Live Chat Vs. Phone Agents: How to Find Top Performers at Scale


More and more consumer interactions are going to online channels, making live-chat support the fastest-growing business segment for contact centers and business process outsourcing providers worldwide. As businesses digitize, the pace of this growth can only be expected to quicken and outpace other forms of support, such as phone and email. Providing the quick, friendly and convenient experience that today’s on-demand customer wants requires top-notch live-chat agents with the right skills and disposition to tackle the unique demands of the role.

Although live chat feels quick and easy on the end of a consumer, from a recruitment standpoint, navigating the shift away from other forms of support can be a big challenge. While it may seem easy enough to simply move top-performing agents from phone or email, live chat requires an added layer of unique skills that even a top phone agent might not have.

What’s in a Job, Anyway?

When you’re deciding how to select candidates for any role, it’s important to identify the characteristics that are predictive of success, and to find an accurate way to assess them. Identifying the core skill set, also known as a job analysis, is typically done by an industrial-organizational (IO) psychologist who researches the competencies, dispositions and abilities that a job requires. Not to fear, if you don’t have an IO to rely on, there are three practices any talent team can adopt when building selection criteria for a role.

1. Identify critical tasks. These are the skills candidates will need to be able to handle or learn to handle quickly. Key tasks of the role, typically what’s included in the job description, should accurately reflect the activities regularly performed in the role, especially those which are critical to success.

2. Understand what differentiates high performers. It’s important to know what specific characteristics or behaviors separate your highest and lowest performers. That way, when hiring, you’ll be able to identify qualities in candidates that reflect the employees on the team who are performing the best.

3. Consider readiness vs. potential. Readiness for the role refers to qualities someone needs from Day 1 for success (personality, specific knowledge, certifications, etc.), whereas potential are those characteristics that help someone quickly ramp (such as cognitive ability, personality, learning agility). In many cases, for entry-level positions, it’s more important to consider potential if you’ll provide ample training.

Let’s take a look at a job analysis using the three steps above, and what skills your team should look out for.

1. Critical Tasks—Reading and easily understanding queries, handling multiple customer issues simultaneously, prioritizing time-sensitive requests, escalation.

2. Qualities of High Performers—Top agents are distinguished by excellent communication, superior problem-solving skills, high stress control and snappy customer adaptation.

3. Readiness vs. Potential—Chat support roles are typically entry level. It’s important to consider predetermined factors like personality, multitasking, typing and communication style, but don’t rule out candidates who match those criteria but lack skills that can be easily covered with training.

There are core customer service capabilities needed across all entry-level contact center roles, such as problem-solving, customer orientation and closing ability. Whereas a phone support agent may need strong spoken language proficiency and keen listening skills, the format of chat support requires a different, enhanced skill set for two main reasons: First, that all communication is written; and second, multiple conversations are being handled simultaneously.

What unique skills differentiate live-chat agents? If you’re lucky enough to have an IO psychologist to work with, a job analysis of the chat support provided by your organization will give you the most accurate idea of the unique skills, abilities and other characteristics (e.g., personality) that differentiate your top agents. However, there are some skills and qualities that are tried-and-true indicators of high-quality chat agents around the globe. The six essential characteristics are outlined below.

The Six Essential Characteristics of Top Chat Agents

1. Prioritizing

When customers are expecting accurate and timely responses, it’s critical that agents are able to extract the most relevant information from their requests, particularly if handling multiple cases at once. Agents with strong summarizing capabilities can quickly highlight and address the key parts of a customer request. Being able to do this as requests simultaneously arise also allows for an agent to correctly prioritize the competing requests they will handle.

2. Memorizing and Recall

Because a live-support agent will be assisting multiple customers at a time, it’s important that they’re able to learn and recall the key details of each chat as they toggle through them. Being able to quickly remember recent chat activity allows the agent to quickly adapt to and respond appropriately as the conversation progresses with the customer. Not only will an agent with strong memorization skills be able to facilitate customer requests more efficiently, but they’ll also be more likely to follow protocols and know what comes next in a variety of situations.

3. Multitasking

Multitasking isn’t a nice-to-have for a live-chat support agent, but rather a core task of the job. Agents will be addressing several requests at a time and will need to be able to effectively extract key information, investigate relevant files or receipts, navigate various software, and follow protocols, all while delivering quality responses in a timely manner to multiple customers. Agents with strong multitasking abilities will be able to boost customer satisfaction, as well as boost productivity by being able to handle more requests than phone- or text-based agents only handling one interaction.

4. Emotional Intelligence + Control

It’s true that live-chat agents will encounter a range of customer personalities and dispositions, ranging from small questions to complex situations. Live chat agents will need to be able to glean information without any voice cues about the emotions of customers, and adapt their written responses to accommodate multiple customer dispositions at once. Along with being able to read emotion from text alone, it’s key that agents are able to regulate their own emotions to remain appropriate with customers, but also to keep themselves from being overwhelmed or reactive in difficult interactions.

5. Software Navigation

Whereas tech aptitude varies in importance for traditional customer service roles, comfort navigating software programs and troubleshooting technical difficulties is an important skill for chat agents. Live-chat agents will need to be able to easily move through a chat software along with other tools in order to provide a seamless experience to customers while keeping data and customer records accurate. For this reason, applicants for live-chat roles should have a basic comfort with using computer software.

6. Adaptability

Hand in hand with a keen ability to summarize conversations, live-chat support agents will need to be able to adapt quickly to every conversation that comes their way. This means that they can easily step in to take over a conversation from a chat bot or a colleague, as well as being able to pivot among conversations with customers who have different issues, personalities or support requests while allowing each customer to feel that they’re the No. 1 priority. Agents with high adaptability will be able to provide efficient resolutions without sacrificing quality.

How to Find the Best Candidates

The best way to ensure your process is effective is to ensure that your selection criteria accurately measures the key traits you’ve identified for your roles. As you may have guessed, different skills and traits are most accurately measured with different tools. The good news is that today a variety of tools are available to help you assess candidates by skill as well as holistically.

But before you do that, you’ll need to consider which traits your applicants need on Day 1 for success (for example, the right attitude and typing skills) and which things you’re willing to cover in training (such as software skills). If key skills can be covered during training, you’ll need to look out for applicants who are willing and able to learn new things quickly.

Let’s look at how you can measure the essential skills:

  • Personality—Helps to identify basic customer support skills, as well as stress control, empathy and customer adaptation.
  • Typing Test—Helps measure the ability to quickly and clearly communicate while writing with correct grammar and punctuation.
  • Multitasking Test—Measures short-term memory, as well as the ability to switch tasks rapidly.
  • Virtual Job Tryout (Live-Chat Support Simulation)—Allows you to measure a variety of skills in a realistic setting, helping you to get the most accurate picture of how a candidate applies their existing skill set to your roles.
  • Situational Judgment Test—Shows you how a candidate behaves in a critical situation, rather than on just routine tasks, which can help identify potential top performers.
  • Bonus: Learning Agility—Testing learning agility can show you which candidates may be able to easily bridge a skill gap or grow into a leadership role via training or upskilling.

To deliver top-notch service for your clients, your agents have to be equipped with the right DNA to learn quickly and succeed in the role. Not only do you need agents with the capabilities listed above, but you’ll also need to ensure your candidates have the right interests and personality to stay in the role long-term. Even a strong candidate can be the wrong hire if they’re bound to leave. This means that no particular trait can be more important than the other when assessing live-chat agents. If the candidate has the right hard skills, but lacks the personality, they may turn off customers or get frustrated easily in the role. If they have a great personality but suffer in multitasking, they may struggle to keep up with the demands of live chat.

So How Do You Select the Right Candidates at Scale?

It’s important to assess every skill, but that doesn’t mean you need to mash together four or five different tests, bogging down your recruiters with work and scaring away your candidates. That’s where virtual job tryouts—in this case, a live-chat support simulation—come in. By putting candidates in an environment that closely mimics the role, you’re testing their traits directly with the situations they’ll encounter, instead of estimating them with a swath of different assessments.

For live-chat agents, a virtual job tryout or realistic job preview estimates their qualities by presenting them with simultaneous, written support requests for them to address in real time. As requests pop up, typically assessments will measure the quality of their response, along with timeliness as well as how many or few responses they needed to reach a solution. A strong simulation will incorporate all the soft skills listed above, as well as software navigation, in just a few minutes (compared to several hours to measure each trait alone). If you want to incorporate their potential to learn via training, a simulation can easily be paired with a learning agility test or personality test to gain additional insight.

If this sounds interesting to you, a quick google search for “live-chat simulation” should point you in the right direction.

Now It’s Your Turn

As you can guess, there’s an assessment available to test almost anything that can be measured, including the qualities needed to be a top live-chat agent. However, be careful—not all assessments are created equal. Be sure to consider accuracy as well as the experience for candidates and recruiters.

While it may be tempting to patch together assessments for the individual qualities, you’ll end up with an experience that’s unpleasant for candidates and impossible for recruiters to manage. So when you step up your selection process for chat agents, look for opportunities to sell the job, scientific validation and easy-to-understand candidate results. If you find these things, especially when using a realistic job preview, you’ll be able to distinguish which candidates will thrive in live chat to drive growth and satisfaction for your business.

Dr. Ben Porr is an Industrial-Organizational practitioner and VP of People Science at Harver, a leading pre-employment solution used by Contact Centers and BPOs around the world, such as Sitel and Alorica. His expertise spans the full employee lifecycle, and his technical expertise includes talent assessment, organizational development and people analytics to support workforce planning, selection, training and succession management.