5 ways to hire great customer service reps

Marybeth Alexander | March 18, 2014

Hiring was always my favorite part of being a SurveyGizmo manager. And we do a pretty darn good job of it. But don’t just take my word for it.

Each new round of customer support heroes we hire is better than the last. They learn the product quicker, get more WOWs (our version of a perfect feedback survey), and find ways to give even better customer service than others have before.

How is this possible? I attribute it to a constantly improving application process. Like our Help Sheriff Pete Grigg would say, “If you want to make it great, iterate.” And we do all the time.

Over the past five years, we have gained a ton of experience as we iterated on our application process. Here’s some of our takeaways people seem to love….

1. Make your application reflect the role

Job postings and applications are way too often overlooked. Many companies use boring job descriptions and general application forms that don’t really tell the candidates what to expect. What’s worse, they tell you very little about the quality of the candidate. And this is the HUGE mistake.

Your job posting and the application is the first impression of your company and the job to many of your candidates. And first impressions are nothing to be ignored.

You want to attract the right candidates, and using generic terms like “Level 1 Technical Support Agent” or “Customer Service Representative” are terrible. I’m sorry if that is being too candid, but they really are. Yes, it says what the role technically does but not how it is done.

Do you know why I applied to SurveyGizmo in the first place?

  1. The job was listed in Craigslist as “Tech Support / Customer Hero / Tech Geek”.
  2. The first question on the application was literally “Do you kick ass?”
  3. The application (which was a SurveyGizmo survey) actually seemed to care who I was and asked meaningful questions.
  4. Attaching a resume was optional. And no, I didn’t include one.

Over on the SurveyGizmo blog, Sandy McKee actually did a pretty in depth analysis on how hiring the right applicant starts with the right job application. She nailed it when she said “Creative job applications attract the right candidates”. Plus it solves one of the biggest issues that cause people to hate the hiring process…

It’s way too time-consuming to go through all these applications.

Good news! A well designed application can do a ton of screening for you, saving both you and the applicant valuable time during the hiring process. If you design the application well, many applicants will screen themselves out. How?

  • Our customer hero application has a bunch of essay questions and can be pretty time-consuming. You need to really want to work here to complete it.
  • We also make the essay questions optional, so it is easy to screen people out who did the bare minimum – if you aren’t going to give 100% during the application process, what happens during the day-to-day?
  • Need people with strong written communication skills? Check out the answers to the essay questions and screen out those that have difficulty communicating well (spelling, grammar, tone, etc.).
  • Want the truly committed candidates? Ask why they want to work for you. This is always the first answer I look at and determines whether I read any further.

For more job application tips, check out Hiring the Right Applicant Starts with the Right Job Application on the SurveyGizmo blog.

2. Allow the candidates opportunities to be awesome

If you want to hire awesome people, you should give people the chance to demonstrate that during the application process. Having a well-designed application form is a great way to allow individual’s great personality, strong work ethic, and great customer service skills to shine. But for us, that’s just the start.

One trick that has been super successful for us is letting the applicants know they can include an optional resume or something that would impress us. It’s optional, so people are free to skip it. And people like me who think resumes are lame and boring can skip it. But there’s a really cool chance here to include something else that could wow us. A picture of you at space camp? Very cool. A link to your personal blog, twitter, or website? Super cool. Your own artwork? Yes, please. Applicants who take advantage of this opportunity to impress generally make it at least until the next step.

One of the integral parts of our application is our special assignment. Since we are hiring people to provide support for survey software, we ask them to sign up for a trial and create a survey. And we don’t specify what they should do save for a few general guidelines (use at least 3 tutorials). This is one of the most telling parts of the process and answers a ton of questions.

  1. How quickly will they learn the product?
  2. Will they go above and beyond or just do the bare minimum?
  3. How creative are they?

Our office manager, Sabrina, also started jokingly telling candidates “not to forget their capes” for their interviews. It’s pretty amazing when people show up in capes or find creative solutions. Wahine Wendy actually brought a caped Lego character to all her interviews, and she’s awesome :)

We give tons of opportunities for candidates to display their awesomeness and show their willingness to go the extra mile. And when you want people to give great customer service, that is one quality you are always looking for.

3. Give great customer service to the candidates, and make sure they give great customer service to you

Truly great customer service starts at the top with leadership. The most important rule in customer service is this: if you want your staff to give great customer service, you must give great customer service to your staff.

If great customer service is truly important to your organization, then you should be giving great customer service (and a great customer experience) to your potential employees. From the job posting to the application to the interviews, you should be demonstrating the type of service you expect your employees to give to your customers.

How can you demonstrate great customer service? Here’s some ideas…

  • If someone takes the time to fill out your application, always take the time to respond personally and thank them for their time (even if they don’t make the cut).
  • Be prompt! Take the time to follow-up with all candidates in a timely manner. Go above and beyond by responding to applications as they come – you’ll blow their minds!
  • Actually read the candidates application and reference the material in your interviews. Show them you took the time to read it and that you care!
  • Give the candidates feedback on their application, assignment, and interviews. Even if they don’t get the job, you’ll be helping them improve their skills. Plus it gives you an opportunity to see how well they respond to feedback.

As you give great customer service to the applicants, make sure they demonstrate the ability to give it back to you. Assess each candidates ability to give great service in the application (“Write a reply to an angry customer.”), in the interviews (“How do you define great customer service?”), and throughout their interactions with you (“Did they give me great customer service?”).

How do you define an abstract idea like great customer service? As I mentioned in my previous post The 3-Step Recipe for Great Customer Service We Learned from a Deli, we adopted Zingerman’s model for giving great service:

  1. Find out what the customer wants.
  2. Get it for them accurately, politely, and enthusiastically.
  3. Go the extra mile.

You can apply this not only to the candidate’s application and interview responses but also to each step of your application process in order to ensure that great customer service is modeled at each touchpoint.

4. Be picky and always pick positive energy

As a manager, hiring people is probably the most important decision you make. People are what makes a company and a culture, and everyone wants to have great employees. But this means you have to be picky. Like really, really picky.

We are picky about a lot of things. Feel bad tossing out a candidate for spelling and grammar errors? Don’t. Your employees represent your company and your brand – poor writing skills hurt your reputation. Feel bad for tossing out a candidate that makes your feel uncomfortable by being too personal? Don’t. If they can make you feel uncomfortable during the application process, be assured they will cross the line with your customers and other employees.

And sometimes being picky means not picking anyone. Taylor Morgan, Aquatic Survey Specialist and Support Mermanager, agrees:

No matter how bad the team is hurting for help right now, don’t feel pressured into making quick decisions. Take your time hiring the best fit for the role. Rushing things only makes matters worse for your current staff AND your customers.

While you can choose what you want to be picky about, I recommend being picky about spelling, grammar, tone, follow-through, promptness, and positive energy.

Positive energy

Positive energy is so important it almost deserves its own call out. Taylor “Mermaid” Morgan frequently recalls how big an impact positive energy has during the application process and her hiring decisions.

“I knew I wanted to hire Dave because he smiled his whole interview. He was just so excited.”

“Josh, I knew he would be great because he knew how to power through a bad day.”

“Celeste and Wendy both, I felt like calmer after I first talked to them. Their energy really rubs off on other people.”

5. Go with your gut

This may seem obvious but we have made this mistake a few times. There is really something to be said for gut feelings – they shouldn’t be ignored. Sometimes a candidate looks really good on paper and aces the application process. And for some reason you just don’t want to hire them.

We found that you are usually right and will find out why eventually. Take our advice and trust your gut. You don’t really want to find out you were right not to hire them.

Other times, you might have a gut feeling that you need to hire someone, even when there are other applicants that appear stronger. We’ve found that some of those are the BEST hires.

Our Director of Employee Happiness once had a dream that we had to hire Sam. And we did. And he turned out to be one of the most kick ass support heroes and is now in support engineering. Good thing for trusting your gut!

This is hard because we sometimes doubt ourselves. You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take, right? But firing people and having people quit sucks. When it comes to hiring, you want to sure.

Pete Grigg: Help Sheriff, Lead Developer, and Living Proof This Works

HelpGizmo’s very own Sheriff Pete Grigg was hired onto the SurveyGizmo support team as a customer hero. He taught himself to code, got hired onto the SurveyGizmo core development team, and is now the lead developer for HelpGizmo. He’s a great example of how these five tricks help you hire a hero like him.

And we almost lost Pete because we didn’t give him the greatest customer service during his application process. In fact, it took us weeks (if not months) to follow up with him. Lucky for us, he still had a job he wasn’t in love with.

Pete really showed his great customer service skills during the assignment part of our application process. When asked to create a survey, he took full advantage of the opportunity to be awesome (and sent it in on a Saturday no less). Not only did he go above and beyond in his demonstrating his ability to use the product, he let his personality shine through (it was laugh out loud funny) and it referenced his in-person interview (making it personal).

The best part? Even though I was super impressed, I was taking a while to respond. And he followed up with me first…with another amazing survey to show off more skills. Apparently he was worried that the first one was too offensive or something, but this demonstrated such initiative and willingness to do whatever it takes that we often use it as an example of great applications.

Pete was a great hire, but it wouldn’t have happened if we weren’t super picky. I was in the process of trying to hire 3 new support heroes. We had gone through tons of applicants and were trying to pick the top 3. But you know what? It just didn’t feel right and ended up not choosing any of the candidates.

It was a tough call because we had spent so much time with all these applicants and we needed more customer heroes. But saying no to those candidates is exactly how we got Pete and shortly thereafter Ed the Survey Pirate. We wouldn’t have been able to hire them had we not been so picky.

Our gut instincts told us not to hire people when it didn’t feel right; Pete and Ed are proof that good things happen when you trust your instinct!

Seriously, check out Pete’s recipe in SurveyGizmo’s 2011 Cookbook (and yes, we know that “Sheriff” was spelled wrong – took us a few years to notice!). Pete has his own recipe for a great customer service team. What’s yours?


About the author
Marybeth Alexander
Marybeth Alexander

is the Knowledge Goddess and Chief Executive Owl at KnowledgeOwl. Connect with her on LinkedIn

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