Improving the Candidate Experience
As an I.C.E. community, we recognize the need to secure exams and adhere to accreditation standards to ensure quality. These practices are essential for protecting exam validity, ensuring legal defensibility and maintaining an organization’s brand and intellectual property. However, do candidates care about exam security? A small percentage may understand and appreciate that security is key to protecting brands and intellectual property, but most candidates’ opinions of the credential — and the likelihood of maintaining the certification — are often tied to other factors.
One of these factors is a candidate’s customer service experience. A candidate’s positive customer service experience is critical to a program’s reputation and bottom line. Certification bodies that provide less than optimal experiences for their exam candidates may pave the way for competition. Even if you currently have no competition, other similar organizations may decide the opportunity exists to step in and offer a better credentialing experience to your customers. Poor customer service may also delay or discourage candidates from entering the profession, which could hurt the industry and the public.
Organizations must understand the candidate’s perspective before identifying how to improve the candidate’s experience. We know taking an exam is stressful and test anxiety is real, especially when the credential is required for professional practice. Candidates invest emotion, time and money into becoming eligible for and preparing for an exam. So, what can you do to make the experience of taking your exam the best possible for your candidates, and where do you even begin?
A few common candidate frustrations include:
- Information about exams and policies on your website is hard to find
- Your policies are unclear, out of date or may seem unfair or arbitrary
- Eligibility requirements don’t reflect the current practice in the profession the organization certifies
- Your application process is cumbersome and confusing
- Inconsistent messaging (e.g., information is current on your website but not in automated emails)
Some points of dissatisfaction could even lead to costly legal issues for your organization:
- If your policies and eligibility requirements are outdated, candidates may have legal standing to sue your organization if they rely on this outdated information to their detriment
- Online applications with programming issues might approve ineligible candidates to take an exam or stop eligible candidates from testing
- Databases with inaccurate reports can lead to publicly sharing incorrect information, which could impact state-level regulatory decisions (with negative consequences for your organization)
- If staff training on new policies is not timely or is incomplete, staff may inadvertently give out incorrect information and impact a candidate’s ability to become certified or find employment
Alleviating Candidate Stress and Roadblocks
The stress of earning a credential could begin the moment the candidate visits your website and considers filling out your application. People often miss details, do not read thoroughly or may be averse to clicking through links.
Remove unnecessary roadblocks for candidates by taking the time to review all processes from their perspective. For example, at the Construction Manager Certification Institute (CMCI®), candidates initially felt the Certified Construction Manager® (CCM®) application process was cumbersome. When CMCI improved the application platform and streamlined the review process, there was a more than 300% increase in application submissions. CMCI’s changes included allowing applicant references, digital signatures and electronic copies of degrees.
Some strategies to consider the candidate’s application experience include:
- Regularly reviewing the information on your website, application handbook and the application itself
- Soliciting feedback from candidates and credential holders
- Offering regular refresher training to staff who manage applications and soliciting their feedback
Improving the Exam Experience
The exam experience can also be flawed. While credentialing bodies are focused on exam security, there are often opportunities to improve that will not compromise exams.
Remember, a candidate may be anxious. Once a candidate is approved to sit for the exam, they may head to a test center where they must prove their identity and attest to following the rules and policies, or else face serious legal consequences. They are then seated in a small cubicle, are monitored, recorded by video and audio and are often allowed limited breaks. Live remote proctoring is not necessarily easier or less stressful. While the candidate can choose their own testing location, most remotely proctored exams have room or space requirements limiting where the candidate can sit. Additional requirements like internet speed, browser, app access lockdowns or monitoring eye and body movement are the makings of a still stressful environment. While these requirements are in place for security purposes, it does not remove the added pressure on candidates to ensure measures are in place before and during the exam.
When it comes to test administration, selecting the right vendor can prove to be fruitful when it comes to the candidate’s experience. Candidates view vendors as an extension of your organization, so ensure they align with your culture and can meet your program’s specifications (within reason). Set expectations upfront — the vendor should deliver services that help your organization meet its goals. There are many measurable metrics, but ensuring the vendor is aware of your organizational values can help create a successful partnership.
Keep the Credential Top of Mind
Once the candidate has achieved the credential, the organization should ensure the credential holder remains proud of their achievement and sees the value of the certification. When credential holders see the value, are excited about their achievement and have a positive customer experience, they become an organization’s best marketing tool. Finding ways to invest in the credential holder’s excitement will demonstrate the need to recertify and encourage others to obtain the certification. This investment will increase both application submissions and retention during the renewal cycle.
The excitement begins when candidates receive their certificate. Consider offering paper certificates, even if it costs your organization more. Having a paper copy allows the credential holder to display the certificate and the certification body’s brand. That brand is often lost when printing an electronic copy, if the candidate decides to print it at all. Adding awards, like the credential holder of the year, is another great way to recognize their achievements and is an opportunity to tout the program publicly.
For example, CMCI has a webpage dedicated to various market segments that use the CCM in proposals and job descriptions. This page helps show the demand for and value of the certification. CMCI also provides free compensation and benefits research reports to credential holders. The report contains data on how credential holders are financially rewarded compared to those who have not earned the certification. By demonstrating value, the CCM saw a 21% increase in retention within the past 12 months.
Maintaining accreditation, staff, technologies, vendors, certificates, awards, research and marketing efforts costs money. While most organizations look to reduce costs by eliminating items of potential value to the candidate, it may be worthwhile to consider the impact each has on the overall program. When CMCI spent more money in areas seen as customer friendly, such as streamlining the application process and offering paper certificates and salary data, it positively impacted the program’s bottom line. In less than eight years, CMCI grew from $200K in revenue to over a million dollars. Expenses went up, but so did the net profit. The net began with a loss of $25K and has now grown to over $400K in that same time span.
Consider feedback from your candidates and credential holders as well. Focus groups and surveys are useful tools for understanding how customers value your credentials. For example, CMCI performs regular, anonymous surveys of test takers and credential holders. These surveys are independent of the satisfaction surveys that vendors offer, which allow staff to see unbiased feedback. Your customer service staff can also share insights based on the feedback they hear during their interactions with candidates and credential holders, which can help organizations identify issues and spot trends.
The candidate’s experience matters in every industry and every program. Invest the time (and money) to understand your organization’s target market, improve the candidate experience and eliminate or ease hurdles that might exist within your program. This will improve the candidate’s experience and have a huge impact on the success of the credential and your organization.
Getting started is likely only limited by your creativity. One method is to map out the candidate journey — identify every candidate touch point, no matter how minor. To ensure you identify all touchpoints, it will be imperative to involve key staff from each department and focus groups from the profession. It may be helpful to think of this like a job task analysis, where you identify every task the candidate must perform from application to certification renewal and the tools/knowledge required to perform each task competently. Once you have the tasks identified and in a logical order, you can identify the person or department responsible. You can use whatever it takes to express your candidate’s journey (e.g., graphs, flow charts, tables) in sufficient detail to identify opportunities for change to enhance your candidate’s experience.