Off Center
The best managers realize a contact center cannot succeed without skilled, motivated and mostly sober agents manning the phones (and other contact channels). These managers work hard to develop and sustain hiring programs that ensure the front line is forever staffed with service stars who stick around for longer than the first pay period.

But I’m not here to talk about hiring success. When it comes to agent recruiting, assessment and selection, success is much less common than failure... and it's more fun to talk about the latter.

With that in mind, following are 15 signs your contact center’s hiring practices need work:

15) A common question among new-hires is whether their work schedule will interfere with their dog fighting competitions.

14) Your contact center recently underwent renovations to expand the exit interview room.

13) Candidates typically celebrate a job offer by firing off a few rounds of ammunition out back.

12) While playing hide-and-seek in your contact center, your eight year-old kid secretly answered several customer calls – and outperformed all your agents.

11) You’ve implemented a work-at-home agent program because most of your job candidates are under house arrest.  

10) Your average agent tenure is measured in minutes.

9) Your two most critical selection criteria when assessing agent candidates are “has a pulse” and “wears clothes.”

8) Your most effective recruiting method is begging.

7) Your best agent is your IVR system.

6) The final stage of your agent selection process involves a coin toss.

5) The top candidate from your last recruitment effort applied from federal prison.

4) You promoted the aforementioned candidate to supervisor his first week on the job.

3) Your most valuable applicant assessment tool is a drug-sniffing dog.

2) You hired the aforementioned dog as a team lead.

And the number one sign your contact center’s hiring practices need work is…

1) While reading each item on this list, you thought to yourself, “It’s funny because it’s true.”

For those of you looking for (slightly) more serious and insightful resources on agent recruiting and hiring, check out the following links to previous blog posts:

Active Agent Recruiting: Take Hiring by the Horns
Separate the Reps from the Replicas: Improving Your Pre-Hire Assessment Process
The First Key to Agent Retention? Your Hiring Program

There’s also an entire chapter dedicated to the topic of recruiting & hiring in my Full Contact book.

_ Agents are a contact center’s most vital resource. A recent landmark study revealed that if it weren’t for contact center agents, there would be nothing to keep headsets from simply falling to the floor and breaking. Another key role agents play is providing quality service that keeps customers coming back and buying stuff.

With agents playing such a critical role in the success of your contact center and organization as a whole, it’s paramount that you take the time to hire the right people to cram into your cubicles. Too many contact center managers – pressed to fill seats and cover the phones – rush through the agent assessment and selection process. These managers then act surprised to find that the candidate they hired is unqualified, unreliable and/or unconscious.

To help ensure that the frontline folks you hire are top-notch, I’ve come up with two key multiple choice questions that you need to ask every applicant, along with focused analysis of what each answer option indicates. I guarantee that incorporating these two questions into your assessment process (and heeding my advice based on the answers selected) will lead to a big improvement in the caliber of agents you bring on board. If, by chance, you are not completely satisfied with the results, let me know and I’ll gladly send you a list of all the things you probably did wrong on your end.

Now, on to the aforementioned multiple choice interview questions:

1) What is the primary reason you want to work as an agent in our contact center?

a) I’m looking for a challenging yet rewarding opportunity to utilize my strong customer service and problem-solving skills to drive loyalty and revenue.

b) I have always wanted to work for your fine organization and believe that starting out in a customer-facing role would be a great way to begin.

c) The voices in my head keep telling me it’s the right thing to do.

Be weary of applicants who choose “a”, as they are obviously very arrogant and egotistical. “Oh, I’m great. Look at me I’ve got strong skills.” How obnoxious. Certainly not cut out for the agent position, which requires humility and selflessness. Turn them down flat, or maybe refer them for a job in Marketing.

Forget those who choose “b”, too. They are stalkers. They’ve had an unhealthy obsession with your company for years and are now looking for a chance to get inside and control it like some crazed puppeteer.

Applicants who choose “c” are where it’s at. They show creative potential and a refreshingly different mindset. It’s important to hire a diverse group of people, including those who require a padded workstation free of any sharp objects. And since they already have voices in their head, they are much less likely than others to become overwhelmed during peak calling periods.

2) The most important thing to remember when dealing with angry customers is…

a) To offer empathy and support via such statements as, “I see what you mean”,  “I understand your frustration”, or “If I were there I would hold you close.”

b) That you are the person the ACD has chosen to take charge of the situation and turn a negative customer experience into a positive one.

c) That no matter how furious the customers are and how loud they yell, they’re going to die some day.

Applicants who choose “a” here are the same people who always say that everything is going to be okay, even when you tell them that you have to move to Detroit or can’t afford an iPhone. They are deceptive and dangerous. I not only recommend not hiring these types of people, but I suggest you immediately fire any existing employees who respond to this question in the same way.

As for applicants who select “b”, run – don’t walk – in the other direction. Trust me, you don’t want “everything-happens-for-a-reason” people interacting with your customers. They’ll use the concept of “fate” to defend their every action in the contact center. “I’m not sure why I told that caller to bite me before hanging up on him – I guess it was just meant to be.”

Those who choose “c” have the right idea. They are able to keep a level head in times of strife and are thus less likely to burnout and alienate customers. In addition, their obsession with the futility of human existence typically leaves them with few friends, which means they will rarely complain about the schedule interfering with their social life. 

Contact center managers have been clamoring for more surefire hiring methods for years. They have lost faith in traditional hiring tactics like telephone pre-screenings, personality tests and live interviews – complaining that such tactics provide little insight into whether or not a candidate will remain committed to customer care and a life of poverty.

Great news: A team of top-notch doctors and psychiatrists recently developed a contact center-specific medical exam that promises to revolutionize agent hiring and retention. Following is a detailed description of each test that makes up the exam:

disStress Test. This is somewhat similar to the traditional stress test used by many physicians, but instead of placing agent candidates on a treadmill to evaluate their cardiovascular condition, they are put in a room with a phone and then sent 100 customer calls in 60 minutes.

Candidates who handle between 70-100 calls before losing consciousness should be hired by the contact center immediately. Those who handle between 40-70 calls before losing consciousness should be kept for further testing. Those who handle between 1-40 calls should be rejected immediately. And those who refuse to take even a single call should be placed on the company’s “executive training” track.

Electro-mail-ogram. This test is similar to the more familiar electromyogram, but where the latter features the sticking of painful electric needles into the candidate’s muscles to test for degenerative tissue/nerves, the former features the sticking of painful electric needles into the candidate’s frontal lobe to test for degenerative spelling/grammar. After each EMG, managers receive a full diagnostic report on the candidate’s written communication skills – including a ranking of each candidate from 1-10, with 10 being “masterful wordsmith” and 1 being “college graduate.”

The test is absolutely essential for contact centers in need of e-support agents who will be able to effectively handle customer email. It’s also good for contact centers that enjoy making their applicants cry.

CHAT scan. Not to be confused with a CAT scan, which provides a highly detailed computerized image of a subject’s brain and inter-cranial fascia, a CHAT scan provides a highly detailed computerized image of a subject’s wrist and fingers. The latter test determines whether or not an agent candidate has the proper carpal/metacarpal makeup to succeed in the physically demanding and fast-paced web chat environment. Specifically, the test reveals if there is any existing or potential weakness/abnormalities in any of the muscles and tendons needed for rapid typing or for flicking off managers when their back is turned.

A thorough CHAT scan will also identify if a candidate’s wrist/hand strength is overly excessive. Such brute strength can be a detriment to e-support efficiency, as the agent will be less likely to focus on chat sessions and more likely to focus on trying to remove the shackles that confine him to his workstation.

Rep-lex Test. Just like a reflex test, only completely different. Where a reflex test features the tapping of the patient’s patella tendon to see if they respond with an involuntary kick, a Rep-lex test features the flashing of the phrase “200 calls in queue” across a readerboard to see if the agent candidate responds with a panic attack. Such a traumatic response shows that the candidate truly takes customer care to heart. If, instead of the desired panic attack, a candidate responds by yawning or taking a book out and reading calmly, it’s best to eliminate the candidate from the running, or, if yours is a software support contact center, hiring them as a senior agent.

Flex-ray. This is like an X-ray, but focuses only on the patient’s spinal column. A typical Flex-ray test measures the flexibility of the spine and determines whether or not the candidate is likely to bend over completely backward for the contact center.

Candidates with abnormally rigid vertebrae should not be considered for contact center work, unless of course the company is in need of a scheduler. The ideal is to find candidates with virtually no backbone to speak of, as such individuals are not only easy to boss around, they are able to scrunch up enough to work in cubicles as small as 2’ x 2’, thus saving the company thousands of dollars in facility expenses.

NOTE: No contact center agents were harmed in the making of this blog post. The same will not be said if you actually end up using the medical exam Greg has described. 

In last week’s “Off Center” post, I listed some of the best agent recruiting practices I’ve seen during the 17 years I’ve spent breaking into contact centers illegally. Seven or eight of you even read that post. The rest of you I assume were too busy scouring the local highway underpasses in search of people to fill vacancies in your center.

While a comprehensive and strategic recruiting program is certainly key to attracting the right type of agents your contact center seeks, careful assessment of all applicants is still essential to make sure that they truly have what it takes to endure customer abuse, cramped cubicles and headset hair for years on end, or at least through orientation.

High-Tech, High-Touch Hiring

After the recruitment and early screening phase, the best-run contact centers utilize a holistic blend of technology and hands-on human tactics to help select the best candidates for the job. These tools and tactics include:  

Realistic job previews. Research has shown that one of the most common reasons why employees leave a contact center within a year – besides the night terrors and indigestion – is a disconnect between what the employee envisioned the job entailing and what it actually involved. It’s very common for contact centers – eager to “sell themselves” to prospective employees – to shade over some of the less desirable aspects of the job (e.g., the pay, the customers, the hours, the customers, the back spasms, the growth opportunities, the customers) during the recruiting and hiring phase. While this tactic may help the center attract and acquire new agents, it usually doesn’t take long for those new agents to realize that the “positive culture” they were told about refers mostly to what’s growing in the breakroom refrigerator. 

Top contact centers develop comprehensive job previews that show – and sometimes even let prospective agents experience first-hand – the attractive as well as the challenging and mundane aspects of work in a front-line customer care environment. Job previews can take several forms, including but not limited to:
  • Detailed tours of the contact center
  • Listening in on actual customer calls 
  • Videos of agents on the job
  • Candid conversations with the center’s existing agents
  • Readings from diaries of recently deceased agents.
The goal of job previews is not to deceive candidates, nor to scare them away. A good video-based job preview, for example, could include an agent handling a call with a happy and satisfied customer, then a call with a customer with a complex issue that isn’t easy to resolve – all followed by a casual conversation with the agent about what medications they take to cope with all the calls in that second category.

Pre-hire agent assessment tools. Hiring solutions specialists have made big advancements in applicant assessment software for contact centers in recent years, helping to make agent selection more of a science than a roll of the dice.  

Today’s best pre-hire agent assessment solutions are primarily web-based and can be taken by applicants anytime, anywhere. Most are complex product suites with a range of modules and reporting tools that contact centers can customize to fit their specific dysfunctional culture. Following are some of the common key components of the leading pre-hire solutions:
  • Skills assessment. Assesses a candidate’s ability to listen, enter data accurately and solve problems in a state of total panic.
  • Personality assessment. Ensures that candidate’s general traits, values and attitudes don’t match that of a serial killer or professional hockey player.
  • Work habits assessment. Gauges the level of dependability, professionalism and customer service orientation, as well as the willingness to not whine about weekend shifts or numbness in the extremities.   
  • Motivation assessment. Assesses a candidate’s ability to lie about how excited they are to handle call after call for hours on end.
  • Call simulations. Much like a flight simulator, call simulators enable call center managers to see if a candidate takes off and lands smoothly or crashes and burns in realistic customer support situations.
Multi-tier interviews. As powerful as today’s pre-hire assessment solutions are, in the end, people – not technology – hire people. Assessment products are great for helping to separate potentially qualified candidates from potential sociopaths, but live interviews with key supervisory and management staff is still the best way to ensure your center is hiring highly capable agents who don’t spit when they speak.

A multi-tier interview process is the method of choice in most top contact centers. This process begins with each candidate who makes it through the screening and early assessment stages completing an initial interview with a member of the center’s supervisory staff, who pleasantly asks a series of behavioral-based questions before viciously insulting the candidate’s mother. This is to see if the candidate can handle the level of abuse and psychological torment indicative of a customer service environment.

Candidates who impress the supervisor are invited to interview with one (or more) of the contact center's managers. Those who don’t flub up this second interview then get passed on to one or more of the contact center’s senior managers – e.g., a director and/or vice president – who ask a few additional key questions while polishing their golf clubs.

Following the final interview, the management and supervisory staff involved gather together to discuss each candidate and decide who makes the cut. They then ask HR to check each lucky candidate’s references, criminal background and pee before extending a job offer. 

Note: Some centers even get their most experienced agents involved in the interview process – tapping their intimate knowledge of the front-line position. Doing so not only makes for more comprehensive interviews, it shows senior agents that the organization truly values their insight and input despite barely paying them a living wage.  

Agent recruiting is hardly a hot topic these days. With so many people out of work and in need of jobs, most companies feel the contact center won’t have any trouble filling seats if needed. But customer satisfaction and advocacy – the ultimate goal of nearly all contact centers – is not about merely filling seats; it’s about filling seats with people who have the skills, knowledge, adaptability and commitment to make customers not want to strike them.  

True, some such sought-after people will be among the glut of applicants who come knocking on your center’s door in search of a job. But why not be proactive and target such qualified individuals as part of a focused, strategic recruiting program? The best contact centers I’ve seen do just that, and consequently save themselves a lot of time and urine-testing in the initial hiring phase.

Five Elements of a Successful Agent Recruiting Program

Incorporate the following elements into your agent recruitment efforts, and I guarantee that you will endure far fewer resumes written in crayon or applicants who incessantly drool.

1) “Ideal agent” profiles. Before beginning the actual agent hunt, leading contact centers take the time to document exactly what they are hunting for. They do this by creating an “ideal agent” profile for each position (customer service, tech-support, sales, e-support, social media, etc.) they are seeking to fill. This entails listing the key attributes of their top-performing existing agents, realizing that all those agents just applied for jobs in Marketing, and then panicking that you’ll never find reps as good as them.

When creating your ideal agent profile, be sure to seek input from supervisors and experienced agents. Doing so not only results in a more comprehensive profile, it shows staff that the company truly values them despite damaging their wrists, eyes and spine on a daily basis.

Keep in mind that it isn’t necessary for all applicants to match every attribute on the ideal agent profile; it’s great if they do, but it’s also unlikely. Be happy if you can attract applicants who match even just a few of the key attributes, who show the potential to learn/obtain some of the others, and who don’t smell like onions.

2) Employee referrals – with results-based incentives. It may be a traditional and old-school method, but it’s still around for a reason. According to contact center professionals in various studies, employee referrals are the most effective, reliable and affordable recruiting method at their disposal. This is not all that surprising; after all, misery loves company. Thus it’s only natural for over-stressed agents to want to drag their best friends down into their personal occupational hell along with them.

To help pare down the number of unqualified referrals submitted by staff, forward-thinking contact centers offer small cash incentives (or other alluring perk) to agents whose referrals end up being offered and accepting a job. In some centers, additional incentives are often provided when the person the agent referred performs at a high level, stays with the job for a predetermined minimum amount of time (more than three days), and never once sobs on the phone with a customer.

3) E-cruiting. No recruiting program in these digital days is complete without the use of web-based methods. “E-cruiting” is essential, not only because it reaches more candidates than traditional recruiting practices and saves time and trees, but also because most people worth attracting and hiring today ONLY seek jobs online. The most talented younger members of the workforce eat, drink and sleep the web and social media, and they want a company that embraces the same cool communication methods and channels that they have grown up on. Therefore, top contact centers today post alluring job listings on their company's Twitter and Facebook pages, in various contact center and customer service groups on Linked In, as well as on their own corporate website and renowned job search sites like CareerBuilder, Monster and Simply Hired.

In addition to getting more reach for your recruiting buck, e-cruiting is very helpful in screening candidates early on for email and chat writing skills as well as for their ability to analyze online content and instructions. Any candidate who, during the application process, demonstrates the inability to spell or use proper grammar, or who uses “LOL” even just once in a text-based interaction, should be immediately eliminated from the running for work in the contact center and instead passed on to the manager in charge of hiring public relations personnel.

4) IVR-based recruiting. Many contact centers use their IVR system for more than just annoying and alienating customers; they use it to promote job openings, too. Yes, typically the goal is to get customers in and out of the IVR as quickly as possible (unless they are making an automated transaction that makes the company money); however, hold-times are inevitable – so why not make it up to waiting customers by offering them a job? In this economy, half of them probably need one. “Press 1 to access your account; press 2 to speak to a live agent; press 3 if you are unemployed or hate your boss.” 

5) “Stealing” staff from local contact centers. Some centers take a “this town ain’t big enough for the both of us” approach when it comes to competing with other local contact centers for talent. Targeting other centers’ agents may seem a bit cutthroat, but let’s face it – individuals with ample customer care experience are at a premium, thus it’s worth at least trying to lure local agents over to your side of the street.

Leading contact centers do this in as subtle and as graceful a manner as possible. Drugging and/or kidnapping are used merely as a last resort.

Effective agent-luring approaches that won’t land anyone in jail include:
  • Offering a work-at-home opportunity to talented agents in the region.  
  • Encouraging your existing agents to talk-up your center and brag about how spectacular the carpeting and lighting is.
  • Advertising how your contact center uses the most humane methods whenever an agent needs to be put down.
  • Regularly spraying the outside of your contact center with the scent of fresh donuts.

Plenty more information on best practices in agent recruiting and assessment are covered in my book, Full Contact. You can check it out here: