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Selecting Customer-Centric Agents to Improve First Call Resolution and Customer Service

August 6, 2021 | 5min read

Business Case for Hiring Customer-Centric Agents


It is no secret that one of the most challenging aspects of operating a call center is for management to select and retain the right type of agents. SQM evaluates customer and employee satisfaction with over 500 leading North American call centers on an annual basis. SQM's research shows that the average call center benchmarked there was 28% agent turnover annually. Of that 28% annual turnover, 73% of agents leave the call center in their first year of employment. Yearly turnover for agents ranges from 5% on the low side to 200% on the high side. 

Call Center Agent Selection

Most call centers look at turnover as a necessary cost of having to hire and train new agents. The average cost to hire and train a new agent is $8,100, and it takes three to six months for a new agent to perform at the same Voice of the Customer (VoC) metrics level as an agent who has worked in the call center for at least one year. However, the actual cost is hidden and is related to First Call Resolution (FCR). In many cases, call volume increases can be directly related to decreases in FCR performance. 

SQM's research has shown that call centers' FCR performance decreases by 5% to 20% due to high agent turnover and increases operating costs. For example, if a call center handles one million calls annually and has 100% annual agent turnover (which is not uncommon), call volume would increase by 10%.  The 10% increase in call volume would result in 100,000 additional calls. With an average cost per call of $8.60 for a typical call center, 100,000 additional calls would compute to $860,000 in additional operating costs.

Customer-Centric Agent Selection Process

A best practice for selecting an agent is to hire based on customer-centric fit. Identifying candidates who are a good fit for the agent job and have the ability to execute on the Call Resolution Delivery Model (i.e., Understand Me, Help Me, Care About Me, and Resolve Me) can be a very big undertaking. However, using an agent selection process will increase the chances of hiring agents that will deliver world-class FCR and customer service performance. Therefore, SQM considers the following four-step customer-centric agent selection process to be a best practice.

Agent Selection - Step1

Step 1 – Pre-Interview Screening

Trying to identify potential agent candidates by going through hundreds of resumes and/or applications is a time-consuming task. Therefore, when reviewing resumes and/or applications, it is helpful to concentrate on the professionalism of the resume's appearance, the completeness of the application, the candidate's previous work experience, and the hours that the candidate can work well as their flexibility concerning scheduling. It can also be helpful to contact the candidate's references.

It is beneficial to have a team of two to four people review resumes and/or applications independently and determine which candidates they think should go through a pre-interview screening process. The team of two to four people should be mostly comprised of supervisors. The reason for having supervisors on the team is, ultimately, the new agents will be reporting to supervisors; thus, the supervisors should have the ability to select their team members just like any other manager. The team should comprise only one person from HR, with the rest of the group consisting of supervisors.

Once determined which candidates are suitable for the pre-interview selection process, a best practice is to call the candidate to invite them to go through a 10 to 15 minute inbound IVR or phone interview. The candidate should be provided with the phone number and the day that they should call. Candidates will appreciate the flexibility of being able to call at any time during the specified day.

The value of using an inbound IVR interview process is that it can save management a lot of interview time by speeding up the interview process and saving money. It is not uncommon for SQM's clients to pre-interview 25 to 100 candidates for every candidate that goes on to the second step of the interview process. However, in most cases, the number of candidates available is based on the unemployment rate in the market where the call center or agent is located.

Agent Selection - Step 2

Step 2 – Personality Tests

SQM considers it a best practice to develop a profile to help identify agents who have consistently provided world-class call resolution and customer satisfaction performance based on their survey results. Once world-class agents have been identified, work with a personality test vendor to develop a profile based on the Call Resolution Delivery Model standards and world-class call resolution performing agents. After the agent' world-class call resolution' profile has been developed, each candidate can be evaluated against that profile. Again, the intent behind using a personality test is to find out if the candidate is a good fit in terms of being call resolution customer-centric.

Personality testing or some psychometric testing can be more accurate and unbiased than some interviewers' practices, such as, "I don't hire anyone who does not make any eye contact with me." Psychometric tests do not have those built-in biases and are blind to age, race, and gender. These personality tests can also be more reliable for determining if a candidate is customer-centric than most traditional interview techniques. Once again, when personality tests are used, the information must be used as part of the selection process and not the primary method for selecting an agent.

Agent Selection - Step 3

Step 3 – Job Simulation

If the agent passes the personality test, you should proceed with the job simulation test. Using job simulations as part of the agent selection process is a win for the candidate and the organization. Such simulations allow candidates to understand the realities of working in a call center and enable the organization to evaluate candidates in a simulated call center environment.

A job simulation is the next best thing to a day on the job. When an agent candidate has not previously worked in a call center, their understanding of the agent job may not be realistic. The main goals of a job simulation test are to help the candidate decide whether they want to become an agent to work in a call center and provide management with an overall predictor score of whether the candidate is a good fit for the agent job.  

Agent Selection - Step 4

Step 4 – Face-to-Face Interview

When the candidate arrives at the face-to-face interview stage, the interviewer should not think about whether they believe they are qualified for the job. The previous three steps should provide these types of insight; instead, the interviewer should validate that the agent candidate is customer-centric and wants to work in a call center.

The most effective in-person interview questions are behavioral-based. There is a basic psychological principle that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. Therefore, behavioral designed questions can help provide insights into the agent candidate's past behavior.

Below are ten behavioral interview questions that can help the interviewer understand if the agent candidate has the right attitude and aptitude to be a world-class call satisfaction performing agent:

  1. Tell me what you liked and did not like about your last (or current) job?
  2. Give me an example of when you provided great customer service; what did you do, and how did it turn out?
  3. Tell me about when you had to deal with a customer complaint; what did they complain about, what did you do, and how did it turn out?
  4. When you handle repetitive calls or tasks, how did you handle that, and how did it turn out?
  5. Tell me about when a customer said you had confused them; how did you handle that, and how did it turn out?
  6. Describe a situation where you had to provide a solution to a customer who had a difficult inquiry or problem to resolve; what did you do, and how did it turn out?
  7. Give me an example of a customer that you turned around from being very dissatisfied to being very satisfied with their experience; what did you have to do, and how did it turn out?
  8. Describe a situation where a customer told you that you were taking too long to solve their issue; what did you do when they said that?
  9. Describe a situation where the company you were working for made a mistake; what did you do, and how did it turn out?
  10. Can you provide an example of when you had an idea to improve a process or policy to improve customer service? What happened with your opinion, and how did it turn out?

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