In order to be successful in a call center, agents must be able to deal with a high volume of angry, confused, and frustrated customers. They must be able to follow a script, but also provide information that is not scripted and communicate in a natural and friendly way. They must be patient, listen, and adapt as needed, which requires excellent customer service soft skills.

Soft Skills are essential to your agents’ success and quality of customer experience. These traits are also responsible for better agent retention, which is critical for an industry where turnover rates are between 30 and 45 percent.

Unfortunately, it is difficult to determine who has or doesn’t have customer service soft skills. Rarely do candidates provide a list of their soft skills on their resume? Instead, you need to use soft skills interview questions and techniques to better understand each candidates’ personality as well as their aptitude for essential soft skills.

Some of the customer service soft skills you need to be looking for include:

• Communications skills—the ability to communicate with customers

So, is there another way to identify and evaluate a candidate’s soft skills for employment?

Can Customer Service Soft Skills Be Measured?

A few multiple-choice tests have been developed to help you identify soft skills in job candidates and employees, but they rely on self-reporting, which is not infallible. While these tests do establish a linkage between test results and job performance, there is still significant work to be done in this regard. Customer service soft skills can be challenging to quantify, so a simple multiple-choice test won’t reveal how well potential agents actually demonstrate these skills.

And though preliminary work is being done to develop data-driven tests that do not rely on self-reports, these are in their development stage. At this time, there is no good test that call centers can use to determine if a new hire has the necessary soft skills for employment.

This leaves managers to develop their own methods of assessing customer service soft skills.

How to Measure Customer Service Soft Skills Before Hiring

For instance, many people believe that “communication” is an important customer service soft skill. But what do you mean by “communication?” Do you mean that the candidate can express himself clearly in a hostile conversation, or do you mean that the candidate will be able to upsell the customer on an additional service?

These are both communication skills, but they require different methods of evaluation to determine the candidates who will perform best under your criteria. That’s where soft skills interview questions will come into play, which we will discuss later in this article.

First, you want to determine the outcome of the skill. Ask yourself, “If I had more employees who could _____, our call center would be more productive.” Filling in that blank will reveal the soft skills that most impact your business and are embedded into your organizational culture.

For instance, let’s say you fill in the blank this way: “If you had more employees who could renew 50 percent of subscribers when they called in to cancel, your call center would be more productive.” How does this translate into customer service soft skills?

You now know that when it comes to communication skills, the ability to listen to customers and then change their opinion is essential.

The key is breaking down each of your “blanks” into all the skills that are necessary to see it through, but this is just the first step. Once you’ve uncovered the soft skills that are most important to you, you have to hire employees that demonstrate those skills, which means:

• Reviewing their resume for soft skills

Soft Skills on a Resume

The key is to create a process, either electronic or human, where you complete a search of each resume and pull out all the soft skills. At the very least, you can use this list in your soft skills interview questions (which we talk about next).

However, there are a few essential things to remember when it comes to soft skills vs. hard skills on a resume.

People Lie

Applicants Are Poor at Self Reflection

Soft Skills Can’t Replace Hard Skills

The Resume is Only the Beginning

Soft Skills Interview Questions & Tactics

Open-Ended Interview Questions

• Tell me about one time when you and a co-worker miscommunicated. How did you handle it? (Communications skills)

Applicant Behaviors

Skill Ranking

Job Fit Test for Soft Skills

Below is a table of typical questions for self-assessment:

Cross-Checking Soft Skills with References

Just be sure not to ask “yes” and “no” questions. When you do this, the references may feel inclined to give a positive evaluation out of fear that they could be sued if the person does not get the job. Also, yes/no is too simple. Most employees fall on a range somewhere compared to pass/fail. Instead, ask references questions that allow them to provide nuanced information.

For example, don’t ask, “Is the applicant a good communicator?” Ask, “Can you describe the applicant’s communication style?” Or you can ask for stories, “Can you tell me about a time where the applicant dealt with a high-stress situation while at your business?” The more you can get the reference talking about the candidate, the better you’ll get to know who they are and how they function in customer service situations.

And don’t forget to ask negative questions. “Can you tell me an area where you’ve had to call out the applicant in the past?” or “Are there any skills the candidate needs to improve on?” Just as you might ask an applicant what their weaknesses are, you can ask a reference to what skills the applicant needs to develop or refine.

Customer Service Soft Skills in the Workplace

By looking at the applicant’s resume, asking open-ended soft skills interview questions, and confirming traits with their references, you should be able to assess and measure what each applicant is bringing to the table. And don’t be afraid to get specific, the more specific you are, the better your result.

When you hire with soft skills in mind, you create a better, longer-lasting workforce in your call center.

Lisa isn’t sure how to broach the subject. She doesn’t want to be the person to shatter the dreams of the 12 bright-eyed Ph.D. students in her career development workshop. They’ve just invested half a day in talking about the beautiful careers lying ahead of them. Mark sees himself working as an industry researcher developing cosmetics. Sanna wants to start her career in scientific publishing. Vincent is interested in management consulting. Everyone is enthusiastic and hopeful.

Lisa could leave it at that—ignore the elephant in the room, pretend that times are normal, and just stick to her usual seminar format. But she can’t. It would be unfair.

“Listen,” she blurts out, “perhaps you should all apply for postdocs.”

“But you just said that a postdoc might be a misstep for the careers we want!” Mark exclaims.

Lisa sighs. “That is what I said, indeed. And if this workshop had been earlier this year, I would stand by this 100%—300%! But times have changed. We are in a recession now. You might not enjoy the luxury of choice you once had. A postdoc could keep you out of unemployment and help you bridge the time until the economy and the job market recover.”

“Over my dead body!” Sanna shouts as if Lisa had just proposed that she drink lava.

“If you’re strongly opposed, don’t go for a postdoc,” Lisa quickly assures her, and Sanna sighs with relief.

“Of course, all of you should try to stick to your dreams first,” Lisa continues. “But not stubbornly so. Let’s put it this way: You might have to temporarily opt for a career that isn’t going to be your true love, but that can be a fair friend.”

The participants slowly start to nod, grudgingly recognizing the logic of what Lisa is saying.

“You can make concessions on different fronts,” Lisa explains.

“Like salary?” Mark asks.

“No, that won’t help. Jobs aren’t auctioned off to the lowest bidder. But you can make a concession on the job type. Now you want to make cosmetics. But if there aren’t many jobs in that area, consider broadening your search to other types of products, such as plastics or glues. Or if it’s hard to find work in R&D, you can try your luck in production. Oftentimes this is the very last department where companies cut back.”

“But what if I really want to work in R&D?” Mark wants to know.

“In that case, you could compromise on the job location,” Lisa suggests. “Many people want to live and work in large cities, while companies located in the countryside often struggle to fill positions. Why not go live in a picturesque location for a few years? Gain some experience and then—if you won't—come back to the city when things get better here.”

“Welcome to Alaska!” Vincent cheerfully chips in. “We’ve got tundra, sheep, and 65 straight days of darkness.” The group giggles.

“You’re kidding, but you might be surprised at the opportunities you can find in relatively remote locations. For example, there are quite a few biotech and pharmaceutical companies close to the Alps,” Lisa offers.

“Hiking and outdoor yoga with cowbells in the background—that doesn’t sound too bad,” Mark muses. A few others nod as if they already see themselves sidestepping a fresh cowpat on their daily hike to work.

“And if that isn’t for you, then apply for jobs at organizations that are ‘invisible,’” Lisa advises. “We all know the big ones, such as Merck, Unilever, and Dow. We all check their homepages for job openings. Naturally, the competition at these companies is incredibly high. Try looking at lesser-known players in your field. Express your interest while there isn’t necessarily a job posting. Follow startup news and apply at companies that just got a new round of venture capital funding,” Lisa explains.

“Do I have this right—it’s either a postdoc or working for some unknown company in the middle of nowhere?” Sanna asks.

“Not exactly,” Lisa laughs. “Start to consider concessions where it hurts the least.”

“I couldn’t move somewhere else—I need my family and friends nearby,” says Vincent, thinking it through out loud. “But I could imagine taking on another type of work—maybe as a data scientist in industry.”

Sanna says she could envision herself teaching for a few years. Mark shares that he would welcome getting away from the hustle and bustle of the city for a while; research at a midsize company could do the trick.    

Finally, Lisa shares her experience when she received her Ph.D. during the financial crisis of 2008. She had wanted to work as a researcher in industry, but most companies weren’t hiring. She bridged a year as a postdoc, but the job market still hadn’t improved. So, she started her own company. Now, 12 years later, she loves her work—but none of it is anywhere close to the bench she had dreamed about.

“If you would have told me during my thesis defense that I would be living in the town I live, spending my days giving seminars and talks, and running a small company, I would have burst out laughing,” she says. “It all felt like a concession at first, but it was the best thing that could have happened to me.”

The moral of the story

Depending on how strong you and the labor market are, you may have to make a few concessions. When the labor market is particularly bad, more concessions may be necessary.

The main dimensions along which to consider your flexibility are job type, location, and organization size. You can also be creative about your time distribution. Do you really need one full-time position, or might you enjoy a patchwork career instead? You could take on two part-time jobs. Or you could take on one part-time job and work as a freelancer or train yourself in a new field on the side. These kinds of less common career approaches might be a great way to get through this crisis while trying a few things you think you might enjoy.

During these difficult times, almost all of us will have to make bigger concessions than normal. But if we are creative, we might find that this offers an opportunity—or perhaps a justification—to try something unconventional that could lead somewhere great.