How to Find, Interview and Hire Your First Customer Service Agent
You’ve hit a tipping point, and you need help. Use this guide to make the best hire you possibly can.
You’re feeling the pressure.
Your business has finally outgrown your own bandwidth.
Specifically, trying to handle all of your customer support messages on your own simply isn’t going to cut it anymore.
You’re stretched thin, and things are beginning to slip through the cracks. Even with help desk software, you’re finding it tough to keep up with incoming emails.
It’s time to hire your first customer support agent.
But where do you start?
Your first hire support hire is a critical one, and no matter how well you prepare yourself, you’ll learn a lot through trial and error in this process.
But by understanding a few basic fundamentals of how to make your first hire a successful one, you’ll be in a much better place to find the right support pro who can help you create loyal customers and grow your business while you’re focused on everything else that’s on your plate.
1) Set Out to Find the Best
Let’s get this out of the way first: if you’re looking for a warm body to do nothing more than “be on the clock” when a customer calls, this post isn’t for you.
This guide is meant to help you find the best talent out there for your business.
Why do you want the best?
Because it pays to look for the best.
Global companies spend the equivalent of 2% of their marketing budget on actively maintaining relationships with existing customers, while 86% of us have stopped working with a company due to bad customer service – it suddenly all seems to add up.
Excellent customer service makes an impact on whether customers buy or not: a McKinsey study found that 70% of buying decisions are made based on how a customer feels the business treats them.
Excellent customer service reduces churn: 81% of customers are more likely to do repeat business with a company after a good customer service experience. On the other hand, 95% of customers have taken action (e.g. abandoned a business or complained about it to others) because of a negative customer experience.
Excellent customer service increases revenue: a 2011 survey by American Express found that 70% of Americans are willing to spend an average of 13% more with companies they believe provide excellent customer service.
Excellent customer service has a multiplier effect on user acquisition: the same American Express survey that found that happy customers would be willing to spend more money also found that a happy customer, on average, tells nine people about their experience.
Happy Customers = More Referrals
To deliver excellent customer service—and reap the business benefits—you need to hire excellent customer service employees.
2) Understand the Skills That You’re Looking for
Yes, “typing” is an important skill for anybody, but it—and the myriad other “commodity” skills—are simply the cost of admission for customer service pros.
Hard skills like that can be taught easily.
But behind the scenes, there are only a handful of customer service skills that make the difference between an average customer support professional, and one who makes customers feel fantastic about the help they got.
Empathy is the single most important customer service skill.
Because if you want an employee to help your customers be happy and successful, it’s important for that employee to understand what happiness and success mean to your customers.
And if you want an employee to help your customers out of a jam, it’s crucial for that employee to understand exactly how being in that jam is making the customer feel.
To do that, they must step into the customer’s shoes.
Positivity, in this case, isn’t the kind you’d normally find on motivational posters and all over your most annoying Facebook friend’s wall.
As a customer service skill, positivity is about the language you use to communicate with your customers. Subtle differences in word choice can make a huge difference in the way a customer perceives a support transaction.
Look at these examples of negative language. What do they really mean?
- Unfortunately: I’m about to tell you something bad.
- As you know: I’m putting you in your place, and confirming your worst suspicions.
- I’m afraid that…: Just like As you know, this one invariably always comes before bad news.
Negative phrases immediately put the listener on the defensive.
On the other hand, positive phrases can completely change the way your customers interpret what you’re saying.
Patience is more than a virtue. It’s also a customer service necessity.
You will deal with angry customers.
You will deal with customers who need extra attention to understand some things.
You will deal with some very challenging situations.
The worst thing you, or anyone on your team, can do is lose your cool.
Patience not only helps you deliver better service, but one study from the University of Toronto found that being impatient not only impedes our ability to enjoy life, but it makes us worse at doing hard things (like delivering great customer service).
Clarity in communication is probably the easiest skill to spot in job applications and interviews, and one of the most important things that everyone should learn, especially those of us in customer support.
It doesn’t just make customers happier.
It can lead to big business wins, too.
What if your team could send one less email per support interaction because they didn’t have to clarify anything that your customer didn’t understand the first time?
If your team fields 500 requests each week, that’s 26,000 fewer emails sent in a year.
That’s a great argument for training your team to practice crystal-clear communication.
The final critical customer service (and really, life) skill is continuous improvement. Train your team to get better every single day, week, month, quarter and year.
Because even if you’re not improving every day, your strongest competitors are.
3) Write a Standout Job Description
Yes, your job description needs to include the tasks that the agent will be performing, and the skills that you’re looking for.
But if you want to hire the best, then that’s not enough.
There are two key principles that many businesses—sadly—ignore when it comes to writing great job descriptions that attract top talent:
Choose Your Words Very Carefully
Notice how at Groove, we look for customer success experts, rather than customer service representatives?
The words you use to describe a customer service position are incredibly important. By making it clear that you’re looking for top performers, you stand out among the crowd of businesses looking to hire “reps.” To top performing employees who care about being challenged and successful, that differentiation matters.
Here are a few more examples from some of the top SaaS and eCommerce companies in customer service:
Make Your Culture Shine Through
Your culture comes through in everything you do, from your product to your marketing to your customer support.
There’s a good chance, especially if you’re a smaller business, that your culture is a big reason that your customers are choosing to do business with you.
That’s why it’s so important to preserve and maintain that culture, and to make sure that it comes through clearly in your job postings.
We like to include links to our blogs—where we share a lot about our culture—to ensure that applicants have a great understanding of how we work and live.
Buffer requires you to check a box stating that you’ve read two (amazing) books that they live by:
Unbounce wraps some of their job requirements in funny prose to make it clear that they want people with a sense of humor:
Whatever your culture and values are, it’s important to make sure that they come across in your job posting.
4) Screen Your Applicants With Test Projects
As much fun as scanning resumes and cover letters might (or might not) be, these documents tell you little about what a potential hire will actually be like in an interaction with your customers.
That’s why screening applicants with small “test projects” is so valuable: it shows you what they’ll actually be like in the field.
And—perhaps just as important—asking for them to do a bit of work will weedd out the “résumé blasters” who apply to any and every job posting without concern for whether or not they (or the job) are the right fit.
This is one example of an email we’ve sent out to support candidates:
The key here is to ask open-ended questions that show you how an applicant approaches the various challenges they might come up against in their role. A few examples of questions that have been great at separating top applicants from average ones in the past include:
Imagine a potential customer emails you with the following question: “I’m considering a switch to Groove, but I was wondering if your software lets me create custom statuses for tickets?”
Groove doesn’t offer this feature yet, but their current help desk does. How would you respond?
- Imagine that you’re just starting your workday, and you login to Groove to see 30+ emails from distraught customers who can’t access their accounts. Clearly, something big (e.g., a server outage) is happening. What steps do you take?
- We’d like to get an idea of how you can clearly explain concepts and processes to customers. Tell us, step-by-step, about something that you shop for online, and how you go about searching, choosing and purchasing it.
Whether you make the assignment “optional” or not won’t make a difference to the applicants you actually want. I love this insight into optional assignments from Ramit Sethi:
When a question on an application says "Optional," winners know the question is not optional at all— Ramit Sethi (@ramit) August 25, 2014
Candidates who are serious about working with you will answer every single question.
5) Interview Your Top Candidates
“What are your three greatest strengths?”
Tired, cliche interview questions are dangerous for two reasons: they don’t give you much insight into how qualified a candidate is for the role, and they immediately tell the best candidates that you’re not a great interviewer, and likely not a great fit for them.
Instead, the best customer service interviewers use role-play scenarios to separate the stars—those who have what it takes to deliver amazing customer experiences—from the rest of the pack.
It’s the only way to truly test for the essential customer service skills
How can you learn if a candidate has skills like empathy, positivity and patience?
Certainly not by asking them canned questions about their greatest weaknesses.
The best way to see if these skills exist are to put the candidate in positions where they’ll need to practice them.
Which leads to…
It shows you how the candidate handles uncomfortable situations
Customer support is often uncomfortable.
But it’s those uncomfortable situations—when customers are angry or upset, or when the agent doesn’t have the answer right away—are when customer loyalty is most on the line.
Relationships can be won or lost in those interactions that start with uncomfortable circumstances, so you better be damn sure that your support agents can deal with them.
You’ll see exactly what your customers are getting
You wouldn’t hire a developer or a marketer without looking at their work, would you?
Then you shouldn’t hire a support agent without seeing the work they can do, either.
Role-playing in interviews gives you a great glimpse of what your customers will be in for when they send you an email or give you a call with a problem.
Try these four role-play scenarios that will give you a valuable understanding of how your candidate stacks up:
A rude customer
- “I want a refund, and I want it right now.”
- Get angry/raise your voice
- Make unreasonable requests/demands
What you’re looking for: Staying cool is an important skill, especially when customers are angry. Look for empathetic responses (remember, you can be sorry for how a customer feels, even if it’s not your fault) and a calm, level demeanor. Bonus points for employing customer service recovery techniques.
Tip: You’re not trying to be a real jerk (the kind of customer you would fire). This is about recreating those more common situations where an otherwise good customer is simply having a bad day.
A server outage or other crisis
“You get 50 customers emails alerting you to an outage. What steps do you take to manage the situation?”
What you’re looking for: You can’t expect the candidate to know your processes yet, so you’re looking mostly for a glimpse into their thought process for how they would handle a crisis situation.
Do they alert you? Do they reach out to every customer to ensure that customers know that the issue is being worked on? Do they mention maintaining ongoing contact throughout the day/ordeal?
Making a customer’s day
Go through any totally routine customer support interaction, and then ask: “How would you make this customer’s day?”
What you’re looking for: You want people who understand the value of taking that extra step to surprise customers. Anything from small touches like handwritten notes or personal “thank you” emails to larger gestures for a bigger wow.
Empowering your customer support team to wow your customers is one thing; you need employees who are willing to take advantage of that.
A request for a discount
Ask for a discount. Note that this only works if your business doesn’t offer discounts. Alternatively, make a feature request with the caveat that there’s no way that feature will ever get built.
What you’re looking for: A big part of the correct approach to this question is empathy (the agent should be grateful for the question and acknowledge that the customer’s concerns are valid), but an equally big part—and an undervalued component of customer service—is sales. If your product is a great fit for the customer, the agent should be able to help the customer understand why your product is worth paying the price you’re asking.
Make Your First Hire a Successful One
Making your first customer service hire is a big and exciting step for your business.
It means that you’ve delivered enough value to enough customers that they’re reaching out for more help than you’re able to personally give them.
And for that, you should be proud.
Use this guide to find and hire a customer service expert that will help you continue to delight your customers and grow your business.
For more, check out these resources on training and onboarding your new hire: