Your Guide To Hiring Better Call Center Agents

Hire the Best Call Center Agents

Hire the Best Call Center Agents

Whether you run a small, or large call center the blood of your center are your agents.

Your goal as a leader is to minimize turnover, and to ensure when you do hire you are getting the best you can get. Having led my small center for the last 9-years I’ve seen all types of applicants, I’ve hired directly by posting job advertisements on places like Craigslist and the HRDC (Canada Job Bank run by the Gov’t of Canada) and have even hired based on personal recommendations from agents on my team and from others outside of the team (Sales, Marketing, IT).

In recent years the decision was made to use agencies as they do have access to a much larger labor pool that we do.  Our company actively posts jobs on our corporate website and has started to use social media to market and promote those positions but this route will take time to generate the type of leads any contact center needs in order to ensure they also have a solid pool of applicants. In the past we looked for a warm body.  Someone that could sit in the chair, and take calls.  The quality of applicants was hit and miss.  Not the ideal scenario given that it can take up to 3-months for an agent to become proficient enough that they are taking a high number of calls on their own without any assistance except for those oddball calls that come through. If you have hired this agent directly what is it really costing you?

  • Your time and/or your trainers time and/or your Manager/Supervisor or Team Leads time.  What are you paying them hourly?
  • The new agents time – remember during training, they are still getting paid.
  • Other agents time – chances are your new employee will also engage those around them when help is needed.
  • Indirect time lost – what are you not able to complete?  This is also known as missed opportunity costs.
  • Customer satisfaction (or dissatisfaction with service being provided)
  • Increased workload on other agents
    • More sick days being used due to increased workloads
    • Overtime costs due to being short staffed
  • Team morale

The contact center has one of the highest turnover rates of any industry – an incredible 26% of agents are replaced annually depending on the industry.  Some industries may see an even higher turnover rate.  Consider the direct cost to hire these individuals: most agencies charge 15% (or more) of the yearly salary to place an agent.

Given an average annual salary of $32,000.00 (source: that’s $4,950.00 just to bring that employee in the door. If you are using an agency you should only be getting the top agents – however this may not always be the case.

If your contact center isn’t paying well in relation to others operating in the area you might be getting lower quality agents from the agency.

You want agents that are are driven to succeed and are naturals in the contact center.  They are the ones that know instinctively what to do, how to do it and know how to fill in any time they may have between calls.  These are the same folks that will become the leaders in your contact center, they are always asking for more and are always learning and have incredible critical thinking skills.  These are hard to come by, and when you have a few of these you don’t want to let them go.

Then you get floaters (as I like to call them – they exist everywhere, not just in the contact center).  They come in, do the job and go home.  They are not driven at all.  They’ll take on additional work when it is given to them, but they will never seek out work.  Between calls or during slow periods they can be seen chatting it up with those around them, in the staff kitchen or always on health breaks.  These are not even the worst!

Finally you get those that are OK.  They are eager, they want to do a good job but they just don’t get it and as a result you will have issues with them all the time: sick, late, low productivity, poor performance.  They have negative attitudes and spread their negativity to everyone around them which impacts team morale.  If you have these in your contact center – get rid of them.  If you are working through an agency, hopefully they have done their job and screened these types of individuals out and do not even send them to you – but truth be told, I am certain we have all worked with these types of people.

What is Your Recruitment Strategy?

I’ve already mentioned a few methods when looking for agents.

  • Utilizing hiring agencies and working with various hiring models
    • Direct hire
    • Contract to hire
  • Job boards
  • Company career page
  • Referrals from existing employees
  • Craigslist
  • Social Media
  • Schools (high schools, college, university)
  • Minority organizations
  • Job fairs
  • Outplacement programs

The list could go on.  Each method above has pro’s and con’s — it’s your job to mitigate the risk and find those that work for you and your contact center.

What Makes The Perfect Contact Center Agent?

Over the years I’ve found that prior experience in a call center is key, when I’ve broken that rule it has been difficult to recover.  You either have to let the individual go (hopefully within their probationary period) or if you find out too late and they are now permanent employees it costs you in terms of what is mandated by your Employment Standards Act — in reality this isn’t all that it is costing you, don’t forget the indirect costs where the biggest is team morale and productivity. One strategy which I’ve employed to find the perfect agent is to create an agent profile. This strategy is simple in that you detail what you are looking for in an agent.

I’ve shared my agent profile with agencies that I work with.  This way we know that the individuals that they send us have not only been vetted through their own process but have gone through an additional review through our minimum requirements. The profile should contain a list of what you want the perfect candidate to have, their personality traits, skill set and core competencies.  The best way to create this is to look at the top agents in your contact center today, and develop your agent profile based on them. In addition to having an agent profile, you should also have a job description that accurately reflect the roles and responsibilities of the position.  It does not have to be 3-pages long but needs to accurately reflect what the agent will be doing. Some of the things that I look for:

  • Able to show empathy
  • Strong critical thinking skills
  • Willing to wear multiple hats
  • Ability to think on their feet
  • Outgoing personality — introverts may do well, but depending on where they are on the scale
  • Ability to listen
  • Calm
    • Won’t fly off the handle the moment they get an angry caller or someone who swears
  • Exceptional telephone skills
    • Not monotone and able to fluctuate their tone accordingly
  • Experience
    • Have they worked in a call center before?
    • Do they have office experience?  While office experience isn’t a must I have found that those that have worked in an office know how to conduct themselves, they understand and can deal with office politics and know what business casual means.
  • Strong language/communication skills
    • Not only on the telephone, but written skills in addition to being able to interact with others on the team and outside the team
  • Conscientious

Great resource for behavioral questions is - there are some awesome questions here along with “answers” (well – what you should be listening for).

Once you have developed your agent profile, and have determined what your hiring strategy is hopefully you start getting resumes to fill those open positions. Working with agencies we now conduct a telephone interview first, this allows us to hear the individual over the phone and to test their language skills.  The telephone interview should not take more than 30-minutes, this is the chance for you to tell the prospective candidate about the company and the position — when I conduct the telephone interview, my goal is to “scare the individual away”.

I only want those individuals who are serious about the job and role to come in for a face-to-face, I don’t want tire kickers. During the telephone interview you should ask a small subset of questions from your master list, this is to determine whether you really want to meet the person face-to-face. In my contact center we focus on behavioral questions in the interview, this forces the candidate to think about a response and tie it into their work experience.  While personal responses, and responses related to volunteer work are acceptable chances are the candidate will go above and beyond in those situations since they have a greater personal role.

I have read about telephone screening processes where the candidate calls into an automated system  or employment information line screening system which sounds very appealing, especially if you are doing more direct hires.  This method allows you to screen unqualified candidates, and listen to their telephone voice.  If you use this method, I would like to hear from you as to its effectiveness – contact me via Twitter, or LinkedIn or leave a comment.

If the candidate has made it past the pre-screen telephone interview then it is time to bring them into the office for a face-to-face and really grill them.  Remember your goal is to hire the best, and a thorough in-person interview will either scare the candidate away or they will shine as they have the experiences you need in order to be successful on the job.  My goal even in the in-person interview is to see if I can scare the individual away, the questions will tell me if they are serious about the opportunity or are they filling in time until something better comes along and will be coasters.  I don’t want coasters, but engaged individuals that are excited about coming to work.

Agent Testing In The Contact Center

Many contact centers swear by agent testing, this is not something that we have implemented but it is on my radar.  In lieu of this we rely heavily on the in-person interview and use of behavioral questions to learn about the prospective candidate.

Reference Checks

If after all of this you have narrowed down your candidate list to one or two individuals the final step should be to check references.  Too often this is an after thought – again if you are using an agency, they will take care of this for you however if you are hiring directly you need to check references.  In the reference check you want to “interview” the previous employer by asking specific questions about what the candidate did for them, questions to consider asking:

  • What project(s) did the individual work on?
  • What was the environment like?  Small or large team?
  • What were their job duties and what technologies did they use?
  • What was their technical performance and ability like?
  • How are their non-technical skills?
  • What are some of their strengths and areas for improvement?
  • What was their attendance and reliability like?
  • Would you rehire them?

Companies which have strong HR departments or hiring and documentation processes will be able to answer these questions easily.  These questions will also help weed out those candidates that decide to list their next-door neighbor as a reference because they will not be able to answer these types of questions. It may also be beneficial to fax and/or e-mail the questions and request them to be returned in the same manner so that the responses can be kept in the file for that individual.

Hire for Attitude, Train for Skills

In reality you will never find the perfect candidate, they will always be lacking something which is why you want to hire for attitude and train for skills.  You can train the prospective candidate on your products, services and tools — you will not be able to train them to have a better attitude. You do not want mediocre talent, as they will produce mediocre results.

There are two things that differentiate CSRs – these are attitude, and aptitude.  You should be looking for someone that has passion, energy and enthusiasm.  Answers should roll off their tongues, and their subtle body language will tell you whether they truly have the customer service orientation that is required to be successful.  Were they laid back, nonchalant when answering questions?  Or did their ears perk-up, eyes widen and sparkle and grin cover their face when you asked them “tell us about a time where you over delivered to a customer” or “tell us about a time when you resolved a difficult situation and were commended by your manager”.

If you have any strategies that you can share with readers, please send them over via Twitter, LinkedIn or leave a comment on this post.  If you found this post helpful, share the knowledge!

Image at the top of this post is courtesy of David Castillo Dominici /

Your Guide to Severence Packages in Canada

First off this is by no means an exhaustive guide to severance packages, also I’m not offering or providing any legal advice and the information here should not be considered a substitute for seeing a lawyer.  Different legal circumstances can result in generate different results.  If in doubt – SEE A LAWYER if you’ve been terminated!

If you have been terminated, down sized, right sized or whatever by your employer then this guide will give you some information.  Also do know that companies structure severance packages in various different ways, rarely are they structured for the benefit of the employee (that is the former employee) which is why you almost always should get an employment lawyer involved to review your package and fight for a better package for you.

Severance Packages According To Your Provincial Labor/Employment Standards

Just as there are various ways an employer can structure your severance package, there are different methods for calculating and providing severance according to the various provincial guidelines.  For instance if a company is terminating of a large number of employees, then they need to follow certain guidelines which do not exist if they are terminating a smaller number employees.

If you want to do a Google search, use “Employment Standards Act <your province>Severance”, however here are links to the Employment Standards Act of various Canadian provinces that talks about severance, and termination.  Most provinces to provide easy-to-read English fact sheets that are written for the average individual but if you want the details you can also read what is written in their Employment Standards Act.

BC Employment Standards Act with respect to severance can be found at

The maximum payable under ESA is 8 weeks

  • After three consecutive months of employment – one week’s pay;
  • After 12 consecutive months of employment – two weeks’ pay;
  • After three consecutive years – three weeks’ pay, plus one week’s pay for each additional year of employment to a maximum of eight weeks.

Alberta Employment Standards Act with respect to severance can be found at:

Ontario Employment Standards Act with respect to severance can be found at

The ESA for Ontario with respect to severance is a little more details, you should visit the site directly.

Additional Resources

Saskatchewan Employment Standards Act Severance & Termination

Manitoba Employment Standards Act Severance & Termination –,terminate-employment-after-apr-30-07,factsheet.html

Prince Edward Island Employment Standards Act Severance & Termination –

Quebec Employment Standards Act Severance & Termination –

Nova Scotia Employment Standards Act Severance & Termination –

New Brunswick Employment Standards Act Severance & Termination

Newfoundland and Labrador Employment Standards Act Severance & Termination –

I’ve Been Terminated – Now What???

So you have been terminated because your company decided you were redundant, or they have moved the functions to the US as your company was bought out or they’ve decided to outsource it.  Regardless of the reason they have decided to give you a package.

All companies are required by ESA to give you what is mandated by the employment act and nothing more, however there is more to it than that.  There is something called common law — this is where an ex-employee has gone to a lawyer because they felt that what the company has offered them is not sufficient.  The case has gone to court, and the courts have determined what an appropriate level of severance should be

Yes – you CAN fight your company.

You may be thinking that if you fight your company, you won’t get that reference letter.

You know what, in all the cases I’ve seen the company never offers a personal reference letter from the employees immediate manager.  They will always provide a “Dear John” letter which simply tells the prospective employer that the employee worked with the company from one date to another and what their job title was and possibly the reason they were terminated.

Most managers are coached to never respond to a reference request directly, and to always go through human resources.  I’ve never seen it done any other way, because the employer does not want to have any liability once you have gone and they do not want a manager saying something they should not – it could land them in hot water (and legal trouble).

Short and sweet – depending on your position, you should see a lawyer.

If I was working fast-food and was terminated, I probably would not bother with a lawyer unless I felt that my rights were somehow violated.  Most lawyers will not charge to review your case, as well there are resources available on the Internet that you do pay for in order to get some assistance.  In British Columbia (where I am located) there are a few resources available to you:

If you’re on the other side (the employer), FiredWithoutCause also offers an employer site at

If these resources don’t satisfy you, simply do a search for “<your province> termination lawyer” or “<your province” employment lawyer” – they all want your business.  Of course if you are in the United States or elsewhere substitute <your province> with <your state>.

SIDEBAR – Can I be fired for being sick?  The answer will surprise you!  Read more at

What Will A Lawyer Do???

What your lawyer will do is look through common law to see if there has been a situation similar to yours where the courts have determined what amount of compensation is sufficient given certain situations.

For example the courts will take into account many factors when deciding what amount of compensation is acceptable:

  • Age of the employee when they were terminated (the older you are, the more you may qualify for)
  • Labor market trends in the area (low/high unemployment)
  • Availability of a similar job (if you’re an senior manager, it will probably take you much longer to find a similar paying job)
  • How long you have been working with that employer
  • Does your job require specialized skills, or is it in a highly specialized environment where your skills are not easily transferrable to another job

The company may also have other obligations that have to be met, such as:

  • Group benefits
  • Bonus payments
  • Commissions
  • Stock options or equity compensation
  • Pension plan contributions
  • Other fringe benefits like car allowance, or club memberships













Many senior managers (Directors, Vice-President, CEO, etc.,) end up with an employment contract where their severance pay is written into their contract, it is folks like you and I that end up having to ‘fight’ for what is fair and equitable.

How Can Severance Packages Be Structured?

Companies can try  several ways of structuring severance packages, some really like packages which are given monthly until such time as the employee has found a new job, but the length of the package is limited.

For example your company has given you 12-months of severance however will not give it to you in one lump sum, instead they have decided to provide you with salary continuation until such time as you get a job.  Supposed you find a job within 3-months — GREAT news for you, but you’ve “lost” 9-months of severance.  Although salary continuation may be preferred by companies, I have not heard of it being used very much.

The other method of delivering severance packages is in one lump sum payment.

So your company has decided to let you go, your lawyer has worked out a sweet deal for you.  You walk away with a 6-figure severance, and after taxes you have enough to last you at least 12-months.  The market picks up, and you find a job paying 6-figures within 4-months.  Congratulations!  You’ve got 8-months of severance and just paid down your mortgage, topped up your RRSP or picked out the Porsche you’ve been eyeing for quite some time now.

While the Porsche would be a nice toy – you probably should talk to your financial advisor about what to do with your new found windfall.  They should be able to structure or shift the money accordingly so that you end up getting a nice refund from the government — but that’s an entire different topic.

The topic of termination and severance packages is very broad and ideally should be discussed with an employment lawyer that specializes in this area.  If you have been terminated, remember that you do not need to sign paperwork provided by your employer right away – in fact, the employer should advise and encourage you to seek legal advice before signing any waivers and accepting the package they have provided.  Once you accept the package they are providing, and sign off on it you have very limited recourse.

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Verify Who You Are – Security Questions That Are Not Secure

Lets face it – everyone is concerned about their security, and not just personal/physical security but security of our identification.  Given we live in a highly connected world where even our refrigerators and thermostats can be connected to the Internet nobody wants to give out information.  For the moment lets forget the 1.3billion people (myself included) that divulges far too much information on Facebook, never mind all the other social media sites out there.  In fact if you head over to Pew Research Internet Project you will be able to gleam some other interesting data on just how many people are using social media.

With so many people on social media, sharing every detail of their lives just how secure are the security questions your financial institution asks when you set-up an account?

Part of my teams responsibilities is to activate pre-paid VISA or MasterCards for customers that have lost their cards, or whose cards have expired.  In Canada privacy legislation is pretty tough so you are really limited to what you can ask for in terms of identification and given that these cards are anonymous for the most part many callers just won’t provide any ID.  So the way around it is to ask security questions, you know – name of your pet, or city you were born in or even a seemingly difficult question name of your middle son/daughter.

Secure questions, right?  Wrong.  In a time where we share everything on social media, including what we’ve had for lunch these questions are not secure at all.

What makes for a secure question?

According to the blog there are five traits every question should have:

  1. Safe: cannot be guessed or researched
  2. Stable: does not change over time
  3. Memorable: can remember
  4. Simple: is precise, simple, consistent
  5. Many: has many possible answers

They list several good questions, some fair questions and also bad questions.  Can you guess what most of the bad questions are?  If you thought the security questions your financial institution asks were secure, think again.  The folks over at Intego actually look at questions that are commonly asked and break down exactly why or why they are not good questions.

TIP: If you are a business then you may want to look at the information at Security Intelligence  in case you do not have a security plan in place for your data (and your customers, suppliers/vendors).

So what makes a good security question?  Based on what I’ve been able to gather — there are none.

Additional resources:

If you have examples of good security questions, please do leave a comment here with your suggestions or send me a Tweet @mohamedbhimji — safe, secure and I won’t ask you for any security questions!

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