How to Hire Top Call Center Performers

November 2015: Vol 38 No 11
Bill Stavros
To deliver engaging member experiences over the phone, credit unions need to start with the right people

smiling call center employeeThree foundational building blocks must be optimized to consistently deliver engaging member experiences over the phone: people, processes and leadership. Our journey of nine articles will cover each of these focus areas in detail. The first two articles will focus on people—specifically, how we can hire more top performers (article one) and how we can ensure employees meet and/or exceed our expectations (watch for article two next month).

The U.S. Labor Department has consistently estimated that 50 percent of new hires are mistakes—meaning they don’t last longer than six months on the job. Even if your organization has experienced better results, it's likely that the other 50 percent--employees who have been with you for more than six months--only contains a small percentage of high performers. The question then becomes: How do we minimize hiring mistakes and hire more top performers?

For starters, it’s critical to understand why new hires fail. And, according to Leadership IQ over 80 percent of the reasons are attitudinal. Specific attitudes that determine performance potential include coachability, emotional intelligence, motivation, and temperament. New hires fail only 11 percent of the time due to technical competence. What this means is that we do an excellent job in hiring for technical fit, but a poor job hiring for attitude and cultural fit. Therefore, we need to change how we approach the hiring process.

Here’s a step-by-step process on how you can improve your hiring techniques and hire more top performers.

Step One: Define Your Culture
If you haven’t already done so, identify the desired behaviors critical to your organization’s success. Think Zappos & Southwest Airlines--two service-oriented organizations well known for their strong corporate cultures. Both of these companies know exactly the type of behaviors they want (typically tied to their core values), and screen potential hires accordingly. What’s more, they are willing to pass on people with off-the-charts technical skills if they aren’t a cultural fit. Some even say it’s easier to get accepted into Harvard than get a job at Zappos!

Step Two: Identify Transferrable Skill Sets
Transferrable skill sets are the foundational skills needed to deliver outstanding service, so they must be assessed during the interview process. As a call center agent, essential skills should include critical thinking (ability to solve problems), communication (written, verbal and listening), coachability (ability to accept feedback, both positive and negative), the ability to be a team player, and evident passion for helping others.

Step Three: Align Your Internal Team
The next step is to create an internal scorecard--an executive summary of the position to be filled. The summary should include a mission (core expectations), deliverables, transferable skill sets and cultural behaviors as defined in previous steps. The difference here is that the scorecard highlights deliverables-- i.e. what the agent will deliver in 12-24 months--as opposed to a job description that typically only lists responsibilities of the position. The objective is to get everyone internally aligned on the position to be filled.

Step Four: Create/Post a Job Description
More often than not, top performers are already employed somewhere and are therefore considered "passive" job seekers. With that said, the objective is to get passive job seekers to read your job posting and take action.

To do this, you first need to ensure potential candidates clearly understand what it’s like to work for your organization. What makes your culture so unique? Next, you need to create a sense of urgency. To do this, it’s imperative to understand the potential pain points a candidate may be experiencing in their current position. For example, unlike many other call centers, perhaps your call center doesn’t worry about average talk time. If a candidate is passionate about delivering excellent experiences and currently has a job in which they have limits on how long they can spend on a call with a customer, this may be very appealing to them. You can also gain additional insights from top performers in your organization – ask them what made them leave their previous job and why they enjoy working for you.

Finally, once the hiring manager and HR team put together a draft job description, have an experienced copywriter (ideally someone who writes advertisements) write the final job description. Why? Because your job description is essentially an advertisement. To hire top talent, you need someone on your team who understands how to grab a reader’s attention and motivate them to take action. Nobody knows this better than an experienced copywriter.

Step Five: Finalize Candidate Experience
The interview experience needs to be consistent for all candidates to ensure a fair assessment.

Your initial interview should be a phone screening to eliminate candidates. You should assess basic phone skills (how the candidate projects over the phone and engages in conversation) and confirm pay range. In addition, identify job fit (by determining what motivates the candidate) and previous ratings--how their previous supervisors would rate them when you eventually conduct reference interviews. You only want to advance those rated very highly.

During round two, you’ll want to assess a candidate’s technical skills and build a story to help identify potential trends. Specifically, identify the 3 Rs (ratings, roles and responsibilities) for their previous jobs--inquire as far back as 10-15 years when applicable. Then ask why they left each job to build the story.

You also want to include role-plays in the interview process to add a little stress and assess if the candidate understands how to deliver excellent experiences. For example, you can role-play a member calling in for a balance inquiry and pretending the agent’s systems are super slow. While the candidate won’t know product details or systems, you should look for other attributes that would define a great call, such as attempting to build a connection with the member, wrapping up the call, call courtesies, etc. Role-plays are very common in many organizations, including American Express.

Round three should be spent assessing the candidate’s cultural fit (your organization’s desired behaviors) and attitude. During this interview, you should use behavioral based interviewing techniques which are said to have a higher degree of predictability. Specifically, use the STAR method when interviewing. STAR stands for Situation/Task/Action/Result. With every question you ask, attempt to get a complete STAR by understanding the situation, the task/action the candidate took and the result of their actions.

Successful candidates (those who score well in round three) then need to go through a series of reference interviews. Whenever possible, speak with previous supervisors and peers--don’t settle for references provided. This is a critical step often skipped, but essential to gain further insights and complete the candidate’s story.

Step Six: Prepare Interview Team
Prepare your team by creating an interview guide, which should include the assigned behavioral interview questions to assess attitude and cultural fit. With that said, remember the guide is just that--allow the flexibility for interviewers to go “off-script” as needed.

Step Seven: The Interview
Stick to your interview plan, allow for flexibility, but keep certain question types off the table—for example, hypothetical questions. In hypothetical situations, candidates may say they’ll do something, when in real-life situations they would do something totally different. Data has shown these types of questions should be avoided.

Step Eight: Debrief & Hire
In addition to debriefing almost immediately, it’s important that the group--and not the hiring manager--make the final hiring decision. You see, the hiring manager, at some point will leave their position and move into another internal position or eventually leave the company. What’s more, their hiring decision will impact other departments and, in practice, hiring managers will rarely hire someone smarter than themselves.

Such organizations as Google and Warby Parker (designer and online retailer of eyewear) actually have committees that make the hiring decisions. For example, Warby Parker has a cultural SWAT team that does 75 percent of the interviewing process. Organizations do this to preserve the culture and to ensure the hiring decision is made with the organization’s best interest in mind – not one person’s (hiring manager) decision.

Happy hiring, and be sure to stay tuned for next month's article, No. 2 in this series, on performance management.

Prior to starting his new company, Bill Stavros spent over 13 years of his professional career in the credit union industry, most recently as VP/marketing & member experience at $513 million Proponent Federal Credit Union, Nutley, N.J. While at Proponent, Stavros was responsible for conceptualizing, architecting, developing and deploying a new vision for delivering customer service for Proponent FCU’s inbound call center, based on his learnings from highly regarded service oriented companies such as Zappos, Ritz-Carlton, Disney & REI. Now with Blueprint Interactions, his goal is to help other credit unions achieve similar results. He can be reached at bill@bpinteractions, by calling 888.757.8338 or

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