of the 3 month period.

With training and subsidies approaching $20,000 per head, the future of the entire program was at risk. Results from programs with other employers were equally poor. It was unlikely that the high attrition rate could be attributed to BP, or the job itself. The problem seemed to be that far too many of the candidates being placed into the program were unsuitable for customer service roles.

To ensure that the program continued, it was imperative to increase the retention rate. BP was unlikely to retain interest if the quality of the potential employees remained low; and, it was of little benefit to the long-term unemployed teenagers to be trained for a job in which they had little interest. To increase employee retention, the objectives now were to improve the overall quality of applicants, and match the teenagers with jobs they would be happy with and successfull at.

What makes a good forecourt attendant?

BP/CES needed to define what success looked like for this role and establish which personal characteristics might indicate the candidate could be a first-class customer service representative. After all, only 1 in 5 of the new hires who had started the course were successful. Was there a pattern or aspects of their personality that differed from the 4 in 5 who were unsucessful in the program?

If there were differences, applicants could be effectively cast into customer service roles, just as a director casts actors in a play. Many people can play Romeo, but only actors with certain characteristics are suited to playing the great lover successfully.

At this point, BP/CES approached Harrison Assessments (HA) who developed an assessment which measurs a large number of behavioural tendencies, interests, and preferences. The Harrison Assessment is based on 2 underlying theories.

  • Enjoyment-Performance Theory states that if an individual enjoys performing a certain task or behavour, they will tend to do it more often, and as a result, become better developed in them. Once better developed, one may receive positive feedback from others or even themselves, reinforcing their enjoyment of the task or behaviour. Conversely, this applies to those tasks and behaviours we don't enjoy, that we tend to procrastinate or even avoid. We will do them less often or not at all, prohibiting improvement. We therefore may receive negative feedback which reinforces our tendency to not enjoy them.
  • Paradox Theory is more complicated. A Paradox is made up of 2 traits, that appear contradictory, or mutually exclusive, (e.g. Diplomacy and Frankness), but are in fact complementary. Harrison doesn't simply measure whether an individual tends to be more diplomatic or more frank, but measures both traits independently. An individual who tends to be both very frank and very diplomatic will be a far better communicator than someone tends to be neither.

To begin defining success in this role, Harrison Assessments ultimately examined 130 behavioural traits from a number of previously successful and unsuccessful forecourt attendants. The results indeed showed that there were a number of characteristics that contributed to success as a customer service representative in the forecourt environment.

Just as a casting director looks for sensitive eyes and a lithe grace for his Romeo (essential traits), our star customer service staff shared the following:

Essential Traits - Forecourt Attendant

  • Warmth/Empathy
  • Diplomatic
  • Outgoing (extroversion)
  • Helpful
  • Tolerance of Bluntness (tolerance of customers who are rude or blunt)
  • Enlists cooperation
  • Organised
  • Self-Motivated

In addition, a number of traits were found to be counter productive to customer service performance.

Counter Productive Traits - Forecourt Attendant

  • Rebellious
  • Blunt
  • Dogmatic
  • Harsh (excessive strictness).

The case for pre-hire screening

Just as even a suitable actor couldn't play Romeo without preparation, rehearsal, and direction - customer service staff require proper training and experience before they can be successful.

Before training thought, candidates had to be selected and interviewed. So, armed with the new pre-screening system, a panel of BP and CES staff interviewed teenage applicants for the forecourt attendant training program. None of the applicants were guaranteed a job if they were selected for the course, but they clearly had an advantage if they did well.

Many on the panel were experienced recruiters and were sceptical of the pre-screening process, therefore despite the results of the screening before the interview, they still accepted several applicants where the system indicated poor fit - they did not have the right level and/or mix of behavioural traits to potentially succeed in this job. Unfortunately for the panel, the pre-screening was proven accurate, and the applicants with low suitability scores began to seriously disrupt the course.

This led the panel to rethink the pre-screening process on subsequent courses and only those applicants who were both suitable for customer service, and did well in the interview, were accepted for training. It is important to note that the screening was an add-on to their recruitment process, not a replacement for face-to-face interaction.

The Job

Upon successfully completing the course, the trainees were invited to apply for a role as a BP forecourt attendant and there was no compulsion for them to do so. During the first 3 months, BP conducted mystery shopping research at their service stations to gauge the level of customer service experience the graduates were providing. The results were very pleasing.

The Results

Retention up 83%

Overall, 601 long-term, unemployed teenagers applied for the BP/CES program.

  • 94 made it through the screening and interview process to begin training.
  • 95% of the applicants predicted to succeed completed the course successfully.
  • 4 of the 6 applicants rated as unsuitable failed to complete the course.

By the end of the 3 month, subsidised employment period:

  • The numbers of previously long-term, unemployed teenagers who remained in the job had risen from 19% to 83%!
  • These same teenagers were achieving customer service ratings (from mystery shopper surveys) 15% higher than the national average.
  • Sales in stores with these teenagers reported sales increases of up to 25% on some product lines.

The CES estimated the savings in training costs, realised by selecting only those applicants who were suitable for a customer service role, to be over $1,000,000 across the 5 courses.

The Lessons

Customer service is the face of an organisation and represents to the world how an organisation interacts with its customers, and can even define the organisation itself. Dealing with people who are genuinely warm and helpful is a pleasurable and positive experience for the customer.

By choosing to define what good customer service looks like, what characteristics contribute to sucess, and implementing a simple screening process for their applicants, BP made an enormous positive difference to their profits and, their customer experience, but most importantly, they gave a potentially life-changing opportunity to a large group of previously unemployed teenagers.

About the Author

Andrew O'Connell formed Omni HR Solutions in Perth, Western Australia, in 1987 to develop HR information systems. With Dan Harrison, Andrew developed the software for Omni InnerView, which has evolved into Harrison Assessments. Still developing HR systems in Port Stephens, NSW, Andrew is still actively involved with Harrison Assessments and can be contacted at

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