What Makes Good Reps? What Makes Reps Good?

Is it experience? Attitude? A warm and friendly voice?

When it comes to determining what makes a contact center rep “good,” the answer is, It depends. What are the objectives, goals, and other requirements of the calls these reps will handle? What are the expectations of the customers, prospects, employees, donors, whose interactions will be “handled” by these reps?

The great likelihood is that there isn’t a single, simple answer to these questions–which means there’s no single, simple answer to the very difficult question of how to hire exactly the right reps for your situation. Plus, with the labor market being what it is, and human beings varying as widely as they do, the likelihood of being able to staff an entire operation of more than a half-dozen with a single type of person is very small, particularly if you hope to stay within a reasonable range of pay.

So what are the baseline characteristics you need to screen for?

Start with courtesy. Our society has become less polite in general. Just think of daily life in the world: There’s more tailgating, more littering, and loud cell phone use in inappropriate places. People cut each other off in conversation as well as on the road. It has become incredibly common to hear “no problem” instead of “thank you”—and telling customers that they’re not creating problems for us instead of demonstrating our gratitude and appreciation for their contact, their business, and particularly for their complaints and requests for service is not a good approach. Counteract these tendencies in your interview process; plan to say or do a couple of things that should elicit explicit “thank you” from your candidates, and if they’re not specifically courteous, think twice or three times before hiring them.

Personal courtesy should be a requirement regardless of the kinds of calls you handle and the kinds of people you service. Beyond that, though, you’ll need to do a little prep and define your call objective(s). What do your reps have to do, and what do you expect as the result of successful calls?

At the least, contact center reps need to be able to listen. That is, they need to be able to focus on what customers are saying, retain relevant and important information, and use that information in conducting the remainder of their phone calls. Sometimes they need to be able to probe further, to clarify what they’ve heard, to verify information, or to learn more about what customers want.

Strive to identify applicants who already have strong listening ability, because it’s not an easy skill to train. Make sure your screening or interview processes include providing information aurally–either live, as part of your outgoing voice message, or via a recording on a tape or CD player that the interviewer can control. Review the candidates’ ability to take actionable notes on the salient portions, and test their ability to retain information (with access to their notes, of course).

Next, in addition to being able to listen, reps must be able to communicate information accurately. In most cases, this means they have to be able to read, interpret, and apply information that they refer to, whether on screen or as part of printed material. So check for literacy. Do not hire any candidates unless you’ve handed them a passage of text and asked them to read aloud without any advance preparation.

Then, once you’re sure they can read, test for comprehension. Ask straightforward questions that applicants should be able to answer by referring to the text you’ve given them.

Even beyond their ability to communicate product, service, or policy information, reps have to learn and integrate information and requirements that management throws at them as new developments occur. They have to be comfortable using this new information promptly, and they often must give up use of the content or procedures they learned previously.

So as part of an exercise or role-play during the interview, give candidates specific feedback about their delivery (speed up, slow down, pause after the second question, etc.) and about required procedures; see how well they react to receiving the new information and whether they can make use of it on the spot.

In addition to specific skills, you hope for candidates who possess the set of behaviors that were once considered part of character: trustworthiness, timeliness, reliability, good work habits. It’s hard to get applicants to demonstrate these traits during the selection process, although sometimes their absence is apparent; we’ve all conducted interviews with candidates who gave evasive answers or showed up late. A formal reference-checking process comes in very handy for establishing these characteristics. Ask candidates how they’ve demonstrated or manifested these attributes in the past. Then ask if each of their references will describe them in exactly the same way.

And finally, all these points are moot for any applicants who cannot be understood clearly over the phone. I intentionally put this point at the end to be sure you’ll consider it as a separate, necessary factor. Too many contact centers skip the phone screen–a crucial component of a successful selection process. It’s easy to be lulled into interpersonal comfort by candidates who are nicely dressed and groomed, who smile pleasantly and say please and thank you, who appear alert and attentive.

Perfectly lovely people can turn out to sound unintelligible or grating; you might not notice these difficulties when you’re overwhelmed by visual cues. If you’re not conducting phone screens and you get stuck with gravel-voiced reps, test them for writing skill. Maybe these folks are just who you need to handle your backlog of e-mail correspondence.

Liz Kislik is president of Rockville Centre, NY-based consultancy Liz Kislik Associates.