How to Hire for Excellent Customer Service

Does your customer service team have the right stuff? If you’ve been having trouble finding the right people for the job, this article may help you get your hiring strategy back on track.

Ever been involved in a recruitment process …. and received an application that just seemed to hit it right out of the park?
You know, skills and experience top notch, education out the eyeballs, evidence of all the right clubs and every professional membership under the sun and what-have-you.

Check, check and check.

When everything falls into place within one candidate, this can be an exciting moment for the recruitment team.

The truth is, no-one enjoys the recruitment process … not HR (unless they are exceptionally wedded to their job), not the panel, and certainly not the candidate.

Admittedly, there can be a thrill that comes from matching the right person to the right job. But there can also be a heck of a lot of drudgery in between.

The well-worn needle in the haystack analogy is just so appropriate here. You have to mine through an awful lot of poorly spelt, poorly constructed and poorly conceived applications (you know, the ‘what were they thinking?’ types) to get that one application that just seems to shine pure gold through its typeface.

So when it happens, it can be just like an internal ticker tape parade.

Marching band, confetti, the works. And you as the hero, having plucked sheer talent from the face of obscurity.

If you’re somehow central to the hiring process (lucky you), you start fantasizing about how you can cut it all short, tell everyone to go home and spend your time doing more productive things … even if those things involve playing golf (or trying to rebuild an exact replica of your house in Minecraft, if that’s more your thing… Or wait – maybe that’s just me).

You start congratulating yourself on having found the perfect candidate… perfect on paper that is.

They may even make it through an interview round, shine a 2000 watt smile, wear a killer suit, walk the talk, and convince everyone they are a team player.

And then you put them in a customer-facing position, and they are shocking. Like just, all-out awful. Ordinary. Everything your company is trying not to be.

Hopefully, this doesn’t happen too often. Sometimes, you may be lucky enough to score a candidate that scores as highly on the job as they do on paper… and in that case, I would recommend buying a lottery ticket.
The point is, this is all a (quite long-winded) way of saying that skills and experience aren’t everything.

There’s a lot to be said for weighting attitude much higher than experience in the job application process.

Skills and knowledge can be learned on the job. Attitude is one of those things that as a manager you can try forever to change from the outside looking in, and still be ultimately unsuccessful.

This is because attitudes tend to reflect underlying belief and value frameworks that can be very hard to shift. Far better instead to head off a futile exercise in banging your head against the proverbial brick wall by hiring the right employee in the first place.

Ok – so, how do you hire for attitude exactly? We’ve scoured the net to come up with some answers that may be helpful to you:

Work out what to look for

Before you wade into the recruitment process, it pays to spend some time reflecting on company culture and identify the values you are seeking that will make the difference regarding customer care.

If you really want to take your customer experience to a whole new level, you and your hiring team need to start thinking about what kind of attributes will make a tangible difference to your customers.

Sharon Florentine over at CIO suggests hiring for general attributes such as teamwork and independence, big picture and strategic thinking, being opinionated yet open-minded and looking for evidence of career progression.

Regarding customer service particularly, there is a range of additional ‘soft skills’ that are highly valuable regarding improving the customer experience. These include empathy, friendliness, responsiveness, personality, and communication.

Ask the right questions

Obviously, you will have few better opportunities to assess your candidate’s soft skills than during the interview process.

Rather than rely on the same-old, same-old set of questions (‘where do you see yourself in five years, anyone?’), consulting firm Freibergs suggests pulling together a list of targeted questions to sniff out the right candidate.

Some of their more customer-service oriented suggestions include:

  • “Tell me about the last time you broke the rules to serve a customer in need”;
  • “Tell me about a time when you made a serious mistake with a customer or a co-worker. How did you reconcile it?” and
  • “Tell me how you recently used humor to diffuse a tense situation.”

Even if these questions catch your potential candidate off-guard, they at least will give you an indication of how well they react under pressure.

Check readiness to go off the script

Although they are sometimes portrayed that way, customer service staff (and especially call center staff) aren’t robots.

Much of the time, it is necessary for customer service staff to refer to a script when answering customer calls. This practice above all promotes consistency, meaning a customer won’t get a different response depending on which operator is on duty or on what time of day it happens to be.

However, there are times when it is necessary, even desirable, to go off the script to deliver customer service that goes above and beyond expectations.

Customers do want to know there is a real live human being at the end of the line when they place a call. However, it’s not enough just to be human. Human beings that sound like robots aren’t going to cut it… after all, what’s the point of that? Nor will a refusal to deviate from the script even when it makes sense to do so.

As Shep Hyken notes over on his customer service blog, you can’t script sincerity!

Sometimes, it absolutely will be necessary to go off the script to satisfactorily answer client enquiries and portray the company in a positive light. Examples of possible scenarios might include when customers enquire outside the expected normal scope of customer service questions, when the conversation takes an unexpected turn or when there is an opportunity to connect with the customer in a manner the script won’t allow.

In the hiring process, looking for a certain natural effervescence (otherwise known as ‘bubbliness’), an ability to connect with people on a genuine level and a service-oriented personality are good signs you are on the right track. Beyond that, ‘gut feel’ can be a very important strategy. It may not be easy to explain, but if you know, like and trust your potential employee at first sight, there is a good chance your customers will love them too.

Hiring isn’t easy at the best of times. It takes a sharp eye and a goodly helping of intuition to hire employees that will represent trusted friends to your customers. Although some will likely balk at the idea of adding any further planning to their hiring processes, this is an example of a stitch in time truly saving nine.

Taking the time to think through the key company values that you most want to project, and designing hiring processes to support this vision will ultimately be its own reward.

Your front line team is the true face of your business. Make sure yours is presenting your best aspect at every opportunity.