A guide to hiring great call center agents

Published on
May 11, 2023

Building a great call center starts with hiring the right team. However, hiring great agents is easier said than done. Success in the call center requires a unique mix of skills. In this article, we’ll talk about what those skills are, a systematic way to identify and measure them, and a few critical questions you should be asking all your candidates. Along the way, we’ll touch on how to build a recruitment process that filters out unreliable agents and some red flags to avoid when assessing how a candidate might impact your center’s culture and morale.

Why hiring matters

Call center agents are often the face (or voice) of your business. They manage some of your company’s most important customer interactions. The agent’s ability to skillfully negotiate the customer’s emotions while simultaneously delivering a resolution that works for the business is critical. Hiring great agents ensures that when the difficult customer calls come in, you can be confident that your representative will be capable of delivering a great customer experience.

What makes a great agent

There is no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to identifying a great call center agent. Many great agents come from non-traditional backgrounds or have limited experience in the customer service industry. Regardless, there are some characteristics that we can reliably measure to ascertain if a candidate will be a great agent.

Great agents share three core characteristics:

  1. Dependability and reliability
  2. Ability to execute
  3. Strong cultural fit / customer orientation

Great agents are dependable, able to execute the requirements of the role and uplift their environment while encouraging other agents to do the same. Here are some best practices to help you decide if the candidate you’re interviewing is the right fit.

1. Dependability – As the saying goes, “80% of success is showing up.”

In a call center, attendance and reliability are critical. Spending the time upfront to assess a candidate’s commitment and dependability can save hours of time throughout the employment cycle of the agent. Dependability can mean any number of things. In some cases, it means the agent shows up for work on time. In other instances, it might mean that the agent doesn’t abuse their After Call Work (ACW) time allotment. Regardless, the first step towards greatness is dependability.

Here are a few ways to gauge the dependability of a candidate:

  • Schedule multiple touch points for the interview – If the first round of interview is done over the phone, ask the candidate to call you at an appointed time. Similarly, schedule a time for the employee’s first office visit. In both cases, ensure the agent is prompt and professional throughout the engagements.
  • Ensure they have the ability to be dependable – Do they have a consistent and reliable way to get to work? Do they have any commitments that might prevent them from showing up on time or which might make them unexpectedly unavailable?
  • Look for a track record of reliability – Can they give examples of when they’ve been trusted with important responsibilities in the past? Does their resume show that they’ve maintained employment for long periods? Consider calling a reference to gauge the employee’s dependability.

2. Ability – Can the agent do what the job requires of them.

The job of an agent is quite difficult. Agents must be able to manage high-velocity customer conversations while also utilizing computers for things like data entry, database navigation and customer escalation. In some cases, agents will have printed material to review on their desk, a phone call on their headset and a chat with their manager open on their computer. Not everyone can effectively balance this workload. 

Here are a few ways to assess the candidate’s ability to execute the requirements of the agent role:

  • Basic computer proficiency exam – This can be as simple as a typing test. Have the candidate sit at an agent desktop and gauge their ability to do a simple task. Are they familiar with the keyboard? Are the comfortable using a mouse? While much of this can be learned, a baseline level of experience and technical aptitude should be seen as a positive indicator.
  • Have the candidate listen to customer calls –This gives the candidate a good sense of the type of conversations they will behaving with customers. Once the recording is over, ask the candidate to summarize what happened on the call are there things the candidate would do differently.
  • Ask the candidates about their experience multitasking – Although a great candidate may have never managed complex conversations in a call center before, they may have experience multi-tasking in similarly stressful environments. For example, does the candidate have experience working as a line cook? Although very different, many jobs require a similar comfort with fast-paced multitasking.

3. Culture – In call centers, where agents work side-by-side in often stressful situations, maintaining an engaged culture and positive morale is critical.

As we’re all familiar with, one overly negative agent can undermine the culture of an entire call center in a matter of weeks. To protect against this, hiring managers must thoroughly vet not only the agent's ability to do the job, but their ability to perform the responsibilities of the role while maintaining a positive demeanor.

Here are a few ways to assess how the candidate will augment your call center's culture:

  • Try role playing with the candidate. While they perform as the agent, pay close attention to their tone. See how the tone changes as you present increasingly challenging situations and customer responses. A great candidate will maintain a positive demeanor even during challenging moments and uncomfortable conversations.
  • Ask the agent about a time when they had to deal with a difficult customer or manager. Note how the agent describes the customer. Although the customer may have been wrong in the scenario, the candidate should not disparage the customer but instead should focus on highlighting the points of disagreement and the logic behind their response.
  • References can be a powerful tool for understanding how a candidate will perform in the agent role. When speaking with a reference, ask for specific examples and be sure to dig deep. Often the more meaningful insights only become apparent through more rigorous questioning.

When it comes to finding great agents, there is no one-size-fits-all. Instead, we've laid out a framework for systematically identifying candidates that have the traits required to operate as a high performing agent.

It's important to remember that no agent is perfect on Day One and that shortcomings can be improved upon over time. Creating a robust agent training and development program can help mitigate variability in new agent hires. That said, filling the funnel with great talent is the first step in designing a high performance call center.