To be successful in a call center, agents must be able to deal with a high volume of angry, confused, and frustrated customers. They must be able to follow a script, but also provide information that is not scripted and communicate in a natural and friendly way. They must be patient, listen, and adapt as needed, which requires excellent customer service soft skills.
As described in our first blog in this series: Soft Skills as a Predictor of Call Center Agent Performance, soft skills are essential to your agents’ success and a quality customer experience. These traits are also responsible for better agent retention, which is critical for an industry where turnover rates are between 30 and 45 percent.
Unfortunately, it is difficult to determine who has customer service soft skills. Rarely do candidates provide a list of their soft skills on their resume. Instead, you need to implement soft skills interview questions and techniques to better understand each candidates’ personality as well as their aptitude for essential soft skills.
Some of the customer service soft skills you need to be looking for include:
So, is there another way to identify and evaluate a candidate’s soft skills for employment?
Until recently, the methods used to measure the soft skills employers’ want were subjective and nonsystematic. However, more formal means of evaluation are evolving.
A few multiple-choice tests have been developed to help you identify soft skills in job candidates and employees, but they rely on self-reporting, which is not infallible. While these tests do establish a linkage between test results and job performance, there is still significant work to be done in this regard. Customer service soft skills can be challenging to quantify, so a simple multiple-choice test won’t reveal how well potential agents actually demonstrate these skills.
And though preliminary work is being done to develop data-driven tests that do not rely on self-reports, these are in their development stage. At this time, there is no good test that call centers can use to determine if a new hire has the necessary soft skills for employment.
This leaves managers to develop their own methods of assessing customer service soft skills.
Measuring soft skills must begin with identifying what traits matter most for the position you’re hiring. The more specific you are about the skills needed in your center, the better you’ll be able to evaluate it accurately.
For instance, many people believe that “communication” is an important customer service soft skill. 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. That’s where soft skills interview questions will come into play, which we will talk about later.
First, you want to determine the outcome of the skill. Ask yourself, “If I had more employees who could _____, our call center would be more productive.” Filling in that blank will reveal the soft skills that most impact your business and are embedded into your organizational culture.
For instance, let’s say you fill in the blank this way: “If you had more employees who could renew 50 percent of subscribers when they called in to cancel, your call center would be more productive.” How does this translate into customer service soft skills?
The key is breaking down each of your “blanks” into all the skills that are necessary to see it through, but this is just the first step. Once you’ve uncovered the soft skills that are most important to you, you have to hire employees that demonstrate those skills, which means:
Often, applicants will provide a list of soft skills on their resume to add to their hard skills. They might list single words like “adaptable” or phrases like “excellent communication skills.” They can be sprinkled throughout a resume as part of the descriptions of their previous work or listed in a separate soft skills section. Whatever the case, the words/phrases listed on their resume will offer human resources the first glimpse of the customer service soft skills a candidate possesses.
The key is to create a process—electronic or human—where you complete a search of each resume and pull out all the soft skills. At the very least, you can use this list in your soft skills interview questions (which we talk about next).
However, there are a few essential things to remember when it comes to soft skills vs. hard skills on a resume.
People lie on their resumes. In fact, according to a survey by CareerBuilder, 75% of employers have caught candidates lying on their resume. Candidates lie because they’re trying to put their best foot forward, and they don’t want to be cut from the applicant pool before they have a chance to interview. What this means is that you should take the list of soft skills on their resume with a grain of salt.
People are terrible at assessing their own skills. They might think that they are great communicators, but in reality, they may be difficult for others to understand. Applicants rarely rate their skills the same way that you would.
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. Instead, you’ll want to look for a nice balance of skills and concrete examples of how each skill listed was developed or used.
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 who actually have the customer service soft skills you’re looking for.
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:
The way the applicant answers the questions above will give you a good idea about how they handle these customer service soft skills in a tangible way. But soft skills interview questions cannot reveal whether or not the candidate’s story is real or made up. Instead, it’s important to look at the applicant’s behavior in addition to their interview answers and resume.
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. The person had to demonstrate some initiative in their everyday life to install a better browser, and that can be transferred to your company.
During the interview, you should also consider asking your applicants to rank their skills in order of importance and ability. While most applicants can spout off a lot of skills to make themselves look impressive, having them rank their skills, from highest to lowest, will allow you to find out what they really think.
Lastly, you can modify a job-fit test so that it also serves as a customer service soft skills test. The key is to include multiple statements around a single soft skill. In this way, you ensure that you get the most accurate reading of the candidate’s ability because you can compare all statements around the same soft skill.
Below is a table of typical questions for self-assessment:
When it comes to soft skills, you do not want to only rely on the information your applicant provides. The best way to know if they’ll demonstrate customer service soft skills on the job is to check with their references and probe for soft skills.
Just be sure not to ask “yes” and “no” questions. When you do this, the references may feel inclined to give a positive evaluation out of fear that they could be sued if the person does not get the job. Also, yes/no is too simple. Most employees fall on a range somewhere compared to pass/fail. Instead, ask references questions that allow them to provide nuanced information.
For example, don’t ask, “Is the applicant a good communicator?” Ask, “Can you describe the applicant’s communication style?” Or you can ask for stories, “Can you tell me about a time where the applicant dealt with a high-stress situation while at your business?” The more you can get the reference talking about the candidate, the better you’ll get to know who they are and how they function in customer service situations.
And don’t forget to ask negative questions. “Can you tell me an area where you’ve had to call out the applicant in the past?” or “Are there any skills the candidate needs to improve on?” 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.
Your employees can be taught specific hard skills, but teaching customer service soft skills is a much more daunting and difficult process. That’s why it’s essential to hire employers who already have the soft skills that you need and want to be successful.
By looking at the applicant’s resume, asking open-ended soft skills interview questions, and confirming traits with their references, you should be able to assess and measure what each applicant is bringing to the table. And don’t be afraid to get specific, the more specific you are, the better your result.
When you hire with soft skills in mind, you create a better, longer-lasting workforce in your call center.