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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:

Employee Motivation
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 action independently.

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.

Communication Skills
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 relationship.

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)


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