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Casting for Contact Center Superstars

What do Michael Curtiz and Martin Brest have in common?  They each had the challenge of casting the best candidate for a starring role in a new movie.  Michael had an exciting new star named Ronald Reagan, who had screen tested for the lead male role opposite Katharine Hepburn in a new movie titled “Casablanca.”  And Martin had a similar challenge:  a successful, new box office drawing card named Sylvester Stallone had screen tested for the lead role in a comedy movie titled “Beverly Hills Cop.”

Hiring superstars Selecting people for customer service roles is similar to casting people for roles in a play or movie.  First, both require artful performances aligned with audience expectations.  Creating an interpersonal experience that customers remember as satisfactory, pleasant or dazzling is like the actor’s mission of having audiences so caught up in the play or movie they start believing the performer is the person portrayed.  Second, both require a casting choice based on personality.  Ronald Reagan in Humphrey Bogart’s slot would have resulted in a movie quite different from the screenwriter’s intent.   And, Rambo as Axel Foley? 

Fair and Accurate Casting

How was casting done without selection being solely “the whim of the director?” Did Michael Curtiz worry that Ronald Reagan would file a grievance with the actors’ guild if not selected?  Did Eddie Murphy get the slot because Martin Brest had no interest in devoting the hours needed to “build a file” that would satisfy EEOC?

A challenge that film and customer service professionals share is how to choose fairly and accurately the performer with the greatest potential for success.  Hiring is—and must be—based as much on intuitive feelings as on analytical judgments.  The problem is that imprecise justification of subjective data to explain hiring one service applicant over another is risky.  And, with good reason.

Selection choices based more on the subjective than the objective—more on vibes than facts—are more susceptible to bias and prejudice.  The “I have a gut feeling you just won’t fit in here” rationale has slammed the door on many who may well have become our shining stars.  It was and is the justification for bigotry, old boys’ networks and myopia, which pay homage to a particular race, gender, national origin, faith, age or sexual orientation.

Be that as it may, the exaggerated effort to exclude interpersonal information from the selection process—to focus solely on objective information—may lead to hiring decisions that are fair but stupid rather than fair and smart.

Some Contact Center Casting Guidelines

How then, do you cast people for extraordinary customer service?  Here are four guidelines that will enable you to avoid the conflict between fair and subjective.

Customer service interview questions 

1. Clearly define the service role and the critical qualities you are looking for

The service for the potential contact center superstar begins with a clear view of the service role to be filled.  First, define the skills the service person must bring to the job, and the technical aspects of the job that can be learned and you are willing to teach.  Then focus on the interpersonal qualities that are important.  Be as specific and thorough as possible.

Most frontline service roles require people who are friendly and courteous.  Such behaviors are relatively easy to observe and document.  But, the qualities found in highly successful service employees don’t end there.  Equally important are people with a strong need to see things to their end, the ability to withstand irate attack without wanting to retaliate or feeling personally affronted, and the ability to demonstrate ingenuity in solving a customer’s problem.

2. Make the selection process match the service outcome.

Years of experience have taught Disney World that one of the most important skills for employees in service roles is the ability to get along well with others.  Managers judge potential cast members—Disney’s term for employees—through group interviews.   The group experience mirrors the contact between cast members and guests.  If an applicant appears uninterested in what other interviewees have to say, chances are that he or she will not be attentive to Disney guests. Southwest Airlines uses a simpler approach.

It is worthwhile to simulate typical service situations during the interview.  Just as an actor auditions using lines from the play or an athlete tries out in a practice scrimmage, a simulation during the interview will help you accurately gauge how well the applicant will perform the service role.

For example, one previewing technique for call center job candidates is to play excerpts of real calls they’re likely to receive from customers. Hearing the nature of these calls might cause a few candidates to “select out” of the job, even if they have the skills or background.

Simulate customer service requests first, and then advance to more difficult situations.  For example, tell the employee or job applicant:  “Now, I will be a customer with a problem in how my account was handled.  You are the service rep this customer encounters first.”  How the person works out the answer is far more important than whether the answer is right or wrong.  Put the person at ease initially by letting him or her know you are not after a “single correct answer.” 

3. Look for the applicant’s capacity to create a relationship with the “audience.”

From the customer's standpoint, every performance is “live” and hence unique. It earns the best reviews when it appears genuine, perhaps even spontaneous. And it should never be rigidly scripted--certainly not canned.  The implication for selection is that super service people must have good person-to-person skills; their speaking, listening and interacting styles should seem natural and friendly and appropriate to the situation-- neither stiff and formal nor overly familiar.

Watch how applicants treat others.  Job seekers can teach you a lot about how they are likely to treat customers by the way they treat non-customers.   Ask receptionists or administrative assistants for their view on the applicant.  If they took an applicant on a short tour after an interview, how warmly did he or she greet others?  Did they ask good questions, and were they sensitive to details important to the role they were applying for?  The general manager of a Marriott Hotel described how her decision to hire a new front desk clerk was cinched when she watched the applicant stop and pick up an empty paper cup from the floor in the employee break area as the two were en route to meet the front desk supervisor.

4. Learn how the applicant reacts to pressure and stress.

The frontline service person encounters far more stress than most people in the organization.  Angry customers vent their frustration on the first person they encounter without regard to whether that person is specifically to blame.  The resilience and tenacity of service people—the capacity to “hang in there” when the going gets tough—can be critical for customer care.  Customers prefer contact center people who respond with confident empathy, not calloused indifference or passive weakness.

You don’t have to conduct stress interviews to ascertain stress management skills.  Simply asking an applicant to recall a time when he or she encountered an irate customer may be adequate.  Simulating an experience with an irate customer is another.  Be willing to “push” the encounter issue in order to have the candidate demonstrate his or her ability to handle tough situations.

Beware of Pollyanna’s who “love all customers.”  Customers are not always right, but they are always the customer and the primary determiners of success or failure in the marketplace.  Choose people who are respectful of and attentive to customers’ needs and expectations, not those who are naïve.  Frontline stress is a reality to be understood and managed, not ignored or denied.

Performing as a Superstar

Customer service is first and foremost an interpersonal experience.  Service people must bring a mix of skills and aptitudes to the role if they are to be successful.  Casting contact center people to perform the art of serving well requires gauging both the subjective and the objective.  When we recognize and meet that challenge, the conflict between subjective and fair, between qualitative and equitable, no longer exists.

Effective supervisors make choices about service applicants based on a clear definition of the service role they are seeking to fill.  They use interviews that entail an honest examination of the qualities that make up a “service orientation” and offer the applicant concrete ways to demonstrate these qualities.  Frontline employees have a major impact in determining what customers experience and how they will evaluate the organization.  As with cinema, making the best casting choice is critical to box office success.