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Screening for Writing Ability in Call Centers
by Joy Van Skiver, President, The Writing Exchange

When email emerged as a new option for consumers to communicate with companies, everyone knew the volume of emails would grow. After all, in an extra busy, online-centered world, fewer people are willing to wait on hold for the next available representative.


What many call center leaders were not ready for, however, was the unbelievable mushrooming of not just email but social media too. In addition to coping with technology challenges and coordinating “who does what,” managers recognized that not everyone on the front line could write as well as they could talk. So, how do you determine who can write emails and who can tweet and blog and chat?


Special Needs


Screening for writing ability in the call center area calls for something special. Here’s why:


  • Choosing the right template doesn’t require good grammar. It requires good reading comprehension skills and critical thinking.

  • Frontline agents don’t create essays; they respond to questions and complaints.

  • Personalizing standard responses, as many companies are doing, requires the ability to choose logical words and convey a customer-friendly tone.


Managers at ABC Company were frustrated when the test they were using with multiple choice, true-false and fill-in-the blanks was obviously too easy because people who scored well didn’t write well on the job. So, the managers decided to try a writing sample test. They asked potential candidates to write an essay, “Why I Want to Work at ABC Company.” That didn’t work either. Although the managers “grading” the essays were excellent writers, they were relying on subjective opinions, either “I like it” or “I don’t like it.”


By having someone create a writing sample you certainly can identify who makes a lot of mistakes. That could be level one in an assessment process. It separates the people who have very weak writing skills.


What about someone we’ll call Agent Angela who does well on that test but on the job often chooses the not-quite-right template to use as a response? Angela might not have performed so well on a critical thinking or reading comprehension test.


If every customer wrote very clear, succinct messages, careful reading wouldn’t be as big an issue. The reality we deal with is that frustrated and angry consumers tend to offer lots of scattered thoughts and questions, and they may not pay much attention to organization. This presents an extra challenge for agents in charge of email and social media.

In an effort to project a customer-friendly image, many organizations ask reps to adjust templates so they reflect the specific concerns of each customer. If Angela’s critical thinking skills are weak, she may have trouble deciding what sentences she should add to fit a particular inquiry.


Guidelines for Screening


Based on my own experience in creating a skills assessment, I recommend five guidelines to accurately predict who can write good consumer responses.


  • Test for more than just grammar skills. Proficiency with the right rules is only a partial indicator of writing success.

  • Avoid multiple choice questions because someone’s guesses can give you misleading results.

  • Include at least some “eyes-on” scoring. Mechanically scored tests are risky. Although evaluation software is “out there” and you may have heard about university professors even using it to grade papers, it’s far from perfect.

  • Establish objective measurement criteria to ensure that everyone is measured the same way. A subjective opinion about a writing sample may not be fair and may not accurately assess each person’s capabilities.

  • Look for tone. If a writing sample sounds stuffy or curt and abrupt, you can expect the same on the job.


Ready to Write or Not Ready Yet?


When someone scores a 95 on a practical assessment tool, you know you’ve got a real winner. You can give that person extra challenging responsibilities. No need to worry — this person can take on the task and run with it.


What about Agent Alfred who scores 78, but he has other strong qualities? As long as you have content results, not just a score, from your assessment, you may decide Alfred has potential and just needs some coaching or training. One viewpoint to take is that Alfred is not ready to write yet.


People can improve their grammar, writing, proofreading, and critical thinking skills. Because they “missed it” in school doesn’t mean they can’t learn what’s right. Some of my clients give the responsibility for improvement to their reps by providing self-study materials. Other clients rely on their corporate writing and grammar courses.


When you’re confident your screening process is accurate and realistic, it’s easier to decide how much effort you want to expend on training and coaching.

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