Staffing for the Next-Gen Contact Center

By Brendan B. Read, Senior Contributing Editor  |  September 01, 2010

This article originally appeared in the Sept. 2010 issue of Customer Interaction Solutions

As the economy slowly climbs out of the downturn there is a next-generation contact center that is emerging. One whose agents must communicate intelligently, demonstrating skills both soft: i.e. empathy and hard: sales as well as service, with ever-more demanding customers via multiple channels: voice, chat, e-mail, fax, SMS and now social media. One where the environment is anywhere: inside traditional employer-provided facilities, in agents’ homes and on the road.

Customer Interaction Solutions interviewed two hiring and assessment solutions firms: FurstPerson and Knowlagent, and a well-known contact center expert, Kathryn Jackson of ResponseLearning Corporation, to get their take on hiring and skills needs for the “next gen” contact center. The questions posed concerned:

Impact on skills needed as a result of ever more complex calls being handled by self-service, leaving the more challenging interactions to contact center personnel; 

- Skills and qualifications that contact center agents must have to interact with via next-based including social new channels;

- Screening and assessments methods are now coming into play including using social media sites such as Facebook (News - Alert); and

- Best practices in home agent recruiting, screening and assessment.

And here are their answers:


Brent Holland, vice president, research and consulting; Dawn Lambert, director, selection and assessment


Brent Holland: Call [contact] centers often expect a representative [agent] to perform equally well across a variety of call types: services, sales, collections, technical support.  The reality, however, is that most people are not equipped to perform at a high level in each of these call types.  Therefore, call centers often make mistakes when deciding which call type is best aligned with an individual’s skills and abilities. As call centers move toward more challenging live interactions, one important issue that will come to the forefront is the ability of representative to manage more complex information quickly.  The implication is that call centers that continue to screen on traditional skills will likely miss this ability, which will create downstream challenges. 


BH: Writing skills are becoming increasingly important in the contact center industry.  Historically, customer service involved meant being able to create a connection with a customer via a live interaction where emotions can be understood through tone and inflexion in a person’s voice. As social media and alternate service channels gain popularity, the representative’s ability to comprehend written information and express oneself clearly takes on a more predominant role. A pre-hire process that assesses the candidate’s written skills complements the other components in the hiring process and allows the organization to place the individual into the role (e.g., voice, chat, or email) that is best suited to his/her capabilities.


BH: First, the use of realistic job simulations is becoming more popular.  These simulations offer businesses the ability to screen candidates effectively while giving them a flavor of what life will be like once they are hired.  Second, as the number of businesses that are screening their applicants from at-home settings becomes more popular, the need to protect assessment content from theft and cheating is becoming a critical issue. Testing companies can minimize these factors through using adaptive assessments (i.e. test content changes based on how the candidate responds to questions), confirmation testing (i.e. delivering a mini test once the candidates comes onsite to confirm that they are the person who completed the test at home) and data analytics to monitor cheating-related behavior.   

DL: Based on what I’ve seen, I believe that, yes, social media sites will be used more and more as a screening tool, along with basic Internet searches (e.g., “Googling” the candidate).  As far as future trends in assessment, job simulations (such as our CC Audition tool) and other online simulations that measure computer competency/skills, are becoming, and will continue to become, more widely used.  Such “work sample” types of simulations used to be very difficult to create, but with advances in technology, it’s actually become fairly simple. In addition, advanced statistical techniques and advanced technological capabilities are making “adaptive” assessments (for example, 1stSolve) more common.  Adaptive assessments are those designed to hone in on a candidate’s skill level in a quick and efficient manner by “tailoring” the difficulty level of the questions based on their responses to previous questions, which continues until you have enough information to zero in on the candidate’s skill level.

DL: In general, any type of recruiting, screening, or assessment process that gets at those “at-home-specific” competencies, as well as other core agent skills and competencies, would be appropriate.  From an assessment perspective, these characteristics would typically be measured via work sample/job simulation tools that require the candidate to demonstrate these behaviors, and/or via more “personality” oriented of assessments. These are typically self-report questionnaires asking the candidate to characterize him/herself on these and other work related dimensions of behavior.


Lee Anne Wimberly, director, marketing


There is a definite impact on the skills required for these more complex interactions, problem-solving being foremost. You may also see a different dynamic around empathy and call control, given that a caller has probably navigated an IVR and maybe even attempted other channels to resolve a problem without success before reaching the agent. [Contact] centers can hire for these things by testing a specific quality in candidates. They can train and coach existing and new agents to be better at them. They can also enable these success factors by giving the agent the power to do what’s right for the customer.


The average age of a call center agent is 23. These “new” channels are already second nature to this demographic, but they may lack the maturity and experience to use them for business. That’s when proper training and coaching against clear guidelines are critical. We have also worked with companies who separate agents by channel and screen against the critical success factors for the job – maybe they are spelling and grammar for chat, for example.


More information than ever is available about a person today, but companies can be overwhelmed by the volume of that information, and apply it pretty subjectively, frankly. What really matters about performing the job is a pretty short list, typically. And the good news is that it can be assessed objectively. Methods that allow for objective assessment of a candidate’s skills and abilities and that allow for the candidate to get a good view into the job will continue to be best practice and yield the best results for performance and retention.


From the research we’ve done, centers tell us that the at-home agent requires a slightly different profile than the in-house agent to be successful, particularly with regards to qualities such as working independently, problem-solving and technical aptitude. So recruiters should have an objective screening method that assesses those attributes. 

Centers also need to adapt their processes to account for a virtual screening and hiring process. They need to ability to assess candidates online for the skills and attributes required. They should provide candidates with a realistic preview of the job, without requiring a visit to the centers. Targeted interviewing is even more important, since you may never meet the person you hire face to face.

ResponseLearning Corporation 

Kathryn Jackson


Companies have to be careful when considering how to address the social channel. This communication channel has a wide audience and, unlike other communication channels, is not a “one-to-one” interaction. Anyone tapped into the channel can listen to the conversation. And, it is a conversation that stays public for as long as people are interested in viewing it.For this reason companies define strict communication protocol and assign a highly trained workforce to monitor and respond to these interactions. This workforce must be skilled in communicating diplomatically through writing. Unlike phone or e-mail, the agent responding to SMS must be able to communicate intent in short bursts. This “short burst” intent needs to convey understanding, willingness to help and empathy all at the same time.

While some customers will use this channel to applaud a company’s efforts, many times customers use this channel to vent their frustration.  The agents assigned to care for customers using this channel must clearly understand their empowerment level and be able to discern if moving the conversation to a different channel would produce a better result. 


Due to a strategy of cost containment and an expectation of high agent turnover, many contact centers are still in the minimalist mode.  They develop a job description that contains basic competencies and they provide nominal training.  These organizations rely on on-the-job experience and supervisory monitoring to catch performance gaps after the fact.  However, companies that see their call [contact] center agents as vital contributors to customer retention invest in a different set of hiring methodology. These companies do not wait for someone to fail on the job before they intervene.  The proficiency of the new hire is assured prior to taking customer calls and ongoing training is implemented to make a good agent, great. These leaders document detailed job requirements, define thorough competencies and implement tiered assessments for each job description.  The most exciting new-hire assessment tool is the job simulation. The applicant sits at a computer with a headset on.  They are presented a simulated call during which they are expected to handle a customer interaction. The simulation may not be an exact replication of the call center environment yet often contains scenarios and tasks similar to the one they might be handling in the center.  The customers’ voices are simulated and the simulated computer desktop ensures the agent has all the required tools to meet the customers’ requests.  The entire simulation (voice and data) is recorded so that the hiring committee can assess the prospective employee’s competency.


Companies utilizing the work-from-home model benefit from a simulation screening, assessment, and training tool. A prospective employee can take the simulation from any remote workstation and the results can be reviewed by a team of evaluators located at multiple locations. The simulations are built for each job description and job grade and easily implemented to assess a new hire or veteran employee. 


Selecting and Training Social Agents

The fast rise and exploding popularity of social media as a customer interaction channel has prompted contact centers to look at the skills needed by agents to communicate with customers through it. They have to become not just contact center agents, adept at handling and making calls and responding and composing one-one-one e-mails but they also have to be “social agents or “social associates.”BPO firm TeleTech (News - Alert) recently entered the social channel interactions field through its partnership with Lithium. Lithium makes software that supports online social communities.

TeleTech is recruiting and assessing its contact center agents, known as “associates” or “social associates” both from inside the company and new hires and place them in clients’ social community programs. These agents/associates are able to work both in TeleTech centers and remotely at their homes through TeleTech@Home. TeleTech defined four key social channel-specific roles that it selects and screens the social associates to; these employees will be assigned to them based on clients’ needs. These roles are:

-Customer support and product knowledge social associates
-Community moderation social associates
-Content moderation social associates
-Community managers

These associates are, depending on the roles they are assigned to, responsible for community program management, providing customer support, monitoring community metrics, interpreting community policies and social content rules, communication with clients and reporting community trends and success. TeleTech screens its social associates for fluency in social networks, knowledge of social media culture and etiquette, strong written communications skills and ability to moderate conversations. They must also have experience managing conflict.

The firm uses its proprietary recruiting and selection tools to create the appropriate profile for an associate to guarantee a proper fit for the job and to meet specific clients’ requirements which vary depending on the specific social associate role and the client’s objectives with social media. Candidates are then further evaluated during the interview process by past performance reviews and skills testing including predictive aptitude testing.Once approved, social associates will be given training on using social channel tools, primarily the Lithium application and other proprietary desktop tools used in monitoring. They will also be trained on the four roles described above. Those that are selected have their performance monitored and assessed through TeleTech’s quality assurance process which includes both real-time and periodic evaluations.

TeleTech says its social channel hiring and assessment methodology has already proven itself. It began performing content and community forum moderation for a leading unnamed telecommunications manufacturer. Moderators are instructed to monitor and take action on user-generated content or UCG as well as links being posted by forum members that violate the forums’ rules. The social associates have reported violations, issued warnings to users, deleted posts and had successful resolution discussions with users while banning others who refused to cooperate.


Enabling Disabled Agents

Individuals with disabilities make for great contact center agents for several reasons. They are highly motivated and know how to overcome obstacles for that is what they must do every waking day. They also know all too well what it is like, like the customers who call, to be reluctant to seek help. And because one of the handicaps they face is obtaining employment, they will perform well for and stay with employers longer than many of those who are “less exceptionally-abled.”

AbilityOne is a federal initiative to help people who are blind or have other severe disabilities find employment by working for nonprofit agencies (NPAs) that sell products and/or services to the U.S. government. With a national network of 600 NPAs, AbilityOne is the largest source of employment for people who are blind or have other severe disabilities in the U.S. That also includes with contact center positions. AbilityOne manage 29 contact center and 33 switchboard operation contracts, employing approximately 1,000 people. The program handles volumes exceeding 17 million contacts per year, 24/7, 365 days per year.

The National Statler Center for Careers in Hospitality Service, a program of the Olmsted Center for Sight provides job training programs for individuals with visual impairments or physical disabilities in the hospitality industry, customer service and contact centers. It has trained over 360 graduates in these fields. Contact center trainees learn their skills on a 20-seat contact center where they take calls for the Olmsted Center, which is located in Buffalo, N.Y. and other companies who have contracted their services.

Mary Ellen Mest is project manager for New Initiatives at the Statler Center. She points out that thanks to what is collectively known as assistive technology, or AT, there are no real technical barriers anymore to effectively accommodate either the visually or the hearing impaired or those with limited motor skills. Price is often not a barrier as AT is often freely available to employees via state programs and nonprofit organizations.

AT examples include screen-reading software, which transmits words to Braille displays, and text-to-speech tools have compensated for the shift from mostly phone-only to phone-and-computer environments while speech-to-text are enabling those who cannot hear to communicate with those who can. Also, text-to-speech/speech to text solutions permits those who cannot type or write to interact with customers and use via their PCs. Just as AT users have to sometimes overcome obstacles the same goes for the technology. For example not all core applications can be read by screen-reading software as most of these applications are company-specific and/or proprietary and confidential, Mest points out. They can be programmed to read it but that takes another level of expertise and by a third party expert to provide that. Statler offers this service. It can select the right AT applications to facilitate a smooth transition into the workforce for both Statler graduates and the companies that hire them.

Instead the highest barrier to hiring and retaining the disabled are often the people: HR staff, managers, supervisors and would-be colleagues, Mest points out.

Sometimes employers feel that by hiring someone with a disability that along with it could be medical issues and absenteeism but that is not true for research indicates their absenteeism and tardiness is lower than that of the able-bodied. Oftentimes her program’s graduates would have great interviews only to detect by tones of voice the interviewers’ discomfort – and would call them out on it by mentioning they are disabled for by law firms cannot ask them – and they can perform well at the jobs they are seeking.

Then there is the matter of co-workers making minor adjustments to accommodate the new member of their team, such as sharing a hallway with someone with a cane or behavior around guide dogs. Mest admitted that when she started working at the Statler Center she said to the students “did you see that last night on...” then clapped her hand over her mouth, afraid to offend someone.

“Use the same words, phrases, and analogies as you would with any other person,” she points out.

To overcome these barriers, Mest recommends educating employees about the disabled firsthand by reaching out to local support organizations, visiting rehab and training centers and having their representatives visit contact centers. Contact center and HR staff can then ask what may be embarrassing questions but in comfortable, supportive and understanding environments.

“You can put all the laws out there you want but if someone is not comfortable in a room with someone with a disability then it will be hard for them to have an open mind when they are interviewing them and objectively decide whether these individuals will work for their company or not,” says Mest. “Getting them to know the disabled overcomes this barrier. Once done the experiences for employees and for the customers who call the contact center will be mutually positive.”

Brendan B. Read is TMCnet’s Senior Contributing Editor. To read more of Brendan’s articles, please visit his columnist page.

Edited by Stefania Viscusi