By: Ben Stephens, Service Strategies
In over twenty years working in customer support, I have noticed that one problem has remained a surprising constant: the inability of organizations to crack the code on hiring the right people for customer support positions. 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 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 such as active listening, negotiation skills, articulation and voice tone. The biggest mistake hiring managers make is putting industry skills – I call them ‘domain’ skills or technical expertise – above soft skills in hiring decision-making. While these are rightfully top-of-mind when hiring, they don’t deserve the emphasis they are usually given by hiring organizations – because technical skills can usually be taught with relative ease.
Once you have 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 and/or tests that fully assess them.
We recently worked with a Fortune 1000 data storage company to conduct a hiring and training assessment. We were brought in because they had an exceedingly high rate of attrition, both internally – employees were leaving to go to other departments within the company – and externally. As we walked through their hiring and training processes, we quickly found that their hiring criteria was vague; hiring managers felt they knew what they were looking for and would hire when they spotted it in a candidate. We held focus groups with existing employees in customer support job roles and discovered that a lack of clarity around job requirements and requisite skills on the part of management – 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 gleaned from the focus groups and delivered it to management, which allowed us to frame the problem and take steps to correct it. Next, we separated job requirements into three ‘tiers’ – necessary soft skills, domain skills, and technical skills – and identified specifically which skills were necessary for each job title. When that process was complete, we worked through all hiring materials and interviewing questions and assessments to ensure they matched with the tiered responsibilities. After revamping the approach to hiring, we worked through the training curriculum to ensure that it reinforced our new ‘skills matrix.’ In addition, we implemented a customer service skills training program for new and existing employees. The result of these changes was a twelve percent reduction in the organizations turnover rate.
So, cracking the code of how to hire and retain the right people for customer support positions is not impossible after all. Making these changes may seem scary at first, 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.