Time to catch up with Sally Brearley on all things customer service, contact centre, complaints, and collections recruitment.
Managing Consultant Sally was instrumental in launching MERJE’s thriving customer service recruitment desk more than five years ago and now recruits across a varied range of permanent, temporary, and contract roles. Sally and the team have grown their repertoire over the years, now using their expertise to recruit for customer service, sales and business development, collections, resource planning, complaints handling, HR, business support, and more.
This encompasses entry-level roles to team managers across a host of market sectors, including financial services, insurance, retail, outsourcing, travel, utilities, housing, and telecommunications, to name a few.
So Sally, what do you like most about MERJE as a business?
I feel so lucky to work for MERJE as they offer a flexible work-life balance and trust you to do your job the way that works best for you, which means I never miss a parents evening, a Christmas concert or sports day. Family most definitely comes first and you’re not made to feel guilty about it.
I work with some incredibly talented and inspirational individuals who have brilliant reputations in the marketplaces we operate across, and this makes me very proud and happy to come to work every day. We also have very honest and approachable directors who really do put their people first, which means we are well looked after.
What are the key changes you've observed across the recruitment industry since starting your career?
Changes within the recruitment industry have been more prominent in the past three years than the whole 15 years I‘ve been working in recruitment. Covid has most definitely shifted the way companies now recruit, with them offering more flexibility to attract and retain the right candidates.
I also see a lot more clients doing all they can to ensure they are recruiting candidates with a diverse background and engaging in social responsibility. The market we are currently in is very candidate-led, which has evolved from being predominantly client-led over the past two years. It’s good to see how some clients are adapting their interview process to allow for this.
What are the top challenges, issues and factors customer service, collections and complaints faces right now?
From a client perspective, the challenges in recruiting these roles are purely down to the lack of candidates. From a candidate perspective, they are reluctant to move because they already have a stable job or other companies are not paying enough of a salary increase or offering enticing incentives to persuade people to move.
If you’re a candidate working in this field, there are difficulties in offering customers a satisfactory solution because of staff shortages. This is putting pressure on teams, leading to standards slipping and SLAs being missed, which has a huge knock-on effect to customers looking for help or support.
As more customers are making contact with these teams, especially since the cost-of-living crisis, there is increased pressure being placed on internal teams, as they deal with multiple queries at once and therefore have too many plates to spin.
Has the current cost-of-living crisis had an impact on customer service recruitment? If so, how and what do you think the long term effects will be?
Definitely! As mentioned above, candidates are reluctant to move for little or no pay increase and this is having an effect on the number of candidates applying for jobs. We are also seeing a higher level of drop-outs at interview or offer stage, due to candidates feeling reluctant to move from a stable job into a new role with a probationary period, or being counter-offered with their current employer.
I think that longer term, companies need to look at standing out from other companies by offering more flexible working options, higher salaries or better benefits. If they can’t offer this, then they need to think about how they can attract different candidates with transferable skills, lower their expectations in the skill-sets they are looking for and take more time to train lower skilled candidates.
What do you predict will be the next ‘big thing’ when it comes to contact centre recruitment? What would you like to see personally?
My prediction is that we will see a huge increase in the demand for collections and complaints jobs and I can already see this with some of the clients we work with. With the cost-of-living crisis, and especially the increase of mortgage rates, we may also see a rise in social housing roles.
I personally love to recruit these types of jobs and, with the constant development in AI tech, recruitment in general customer services is diminishing. However, with collections and complaints, customers do still want human interaction. After all, as clever as AI is, it cannot show human empathy when dealing with customers who might find themselves in vulnerable situations.
What are your top tips for companies hiring in the current climate?
Start by offering an positive candidate journey by being quick to go back to candidates after receiving their CV or following an interview. If you only see one candidate and they are perfect for that job, don’t ask to see a comparison because that amazing candidate will be offered a job somewhere else in the meantime, and you’ll inevitably lose them. Advertise your vacant roles simply and try to include an exact salary, rather than a salary range.
When partnering with a recruiter, build good relationships with them and try to use only one so that the agency you partner with gives your job their full attention, knowing they have a better chance of filling that job. Take the time to meet your recruiter and invite them to visit your site as it’s so much easier for a recruiter to match the perfect candidate if they understand your environment and ethos and have met some of the wider team members.
Any key advice for candidates too? For example, what are the top skills customer service employers want?
For agent level candidates, make sure the dates (month and year) are accurate on your CV, explain all employment gaps, and enter a good profile about your skills and what you want to do. Use bullet points to list your responsibilities in previous jobs and make sure you use spell check before sending. Try not to jump around too much from job to job.
For customer service roles, some clients will look at previous hospitality or retail experience, so ensure you put all your customer experience on the CV. If you get an interview, make sure you fully research the company and ask what sort of interview it is so you can prepare accordingly. A lot of customer service interviews are based around personality, not skill, so if you get an interview when you have limited experience, make sure your personality shines through.
Most importantly, don’t burn your bridges with the recruiters. If you are no longer interested, unable to attend an interview, or you change your mind about a job you have accepted - these things happen, but you must always ensure you let the company or recruiter know. You never know when your paths may cross in the future.
What are your ambitions for your team?
I’m really excited about the team, not least because we have some changes approaching, with more details to follow soon, but our team is stronger than ever before. We have worked with some amazing clients and candidates over the years and have long and trusted relationships with them. Last year was challenging for many recruiters, and having these strong relationships in place has set us in good stead to still perform well. I would love to grow our offering and we are making a few tweaks in 2024, with the potential to increase the team, so watch this space…
What are your personal ambitions during your time at MERJE?
Since joining MERJE back in April 2018, my aim was to grow my desk by supporting clients and candidates with entry level to team manager level roles. It was just myself at the time and I quickly introduced Lucy Waddock to the team, who has been such an amazing addition.
We have since grown to a team of five and we now cover all customer contact, business support, sales and service type roles within all industries. I am very proud of achieving this ambition from when I first started with MERJE almost six years ago.
My future ambitions for the team are to define our client offerings, by developing our existing team members and hiring industry experts, who can add value to the exceptional service we already offer both clients and candidates.
What’s your favourite MERJE moment so far?
The day I started at MERJE was pretty special as it was the best career decision I ever made and I’ve never looked back! Our Head of Business Support, Jo Donlon, really puts hard work into arranging our office social events, whether it’s the Christmas party or a summer outing. I have to say though, the Barcelona trip was pretty special and one I certainly won’t forget!
The last podcast you listened to?
My Dad Wrote a Porno – it’s truly hilarious!
The tune that gets you on the dance floor?
Anything – I love to dance.
Favourite childhood memory?
Christmas was always so magical for us as children - it was a time for family, fun, and laughter. I would love to have been able to bottle that magical feeling that my two sisters and I got over the Christmas holidays as they hold such special memories for us. I also used to love our family holidays every summer. To this day, they are still both my favourite times of the year as an adult and I try to re-create that same magical experience for my family now.
Mastermind specialist subject?
It’s got to be song lyrics of the 70s, 80s, and 90s.
If you're looking for your next role or hiring for your team in complaints, collections, customer service, business support, or similar areas, get in touch today!