Four Key Questions to Ask When Interviewing Virtual Agents
By Kevin Hegebarth
JetBlue Airways made headlines about 10 years ago when it pioneered its home-based
agent reservations model. Since then, more and more companies are employing home
agents as a way to reduce costs and retain skilled and talented agents, while providing
superior customer service.
Saddletree Research, in conjunction with the National Association of Call Centers,
recently conducted a survey to gauge the penetration and growth of home agents in
customer contact environments. It found that 53% of respondents employ home agents,
but none of those who responded used home agents exclusively. Approximately 71%
expected to increase the number of home agents used, and 43% expected to increase
their at-home workforce by up to 25%. Finally, of those with home agents, 30% reported
a reduction in voluntary turnover rates. Clearly, the home-agent trend shows no
signs of abating.
However, not every organization—and not every employee—is cut out to
take full advantage of this virtualization trend. Companies need to adopt a unique
approach to recruiting, hiring and management to ensure that their home-agent strategy
is successful. The following are four key areas to probe when interviewing prospective
Home agents must exhibit an exceptional tendency for self-motivation. It's vital
for them to be self-starters with a strong drive, excellent prioritization abilities
and work completion skills.
To help determine the extent of a candidate's motivation during the interview process,
ask open-ended questions relating to situations where the applicant initiated and
completed work that was either not assigned to him or had incomplete instructions.
Look for clues as to how the applicant approached the work, what clarifying questions
he asked, and whether or not he was comfortable with the task.
Virtual workers don't have the benefit of IT staff right around the corner, so they
must also be more technically savvy than their brick-and-mortar counterparts. They
should be able to troubleshoot problems within their technical environment and take
Ask open-ended questions regarding how the candidate might have had to "fend for
himself" in situations, including those of a technical nature. Present specific
scenarios and ask how he would approach the problem.
This one seems obvious, but it goes beyond customer communications. Without the
social interactions that brick-and-mortar agents enjoy, prospective home-based agents
need to be especially adept at verbal communication with peers and superiors. It
is essential that they be experts at communicating effectively without the visual
cues found in face-to-face communication. Virtual employees must be able to effectively
receive and give feedback in this manner, especially in the supervisor-subordinate
An applicant's communication skills are probably the easiest of these traits to
measure. The recruiter should probe two areas—the first of which is customer
communication skills, and the second being internal communication. For customer
communication skills, ask a series of job-specific questions that can uncover the
applicant's clarity of speech, the use of appropriate terms and grammar, job content
knowledge and energy, personality and enthusiasm. Then follow up with questions
regarding peer, supervisor and subordinate interactions.
Focus and Time Management
Home agents don't have the benefit of regular social interaction, which often helps
their brick-and-mortar peers to get—and stay—focused. It is one thing
to simply be able to calendar appointments, but it's another matter altogether to
effectively manage one's time, overlook distractions and focus on the job at hand
without face-to-face supervision.
When interviewing home-agent candidates, recruiters should present different scenarios,
such as competing priorities, concurrent project due dates and work interruptions
during the interview process. Doing so will uncover the candidate's critical-thinking
skills and ability to prioritize and manage time appropriately.
Not everyone is well suited to be a home agent. However, those who consistently
demonstrate the aforementioned qualities are more likely to be successful working
virtually than those who do not. The bottom line: Creating an environment where
virtual employees are well vetted, groomed and coached for success can yield significant
benefits for the company and employee alike.
Inside View: Canadian Tire Financial Services
Ask frontline employees how their organization's mission is delivered on a daily
basis and, in many contact centers, they would be hard-pressed to come up with an
answer. But at Canadian Tire Financial Services, the "Customers for Life" philosophy
is not mere lip service: It is an integral part of the culture that is lived and
modeled on a daily basis across the organization—from senior executives to
the frontline staff. CRCC leadership believes that frontline empowerment is a critical
component for delivering a high FCR performance. Increasing the levels of authority
and decision making for contact center reps is an ongoing process at CRCC. There
are systems in place to help guide agents in the decision-making process, as well
as a highly supportive management team. In addition, the CRCC recently implemented
workflow design changes to simplify processes and remove unnecessary work that did
not enhance the customer experience.
Read the full story here. (PDF)