To be successful in a call center environment, agents must be able to deal with a high volume of frequently angry customers. They must be able to follow a script and provide information that is not scripted. They must be patient, listen, and adapt as needed. A call center agent needs great communication skills including the ability to listen.
As described in our first blog in this series: Soft Skills as a Predictor of Call Center Agent Performance, the qualities that make an agent more likely to succeed are classified as soft skills. It is difficult to determine who has these skills just by looking at resumes. The standard interviews most companies conduct will not ferret out the soft skills either. Typically, the skills you are looking for are embedded in the candidates’ personality and show as aptitudes.
- Communications skills
Naturally, human resources will want to evaluate candidates’ resumes to see if they display the experience and keyboarding skills necessary to do the job. However, a candidate’s typing speed does not give you meaningful information about how long they will last on the floor.
So, is there another way to identify and evaluate a candidate’s soft skills?
Can Soft Skills Be Measured?
Until recently, the methods used to measure soft skills were subjective and nonsystematic. As employers realize that these “micro-social” skills are important for employee success, more formal methods of evaluation are evolving.
A few multiple-choice tests have been developed which purport to identify soft skills in job candidates and employees, but they rely on self-reporting which is not completely reliable. These tests do establish a linkage between test results and job performance, but there is still significant work to be done in this regard.
Preliminary work is being done to develop data driven tests that do not rely on self-reports, but these are in their development stage and there is no good test specifically for call centers.
This leaves managers to develop their own method of assessing soft skills.
Developing soft skill measures must begin with identifying what skill is being evaluated. The more specific you are about the skills needed in your center, the more likely you will be in evaluating it.
For instance, many people believe that “communication” is an important soft skill for a call center agent to possess. But what do you mean by “communication?” Do you mean that the candidate can express himself clearly in a hostile conversation or do you mean that the candidate will be able to upsell the customer on an additional service? These are both communication skills, but they require different methods of evaluation to determine the candidates who will perform best under your criteria.
Next, you want to determine what the outcome of the skill is. You can ask yourself this question: “If I had more employees who could _____, our call center would be more productive.” When you fill in that blank, you know what skills you are evaluating.
Usually, when you do this exercise, you will develop a few characteristics that go into making agents successful in your call center. When you have drilled deep enough, you will tend to find specific actions that can be measured. For instance, if you had more employees who could renew 50 percent of subscribers when they called into cancel, you now have something to measure.
So, identifying the soft skills you require is the first step in hiring and retaining better employees.
What to Look For on a Resume
Applicants often list both hard skills and soft skills directly on their resumes. They might list single words like “adaptable” or phrases like “excellent communication skills.” They might list them in a section on skills or in a description of their previous work.
A search, whether done by electronic means or human perusal, for these soft skills will tell you that the applicants who list these soft skills at least are cognizant of the need for good human interaction. But it is not enough.
#1 People lie on their resumes. A recent study says that 54 percent of applicants push the truth or outright lie in their application materials.
#2 People are terrible at assessing their own skills. People who think they are great communicators may be difficult for others to understand.
#3 Applicants often list soft skills when they have few hard skills to list. That means that when soft skills dominant resumes they may really be masking a lack of other skills and abilities.
#4 Consider whether you can glean soft skill information from an applicant’s behavior in addition to the written information they provide to you. For instance, applicants who use the Chrome or Firefox browsers tend to last longer in call centers according to Cornerstone research. That is probably because these browsers must be installed on the computer as opposed to the Internet Explorer browser that comes standard on Windows computers. That means the person probably shows initiative in their everyday life that can be transferred to your company.
#5 Some applicants, even those with excellent soft skills, do not know to list these qualities on resumes. So, if you just review resumes for these talents, you may be missing some excellent future employees.
Interviewing for Soft Skills
Because the resume is an imperfect indicator of an applicant’s soft skills, it is important to screen for these abilities in the interviewing process.
The first way to do this is to ask open-ended questions that make applicants communicate their soft skills ability through stories. For instance, you can ask:
- Tell me about one time when you and a co-worker miscommunicated. How did you handle it? (Communications skills)
- Is there a time when you had to learn something new? How did you go about doing it? (Adaptability)
- Did you ever have a problem at work before? Tell me how you fixed it. (Initiative)
- Give me an example of an argument you have gotten into. How did you resolve the situation? (Teamwork, Conflict Resolution)
- Have you ever fallen behind on your workload? How did you catch up? (Responsibility, Time Management)
- Have you ever seen a co-worker do something wrong? How did you respond? (Integrity)
The way the applicant answers the questions will give you a good idea about how they handle these “micro-skills” you desire in a tangible way.
Second, you can ask applicants to rank order a list. While most applicants know to respond that they have strong skills, having them rank a list of skills they say they excel in, from highest to lowest, will allow you to find out what they really think of their skills.
Third, you can modify a job-fit test so that it also serves as a soft skills test. Below is a table of typical questions for self assessment:
References Will Save You
In addition to relying on information the applicant provides, you should check the person’s references. When you do so, probe for soft skill status.
When you ask “yes” and “no” questions to references, they may feel inclined to give a positive evaluation out of fear that they could be sued if the person does not get the job. So, you must ask references questions that allow them to provide nuanced information.
Instead of asking is “applicant” a good communicator, you can ask them to describe the applicant’s communication style. Ask them for stories such as “tell me about a high stress situation that ‘applicant’ handled at your business?”
Additionally, you can ask negative questions. Just as you might ask an applicant what their weaknesses are, you can ask a reference what skills the applicant needs to develop or refine.
Soft Skills in the Workplace
Your employees can be taught specific hard skills if they have the soft skill of being teachable. So, it may be more important to understand what soft skills the applicant is bringing to the table than it is to understand their keyboarding speed or knowledge of specific software programs.
When you hire with soft skills in mind, you create a better, longer lasting workforce in your call center.