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The best customer service agents read fiction

A relationship between a company and a customer often starts with a customer service interaction. Delivering good support can create a lifetime customer, while bad support can quickly cut the relationship short. We place tremendous power in the hands of our customer service agents.

There’s a lot an organization can do to equip agents to help customers—training, self-service, smart processes, good management, and well-written policies. But before all that, you have to hire the right people to do the hard job.

How do you ensure you are hiring the right people for your customer service roles? Zendesk compiled a set of interview questions meant to identify the most effective agents—the questions cover problem resolution, the interview process, and customer communication. While I think the questions are spot on, I'd like to add another important one to the list: “What did you learn from the last book you read?”

As the interviewer, what should you hope to learn from this unorthodox question?

Bend, experiment, and consider

For starters, readers have a unique set of talents that non-readers do not. These traits work very well in customer service and technical support. A prospective employee that isn’t prone to reading in their personal time, may not be one of the best customer service agents for the position.

Good readers are often identified as being able to:

  • make inferences from text and speech
  • make connections to what they read/hear and their prior knowledge
  • prioritize details and determine importance of a lot of information
  • know when to fact-check or seek alternative sources, and
  • summarize information

Next, pay attention to not only the lesson the interviewee describes, but also the book they read. While there is inarguably much to be gained from textbooks, must-read non-fiction works, and magazines, fiction may provide more benefit to the customer support agent.

Research shows that reading fiction increases empathy and social understanding. Fiction also provides the reader with a greater comfort in uncertainty and chaos–attitudes that allow for higher-level thinking and greater creativity. In a recent article on the benefits of fiction reading, I noted that “Fiction gives us a place to bend reality, to experiment emotionally, and to consider alternative solutions.” These are tough traits to teach, yet imperative ones for a good customer service agent to possess.

Finally, the candidate's answer is apt to provide you with a launching point to a real conversation.

Fiction and customer service

As a voracious reader, a former agent, and a career customer service leader, I've learned that sometimes the best customer service books aren't always about customer service. Here are some customer service lessons I've learned from a few of my favorite fiction books.

Customers often do stupid things. They get their phones wet, they neglect to change their passwords, they step on their favorite pair of glasses. Customers rarely like to admit that they do stupid things. When explaining the dire situation to an agent, customers usually start out polite. They are looking for compassion and exoneration. If that doesn't work, they'll often fib a little about what really happened. “There’s no way I dropped my phone in the pool. It might have gotten splashed when my little precious puppy jumped in the water. But just a little!”

When customers don’t get the answer they want, they can become angry—they request restitution, they demand a supervisor, they threaten to churn. An empathetic customer service agent with a good understanding of the customer's reactionary cycle, can prevent the worst from happening. Great agents know that with smiles they show compassion, with lies provide understanding, and hopefully, with preemptive empathy, the gunfire is avoided.

“If you don't know, the thing to do is not to get scared, but to learn.” ― Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged

Tier 1 support is often considered to be the hardest. An agent has to know a little bit of everything, or at a minimum, a lot about where to find all that information.

The best customer service agents are ones that remain confident under uncertainty and periodic chaos. They don’t panic when presented with an unfamiliar problem, but rather use their talents: inference, listening, and prioritization, to solve the pieces that they can, and then ask and learn about what they can’t.

Zendesk appreciates agents that are energized by learning. So much that they’ve created a strategy to encourage continuous learning and adaptation. Their customer support team rotates roles and assignments: ticket triage, subject-matter-experts, trainers, and Cobra Strike—a system that randomly assigns agents bulk tickets only on one subject for a period of time.

This process provides agents with more day-to-day experience and a greater comfort in uncertainty and chaos by familiarizing them with many support situations. It also increases overall team productivity by better enabling each individual. Rand would be pleased.

“The face you give the world tells the world how to treat you.” ― Gillian Flynn, Sharp Objects

We've all heard the adage, "Happy agents make happy customers." In Don’t let the robots win: hire people who act like people, Monica Norton emphasizes that customers are seeking true human-to human-interactions. They want to talk to customer service agents that treat them with dignity, provide explanations, and say ‘thank you.’

Norton says that businesses should train for skill—customer service expertise and product knowledge—and hire for attitude. She identifies the important hireable traits as kindness, empathy, creativity and curiosity. Don’t these sound like the same attributes commonly found in readers of fiction?

Great customer service agents recognize the importance of attitude in service. They know that the way they treat their customers is likely the way their customers will treat the company.

Sarah Stealey Reed is the editor of Relate. When she's not wandering the world, she's a loud writer of customer experiences, contact centers, and optimistic relationships. Find her on Twitter: @stealeyreed.