Preparing for a call center agent job interview: Which skills are required?

Call centers have evolved to address customers' multichannel needs. Agents' skills need to diversify to meet new service demands.

The evolution of call centers into contact centers has had a profound effect on agents' roles. Their skill sets...

have had to change, along with the technological expectations of customers, and go beyond the simple phone call. In this multichannel world, companies have to be able to interact and service customers on the channels that they prefer, and agents need to develop new skills to handle customer interactions in multiple platforms.

No matter how complex their issues are, customers want to interact with organizations via a multitude of avenues. The interactions can be as simple as a phone call about an account balance, a chat session to complete an online purchase or a tweet to complain about a poor service experience. This presents challenges and opportunities for organizations. Companies must develop new workflows, augment their hiring processes and assure that the correct tools are in place for successful customer interactions.

The multichannel environment has provided two great opportunities for current and potential agents:

  • Successful contact center agents can take advantage of additional career paths if they have the communication skills that support varied communication channels.
  • People with a passion for customer service who did not have the appropriate communication skills to succeed in a contact center now have alternate job options to consider.

Many of the skill sets required of phone agents are the same skill sets required of agents in a multichannel environment; the expectations have just been raised to a higher level. These skill sets should include:

  • Excellent oral and written communication and interpersonal skills.
  • Professional and courteous demeanor and ability to collaborate with a team.
  • Excellent problem-resolution skills and ability to multi-task in a fast-paced, high-volume environment.
  • Strong system skills and ability to learn, retain and apply large amounts of product, procedure, policy and system information.
  • Ability to meet established productivity, effectiveness, training, sales (if applicable) and quality goals, and accept and incorporate feedback.
  • Ability to work in a highly structured environment -- take scheduled lunches and breaks.
  • Flexibility in responding to change or business needs.
  • Ability to accommodate non-traditional work schedules.
  • Excellent attendance and punctuality.
  • Ability to work independently and learn on the fly.

Modern contact centers demand that agents' communication skills support new channels, which means that current and prospective agents need a broader range of abilities. Agents need to expand beyond verbal communication skills, which were paramount when phone calls dominated call centers. They should focus on writing and reading comprehension skills for email, chat, social media, and also develop their body language and visual observation skills for video chat.

It may sound intuitive, but contact centers don't always follow best practices in terms of matching skills sets to job function. Identifying individuals who are strong in any specific skill or a combination of skills is key to hiring the right agent.

Handling cross-channel communications

In the past, dial transfers were critical to the call center agent's skill set. While unpopular, they were a necessary evil. The goal was to minimize customers' wait times and ensure that customers did not have to repeat information, which are common pitfalls that mar customer service. Today, contact centers strive for seamless cross-channel communications or the practice of providing consistent service when customers mix their interactions across multiple different channels. The goals remain the same: reducing wait times and preventing customers from repeating information.

Effective CRM and desktop technology are crucial to ensuring that this process is as painless as possible for the customer. The technology must capture, in real time, all the actions that a customer takes and present it to the agent who is handling the case. But implementing technology that smashes data silos is difficult to achieve, and contact center agents must understand the customer journey regardless of the channels a consumer uses.

Diversifying communication skills

When phone calls were king, call center agents' skill sets placed premium on verbal and listening skills. With today's complex communication methods, agents need a much broader set of skills, including writing and reading comprehension.

As channels such as video become more prevalent, agents need to develop their nonverbal communication skills, such as the use of body language and facial expressions. Skills pertaining to burgeoning areas of technology can be assets for the candidate.

Moving from ad-hoc support to knowledge databases

Historically, contact center agents depended on company-provided tools and processes to support them when they had questions. The Web-based systems were simplistic and "help lines," staffed by senior agents, assisted them in answering questions. To provide modern customer service, agents need to have an array of tools and information at their fingertips. Products and services are becoming more complicated and changes occur on a regular basis. Additionally, customers are more educated and demand immediate answers. Agents need to access comprehensive knowledge databases as well as historical information about the customer, and they must possess a good understanding of the Web and mobile applications.

Organizations must provide up-to-date, easy-to-navigate knowledge databases to support agents when they need to research information. Contact centers need to strive to create a consolidated repository of data that provides a single version of the truth, which will expedite service.

Paving a path to job mobility

Call center agents used to have two main career paths: Move into a supervisor role or into a support role in areas such as training, quality or workforce management.

Today, in addition to those paths, agents with the appropriate qualifications can transition into specialized roles where they can continue to work with customers in a variety of diverse channels. Individuals who have strength in working directly with customers can continue to do so. Moving up the corporate ladder is not for everyone and agent retention can be boosted by offering lateral job moves that enrich the overall contact center experience for employees and customers alike.

Next Steps

Improving knowledge management for agents

Video, live chat present big challenges

In contact centers, let agents be people

A guide to modern contact centers

This was first published in March 2015

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