How do you hire the right people for your customer support positions? In more than 20 years of working in customer support, I’ve noticed that the inability to crack the code has been a surprising constant. It seems this would be an easy problem to solve. You just hire people with the appropriate skills, right? Actually, knowing which skills to put first and foremost on the list of hiring criteria is the biggest obstacle to successful customer service hiring.
The good news is: It’s not too late to learn how to prioritize skills in such a way that you are consistently hiring customer service representatives who are well-suited for their jobs … and much less likely to attrite in the long-term.
The first step in creating a hiring process that results in the "right hires" for customer support positions is to put the soft skills every successful customer support position requires at the top of your list of hiring criteria. These are behavior-based traits that enable customer service employees to appropriately and successfully interact with your customers. They include active listening, negotiation skills, articulation and voice tone.
The biggest mistake hiring managers make is putting industry skills—I call them "domain" skills—and technical expertise above soft skills in hiring decision-making. While these are rightfully top-of-mind when you’re hiring, they don’t deserve the emphasis most hiring organizations give them. That’s because technical skills can usually be taught with relative ease.
While you can improve some of the soft skills necessary for customer support positions, such as active listening or articulation, these skills are mainly innate; you either have them, or you don’t. Soft skills are the primary tools customer support professionals use to provide customer satisfaction, so hiring for other skills first may prove detrimental in the long term to your overall customer satisfaction levels.
Once you’ve moved the core soft skills to the top of the list, you need to more closely examine the domain skills and technical skills needed for your customer support position. This sounds simple, but you would be surprised at the number of customer support organizations that fail to outline the specific industry and technical skills their customer service jobs require. You must be able to evaluate candidates on their domain and technical skills, but you have to decide which of these are integral to your organization and then devise interview questions or tests that fully assess them.
My company recently worked with a Fortune 1000 data storage firm to conduct a hiring and training assessment. Management brought us in, because the firm had an exceedingly high rate of attrition, both internally—employees were changing departments within the company—and externally. As we walked through the company’s hiring and training processes, we quickly found that its hiring criteria were vague. Hiring managers felt they knew what they were looking for and would hire people when they spotted those nebulous qualities in candidates.
But feelings alone were taking the company down the wrong path. We found this out in focus groups with existing employees in customer support job roles, where we discovered that a lack of clarity on the part of management around job requirements and requisite skills—starting with the hiring process—had left these employees unsure of what constituted excellence within the organization and frustrated because they felt they weren’t properly trained to meet the rigors of the job.
We took the information we gleaned from the focus groups and delivered it to management. Doing this allowed us to frame the problem and take steps to correct it. We separated job requirements into three "tiers": necessary soft skills, domain skills and technical skills. Then we identified specifically which skills were necessary for each job title. When that process was completed, we worked through all the hiring materials and interview questions and assessments to ensure they matched with those tiered responsibilities. After we revamping their approach to hiring, we worked through the training curriculum to ensure that it reinforced our new "skills matrix." We also implemented a customer service skills training program for new and existing employees. As a result of these changes, the company reduced its turnover rates by 12 percent.
Cracking the code of how to hire and retain the right people for customer support positions isn’t impossible. At first, it may be a little scary to make these changes, but the business case for placing soft skills first in your hiring criteria and creating a skills matrix that you follow through the hiring and training process is hard to argue with, given the undeniably positive results.