A practical guide to hiring the best customer service representatives

Olivier Casassus

Olivier Casassus,

Demand Generation Manager at Front

17 April 20200 min read

It’s hard to hire great customer service representatives. Here’s a guide on how to ask questions in customer service interviews to find the best hires.

More and more businesses are discovering the value of great customer service: employment for this role is projected to grow 10 percent from 2014 to 2024, significantly faster than the 7 percent average for other occupations. Few businesses, however, have a strategy for assembling a strong customer service team.

The stakes are high for choosing the right person for the job: 91 percent of customers won’t return to a company after a bad customer experience, and the cost of replacing an employee is about 20 percent of annual salary for mid-level positions. Between lost revenue, hiring costs, and the investment of training a new employee, even one wrong decision can put a significant dent in your bottom line.

While there’s no exact science to hiring, there are ways to build precision into the process. Rather than asking questions that prompt candidates to self-evaluate (such as when they’ve dealt with a difficult situation), ask questions that reveal their thought processes and ability to handle high-stress customer service environments.

Here’s a guide on how to probe deeper during interviews to hire the best customer service respresentatives.

Testing technical chops and problem solving skills

Above anything else, make sure your hires can handle the nitty-gritty aspects of support because 82 percent of customers believe that the most important part of the customer experience is the “accuracy and quality of information." The ability to understand problems and troubleshoot solutions is the foundation for a great support experience.

Warby Parker has been lauded for their emphasis on customer service — Fast Company recognized this especially when they named it the Most Innovative Company of 2015. Warby Parker obsessively iterates on their hiring and training process to make sure customer service representatives know their products inside and out. They begin by looking for proactive and curious people, as CEO Neil Blumenthal says: “We want to hire lifelong learners because [technology] is changing constantly… People who love fun, creativity, providing awesome customer experiences. That’s not something that is easily taught.”

Instead of looking at a candidate’s experience with a particular technology, **look for candidates who are expert problem-solvers. **You want to test their ability to learn and adapt, rather than their past experience with certain software.

Most candidates are likely to describe themselves as fast learners — decide for yourself with a hands-on exercise.

Challenge them with real day-to-day problems

To screen for this during an interview, give your candidates problems to solve on the spot. Companies with great customer service teams focus on practical questions related to problems they might actually face in their role, rather than generic brain teasers:

  • Apple asks, “How do you handle a customer service situation where you have no clue what the answer is?”

  • Airbnb says, “Pretend to be the Airbnb rep calling a customer who is violating a policy.”

  • Zappos asks, “If a parade went by your desk and you were on a call with a customer, how would you handle the situation?” (Zappos actually has parades in their office.)

  • Dropbox asks, “If you woke up and had 2,000 unread emails and could only answer 300 of them in one day, how would you choose which ones to answer?”

  • Microsoft says, “Explain the internet to your grandma.”

These questions help you evaluate a candidate’s ability to problem solve and give you insight into their thought processes. Do they think through multiple solutions and choose the best one, or go with whatever pops into their head first? Do they ask clarifying questions to get all the information they need, or do they rely on assumptions? You should have confidence based on their answers that they could work through an unexpected situation with a customer, even if it wasn’t covered explicitly in their training.

Assess soft skills

73 percent of consumers say friendly customer service representatives can make them fall in love with a brand, so you should hire candidates capable of quickly building relationships with your customers.

Apple is famous for their exceptional in-store customer service, and a Gizmodo leak of the Genius Training Manual a few years back revealed why. Each employee goes through a rigorous 14-day training program including three mandatory classes: Using Diagnostic Services, Component Isolation, — and The Power of Empathy. Apple famously requires their employees to hone their “soft skills” alongside technical knowledge, so even the most frustrating problem with your iPhone or MacBook can be resolved by a delightful experience with Apple support.

Soft skills are hard to quantify, but they’re crucial for customer service roles. Your new hires need to exhibit:

  • Empathy. They need to treat customers like people, not ticket numbers. They should deeply understand customers’ frustrations and partner with them to resolve their issues.

  • Perceptiveness. Having empathy isn’t enough. Customer service employees need the ability to diagnose a customer’s needs and communication style — like whether they’d prefer an objective or more sympathetic response.

  • Patience. Some customers will have problems that require digging and follow up to fix, while others may give unclear or vague explanations as to what’s wrong. Your hires must have the patience to listen closely, ask questions, and persistently try to help.

It’s tough to evaluate these skills from a resume, so test candidates with real support questions to see how well they handle them.

Give them actual support questions

The best way to see how candidates handle customer service is to literally watch them do it. Sit with them while they take a support call, have a mock support call as one of your interview exercises, or have them draft responses to example support messages.

For an e-commerce customer service position, for example, give them real-life support questions they’d encounter on the job:

  1. I love your products but can’t find anything on your website about where the ingredients come from. Are they natural or synthetic? And is everything cruelty-free?

  2. I just received a pair of the new dark denim skinny jeans, but the pants have a tear in them. I frequently order from your site, and nothing like this has ever happened before. Please let me know how to proceed.

  3. I just spoke with a customer service representative, and she was extremely rude. She hung up on me and would not let me exchange the bathing suit I ordered for a different size.

After the candidates complete the project, ask them questions about their approach in addition to grading their answers. Make sure that the candidates are considerate of not just what information they tell customers, but how they talk to customers. Particular phrases can be learned, but they’ll only be perceived as genuine if the employee is thoughtful about leaving a positive impression.

Emphasize team values

The customer service representative turnover rate in the US is 33 percent, which is almost double the average turnover rate across all professions. The main reasons why most people leave are culture-related: negative working environment, bad management style, and constant stress. That’s why at the heart of every high-performing customer service team are strong values.

Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh founded his company on delivering the best customer service in the e-commerce business. In his book, Delivering Happiness, he writes that this was only possible by hiring people who believed in his company’s values:

[Zappos’ company values listed on their website]

Zappos’ 15 percent turnover rate is less than half the country’s average — likely due to hiring managers making sure hires share their core values.

Team fit can be both the most important and most difficult aspect to screen candidates for. Most of the prep work begins before a candidate even walks through the door.

Know your values and share them

If you don’t already know your team’s values, you should pinpoint and explicitly define them before you make your next hire. It’s not enough to have a general sense — you should have a vocabulary for your team culture, so you can talk about it and share it. Without it, candidates can’t speak to how your values resonate with them or whether they can get behind them.

Have everyone on your team submit values that they think the team represents. Find anywhere from three to ten tenets that encapsulate these ideas and write them down.

The day of the interview, be up front about your company values with the candidate. It can also be helpful to let your team evaluate the candidate for themselves. Have the candidate be part of less formal conversations: whether over lunch, coffee, or simply get-to-know-you sessions. That way your team can gauge whether the applicant shares the values that you want to cultivate in your team.

The value of customer service representatives

The job market for these roles is growing, because companies now realize that the best customer service employees do much more than answer customer’s questions. They can turn a negative experience into a positive one, give personality to the company, and guide customers through every step in their relationship with your brand.

To separate the best candidates from everyone else, you need an evaluation process that fairly tests both technical and interpersonal skills along with team fit. Once in place, you’ll be able to assemble a high-performing team that represents what your company stands for, makes customers happy in every experience with your brand, and loves their work.

Written by Olivier Casassus

Originally Published: 17 April 2020

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