To be successful in a call centre 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 centre agent needs good communication skills, which includes the ability to listen.
As described in our first blog in this series: Soft Skills as a Predictor of Call Centre Agent Performance, the qualities that make an agent likely to succeed are classified as soft skills. It is not likely that one can determine who has these skills by looking at résumés. The standard interviews most companies conduct will not ferret out the soft skills either.
To be sure, human resources will want to evaluate candidates’ résumés to see if they display the computer knowledge 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 evaluate a candidate’s soft skills?
Can Soft Skills Be Measured?
Until recently, the methods used to measure soft skills were subjective and non-systematic. As employers realise 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 centres.
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 centre, the more likely you will be in evaluating them.
For instance, many people believe that “communication” is an important soft skill for a call centre agent to possess. But what do you mean by “communication”? Do you mean that the candidate can express themselves clearly in a hostile conversation or do you mean that the candidate will be able to up-sell the customer 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 centre 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 centre. 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 in to 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 Is on a Résumé?
Applicants often list both hard skills and soft skills directly on their résumés. 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 by electronic means or human perusal, for these soft skills will tell you that applicants who list these soft skills are at least cognisant of the need for good human interaction. But this is not enough.
First of all, people lie on their résumés. A recent study says that 54 percent of applicants push the truth or outright lie in their application materials.
Second, people are terrible at assessing their own skills. People who think they are great communicators may be difficult for others to understand.
Third, applicants often list soft skills when they have few hard skills to list. That means that when soft skills dominate a résumé they may really be masking a lack of marketable abilities.
Fourth, consider whether you can glean soft-skill information from an applicant’s behaviour 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 centres, according to Cornerstone research. This 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.
Finally, some applicants, even those with excellent soft skills, do not know to list these qualities on their résumé. So, if you just review résumés for these talents, you may be missing some excellent future employees.
Interviewing for Soft Skills
Because the résumé is an imperfect indicator of an applicant’s soft skills, you should 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 got 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.
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 of 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 whether the applicant is 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 the 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 centre.