The Secret to Hiring Top Agents

By David Filwood

In your call center you have three different types of telephone agents: top performers, adequate agents, and marginal agents.

  • Top Performing Agents: “Grade A” agents with the “right stuff” that pushes them to succeed and the seemingly natural compatibility with the duties of the position. You probably have a few in your call center now and wish that you could duplicate them.
  • Adequate Agents: “Grade B” agents who perform their duties adequately enough “to get by” – but no better.
  • Marginal Agents: “Grade C” agents who have a high level of absenteeism, low productivity, poor performance, weak customer satisfaction ratings. It is likely that some may even have a negative impact on agent team morale.

We ask for a lot from today’s call center agent: to handle more clients and calls, to do order-taking, to offer cross-sells and up-sells, to be proficient with computer and support systems, to act in a non-confrontational manner, to be good-humored, and to work well in a team environment. As a call center hiring manager, your challenge is twofold: to find quality applicants and weed out unsuitable candidates.

Many North American labor markets have reached the saturation point for call center agent applicants in the local labor pool. In fact, 64% of all North American call centers now deem it a “major struggle” or “somewhat of a challenge” to find quality applicants for call center agent positions. In addition, 37% of call center employers are now reporting “severe” competition for call center agents by other employers.

While almost everyone can use a telephone, not everyone is cut out to work successfully as a call center agent. Hiring the wrong agent is the root cause of turnover and is a significant drain on finances, customer satisfaction, and agent team morale. Every failed hire causes you to throw precious budget dollars down the drain retraining recruits for the same position, not to mention the lost sales and service opportunities, lowered productivity, and higher absences associated with a poor job fit. Here are seven best practice steps you can take to address these two issues in order to recruit more top performing call center agents.

1) Create an Agent Success Profile: What are the core competencies, personality traits, skill sets and demographics of your top performing agents? You should be profiling your top performing agents for various essential characteristics required for the positions. It is interesting to note that across all call center industry segments (except technical support/help desk), over 75% of all top performing agents are female and 66% of them are working mothers. Only five percent have college degrees and 30% of them participated in “welfare-to-work,” unemployment insurance, or public assistance within six months prior to their hiring. Ask yourself:

  • Are there specific “must have” skills or knowledge that your top performing agents need?
  • How do your top performing agents profile in terms of typing speed/accuracy, computer literacy, specific industry knowledge/experience, etc.?
  • What are the key personality traits of your top performing agents?
  • Are you looking for an inbound agent? If so, you may seek a persuasive communicator who is motivated by security, work environment, coworkers / team, service, and recognition.
  • Are you looking for an inside sales agent? These agents are often persuasive and persistent communicators who are service oriented, yet motivated by sales opportunity.
  • Or are you looking for an outbound sales agent? You may be seeking an assertive and persistent closer who is motivated by income and conquering challenges and who initiates customer interactions.

2) Create a Recruiting Strategy: Create a recruiting communications plan that identifies and targets the job seekers that meet your agent success profile criteria. Your recruiting plan should include:

  • Personal referrals.
  • Print advertisements.
  • Schools, where part-time jobs may be of interest to working mothers of students.
  • Colleges, universities, and technical training programs, offering part-time jobs to students.
  • Special interest organizations.
  • Online job postings.
  • Virtual communities.
  • Job fairs.
  • Outplacement programs.
  • Unemployment offices.
  • Welfare-to-work programs.

3) Deploying an In-Depth Telephone Screening Process: All of your recruiting advertising should have a call-to-action using a 24/7 automated employment information line/phone screen, which is then followed by a structured telephone interview. The information line/phone screen can be as simple as an extension on your voice mail system:

“Hello, and thanks for calling. You’ve reached the 24 hour employment information line for ABC

You’ll earn a base wage of $9 per hour, plus bonuses, get training, and all the support you’ll need to succeed. We’re conveniently located downtown, with easy public transit access, and there’s plenty of parking nearby.

To succeed, you’ll need to be confident, professional, and have an excellent telephone communication style.

To take the next step in our telephone audition hiring process, please tell us your name, and please spell your last name. Please include your telephone number, and the best time to call you back.

And finally, please read back to us the ad you are responding to, and remember, this is a telephone audition, so give it your best shot!

Here comes the beep, so give us your name, your telephone number, and read back the ad.

Good luck in your job hunt. Thanks for calling.”

A 24/7 automated employment information line/phone screen can alsouse an interactive voice response (IVR) system. Either way, you will save time and money by:

  • Reaching more applicants faster.
  • Recruiting top candidates before your competition.
  • Building a bigger applicant pool.
  • Ensuring that applicants have a clear understanding of important job requirements.
  • Assessing applicant’s ability to follow basic instructions.
  • Conducting “voice auditions” to assess an applicant’s “telephone personality”.
  • Reducing time spent with unqualified candidates.
  • Maximizing applicant buy-in and participation in your hiring process.

The job candidates who pass the phone screen should then be promptly followed up with using a structured telephone interview. A structured telephone interview is used:

  • To further sell the job opportunity.
  • As a second screen of candidates for “must have” skills and attributes.
  • To further evaluate a candidate’s telephone persona.
  • To schedule a candidate visit at your call center for going forward with hiring process.

When delivered consistently, a structured telephone interview is part of a legally defensible hiring process – all candidates are asked for the same information in a consistent fashion.

4) Deploying Pre-Employment Assessment Testing: This is used to confirm a candidate’s personality traits and skill sets. Many successful organizations find that candidates for agent positions must have a unique constellation of traits in order to successfully complete the job requirements. These organizations hold that an agent’s success depends much more upon personality factors than product knowledge, past experience, or skill set.

Merely knowing how to react in a customer service situation is far different from actually engaging in the necessary appropriate behavior. There are special CD-ROM based pre-employment testing software and skills tests that are designed for the call center industry.

5) Using a Structured Face-to-Face Interview: Look at core competencies, valid pre-employment assessments, prior training, and skill sets. This style of interview has great value in call centers because it allows you to identify candidates’ past behaviors and use them as good indicators of future performance and behavior.

Before you conduct a structured face-to-face interview, you need to go back to your original success profile and core requirements document. Identify the most appropriate core competencies for the position and build your questions around these competencies. They should be very specific queries designed to determine how candidates behaved and thought during certain situations. An example of a structured interview question is:

“Tell me about a time when you went far beyond what could normally be expected in order to satisfy a customer?”

The target behavior you are looking to uncover is customer focus. Can this candidate demonstrate that they can go “above and beyond the call of duty” to ensure that caller requests are handled effectively and with a customer service orientation?

6) Having Your Candidates Experience a Job Preview: This depicts day-to-day activities, responsibilities, and the environment of the call center. The goal of a call center job preview is a final attempt to sell the candidate “in or out” of the job. You need to paint a realistic picture of the company, call center environment, hours, flexibility, management style, and performance expectations. This can be done as easily as having candidates sit in the call center for a period of time to form their own opinion before accepting or declining the job offer (check your local labor laws to see if candidate time spent in a call center preview by “sitting in the call center” qualifies as “paid time”).

There are also software-based call center simulators that are available to give a candidate the ability to accurately experience call center work, such as referencing and cross-referencing data and dealing with a variety of callers and customer service scenarios. When used as part of a pre-employment process, software-based call center simulators are generally not subject to local labor law interpretation as “paid time,” but consult your attorney regarding local laws.

During the call center job preview time, the candidate should also be encouraged to communicate with supervisors/team leaders and potential coworkers. Done correctly, this step will help you attract people who genuinely want to work in your call center.

7) Reference Verification: Once you have decided you wish to hire a candidate, be sure to check their references and verify key information. You will also need to check security clearances and perform drug testing if there are required in your call center.

These best practices hiring steps are easy to deploy, cost-effective, and predictive of an individual’s suitability for your agent positions. They will allow you to recruit, select, and hire agents who fit your employment needs better and stay on the job longer – leading to an agent workgroup that has more experience and is more productive.

David Filwood is the Founder and Principal of TeleSoft Systems. For more information about their Service Personnel Appraisal System (SPAS) contact David at 604-986-4116 or

[From Connection Magazine September 2005]

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