Candidate Pre-Screening: How to Better Predict Contact Center Agent Success


Candidate Pre-Screening: How to Better Predict Contact Center Agent Success

By TMCnet Special Guest
Brent Holland, FurstPerson
  |  October 02, 2013

Contact center representatives draw on an array of skills to achieve the level of customer engagement, call handling efficiency and revenue production companies expect, and most industry insiders recognize the inherent complexities of these jobs. Nevertheless, few contact centers have incorporated candidate screening processes that accurately match applicants' core competencies with those of a high-performing, well-tenured representative. The primary obstacle inhibiting centers from identifying the most talented candidates is the disconnect between the jobs and the processes centers use to evaluate candidates’ potential. 

Organizations have used screening tools to align people and jobs for years with varying levels of success. The most common assessment – the employment interview – is one of the least accurate predictors of future performance. Many well designed and validated assessments improve the hiring process via indirect measurement, which means an assessment measures characteristics of a candidate (e.g., personality trait or numerical ability) that predict job performance in the absence of clear, unambiguous overlap with the job. The lack of overlap is one reason why these types of assessments often result in more error and, therefore, less accurate hiring decisions. 

The more closely an assessment aligns with a job’s tasks and activities, the greater the likelihood it will predict post-hire performance. In contrast to the axiom that past behavior is the best predictor of future performance, which is often used to justify the use of a behavioral interview or bio-data questions, research unequivocally supports the superiority of assessments that measure a candidate’s actual performance in lifelike settings (i.e., work simulations and work samples) over all other types of pre-hire assessments. Simulations predict future performance well because, more than any other type of assessment, they measure each candidate’s job-specific competencies directly in a realistic, work-like setting. Thus, the best way to predict future job performance is to audition candidates using a realistic job simulation.

Contact Center Skills

Many companies depend on contact centers to give customers access to immediate, on-demand service, sales and support. Modern contact centers operate at a rapid pace and use advanced technologies to route customers seamlessly to employees dispersed around the world. Contact center jobs demand that employees interact with a constant stream of emotionally-charged customers while navigating a complex array of systems. Representatives generally work under time pressure and with systems and supervisors monitoring every activity. The confluence of complexity, speed, oversight and large volumes of customers creates a high-pressure environment that overwhelms unprepared representatives. 

Inbound contact center jobs require numerous core competencies, though three skills are particularly important. First, virtually all contact center jobs require candidates to possess basic computer skills to complete training and perform essential job duties. Representatives that lack these skills may struggle to complete training and, if they manage to graduate, typically succumb to the pressure of performing quality work in the allotted time. Second, the jobs require representatives to use keyboarding skills to enter information and data quickly and accurately to access information and document the customer engagement. Finally, perhaps the most important single contact center skill – multitasking – also happens to be the most difficult to measure. Representatives must interact with customers while entering or searching for information. Industry experts commonly regard the skill to perform two or more activities simultaneously as a critical determinant of a representative’s eventual success or failure.   

Hiring representatives with the qualities needed to achieve long-term success gives companies a competitive advantage. Many contact centers are turning to multimedia simulations to more precisely measure candidates’ potential to deliver results. Leading contact center simulations are microcosms of contact centers, complete with training, dashboards, performance monitors and branching technology that allows candidates to use a variety of job-relevant skills to manage a customer’s emotional response. Asking a candidate to audition for a contact center job creates an engaging, immersive experience that gives the contact center’s hiring team insight into a candidate’s likelihood to perform well. 

Profile of a Contact Center Simulation

The value of any contact center simulation depends on its ability to immerse a candidate into a job realistically while simultaneously measuring competencies that predict future job performance. The best solutions should begin with a description of the contact center environment and then transition to classroom training, where candidates are introduced to the simulation’s interactive dashboards and taught how to perform the virtual contact center job. Once out of classroom training, a brief nesting period should be given to allow candidates to practice interacting with a customer before moving into the scored, production environment, where a series of sequential customer calls can provide candidates the opportunity to demonstrate the skills essential for on-the-job success.

The extent to which a simulation predicts future job performance accurately determines its usefulness as a pre-hire screening tool. A simulation that replicates the look of a contact center but fails to predict future performance is useless as a pre-hire screening tool. This is a central reason why it is essential to continuously accumulate evidence showing that a simulation’s results predict indices of job performance (e.g., customer satisfaction, sales, quality and retention). In perhaps the largest published empirical review of contact center simulations, my colleagues and I found that a well-designed contact center simulation predicted key performance indices across job types and companies remarkably well. In fact, the results suggested that the simulation’s validity was on par with cognitive ability assessments and outperformed all other major types of assessments.

Simulations should also create an engaging candidate experience. Job seekers spend hours conducting job searches and completing pre-hire applications and assessments. An organization that is capable of creating an engaging pre-hire process is better positioned to hire the most coveted candidates. The figure below highlights survey results from more than 5,200 contact center job candidates. Using a scale from 1 (Strongly Disagree) to 5 (Strongly Agree), contact center job applicants rated a multimedia simulation as both engaging and enjoyable (Mean = 4.74) and realistic (Mean = 4.50). The feedback reinforces the potential for multimedia contact center simulations to enhance the candidate experience by providing a lifelike window into the job.

(Click to enlarge)

Word of Caution

The talent management market is growing at an unprecedented rate. A landscape once dominated by test publishers and entrepreneurial psychologists has become the target of large companies and private equity firms attempting to cash in on the bonanza. The influx of capital has brought new entrants into the market, and many of these upstart companies are bringing fresh and creative ideas that will almost certainly propel the field forward. However, the dark side of investment is that new technology makes it possible for any company to turn a traditional situational judgment test (i.e., job relevant vignettes that ask a candidate what he or she would or should do in that situation) into an avatar-based, quasi-interactive assessment that capitalizes on the simulation label. These imposter simulations, which I refer to as situimulations, misrepresent their potential value while diluting public perception on the value of actual simulations.

The difference between a contact center simulation and a situimulation is that an actual simulation recreates the contact center job. During a simulation, candidates must perform a real contact center job, complete with customer interactions, while sophisticated technology monitors performance in the background. Of course, many of the monitors and scoring routines occur behind the scenes, so it is critical to ask detailed questions and request documentation to ensure that the assessment encapsulates the sophistication of the contact center job. 

Predicting Contact Center Performance

Contact centers are often characterized by low pay, weak management, and rigid, punitive policies, issues that create innumerable challenges for talent acquisition teams that must balance the need to fill seats with the desire to hire qualified candidates. The need to more accurately select candidates capable of performing well in contact center jobs is what inspired the development of multimedia simulations. Today’s modern simulations allow candidates to experience life as a contact center representative while auditioning for a job from anywhere in the world. Amid the problems that plague contact centers, multimedia simulations represent a promising tool to help managers identify the job candidates who are most likely to achieve lasting success.

Brent Holland is vice president of research and consulting at FurstPerson (

Edited by Alisen Downey
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