Call Center Hiring: How to Choose Great Candidates

by
Miruna Mitranescu

Call center hiring is tougher than it looks. Ideally, new hires will have a skill set including:

  • Intuitive communication and social skills
  • A team-first mentality
  • A strong sense of working autonomy
  • The ability to task-switch in a fast-paced environment
  • Rapid and on-the-go learning skills

But this is just the beginning. Successful call center hiring requires an eye for what’s beneath the surface.

What type of candidate will innovate to increase productivity? Who can bounce-back quickly from a call with an angry customer? How will a candidate come across to customers after a long shift?

Here are some elusive assets to seek out when hiring call center representatives.

Essential Skills for New Call Center Hires

If a potential agent displays all of the following traits, hire him or her immediately. However, it’s more likely that a candidate will reveal only a few. Some skills and traits will be easy to test for, while others need to be coaxed-out using the right questions. Prepare these ahead of time and keep them standardized for a true comparison.

Adaptability and Memory

In order for agents to provide exemplary customer service, they must be able to learn and remember everything about your company, product, and services. Continuous training is essential to maintain this standard, but the raw talent should be there to begin with.

If a candidate has worked in support previously, ask him or her detailed questions about the product and services. If a candidate is new to customer support, ask them to describe their favorite hobby or subject area in school. All-star agents will recall important details, but also the smaller bits of info, which if not included, can lead to confusion.

Look for a hustler attitude and an aptitude for being a good listener (especially during the interview phase).

Voice = Appearance

Physical presentation doesn’t factor into call center hiring (although pajama pants are a strange choice for an interview). There is one tangible trait, however, you should pay attention to: the voice.

While you don’t need to hire an aspiring soft-rock radio DJ, the impression candidates leave during and after your conversation shouldn’t be taken lightly. If a candidate can’t summon the energy to sound excited or compassionate for an in-person interview, how will they fare toward the end of a difficult shift?

Confidence

Generally speaking, your employees (and everyone else in the world) should be humble, but call center agents must also project confidence. When customers call your support lines, they want to speak to an authority — someone who understands their dilemmas and has the power to make things right.

Experienced agents will display confidence and optimism because they fully understand the product. Newer agents will gain true confidence from onboarding assignments and real-time coaching features, but their natural delivery should portray clear and concise information.

Interviews can be nerve-racking, but once the excitement settles down, take note of how your candidates carry themselves.

Empathy

The fact is, customers don’t usually call to say how wonderfully satisfied they are.

A good agent will solve problems effectively, but an amazing agent will solve the problem while making the customer feel validated. Call centers are operated by humans, and customers appreciate knowing their opinions are being heard.

When interviewing, empathy can best be gauged in terms of listening. Does the candidate think critically about your questions and give thoughtful responses, or are they waiting for the first opportunity to deliver a pre-meditated pitch?

Attention to detail

When a supervisor is right behind you, anyone can give full attention to a single phone call. What’s harder is giving 100% when you’re the last one in the office, and you’ve received (literally) hundreds of identical calls.

The problem is, many calls will sound the same, but they’ll actually contain nuances which require individual remedies and attention. Ineffective solutions waste everyone’s time and lead to unnecessary interactions.

Here again, candidates can be asked to talk about a hobby or something else that interests them. Ask them to explain the concepts to you as if you were a twelve-year-old. Good responses will use simple language to convey complex thoughts.

Autonomy and Teamwork

At first, these two concepts sound like opposites, but in reality, they go hand-in-hand. When hiring call center agents, you want individuals who feel most comfortable working solo in the micro, and together in the macro.

Taking a high volume of calls requires agents to work independently, without being supervised or instructed. If the majority of agents regularly ask for instruction or assistance, support operations would be blocked by a lack of supervisor availability.  

On the other hand, a call center is a team of thinkers who work together to solve tough problems and devise efficient methods.

Ask candidates to talk about their professional/educational successes. Ideal answers will involve a high degree of personal effort in achieving a larger, possibly team-oriented goal.

Patience and Grace Under Pressure

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that, disgruntled customers aren’t the nicest people. When a caller is depressed, angry, or simply frustrated, an agent’s job is to be the exact opposite.

Candidates should be able to talk you through a time when they tried to reverse a customer’s foul mood. This anecdote doesn’t necessarily have to end in a favorable outcome, but it does need to display courtesy and grace under pressure.

Good candidates will — knowingly or not — describe some sort of three-step solution where they:

  • Listened intently to the customer
  • Calmly explained what went wrong
  • Offered a solution and an apology on behalf of the company

Customers like to know they’re right to feel the way they do. Attentive listening and an informed response will go a long way toward making things right.

Efficiency

Callers hate the queue. Waiting on-hold feels like standing in line while blindfolded.

Time is a precious resource for both customers and your business operations. Support agents need to work quickly, without sacrificing quality or empathy.

Strong resumes will contain metrics that indicate a productive work mentality. For example:

  • Solved 350 customer inquiries on average each month
  • Made 500 outbound calls each week

If time isn’t an interview constraint, candidates can also be asked to complete a small task in a short timeframe. Since interviews can be stressful, this can also be a good opportunity to see how they perform under pressure.

Organization

Even if your phone software is designed for task-switching, call center work requires agents to multitask between talking to clients, accessing databases, and taking notes.

While it’s not easy to immediately recognize a potential employee’s organizational skills, you can pay attention to details like arriving on time, submitting all the required material as well as interview prep. If possible, ask references and previous employers if they have a reputation for being organized and methodical.

Creativity

People can be unpredictable, and not every call will go down like the onboarding manual says. Sometimes, call center agents need to find a solution that’s both satisfying for the customer, but also within the rules of the company.

Satisfied customers are the magic formula that leads to recurring revenue. Try presenting candidates with a hypothetical “dismal situation.” In this scenario, they should have a choice between leaving the customer completely unsatisfied while following company guidelines, or bending the rules a little to potentially create a brand promoter.

Strange as it sounds, the cost of a broken rule is likely less than new-customer acquisition. It’s a good sign when customer satisfaction is top-of-mind for an agent.

Multi-Lingual

Even in countries where a large majority of the population speaks a common language, bilingual support agents are an asset. In software and e-commerce industries, business sees no borders.

For example, if you have a French speaker on your team, you’ve just expanded your business to 200 million potential clients. When hiring call center agents, language is a powerful asset.

Call Center Hiring: 5 Red Flags

While finding the perfect candidate requires insight and nuance, smelling the rotten eggs is easy. Move on in your search the moment you discover these traits.

An Unwillingness to Learn

New agents need to be trained according to the system you have in place. A willful mentality toward learning new skills may not be obvious during an interview.

If you suspect a candidate is hard-headed when it comes to adopting new ideas, get an honest opinion from their previous employers.

Argumentative

Other than the set of a reality TV show, no workplace values an employee who likes to argue.

Working one-on-one with an already frustrated customer requires a tranquil mediator, not an eager warrior.

Trash Talking a Previous Employer

Even if a candidate’s former manager “couldn’t teach fish to swim,” there must be a more constructive way to convey this point.

Customer support, sales, and business-in-general prefer optimism and encourage social tact. If a candidate’s review of their previous employer gets too heated, they’re probably the issue.

A Lack of Professionalism

Candidates who cannot behave appropriately for a one-hour interview won’t for eight or more hours a day. Manners and a professional-presentation should be inherent in call center agents.

Making excuses

Dogs don’t eat homework.

Committed workers don’t make excuses. Failures and hardships are opportunities for improvement. When a candidate starts listing too many reasons for their failures or shortcomings (and they don’t mention any ways to improve), they probably won’t be a good influence on your team.

Picking a perfect candidate to strengthen your call center is not an easy task. However, knowing what you’re looking for and what you want to avoid will narrow the choice. Try to recognize who is a talented candidate or who is able to pick-up skills that can be trained in time.

Make sure that you do your part to prevent agent turnover. Provide necessary tools, equipment, and motivation for your employees, as well as ongoing training.

[Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in June 2016 and has recently been updated for accuracy and clarity.]

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