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The Art of Hiring English-Speaking Agents in Off-Shore Contact Centers

Providing customer service for companies with American customers requires more than issue resolution. The agents must also exhibit professionalism to protect the brands they serve as the quality of the experience is based on the customer’s perception. Finding, hiring and cultivating the required attributes for great agents requires expertise and a repeatable process due to high rates of attrition.

In the Philippines, there are more than 500 business process outsourcers competing for a work force of one million people. A contact center can hire 150 to 200 agents per week to keep ahead of attrition and to ensure skilled agents in the required seats. Competition is fierce and being fast is imperative. But it’s also critical to have a process that allows for making the best hiring decisions possible when the offer must be made at the initial interview to get the new hire before a competitor does.

Developing the English Communications Scorecard

Over the course of serving a number of clients in financial services, Sykes has developed a methodology based on the creation of an English Communications Scorecard that enables the best hiring decisions to be made. While the scorecard includes the evaluation of language proficiency for both vocal ability and language accuracy, it also looks beyond book learning and English as a second language to conversational fluency and an applicant’s aptitude for American English. Many Filipinos have learned English through reading books. This can inhibit their ability to speak it correctly, as well as to understand situational context.
Vocal Ability includes assessing the prospective agent’s speaking ability, including their pronunciation, syllable stress, neutral accent, and speed of diction.

⦁ Common examples of lapses are “box” pronounced as “bax”. “Five” pronounced as “payb.” These are typical Filipino lapses where “a” and “o” or “p” and “f” are sometimes interchanged. Filipinos who speak English as a second language don’t pronounce “h,” for example. Three would be spoken as “tree.” Also, the letter “p” and “b” can be interchanged, as well as “s” and “p.”

Language Accuracy is the ability to explain a concept using the correct terms, sentence structures and grammar. It’s also about the ability to understand jargon.

⦁ One example is asking the prospective agent to provide instructions. A good sign that the applicant does not have the vocabulary to provide simple instruction is when they say, “Go to Facebook, once there, click log-in then log-in. that is how you log-in. ok?” More proficient speakers would be able to provide instructions like “First type ⦁ www.facbeook.com on the address line. Once on the home page, type your log-in information and password, then press enter. You should now be logged in.”

Conversational Fluency Measures the prospective applicant’s ability to understand their customer’s concern, clarify and respond appropriately according to the industry standard. Ultimately, the interviewer is assessing the agent’s caller management and caller sensitivity. Sometimes the interviewer will use an idiom as a humorous aside. Whether or not the agent gets the joke will indicate their understanding of American English.

One example is an agent presented with a role play where the customer says “Send the check to Uncle Sam.” The agent misunderstood and asked for the address for Uncle Sam, not understanding that it was a reference to paying taxes to the government.

⦁ An example of social fluency is customer service orientation. Prospective agents are asked about their own experience of great customer experience. Normally Filipino’s consider freebies and discounts as hallmarks of great service. More adept applicants are able to explain the entire service experience. Good responses would be along the lines of: “I consider Starbucks as a company that gave me good service. They made a mistake once with my order so when I complained they explained that they charged me only so much. I explained I was willing to pay so they took back the wrong drink and made it correctly this time.”

⦁ When measuring awareness of social and cultural nuances, applicants are asked about their reactions to customer statements. One such example is when they are given a scenario where their caller is asking to have their name changed because of divorce. Applicants that have background with US culture can be neutral because divorce is a normal occurrence. They would typically say “I understand, let me update your name.” Prospective agents, who are not socially aware, empathize instead. They would say “I’m sorry about that, let me help you out.” This response shows how ingrained Filipino social perceptions are regarding marriage which can cause reflexive responses that may not be the most appropriate. Despite using the same language, misunderstandings can occur.

How the Scorecard Informs Better Hiring Decisions
With the English Communication Scorecard, an assessment of the qualifications of the prospective agent can be made quickly, facilitating the ability to make decisions quickly, as the nature of the business demands.

There are five rankings that determine what type of position the prospective agent can fill upon hiring. These are Expert, Very Good, Good, Modest and Limited. An Expert is usually a tenured agent who can also become an English coach, where a modest user struggles expressing and articulating their thoughts and is best suited for scripted calls.
In order to meet the increasing demands while staying ahead of the competitive market, Sykes developed a “near hire” process to bring in modest users and provide them with training to move up in the rankings. These are the agents who know English but lack the conversational skills because they did not get a chance to practice the language extensively with Americans. They are highly trainable and worth the investment especially if you have a strong recruitment process coupled with a robust training solution that addresses communication as a key contributor to success.

The English Communication Scorecard methodology is one way Sykes is ensuring that they can provide client sites with the agents needed to fill both quality and capacity requirements. Because customer service is about people serving the most important asset to our client’s businesses, we believe in investing in these people. And it pays off for us, and for our clients.