Recruitment: How to hire customer service superstars

Are you a business owner looking to hire the best candidates to work with your customers? Or perhaps, vice versa, are you the one looking to get hired for a customer-related position at your dream company? Whether the latter or the former, you are in the right place. I carried out over 1000 interviews for customer service positions in several industries. I have managed to build 3 highly successful teams. Now, I would like to share with you what makes the perfect candidate for customer service and what to pay attention to during the interview process.

How to spot candidates with the best customer service skills during an interview (Photo by Sora Shimazaki on Pexels.com)

1. Right on time!

Being late for any job interview reduces the chances of getting hired. That should be common sense. In dealing with customers, time is specifically of the essence! A missed minute can draw the line between a retained customer and a lost one. So if you are required to be at work at a particular time, say 9 AM, you must be 100% set to assist customers at 9 AM sharp, and not just drag your sleepy face through the door. So, what if you are late for an interview? Unless there is a solid reason and a proper apology for not being punctual, your chances of being hired are low.  

2. Dress for success

Sure, the industry you are employed in does make a difference regarding the importance of a dress code. For a sommelier in a high-scale restaurant, for example, the dress code is not a choice but a stipulation. To a customer service representative working in a call center, on the other hand, it may not seem crucial to dress for success. Why not come to work in yesterday’s T-shirt, some sweatpants, and a pair of flip-flops? It won’t affect customer satisfaction, right? Well, wrong. It may not be about the clothes, but it is about the principle. Those who dress for success, come to succeed, and customer success is what you are after when hiring candidates. 

3. Let the sun shine

Every interaction in life is an exchange of energy. That energy can make or break a sale, a deal, or a whole relationship with a customer. If a candidate does not radiate pure positive energy at an interview, it is clear that this person may want to look for a different industry to work in. Remember, positivity is the foundation for successful customer relationships. It promotes a great customer experience, and that experience is what can keep your business afloat or help it prosper. Even if your customers face difficult and time-consuming issues with your product or service, a great experience will keep them coming back. 

Smile to boost positivity (Photo by Julia Avamotive on Pexels.com)

Whether a candidate is a beam of light is usually clear from the outset – not rocket science. You can perceive the level of positivity from the intonation of the candidate’s voice, the presence (or absence) of a smile, and the responsive, gentle body language. Remember, since the candidate will be the one who represents your company to your customers, your best bet is to see the candidate from your customer’s shoes. Frankly, I interviewed negative (or simply non-emotive) people more often than positive people applying for customer service positions. So you can understand that this trait may be rare, yet it is troublesome and time-consuming to teach. 

4. Sell me you

Every customer service position includes some degree of sales. You are dealing with customers who pay their hard-earned money to purchase something from the company. Thus, you can ease the purchasing process for those customers and motivate further spending. How can you sell the product or service of my company if you cannot sell yourself to me? Many interviewees do not realize that the interview process is a sales pitch. Why are you being interviewed? So that you can convince the company you are the perfect candidate for the job. 

Unless you were recruited for your exclusive expertise in a specific field, do not expect vice versa – that the company has to sell itself to you. I had multiple overly confident candidates whose sky-high self-evaluation led them nowhere but the very depth of the candidate pool. Some of these candidates matched my search criteria and could have as well got the job offer. Their exaggerated self-assurance, however, raised the red flags of possible future problems with authority, early issues with employee satisfaction, and even a lack of adaptability traits. 

5. Speaking crystal clear?

It is of utmost importance for customers to have the easiest time dealing with customer service. That means a customer service agent should speak clearly, and at an appropriate volume. Of course, this does not apply to positions where a candidate does not get vocal (just e-mails and live chat). Almost every customer-related work position, however, includes oral communication. If you cannot understand a candidate during an interview, or you end up asking the candidate to repeat him or herself too often, this should be an automatic red flag for you.

Unfortunately, I have had to decline many interviewees with a defined accent when speaking English. No matter what, the reality is that your struggle with a candidate’s English accent will be your customers’ struggle. You do not want to make a decision that will make your customers struggle. Customers will also find it arduous to communicate with anyone who stutters, clutters, is noticeably slow, or uses excessive filler words and sounds. “Umm… Ohmmm… Obviously, like, you know?”

What and how you say makes your day (Photo by Rodolfo Clix on Pexels.com)

6. Can-do attitude!

The principle of first-contact resolutions must be embedded into the work process of a customer service representative. Isn’t it reasonable? You want to provide your customer with a solution in the shortest possible time. The faster you assist one customer, the sooner you can give help to the next. That requires proactivity and hopping right into the issue to resolve it without delay or time wastage. The right candidate will have the attitude of going above and beyond for customers. “No” should not be in your vocabulary – everything should be possible. 

I check all candidates for quick thinking during the interview process. We live a fast life nowadays. Time is a valuable resource – people cherish it. Yes, some customer situations may be slightly unusual, even never encountered before, but “I don’t know” cannot be a response! A candidate with the powers of compliance, adjustability, and resourcefulness beats their competition. If you seek a calm, predictable job, customer service is not for you, sorry. 

7. Experience over education

When choosing a person to work with your customers, experience is more significant than education. No matter what education the candidate may have completed, it rarely has any solid value in such a delicate process as working with people. Experience, on the other hand, is golden. If the candidate’s education is directly related to working with people, it sure does help. Otherwise, results are wildly unpredictable when you decide to train a fresh candidate with no experience dealing with customers – not a wise risk to take as it most likely will cost you time. 

Your search results may vary outlandishly. I had candidates who studied International Relations not come anywhere near the high quality of service provided by someone who studied Information Technology, for instance. Likewise, I had candidates with zero customer service experience become professionals in this field, as well as experienced people whose customer service made me wonder why their previous companies hired them. For that last bit, I recommend paying attention to how many work positions the candidate hopped through, and how fast. Too much hopping is a red flag.

8. Quality candidate = quality customer service

Your employees’ customer service quality should be graded, either by customers themselves or via your company’s quality control system, if not both. You are therefore looking for a person that already understands what high-quality customer service means and has similar expectations as a customer. I have come to learn this the hard way. To me, high-quality customer service was always a dire necessity. When I was starting in my younger days, I could not comprehend how someone could not understand this concept.

I used to tell trainees: “Put yourself in the customer’s shoes for a bit, and tell me, how would you like to be treated and what resolution would you want to receive?” The assumption here was that the person or people before me were meticulous, demanding customers themselves. I discovered that was and is not always the case. Hence, read the ‘customer’ in the candidate you are interviewing. What traits does the person before you think are focal for working with people? Why are customers important for the business? What does bad customer service look like to your candidate? Can an example be provided?

9. Responsibility? What responsibility?

The presence or absence of this virtue should be identified during the interview process, as you want your customer service representatives to be fully accountable. Responsibility does not imply pointing fingers at blame. The main implication is the freedom of taking appropriate actions to achieve goals. One of the main goals is to have happy customers, and as customer service representatives, your employees are responsible for doing everything in their power to achieve that. The perfect candidate will understand that he is the face of the company, speaking for and representing it to the public. 

While detecting a lack of responsibility may not be a piece of cake during an interview, it is not impossible. You are trying to avoid candidates who pass the heat intending to stay safe, sound, and in their comfort zone. This type of person will not identify with your company, dodging the customer’s issue by separating himself as an individual. Here are some unbelievably unfortunate customer service conversation cuts I have come across in the past that perfectly reflect a lack of responsibility:

“I completely agree with you about the fact that this product is bad, Jack. I honestly do not know what this company is thinking.”

“As far as I understood, you wish to file a complaint about your shipping delay. I am sorry. I am not responsible for that.”

“I understand you have been on hold for 10 minutes the last time you called us, but it wasn’t me who kept you on hold!”

10. Can you juggle?

Most customer service positions encompass more than two communication channels or require serving more than one customer at any given time. A company may be reachable by all; phone, e-mail, live chat, and social media. Do you think the candidate in front of you can handle a phone call while typing up an email and simultaneously assisting multiple customers in Live Chat? All this while providing high-quality customer service? Multitasking is unavoidable in digital customer service. One has no privilege of following the one-step-at-a-time philosophy. The perfect customer service representative knows how to prioritize his tasks and has excellent time management skills. 

Multitasking at its best (Photo by Los Muertos Crew on Pexels.com)

When I was working as a customer service representative, I saw this requirement first-hand. It is no joke. It is like learning how to juggle balls – 1 angry customer on the phone, 3 half-typed follow-up e-mails awaiting completion, 5 furious customers in Live Support (my record was 15 simultaneously), and your supervisor asking you to address social media requests on top of that. It doesn’t sound like a job for a die-hard perfectionist, does it?

11. Cool under pressure

It is no secret that a job in customer service can be stressful. Angry customers and multiple requests simultaneously can drive a person to the edge. Not only do you have to remain balanced on an emotional level, but also have your wits to provide the fastest resolutions. All this while you do so for every customer with no exception. When every interaction is an exchange of energy, and if all you are getting is negative energy, it is extra hard to stay positive. Customer service representatives must be able to enclose themselves in their protective bubble at work. Nothing should be taken personally. 

It is a good idea to put a candidate in a stressful situation and find out how he handles stress. This is where your psychoanalytical skills come into play. Most people have a stress trigger, and if you are good at reading a person, you may have noticed moments during the interview when the candidate was hesitant, worried, or alert. Use those moments and trigger the candidate’s stress to the maximum. For instance, for the self-assured ones, putting past achievements under question does the trick, and for possible conflict evaders, orchestrating a conflict situation with a customer or a colleague. 

12. What’s the stimulus?

What motivates the candidate to work with customers? Candidates motivated by money, job security, and physical comfort generally do not possess authentic customer orientation. To find the right person for this job, look for individuals motivated by self-development, self-image, and psychological comfort. These types of people are interested in genuinely performing at a high standard and working the job for its true purpose (which is taking care of the customers). Don’t forget that we are speaking of delicate and emotional work – with human beings – and one’s motivation cannot be irrelevant. 

13. Criticism is incoming!

The truth of life is that successful people don’t just accept criticism, but seek it to learn from it. When we talk of customer service quality, criticism is vital to indicate the expectations from the management. A candidate must be able to see such criticism as constructive. If any work critique is taken personally, not only does that indicate a lack of professionalism from the customer service representative, but it also puts a strain on improving the quality of customer service. 

Customers criticize the quality of customer service the same way but only a selected few, either because they have no time to waste with subpar customer service or they simply hold back the feedback. Remember, customers, bring in the profits that upkeep the company and pay the salaries. Therefore, it only makes sense to have someone in the role of Quality Control Manager criticizing employees by viewing their communications from the customers’ perspective to better the customer service quality. I know it is not the easiest thing to digest, hearing that you are wrong, especially if you tried hard. Yet there are reasons your work was not perfect, so use the feedback productively!

14. Research much?

Interviewer: “Do you know what we do here in our company?”

Candidate: “Umm, I am not sure…”

This is an example of a question and an answer that can portray the candidate you are interviewing does not care if you or another company employs him. This whatever-like approach suggests disinterest, passiveness, and wrong motivation. Speaking of people you hire to represent your company to the public, the mentioned 3 negative traits are certainly red flags. Besides, how is a person supposed to be enthusiastic about the product or service your company sells without having a clue about it when applying for the position? You can’t teach or buy enthusiasm. 

Determine clearly whether or not a candidate is truly interested in your company, let alone your industry. Just imagine hiring someone for a hotel/restaurant vacancy who doesn’t like communicating with people face-to-face, or someone for a call center who can’t sit for longer than an hour. It’s funny, but I had people quit in the past because they did not expect to work with computers for over 8 hours a day for an IT position. 

15. Spot the loyalty

Nothing is ever more putting off than an interviewee bad-mouthing the company which he has previously been working for. It is also a sign that there may be issues with loyalty from that candidate. Fine, he no longer works for that company. Yes, they may have had some particular issues that made them leave or get fired. But why hold evil? Is that productive and forward-thinking? As an employer, think of this – how do you know that the candidate before you will not speak negatively of your company if anything does not suit his preferences? Well, you can’t, but you can certainly spot any particularities that can affect the loyalty trait in the interview process. 

Loyalty is golden (Photo by Blue Bird on Pexels.com)

Building an effective customer service team may not be simple, but it surely does not have to be a hassle. The traits above are guaranteed to narrow down your selection list to only the best of the best. If a candidate successfully matches each criterion, you are probably looking at an integral customer service representative. If it takes time, do not worry. The fitting candidates are out there. Patience is the key! For your business to succeed, you must have the correct input team. I hold an array of seminars and workshops to make sure you have an efficient, hard-working team in your hands. All you have to do is reach out!

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