Call center specialist offers tips on hiring

Here’s how to cast a wide net

Recruiting and hiring staff for a customer call center is a process rife with challenges, ranging from a shrinking candidate pool to the structured nature of the job, cautions Katherine Dean, SPHR, a partner in Banks & Dean, an international professional services firm based in Toronto.

With call centers becoming a common feature of the health care landscape, access managers increasingly are being called upon to take a leadership role in their formation and operation. With that in mind, Dean, whose company specializes in selection and retention solutions for call centers, offers some advice on how to make the task go more smoothly.

Her firm has found there is a call center talent shortage, she says, fueled both by demographics and by the limited number of individuals who have the skill set and temperament to work in such a prescribed environment. "We have a built-in challenge with a unique job with unique requirements and a talent pool that is getting smaller," Dean says. "Between 1998 and 2008," she points out, "there is a shortage of about 25 million workers because baby boomers were the largest demographic and they had fewer children. They’re not replacing themselves, and they’re getting older; and the education system is not necessarily preparing people for the work force."

Therefore, the most important question when it comes to staffing a call center becomes, "How do you cast a wide net for attracting people into your call center so you can hire the best? You can talk about how to screen better, but if you don’t have a pool to start from, it doesn’t really matter. You can’t successfully choose from a candidate pool of one," Dean adds.

To prepare for a successful search for call center employees, she suggests access managers consider these factors:

1. What do you need as baseline requirements?

Get clear, Dean says, on which skills you are willing to teach and which ones candidates must already have. "Some candidates have aptitude but haven’t been trained on multitasking. Keyboard skills may be adequate but not terrific. The person may inherently want to serve customers but has never worn a headset." Not everyone is willing to learn and follow procedures, take scheduled breaks, have calls monitored, and be coached around their performance, she says. The tougher the minimum qualifications, Dean notes, the more you cut into a talent pool that can be perfect for the job.

2. It’s a numbers game.

Because finding the right staff "is a numbers game," she adds, Dean’s company has devised some strategies for helping its clients increase the candidate pool. One of those, she explains, involves creating a microsite whereby potential applicants can go on-line to begin an automated screening process. "We’ve created a template where we ask call center-specific questions, and the system automatically screens out [inappropriate candidates]," she says. Candidates are asked questions such as, "Are you willing to take very scheduled breaks?" or "Can you meet strict attendance requirements?" or "Are you willing to wear a headset between six and eight hours a day?"

If the person answers "no" to any of those questions, Dean adds, "we don’t need to go any further."

Another technique is to screen further by having candidates who survive the on-line questions call a toll-free number and answer automated questions about such issues as job history and experience, she says. "The purpose is not just content, but to hear the [applicant’s] voice," Dean points out. "Does the person sound professional? Does he or she have good enunciation, diction, grammar?"

On the back end, the person doing the hiring can see (and hear) the person’s answers and decide to move forward in the process, she says. "Now the organization has prequalified candidates."

3. Keep call center needs in mind.

"Another thing we find is that people staffing the call center aren’t always aligned with the call center requirements," Dean says. "Is there an alignment between the people you’re bringing in and what’s expected of them?"

"For instance, some call centers are very productivity related," she adds, "and representatives need to give quick information to customers."

On the other hand, Dean points out, "If it’s a more complex call, where there needs to be a true understanding of the situation, you need someone who has very good communication skills, who is warm over the phone. A person with the sense of urgency that is associated with sales calls wouldn’t be right at all."

4. Focus in the face-to-face interview.

"What sometimes happens is that people interview a candidate, only to find out 45 minutes later that the person doesn’t have a key requirement," she says. "Make sure the person has been screened on the front end and has the minimum qualifications for the job. Don’t waste the interviewer’s time," Dean continues. In other cases, she notes, interviewers may get so excited about a candidate that they go from screening to hiring without having a face-to-face interview.

When conducting that interview, Dean advises, an important issue to keep in mind is whether the applicant has the key competency of being customer-focused. "Is the candidate exhibiting behaviors demonstrating empathy, building rapport, responding to requests in a professional manner, and going above and beyond expectations?" she asks.

To determine whether the person is customer-focused, Dean suggests asking these questions:

  • "Tell me about a situation in which you had to deal with a customer, internal or external, who was emotional or difficult. What made the situation challenging, how did you handle it, and what was the result?"
  • "Give me an example of a time when you demonstrated a commitment to following through with a customer’s request. What was the situation? What did you do? What was the outcome?"

The purpose of the questions, she says, is to see if the person will follow through with the customer effectively, and if he or she considers interaction with the customer important. Another key competency is the ability to tolerate and cope with stress, Dean points out. "One of the main reasons people leave a call center is because they have trouble dealing with the stress."

She suggests the following interview question to help identify that competency: "Give me an example of a time when, for much of the day, you had customers waiting in line. How did you handle the stress of back-to-back customers, knowing you had to be on your game, providing good service to each customer?"

Once they’re hired . . .

When the right staff have been hired and are in place, Dean says, one of the keys to a successful call center environment is to create a sense of community. "You need to build a sense of you belong here, and we’re glad you’re here.’ That is a motivator for them to stay."

One of the ways to do that, she adds, is to celebrate team success in what often is a solitary activity, perhaps by recognizing the achievement of all the representatives who work under a particular supervisor. "They really are all in it together," Dean notes. "As the calls queue up, if someone isn’t doing their job, there is more pressure on everybody else, so individual efforts contribute to the success of the whole."

Recognize the team and individuals, she suggests, with food, holiday celebrations, or birthday observances. "Make it a fun place to work where people feel important and valued."

[Editor’s note: Katherine Dean can be reached at (888) 241-8198 or by e-mail at]