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guide

Recruit, hire, and onboard customer service representatives

Anton
de Young
Zendesk Customer Advocacy Management Team

Talking to someone in your customer service organization is often the only time that your customers have a human interaction with your company. Increasingly, as businesses become digital and move online, the need to actually speak to someone before making a purchase becomes rare. We can all now easily click, tap, and swipe our way into a shopping cart and buy with ease and without assistance. Therefore, human connections are more often made after the sale, when customers need advice or help using their purchased items.

Ironically, modern subscription-based software-as-a-service companies that offer a free trial period do still provide opportunities for human interaction before the sale. In fact, providing excellent customer service to trial customers has never been more important to sales and a company’s bottom line.

In either scenario, providing your customers with timely and effective service is essential. Great service means managing the relationships you have with your customers, making sure that they’re satisfied so that they’ll share positive feedback, especially on social media. Negative feedback can of course be much more damaging and difficult to do undo after it’s been shared with the rest of the world.

Customers will no longer tolerate bad experiences (long waits, unnecessary complexity just trying to make contact with your company) and they certainly won’t appreciate disinterest or surliness from your customer service reps. Instead, the experience must be more personable and personalized; valuing the customer’s intelligence and reducing the effort that they must make to communicate with you and resolve their issues. Staffing your team with people who can deliver this experience can therefore have a huge impact on the success of your company.

About this guide

So how do you hire the kind of people that can build those relationships and deliver that human touch and great customer service experience? This guide provides you with advice for recruiting, hiring, and onboarding reps who embody those traits. Topics covered in this guide:

Building an in-house talent pool

Many people that enter customer service come from diverse backgrounds and may not have been trained beforehand to begin a career in this industry. It’s an entry-level job and a career start for many. Some don’t stay long, some stay longer, some become lifers, and some move into other roles in your or other companies.

Attrition and retention can be a challenge because of this, but if you hire and manage wisely you may actually find that attrition can be a good thing. As we’ll discuss in more detail in the next section, a genuine desire to help people is the key trait of a great customer service rep. That combined with with a strong sense of empathy and an experienced rep’s in-depth knowledge of your products and services can put them in an excellent position to take on other roles in other organizations in your company.

Understanding the customer experience first hand is invaluable, and you should spread that to all parts of your company.

As you hire new reps, you should think about the long-term value they’ll bring to your team and your company. The rep you hire this month may eventually become a manager in your support organization, an engineer or product manager, join the sales team, or move into product training or some other role in your company. Of course, you’ll groom those with the instincts, skills, and desire to take on leadership roles within your own organization. Most mature customer service organizations know this, welcome this, and hire and manage people to help grow their companies.

What makes a great customer service rep?

You’ll find lots of advice out there about how to hire the best people, so we won’t repeat all that here. As with any employee, you want to hire people who are smart, articulate, energetic, have relevant experience if possible, and who will fit well into your team and culture. But in addition to that, specific to what makes a great rep, seek out people who are strong in the following four areas:

Empathetic

People in customer service roles should genuinely want to help other people. That desire begins with empathy, the willingness to understand another person’s experience and see it through their eyes. We talk a lot about empathy in business these days, and that’s because demonstrating empathy and making better connections with customers to help them solve their problems has become a differentiator for successful companies.

Empathy can be learned, but it’s best to seek out people who either already demonstrate it, or have a tendency to it based on their desire to help others. We’ll explore some of the ways you can search for and evaluate a person’s capacity for empathy later in this guide.

Demonstrating empathy and making better connections with customers to help them solve their problems has become a differentiator for successful companies.

Strong communicator

This job is about communicating with other people. You want reps who communicate well both verbally and in writing. Listening can be both audio listening, but also close reading of written messages - in either case, it requires knowing what to look for to help diagnose the issue, determine what steps the customer has already taken, and detecting the customer's emotional state, so that accurate answers can be delivered in a way that meets the customer's needs.

This job involves lots of writing but that doesn’t necessarily mean you need English majors. Our online writing habits have tended to become more informal and little less grammatically rigorous, and within reason, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. There’s an authenticity to informal writing that helps make the connection and build a trust relationship with customers. Stiff business writing comes off as canned and impersonal.

Communication is about both listening and then clearly articulating ideas and information in an authentic way. Both are required.

Internet-savvy

The internet and mobile computing provide us with more ways than ever of communicating with each other. We call these channels and we often provide customer service on many different channels simultaneously. We use voice and video, chat apps, email, social media like Facebook and Twitter, and even texting is becoming a customer service channel.

While you may only currently support one or a few of these channels, you may decide to support additional channels in the future, so it’s always good to hire people who are familiar with or actively engaged in these channels and can easily communicate with customers using them.

Master of simplicity

Most of us are striving to build customer experiences that are simple and easy. We want to reduce the effort a customer needs to make to interact with your company, easily achieve their goals, and have a satisfying experience. But your customer-service interface design alone can’t always ensure that.

When a customer makes the effort to reach out and ask for help, it’s the rep’s job to quickly assess the problem, sort it all out, and then present the customer with the simplest answer possible. Effort reduction for the customer is the goal. Customer service representatives help customers do this by being good troubleshooters, shielding customers from the complexities on the back-end, and helping them navigate complexities on the front-end. Breaking down and simplifying complexity.

Growth mindset

Products, technology, and policies will change over time, and your customer service reps will need to change with them. Look for people who have demonstrated a drive for learning and growing. How do they learn best - through experience, reading, classes, coaching?

You can’t always find people with directly relevant customer service experience, but that can be okay if you hire people who are strong in these areas and have demonstrated that they enjoy helping customers and can do it day in and day out; they can be taught the tools and processes they need to manage customer support issues. An outside-the-box hire with the right talents might just surprise you.

Your recruitment strategy

Aside from finding people who embody the traits of a great customer service rep, you’ll want to think about how the person makes your team better, what kind of career they’ll have in your company or organization, and how to make the best choices to address both immediate and future needs.

Building team strength

When considering someone for a role on your team, an important question to ask yourself is “What new skill set do they bring to my team?”. The answer to that question is of course specific to your situation and the state of your team. You want to balance out your team with a range of skills to deliver the best customer service possible. You may need people that are great on the phone, technically skilled people, or someone to handle operations or write knowledge base articles or own the support workflow.

You may also want to ask yourself how you see this person contributing to not only your team but your company in a year’s time. As we mentioned at the beginning of this guide, there’s a good chance you’re hiring someone who will take on some other important role in your company at some point in the future.

As you scale your team and your business grows you’ll want people on the team who can grow into leadership and management roles.

Hiring with employee engagement in mind

Enlightened businesses understand the human aspects of delivering great customer service and work to ensure that their employees are as engaged and satisfied as their customers are. Happy reps equals happy customers. How to measure, improve, and manage rep engagement and satisfaction is discussed in more detail in the Managing your amazing customer service team leadership guide.

At this point, when you’re evaluating a potential hire, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Have they articulated their own career path and does this role fit into it? Meaning, for example, have they said that they’re interested in moving into management in the future and is that a possibility on your team?

  • What is their primary motivator? While everyone you hire should genuinely enjoy helping customers, that can be done in a number of ways. Some people enjoy direct interaction with customers and some may prefer to build support systems and take on operational roles that help the team do their jobs better (support for support). Do you have a track that someone like that can move into?

  • Is this person a good cultural fit? We hear this advice so often that it can sound meaningless. However, it’s important. All companies and organizations have a work culture. Some are more rigid and process oriented and need employees that can fill well-defined roles and some are loose, take a more “define it as you go” approach, and are looking for people who like to invent things themselves and are comfortable with a bit of uncertainty. There are many other aspects to work culture, but ensuring that you find reps who perform well in yours will help to ensure that they are productive and happy.

Road-testing interns

An approach that has worked well for some customer service teams is to bring on interns to see if they’ve got the right stuff. You can find out first hand if they have the desire to help customers and really enjoy that role. Not every person will work out, but it’s a great way to discover some new talent and build out your team.

Hiring remote employees

Hiring and managing remote employees has it’s own set of challenges. For advice on what to look for in a candidate for a remote position, see the Successfully building and managing a virtual customer service team leadership guide for some tips.

Writing a job description that attracts the right people

The job description articulates necessary skills and experience, but it should also help you attract the right personality, someone who will fit well into your team and culture. When writing a job description, think about the people who are succeeding in the role already. What do they have in common?

As we mentioned earlier in this guide, people in customer service often come from diverse backgrounds and may not have traditional customer service experience, yet might have all the ingredients to succeed in the role. Given that, it’s a good idea to think about the skills the person must bring into the job from day one, and what skills can be learned on the job and reflect that in the description.

Here’s a sample job description that you may find useful. This one is for a generalist, junior to mid level rep.

    We’re looking for a support guru who thrives on providing support through many different channels of communication – including: email, phone, chat, forums and social media such as Twitter. You’re a great match if you possess fantastic troubleshooting and analytical skills, are driven to help customers, and have the ability to dive deep into a new product to learn it inside and out.

    Responsibilities:

  • Answer all questions related to [your product or service] and escalate when necessary

  • Educate and empower our customers to become better users of [your product or service]

  • Own the customer experience and work to exceed their expectations. We want to treat our customers as if you would treat a guest in your own home.

  • Proactively look for solutions to problems and propose improvements if something could work better

  • Proactively provide feedback to internal teams that helps to improve [your product or service] and create a better customer experience

  • Experience:

    Soft Skills

  • You love talking to people on the phone and building relationships with your customers

  • You're able to empathize with customers in a genuine way that lets them know you care about their issues

  • You’re a team player that can follow and lead as situations dictate

  • You’re able to make decisions and solve problems

  • You have an ability to explain complex issues in beautifully simple terms

  • You’re curious and have a natural ability to “zoom out” of a problem, in order to ask the right questions.

  • You’re able to plan, organize, and prioritize work - this role wears many hats!

  • Technical skills and experience required

  • At least 2 years experience in Customer Service

  • Ability to evaluate, troubleshoot, and follow-up on customer issues as well as replicate and document for further escalation

  • You are an ideal candidate if:

  • You enjoy a fun and friendly work environment

  • You like celebrating successes and accomplishments

  • If you like engaging with your customers and colleagues

After you’ve written your job descriptions, you’ll want to post them to your company’s careers page and all the major job search sites. You want to cast a wide net. Also, don’t forget that internal referrals are a great source for candidates.

Reviewing resumes and cover letters

If you’re lucky enough to have a dedicated recruiting team, getting a good list of first pass maybes may not be too difficult. Much of the recruiting process is automated nowadays and algorithms do a lot of the work for you, matching words in resumes and cover letters with words in your job description. But that’s just a first pass. There’s no substitute for a good close read.

Many candidates don't supply cover letters, and many hiring managers don't read them, but a cover letter can serve as a good prose writing sample. Resumes don't do this very well, so a cover letter can help bridge any gaps between the candidate's experience and the posted job requirements. It's doubly helpful for those outside-the-box candidates who may not have directly relevant experience. It gives them a chance to make their pitch. For these reasons, we highly recommend that you ask for them.

What hasn’t changed

We mentioned in Strong communicator earlier in this guide, that informal, less grammatically accurate writing has become acceptable in business, especially in conveying a sense of authenticity and in building trust with customers. This is generally not true however when it comes to resumes and cover letters. Attention to detail, good writing, and accuracy are still important. Many resumes are tossed for simple typos and other signs of sloppiness. That hasn’t changed.

Resume or LinkedIn?

We also now have LinkedIn profiles, and many candidates, rather than submitting a finely crafted resume, will use their LinkedIn profile instead. It’s up to you to decide if that’s an acceptable way to apply for your position, but what LinkedIn does provide is the person’s larger career story. Their number of connections and endorsements may reveal their engagement with their profession and their coworkers and the successes they’ve had.

Many career advisors tell job seekers to stick with the separate resume and to tailor it to the specific job they’re applying for and make it as brief as possible. Doing so helps to demonstrate their real interest in the job and working for your team and company specifically. Perhaps providing both a tailored resume and a link to their LinkedIn profile is the best advice.

What to look for

When you’re reviewing cover letters and resumes, look for examples of the traits we discussed in What makes a great customer service rep?.

Empathy - This may be difficult to assess from a cover letter or resume, but even declaring that they have a passion for customer service and helping people is a start.

Strong communicator - How well is their cover letter and resume written? Do they have examples from their resume of doing presentations, training others, or creating documentation?

Internet savvy - Have they listed their software and internet skills? Are the ones they’ve listed relevant to the job?

Master of simplicity - Does their cover letter or resume cite examples of improving processes, building a tool to streamline some everyday task, or managing projects to improve the customer experience?

Growth mindset - Have they provided examples of their focus on learning and growing? Do they actively seek out training to learn new skills? How do they manage their own continuing education?

Interview questions for customer service reps

While you’ll want to include all the usual interview questions you have for finding people that represent your company’s values, justify the investment you’ll make it them, and that will determine if they’ll be a good cultural fit, we've created a list of interview questions that are specific to customer service reps. You can find that here: Interview questions for hiring great customer service reps.

Putting them to the test during an interview

You want to make sure that the candidate is a good cultural fit with your team and has the requisite skills and background on their resume, but more than anything, you need to make sure that they are capable of doing the job.

Give them test tickets to solve

The best way to do this is to give them an assignment: have them work on two tickets. Don’t give them fake tickets that exist only for the purposes of the exercise. Give them two test tickets that are copies of real tickets (with the customer’s personal data such as email address removed), tickets that capture some common but also challenging issues that your customers have dealt with.

Since this is a test, give them clear instructions and a block of time to work on them. When they’re done, go over their ticket responses, what they said to the customers, and provide constructive feedback.

If they listened carefully, and you feel like they used your comments as an opportunity to learn and grow as a rep, then you are probably looking at a strong candidate. If your feedback only annoys and irritates them, this person is probably not going to be a good fit.

Have them do a demo

Another technique that works well is to ask the candidate to prepare and then present a product or services demonstration to the entire interviewing team when they come in for an on-site interview. This will demonstrate how well they prepare, how motivated they are to join your team by impressing you, as well as their communication and presentation skills. If they’re interviewing for a more technical role on your team, this is a good way for them to demonstrate those skills.

Making the hiring decision

When it’s time to make the hiring decision, go back and think about your strategy and ask yourself the following questions:

  • Are they passionate about helping customers?

  • Do they demonstrate empathy?

  • Do they really want to work for your company?

  • Do they help fill a knowledge, skill, or perspective gap in the team?

  • Will they onboard quickly?

  • Are they a good cultural fit? Is this the environment and role they need to be engaged, happy, productive, and also a future to build toward?

  • Are you enthusiastic about the prospect of this person representing the company, its value, and its mission to every customer they provide support to?

When in doubt, pass

Don’t rush your hiring decisions. It’s important to find the right person, someone who fits the role and also meets these other important criteria we’ve outlined.

If you find yourself hesitating or trying to rationalize why someone is the right choice, they probably are not. If you have doubts, don’t hire the person. It never works out and you’ll save yourself a headache and lost time and resources.

Onboarding your new reps

Your approach to onboarding may depend on how your team is organized and if you have a flat or tiered support organization. In a tiered support organization, training and onboarding is a little different for each tier. However your team is organized, you want all new reps to demonstrate the following.

Product or services knowledge - Have they gotten up to speed quickly, do they know your products and services well, and can they can handle tickets on their own?

Support workflow and policy knowledge - Do they understand how your team handles ticket escalation, the ticket triaging process, incident and problem ticket processes, and so on?

Customer interaction best practices - Have they learned your best practices for how to respond to customers in specific situations, how to reply to tickets from social media channels, and how to converse with customers in a way that represents your company’s values and brand?

Consistency - Are they delivering consistently good responses, are their customers satisfied and are they getting good ratings?

Technical skills - If that’s part of their job, are they demonstrating their technical skills in their responses to customers, are they learning more technical skills?

How long it takes to successfully onboard a new rep depends upon a number of factors: the tools they need to learn, the number and complexity of your products and services, the customer service soft skills they need to develop, and so on.

Here are some approaches to onboarding new reps.

Use other reps to train new reps - More experienced reps know your products and services well and can provide training to new reps. You can set up a recurring training program that is run by experienced reps who are good at providing training or you can have new reps work one on one with them.

Leverage your knowledge base - If you don’t already have one, you should build a knowledge base to provide your customers with self-service information for using your products and services. This can be as essential to your reps as it is to your customers and is a great way for new reps to get up to speed. The internal version of your KB can contain all the operational details about support workflow and policies that new reps can easily access and consult when needed.

Practice with simulated tickets - Set up a test account in your helpdesk software and populate it with fake tickets that cover a wide range of common support issues. Have new reps respond to these tickets and then review them together.

Review live tickets responses before replying to customers - Until you’re confident that your new reps are ready to provide accurate responses to customers, you can have a senior member of staff review their responses before they’re sent to the customer. This works best in asynchronous channels such as email, of course. For “live” channels such as voice, chat, or face-to-face customer service, pair your onboarding rep with an experienced mentor so they can see how the job is done, before letting them try it on their own.

Review the rep’s customer satisfaction ratings - After reps start handling live tickets, you can monitor the feedback they’re getting from the customers they’ve provided help to. Individual ticket satisfaction ratings and comments can be reviewed with each new rep and accuracy and consistency can be monitored and improved. Supervisors or experienced reps can also help onboarding reps respond to dissatisfied customers.

Anton de Young is the Director of Relate Education, co-author of Practical Zendesk Administration (2nd Edition) by O'Reilly Media, and the creator of the Zendesk knowledge base and self-service channel. Find him on Twitter: @antondeyoung.