The Contact Center Agent Screen Test

We lost actor Burt Reynolds this year! Who can forget his dramatic portrayal of Lewis in the movie "Deliverance" or his hilarious depiction of J.J. McClure in "Cannonball Run?" He also auditioned for "Pretty Woman," but director Garry Marshall chose Richard Gere instead. He auditioned for the Han Solo role in "Star Wars," but George Lucas picked Harrison Ford. He even lost the role of John McClane in "Die Hard" to Bruce Willis.

Selecting people for customer service roles is similar to casting people for roles in a play or movie. First, both require artful performances aligned with audience expectations. Creating an interpersonal experience that customers remember as pleasant is like an actor's mission of having audiences so caught up in a play or movie they start believing the performer is the person portrayed. Second, both require a casting choice based on personality.

Selection choices based more on the subjective than the objective—more on vibes than facts—are more susceptible to bias and prejudice. The "I have a gut feeling you just won't fit in here" rationale has slammed the door on many who might well have become shining stars. It was and is the justification for bigotry, old boys' networks, and myopia, which pay homage to a particular race, gender, national origin, faith, age or sexual orientation.

Be that as it may, the exaggerated effort to exclude interpersonal information from the selection process—to focus solely on objective information—might lead to hiring decisions that are fair but senseless rather than fair and smart. How then, do you cast people for extraordinary customer service? Here are four guidelines that will enable you to avoid the built-in conflict between fair and subjective.

1. Detail the service role and critical qualities you are seeking

Begin with a crystal-clear view of the service role. Define the skills the service person must bring to the job and the technical aspects of the job that can be learned and you are willing to teach. Then, focus on the interpersonal qualities that are important. Be as specific and thorough as possible.

Frontline service roles require people who are friendly and courteous. Such behaviors are relatively easy to observe and document. But, the qualities found in highly successful contact center employees don't end there. Equally important are people with a strong need to see things to their end, the ability to withstand irate attack without retaliating or feeling personally affronted, ease in showing curiosity, and ingenuity in solving customers' problems.

2. Make the selection process match the service outcome.

Disney theme park leaders know an important skill for employees in service roles is the ability to get along well with others. They judge potential cast members—Disney's term for employees—through group interviews. The group experience mirrors the contact between cast members and guests. If an applicant appears uninterested in what other interviewees have to say, chances are he will not be attentive to Disney guests. Southwest Airlines uses a simpler approach.

Simulate typical service situations during the interview. Just as an actor auditions using lines from the play or an athlete tries out in a practice scrimmage, a simulation helps accurately gauge how well an applicant will perform the service role. Play excerpts of real calls the applicant is likely to receive from customers. Hearing the actual nature of these calls might cause a few candidates to select out of the job, even if they have the skills or background.

3. Look for the applicant's capacity to create a relationship with the audience.

From the customer's standpoint, every performance is live, and hence, unique. It earns the best reviews when it appears genuine and natural. The implication for selection is that contact center employees must have good person-to-person skills; their speaking, listening, and interacting styles should seem authentic, friendly, and appropriate to the situation, neither stiff and formal nor overly familiar.

Watch how applicants treat others. Ask receptionists, security guards, or administrative assistants for their view on the applicant. If someone took an applicant on a short tour after an interview, notice how warmly she greeted others. Did the applicant ask good questions, and was she sensitive to details important to the contact center role?

4. Learn how the applicant reacts to stress.

Contact center employees encounter more stress than most people in the organization. Angry customers vent their frustration on the first person they encounter without regard to whether that person is to blame. The resilience of service people—the capacity to hang in there when the going gets tough—can be critical to solid customer care. Customers prefer contact center people who respond with confident empathy, not calloused indifference.

You don't have to conduct stress interviews to ascertain stress management skills. Simply asking an applicant to recall a time when he encountered an irate customer might be adequate. Simulating an experience with an irate customer is another. Be willing to push the encounter issue to have the candidate demonstrate his ability to handle tough situations

Customer service is first and foremost an interpersonal experience. Service people must bring a mix of skills and aptitudes to the role if they are to be successful. Casting contact center people to perform the art of serving well requires gauging both the subjective and the objective. When we recognize and meet that challenge, the conflict between subjective and fair, between qualitative and equitable, no longer exists.

Chip R. Bell is a renowned keynote speaker and the author of several award-winning, best-selling books, including his newest book, "Kaleidoscope: Delivering Innovative Service That Sparkles." He can be reached at