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Hire Better with Science: Assess Call Center Candidates’ Skills to Predict Job Success

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Quality of Hire Matters

Hiring decisions matter now more than ever. When companies are trying to do more with less, successful customer management with fixed or fewer resources will be a key determinant of survival and profitability. Because agent performance directly impacts top and bottom line revenue, quality of hire for these key customer-facing roles becomes even more important. But, while quality matters, the hiring process still needs to be efficient and seem reasonable to candidates and recruiters alike. Can we have it all?

Scientific assessment of candidate competencies and skills helps employers hire call center agents who will perform better and stay longer. Decades of research clearly show that valid pre-employment assessment tools—including tests, simulations and interviews–produce better hiring decisions and a clear return on investment (ROI). Candidates who score higher on assessments of job-relevant competencies and skills ramp up faster, perform better against key call center metrics and turnover less than do lower-scoring candidates. Whether servicing, selling, supporting or collecting, agents who score higher on valid pre-employment assessments perform better on the job.

Beyond predicting job success, well designed assessment programs can also improve the efficiency of hiring processes and can enhance legal defensibility. A smart use of technology integrates assessments into the job application process. For example, online pre-employment tests can be easily integrated with Applicant Tracking Systems through a number of standard protocol (e.g., HR-XML), and "off-the-shelf" integration is even available. Legal defensibility is enhanced through structured, objective hiring processes that are linked to documented job requirements. The use of valid assessment procedures to measure job-related competencies and skills is actually prescribed by federal enforcement agencies such as the EEOC and OFCCP, as well as by multiple professional guidelines related to testing and employment decisions.

The Science of Hiring

Hiring for call center roles is challenging—even when you have plenty of applicants. Recruiters, hiring managers, human resources directors, operations managers and anyone else who shares the responsibility for staffing contact centers all want to know:

  • Which candidates are ready to perform as agents?
  • Who can be trained to become a successful agent?
  • Who will stay long enough to provide a return on our recruitment and training investments?
  • Who will perform best on key call center metrics such as first-call resolution or dollars collected?

Interestingly, experience doesn’t tell the whole story. Effectively identifying high-potential candidates requires a deeper approach than just resume reviews and background checks. While these processes may be effective at raising red flags or surfacing gross mismatches between candidates and jobs, they do little to describe (or quantify) candidates’ competencies and skill levels in a meaningful and consistent way. Organizations that go beyond experience and actually assess candidates’ skills and competencies in the hiring processes have seen:

  • 107 percent more sales conversions among outbound agents
  • 31 percent reduction in turnover among inbound contact center agents
  • 44 percent greater customer commitment to pay among high-scoring collections agents

With increasing competitive pressures and resource constraints, organizations are relying more on evidence-based management to improve their success across a variety of talent management functions. In talent acquisition, employers are looking for science-based tools that enable better hiring decisions, predict performance and improve business outcomes. Fortunately, there has been tremendous progress in behavioral and organizational sciences over the past 100 years or so. Fields such as industrial-organizational psychology and psychometrics specialize in applying data-driven scientific methods to real-world challenges, such as which characteristics to evaluate in candidates during the hiring process and how best to measure those competencies and skills. A century of scientific progress has produced well-refined best practices for designing and implementing assessments that can help employers make better hiring decisions.

Hiring decisions do not happen in a vacuum, though. There is a competitive market for talent, which means that efficiency in the hiring process matters, too. Employers need tools that reliably uncover information about candidate readiness and potential—and they need this information before the candidate either drops out of the process or accepts another offer. Therefore, tools must be easy to use and valued by end-users, and they should keep candidates engaged during the application process.

And of course, these tools need to be fair to all candidates and defensible in the event of a legal challenge or administrative audit.

In short, employers want a candidate evaluation process that predicts who will make a successful call center agent and who will not. The process needs to be straightforward and perceived as reasonable and useful by both decision-makers and job candidates. The process should be objective and fair, assessing candidates on job-relevant characteristics. A scientific approach to hiring using pre-employment assessment can help meet these goals.

What is Assessment?

Pre-employment assessment is the systematic evaluation of candidates’ skills and competencies using tools such as Internet-based tests and structured interviews. Professionally developed, valid assessment tools have been shown across hundreds of research studies to predict on-the-job performance including key call center metrics such as customer service, retention, call handle time and dollars sold/collected.

Assessment is available in a variety of forms and formats, ranging from multiple choice, computer-based tests with automated scoring, to structured behavioral interviews administered by trained interviewers. Assessments are used to measure a wide range of human attributes—everything from personality traits that describe people’s motivations and social competencies, to skills and abilities like computer usage and problem solving. Assessments can even be designed to assess candidate’s interest in specific job roles, for example through "job fit" tests and simulations that provide realistic job previews of the call center work environment and sample agent job tasks. In most cases, using a combination of assessment types during the hiring process will provide a more comprehensive assessment of candidates than will using just a single type of test (e.g., skills). The more you know about your candidates, the better your decisions and the bigger the business impact from new hires.

Assessment Drives ROI

Success is really in the eye of the beholder. A successful hiring process is one that helps organizations achieve their specific hiring and business goals. From the employer’s perspective, the return on investment (ROI) for resources spent on hiring generally fall into three main categories:

  • Effectiveness
  • Efficiency
  • Compliance

Effectiveness ROI is all about the top- and bottom-line revenue impact of having higher performing call center agents. Here’s how it works: Within your candidate pool, some people would be more successful as call center agents based on their readiness to step into the agent role and their potential for long term success on the job.

By identifying aspects of readiness and potential during the hiring process, through the use of valid pre-employment assessment tools, organizations make better informed hiring decisions that result in better hires and better call center performance.

Efficiency ROI refers to the cost savings associated with more efficient processes and workflow. For example, the use of assessments early in the recruiting process can result in saved recruiter time. By utilizing a valid, predictive screening assessment right after candidates complete application form and basic qualifications/pre-screening questions, recruiters could immediately save 30 percent of the time spent processing the least qualified candidates (e.g., reviewing resumes) and focus that time instead on attracting and engaging the highest-scoring candidates, who are more likely to be successful and to be retained.

Compliance refers to both the internal compliance with the intended uses of the assessment program, as well as compliance with relevant laws and guidelines for use of testing in employment decisions. Successful assessment programs rely on correct usage of the tools, and system features like score reports become important. How will score information be used in the hiring decision? In terms of legal risk, many experts would say that good assessment programs actually reduce risks associated with hiring because of the inclusion of standardized, objective tools in the process. Professional best practices and a number of published standards provide strong guidance to employers regarding the processes to follow to create assessment programs that work…and that are more likely to be deemed "legal" in the event of a challenge. Professional services are often required to conduct the analyses and appropriately document findings in order to both maximize program impact and minimize legal risk.

How Assessment Works

Assessment works by providing information on candidate readiness and potential. In terms of readiness, the skills, knowledge and experience that new employees arrive with certainly affect how well they perform on the job. In general, more job-relevant experience, knowledge and skill is better, all other things being equal. And for a variety of specialty roles, like Technical Support or IT positions, job-relevant skills and experience are critical, must-have criteria for successful hires. Thus, valid assessment of these candidate characteristics will add tremendous value in the hiring process. However, for many entry-level jobs, requiring too much experience or advanced skills may actually interfere with an employer’s ability to fill the jobs. There is a reason why call center recruiters sometimes fall back on the classic "mirror test," when any warm body sounds like a better option than a cold empty seat—sourcing is tough! Setting knowledge, skill and experience standards too high can make it even tougher to fill classes or make placements. In addition, for many entry-level roles, it may be possible to train new employees to effective performance levels on key job skills within a reasonable period of time. Both of these situations show that assessment of candidate readiness is only one part of the story.

Other characteristics such as employee’s personality, interests and abilities combine to predict one’s potential for long-term performance. Predictive competency-based assessments of potential that are aligned with job requirements can produce powerful business impact. Candidates whose dispositions are aligned with the work behaviors required in the role are more likely to be successful. For example, tests of service-orientation can predict the quality of customer service provided. Candidates whose interests and work-style preferences are aligned with characteristics of the work environment are more likely to be retained, and tests of "job fit" have been shown to be effective predictors of employee retention.

A key aspect of setting up effective assessment programs is the process of linking the assessment tools to the job requirements. The challenge employers face is that there are too many assessments available! Which one, or two, or three tests should I use for hiring for this job? What competencies should I interview for? Is a simulation always better than a personality test? Fortunately, scientific processes such as job analysis have been developed to formally study and describe jobs. These processes guide design and implementation of assessments for use in hiring and even developing employees. And as for the tools themselves, assessments are evaluated for their usefulness (i.e., validity) following rigorous protocol that involve collection of real-world employee data and a variety of statistical analyses.

Both readiness and potential are important for hiring success. Assessing candidates for job-related skills, knowledge and experience can make hiring decisions more effective, particularly when "day one" readiness is an important staffing goal. And assessing for job-related competencies helps to identify candidates with a higher likelihood of successful performance in the long-term. Processes are needed for prioritizing the attributes to be assessed in order to maximize the impact of precious candidate testing time. Job analysis, content validity, criterion-related validity and transportable validity are all tools in the scientists’ toolkit that can help employers maximize the impact of assessment on hiring decisions.

ROI Case Study

Case Study: EMBARQ(Click on diagram to enlarge.)


  • 13 different call centers and hiring systems
  • 1,500 CSR positions
  • 35 percent turnover
  • Inconsistency and inefficiency
  • Performance metrics needed improvement


  • Consistent and validated assessment solution
  • Ability to screen for key competencies
  • Behavioral-based interviews
  • Reduced hold time 42 seconds
  • Increased sales by 24 percent
  • 60 percent reduction in 90-day turnover
  • Better pool of candidates

Using Assessments in Hiring

Designing a hiring process can be tricky. There is limited recruiter/hiring-manager time available for candidates based on practical constraints (e.g., cycle time, number of recruiters, seats-to-fill). Also, candidates limit their participation in the application and evaluation process based on the desirability of the job, local labor market conditions and your employment brand, among other factors. There are also considerations regarding the configuration of the assessment tools and their placement in the overall process. For example, evaluating candidates through remote unsupervised testing is different that evaluating candidates through on-site supervised testing. The processes differ, and the test content may actually differ.

Assessment is a critical part of the broader selection system that manages candidates and employees during the job-application and evaluation process. While information from scientific pre-employment assessment is a key driver of the value generated by the hiring process, there are many other elements in a good hiring process. Successful selection systems integrate candidate assessment within an overall staffing process in a way that makes sense given a company’s hiring challenges. In good systems, candidates have realistic expectations and receive appropriate communication regarding details of the position and the application process. Similarly, employees understand their roles in engaging and evaluating candidates, and they know how to work with the technologies, processes and decision-rules that have been created for the hiring program.

Assessment processes can be setup differently depending on the specific hiring challenges a company is facing. For example, pre-employment assessment often is used early in the hiring process to help "screen out" the least qualified among many candidates, and is used later in the hiring process to help "select in" candidates with the most potential. Assessments requiring as few as 15 minutes of candidate time can be predictive of key call center metrics and can produce powerful business results. In general, though, the more you can assess about candidates, the more informed your hiring decision will be. Determining how assessments will be deployed within your overall hiring process is an important consideration when building an assessment program.

The Bottom Line: Science Works in Regards to Hiring!

Employers have turned to science for help with hiring...and science works. Make sure that you’re getting the real thing, through substance and not just style. To drive quality of hire and ROI, employers should ensure that the assessment tools they use are:

  • Valid for hiring decisions
  • Appropriate for the job/specific to the job
  • Fair and objective

Hiring decisions need to be made, and the more information you have, the better your decisions are. You can just let candidates tell you who they are and what they can do—or you can actually measure it. Take control! Assessment of candidate skills and competencies drives better hiring decisions and improves business results.

To retrieve the latest study describing how dozens of companies have improved their ROI through the use of assessment in the hiring process, please go to

First published on Call Center IQ.