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Why Are Candidates Passing Your Standardized Language Test, But Still Underperforming?

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October 21, 2021
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Why Are Candidates Passing Your Standardized Language Test, But Still Underperforming?

Over the past few decades technological advancements, economic changes, and workforce globalization have stimulated a drastic shift in contact center hiring trends. These shifts have forced employers and employees to adopt different organizational strategies to keep up their competitive edge. One of these strategies is the use of standardized language tests to assess basic language proficiency. This long-time practice is now changing.

One of the biggest trends is the shift to assessment of communication skills. According to a survey on global trends conducted by LinkedIn, 92% of the surveyed HR professionals and hiring managers consider soft skills more important than hard skills. Over 80% of respondents said communication skills are critical for business growth, and bad-hires lack soft skills.

What are communication skills? Communication skills is an umbrella term used to describe a person’s ability to convey and receive information effectively. This broad category of skill sets includes empathy, active listening, responsiveness, clarity, and, perhaps most importantly, language. With the growing trend towards outsourcing and global expansion, hiring people who speak the same language as your customers is essential. Seems simple enough, right? Unfortunately, assessing language and communication skills can be complicated.

You may be testing for the wrong language skills

In most contact centers, all employees must pass a standardized language test in English, or any other target language. The practice of identifying ideal candidates with these tests has been around for several generations. Due to the global status of English, English language tests have become very generic. But often, language is not standard. In fact, many different factors impact the way we speak, from geography to culture. A common language like English is particularly vulnerable to variances that lead to different accents and pronunciations, cultural references and expressions, and even speeds and volumes of speech.

The standard language tests that you use to assess your contact center workers are also generic and tend to be very easy to pass. Here is what the trainers tell us:

  • Language tests focus on pronunciation and repetition of short sentences.
  • There are few authentic scenarios. Questions are multiple-choice and on generic topics.
  • Language assessments don’t tell us anything about the person’s real communication ability.
  • Applicants are familiar with these kinds of tests after taking so many over the years.

While standardized language testing is a proven assessment tool. This tells us that these language tests fail to assess the skills that really matter:

Information Source: Deloitte IE | CCMA
  • Is the applicant able to communicate with the customers?
  • Is the applicant able to comprehend?
  • Is the applicant an active listener?
  • Does the applicant pay attention to detail?
  • Does the applicant use positive language?
  • Does the applicant express empathy?

What are the factors that influence standardized language test score?

An outdated focus on pronunciation and over usage of grammatical accuracy

Standardized language tests measure what is measurable. Written accuracy is not flexible. Speech fluency can be valuable for all levels. Accents are easy to spot. However, the degree to which an accent or a spelling error distracts from effective communication is not measured. If it doesn’t distract, it’s not important to the interaction.

General questions that do not  take your business into consideration

As the name suggests, standard tests are created without specific industries or lines of business in mind. Instead, they are designed for measuring the language skills of test-takers who are working in many different environments around the globe, from call centers in India to European manufacturers. They are also used for all levels of competence, from basic to proficient. In order for the results to be reliable, they must be very generic.  The goal then becomes test reliability (i.e. test-takers of similar competence get the same result), rather than test usefulness. Additionally, today when personalized customer support directly impacts visitor engagement, brand perception, and conversion rates it is important to invest in customer support tools that help you identify the right candidates as per the business requirements.

Standardization does not challenge experienced applicants

Contact centers have some of the highest churn rates of any industry. According to research conducted by The Quality Assurance & Training Connection (QATC) - Annual turnover rate for agents in US contact centers is 30-45%. This means that new workers come in regularly. This also means that the majority of the workers already have a broad range of experiences with different employers, hiring processes, and skills assessments. It’s likely that your applicants have seen your standard language test before. Not only will it be easier to pass, but the resulting data will be less accurate and potentially lead you to hire the wrong person.

standardized test

Inaccurate results from standardized language tests are impacting your hiring decisions

Now that we know standard language tests are not providing the information you need to make smart hiring decisions, let’s look at the negative consequences of ineffective skills assessments. Applicants who score well on standard language tests often have a superficial competence level. This means they fall short when faced with common customer service situations: understanding a customer’s need, explaining complex procedures, de-escalating frustrated customers, etc. Inability to deliver effective customer experiences in these crucial moments can negatively impact your organization in many ways. Research showed that 31% of respondents find repeating or provide information multiple times the most frustrating aspect of poor customer experience. A bad customer experience can hurt your brand and hurt retention rates. The impact is also financial. Retraining candidates who underperform, restructuring your team, or starting your recruitment process from scratch is expensive. Thus, the cost of relying on standardized testing that doesn’t reflect the needs of your business is high.

In contrast, when we assess these same candidates with targeted soft skills tests using authentic scenarios, they do not perform as well as they do in the standard tests. Here is how two applicants performed when asked to listen to the question and respond to the caller:


I want to talk to someone who can help me find a new phone plan. I am a university student and do a lot of research online...


Applicant 1 (Higher score on standardized speaking test): Let me pull up my resources and see what options there are.

Applicant 2 (Lower score on standardized speaking test): I am happy to discuss a option that will fit your student life.

The first answer is formulaic. This applicant can repeat this line each time, with accuracy and fluency, and will score well on a standard speaking test. However, they have not listened to the question nor produced a response that acknowledges the caller’s situation. The second answer is clear and concise but will be marked down on a standard language test due to small errors. Even though the speaker’s proficiency is lower, they have listened to the question, acknowledged it, and can quickly move on to the resolution. While both applicants speak the language fluently, the second individual demonstrates stronger communication skills that align with the business.

According to Microsofts’ Global Customer Service Report, 36% of the contact center representatives lack the knowledge or ability to resolve issues. These days as customer loyalty is fragile, it is important for organizations to realize the importance of the use of sophisticated assessments that test candidates for job-like scenarios and identify the right fit.

How a bad hire can affect team morale

There’s a need for a more sophisticated testing

Increase the competency you're looking for

Gone are the days when frontline support staff only had to take down names and answer simple questions. Now, clients have the tools to do their own research and solve problems themselves. This means that when they do contact a support person, the problem and the solutions are more complex.

As customer needs evolve, so should your hiring requirements. In the early days of the contact center industry, businesses could hire candidates with a CEFR* (Common European Framework of Reference) B1, or at most B2.  C level proficiency was reserved for supervisors and managers. But that won’t cut it today. As customer expectations grow, a C1 level (or at least a high B2) is a basic requirement for applicants looking to work in frontline jobs.

Involve your recruiters

Your recruitment team is responsible for filtering through thousands of resumes and selecting potential candidates. Unfortunately, recruiters are often disconnected from core business goals, causing them to focus solely on their task (filling positions), rather than the purpose (business growth). This misalignment can lead recruiters to assess candidates as quickly as possible. Often, a language test requirement is imposed on them from higher-ups, with specifics about the end goal. Recruiters will choose a short, convenient, no-risk solution – the standardized language test – even if it doesn’t work.

Empowering your recruitment team to play a strategic role will result in better candidates. Ensure there is transparency throughout the hiring process, from the job description to skill-assessment. If your recruiters know exactly who you are looking for, they will be better equipped to find the right person with the right tools.

Put authenticity first

There is a basic conflict between the reliability offered by a standardized language test and the accuracy required to determine the applicant’s abilities to do a job. While standard testing assumes that the cognitive and language skills tested relate to the potential ability to do the job, it doesn’t take into consideration the real-life tasks the applicant will be performing.

Tools like HiringBranch provide a better benchmark for hiring and training frontline staff by focusing on real-world people skills: empathy, active listening, proactive assistance, and more. Their skills assessment solution takes into account an incredible range of nuances and sensitivities relating to social, cultural, linguistic, and international perspectives. This allows you to confidently test applicants and receive data that is applicable to your business goals.

Require actionable data

Whatever language testing solution you choose, you should be provided with details about the candidates’ performance. These solutions are for your organization to adopt a reliable and practical communication skills test that correlates with performance on the job. Data that applies to the specifics of your business will enable you to make smart business decisions easily. Instead of drawing conclusions based on a standardized test and your gut feeling, a custom solution will give you the exact information you need to build a winning team.

*The global model for language competence evaluation is the CEFR (Common European Framework of Reference), a chart of 6 levels from A (basic) to C (proficient) with descriptions of competencies as well information on how to assess for those levels.

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We do. Gone are the days of guessing skills in an interview. Rely on technology do it for you with 99% accuracy and boost your hire quality, guranteed.

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