How to Hire the Best Customer Service People

A close look at competency based assessments for successful recruitment of CSRs.

CSR Recruitment

Through many years of hiring Customer Service staff, I’ve found that competency based assessment is by far the most effective and accurate way.

That is not to say that technical abilities should not be checked, rather that this in itself is insufficient to ensure success.

Indeed it’s very important to study the delegates’ CVs, to check their relevant experience and qualifications, to ask questions of clarification and to probe any gaps in their employment history. The Assessment Center process is carried out in addition to this.

Competency Based Assessment Centers (CBAs) are a highly accurate way of performing an assessment of someone’s suitability for a role and focus largely on behavioral traits rather than on technical abilities. CBAs normally comprise a blend of Role Plays and a competency based interview (CBI). Studies have concluded that competency based assessment methods are around 5 times more accurate at choosing the right employees than traditional interview based formats.

Traditional selection techniques tend to be based around interviews where questions are asked in relation to CV / resume information and where “fit” with organizational culture is assessed – normally in a subjective fashion. Many interview questions are hypothetical, taking the form of “What would you do if”. On the other hand, the CBA system is highly objective and specific.

It focuses on pre-defined key criteria-based requirements for the role in question, and looks in depth for verifiable evidence of performance, both past and present, in relation to those criteria. A well managed CBA can reduce misunderstanding and personal bias, and it can largely prevent delegates from concocting answers. A number of role plays are designed to allow the required competencies to be observed in relatively realistic scenarios for the role in question. A number of CBI questions are pre-defined with follow-up questions posed as a result of delegate responses to these initial questions.

The basis of competency based interviewing is that past performance is a very good predictor of future performance (at least in similar circumstances). The starting point of any CBA process is for the recruiting organization to develop a clear definition of the role(s) in question and the accountabilities of holders of that role. The next step is to clearly define the competencies required by the job holder to be successful in the role.

Competencies are a blend of knowledge, skills and preferred behaviors required for effective performance. Preferred behaviors are simply those behaviors that we generally prefer to employ or exhibit, i.e. our natural behaviors. Of course we can all change our behaviors to suit circumstances, but over protracted time frames (as in a job) this can lead to stress, subsequent poor performance and even illness. Some typical examples of competencies are:

  • Active Listening
  • Adaptability
  • Sensitivity
  • Creativity
  • Decisiveness
  • Detail Handling
  • Planning & Organizing
  • Judgement
  • Tenacity

For each competency the recruiting organization will develop a definition of what it really means to them and may develop examples of various levels or degrees of competency such as basic, intermediate and advanced. These competencies and definitions are often compiled into a document that will accompany the job specification and may be called a Person Specification, Person Profile or Role Profile. Having defined the role and required competencies, assessment can begin to take place by the use of the CBA process. The keys to the process are objectivity and clarity.

The essential aspects of the assessment center are that:

Each delegate undergoes one or more face to face role plays (perhaps one to one or in a group scenario depending on the role they are being assessed for);

One or more assessors observe and record delegate behaviors including what they say and what they do and the context in which it takes place;

There may be one or more telephone role plays if telephone work is a major part of the role;

There will be a CBI which seeks to gather evidence of competencies demonstrated in the past;

Ideally there will be two assessors – one asking questions and observing body language, the other writing down exactly what the delegate says.

The collected evidence is assessed by the assessors who observed the role plays and who conducted the CBI. This is done as a separate process at the end of the exercise(s). Assessors must not assess during the observation and recording stages as this compromises quality.

So, you now have a general idea of how Competency Assessment works. Let’s start looking at some of the details behind it.

Defining the Required Competencies

The starting point for selecting the required competencies is clearly defining the job role and the accountabilities of the job/role holder.

Example Competency: Customer Service

Competency Definition: The ability to respond to the needs of existing customers for advice, support and problem solving. The next step is to define the Competencies required by the job holder to be successful in the role, i.e. their required Knowledge, Skills & Behaviours. Here is an example:

Customer Service Skills: Customer Care, Problem Solving, Influencing, Assertiveness Behaviours: Active Listening, Sensitivity, Judgement, Decisiveness, Tenacity, Persuasiveness, Stress Tolerance.

Example Competency: Active Listening

Typical Definition: Listens carefully, indicates to the speaker that he or she is listening and understanding through body language, actively solicits further information where necessary, summarises what has been heard & understood.

In my experience, it’s sufficient to assess delegates on around 10 of the most important competencies for a given role. Accuracy is little improved by assessing more than 10, and focus can be lost.

Designing the Assessment Center

Having already decided on the key competencies required for the role/job, we now need to devise the systems and processes for gathering and assessing the evidence required to make a judgement.

Our next step is to develop the role plays and CBI questions that will create the opportunities for us to gather the competency based evidence that we are looking for. Of the competencies we are seeking to verify, we need to decide which are:

  • best captured in role plays
  • best captured in a CBI

(Some will be captured in both and will provide corroborative evidence.)

Choosing Role Play Type(s)

Some competencies are best gathered in a one-to-one scenario whilst others require a group setting. One-to-one scenarios are very useful for gathering evidence of competencies associated with events such as employee performance appraisals, feedback sessions, goal setting and some negotiations. Typical competencies found here could include Coaching, Leadership and Problem Solving & Decision Making.

Group Scenarios are better for evidence related to team meetings, negotiations and customer or supplier meetings. Typical competencies found here could include Assertiveness, Negotiating, Flexibility, Influencing and Time Management.

Telephone Scenarios are ideal gathering evidence for roles that involve a lot of telephone customer contact, for example dealing with customers’ sales or service enquiries. Typical competencies found here could include Active Listening, Assertiveness, Stress Tolerance and Interpersonal Sensitivity.

Choosing CBI Questions

It’s good practice to develop one or two primary questions associated with each competency and to have some follow-up questions ready if required. Our task at this stage is to develop questions that give us the evidence we need:

  • how did it come about? (situation or task)
  • what did you do? (action you took)
  • how did it turn out? (result)

For example:

Can you tell me about an occasion when you have gone out of your way to help a customer? How did it come about, what did you do and what was the result?

(We are looking here for evidence of the competency of Customer Focus)

Conducting the Interview

Competency based interviews are about story telling and as an assessor you should say that to the delegates. Tell them that you are looking for examples of specific competencies, give them a few examples of the competencies you are looking for. Also tell them that your questions will largely be “open” as opposed to “closed”, in other words the questions will be posed in such a way that they can’t be answered with a simple “yes” or “no”.

If you are operating with two assessors as we have recommended, let the delegate know why there are two assessors in the room and that one will be asking questions while the other writes down exactly what they say.

Finally tell them that you are going to start with a few questions relating to their CV before asking competency based questions – this puts them into familiar territory and should help them to relax a little. If we make it easier for the delegates to give us what we are looking for by being clear and open we will gather more pertinent evidence and be able to come to a safe judgement later. As with other types of interview we should give the delegate ample time at the end to ask questions.

Selection Decision Making

Selection decision making is not a court of law and assessments must never be made based on a vote or majority verdict. The process of assessing and rating the evidence for each competency, and for reaching a final decision must be done through a group discussion, the comparison of evidence and interpretations and the challenging of those judgements that appear too positive or negative. At the end of the process, the assessment panel must reach a full consensus. This may take a little time but it will deliver an accurate decision making outcome.

This has been a summary of the key points of Competency Based Assessment Centers, hopefully it will have given you food for thought.

About the Author

Norman Huckerby, the founder of Profit-Through-Service, is a customer service consultant, interim manager and trainer. He has been working in the customer service sector for over 25 years, and since 1997 has delivered customer service consultancy and interim management to a wide range of clients in the UK and Europe.

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