Strategies for Hiring in a Virtual Call Center

By Mary Naylor

As more call centers transition to a partially or fully home-based model, the improved capabilities of a virtual workforce are crystallizing. Managers are embracing benefits such as expanded labor pools, advanced language capabilities, targeted skill-sets, enhanced peak coverage, and 24/7 support, all at a lower price point than the conventional call center model.

The allure of hiring individuals in virtually any market, as well as being able to provide unique skills and certifications or specific work experiences can be an enticing prospect for call center managers.  There are, however, several challenges that must be addressed for a company to fully realize these benefits.

Recruiting a remote team of agents is a new concept for many call centers. In these instances, it is not possible to recruit agents in the same manner that operations have grown accustomed to. It can be a daunting task, even for a seasoned professional, to transition entrenched hiring practices from local outreaches to a national campaign.

Here are a few tips to ensure your new home-based agents are screened and recruited just as thoroughly as their traditional bricks-and-mortar counterparts. Many of these strategies utilize resources that most organizations already have at their disposal.

Think Globally, Act Locally: Virtual call centers are intriguing because of potential cost savings, such as reduced overhead (physical expansion, rent, computers) and improved quality (lower attrition, more experienced agents). At the same time, decision-makers might pause when they consider the potential cost of a national recruiting campaign. Many national job boards charge a separate fee for each city where the ad is posted, making the cost of multiple local media ad placements cost-prohibitive for most companies.

By strategically targeting areas that have the greatest return on your dollar and available time, call centers can effectively prescreen cities and regions without spending a dime. A few of the factors to consider include:

  • Areas with preexisting call centers: These areas already have experienced call center agents, many of whom would gladly trade their commute to perform nearly the same job functions from home.
  • Unemployment rate: A city with a low unemployment rate will yield a lower percentage of qualified applicants; likewise, an area that has fallen on difficult times is likely to have a greater pool of applicants from which your organization can select. Also, when a call center downsizes or moves, each agent becomes an experienced potential applicant.
  • Cost of living: Not all wages are created equally – a dollar in Duluth goes farther than a dollar in Manhattan. If cost pressures provide scant financial flexibility, then finding equally qualified agents in areas where key cost indicators, such as real estate prices and compensation for comparable professions, can be used to project greater levels of interest at wages you are comfortable offering.
  • Program requirements: Some clients dictate in which states agents can reside for various reasons, such as tax considerations, or require that agents be located in close proximity to their physical store locations.
  • Demographic profile: You are more likely to find agents with a keen sense of style near major metropolitan and cosmopolitan areas. Likewise, if your agents are avid winter skiers, then you can focus on northern snow hotspots. This might seem like common sense after the fact, but a national ad is wasted on markets where organizations stand little chance soliciting qualified applicants from the onset.

Don’t Put Off Until Tomorrow What You Can Do Today: It is usually impossible to interview each candidate in person, but since your agents will be representing your company and your clients, call centers must still ensure that the candidate has all the requisite hard and soft skills. Also, the larger the recruiting net an organization casts, the greater the number of applicants. This can create challenges sifting through many more resumes than you are accustomed to handling in a short time frame.

To respond to this, many companies underutilize prescreening tools and techniques, relying almost exclusively on resume lines and buzzwords. More complex prescreenings are a perfect tool for home-based customer service operations that require a higher level of computer proficiency. By explicitly stating program requirements upfront (as opposed to just a generic overview), posting automated online tests, and requiring writing or related performance samples, your organization can siphon candidates who have the most useful skills earlier in the process. Also, consider adding more focused questions that will provide insight into the applicant’s abilities and work ethic. Many initial phone screenings tend to be overly generic, focusing on “fit.” Don’t forego these, but use the opportunity to ask more direct questions and incorporate role-plays that more readily identify applicants with transferable skills, not just lines on the resume that repeat the desired qualifications.

Mirror Work Environment: Since your agents will be taking calls from home, organizations must pay close attention to the attributes and aptitudes that define successful home-based agents. Hone in on valuable skill sets as soon as possible. You can request that all phone interviews be conducted in the desired work environment. If the candidate claims to have a quiet, dedicated work environment, but you can hear any external noises, then that is an immediate red flag.

There is no single right way to recruit home-based agents. Many of the same challenges any call center has identifying candidates persist in the virtual model. However, by incorporating some wise up-front planning and using tools and techniques that are already at your disposal, you can identify virtual call center agents with a higher performance potential who can provide outstanding customer service at a lower cost for their clients.

Mary A. Naylor, a twenty-year veteran of the concierge services industry, is founder and CEO of VIPdesk, a provider of premium virtual contact center solutions serving Fortune 1000 clients.

[From Connection Magazine October 2007]