Perfecting Service Management

Issue #88

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

How to Find and Hire Stellar Customer Support Representatives, Part 3
by Harry Heermans, Ph.D.

In the last issue, we discussed how to develop an effective job description that targets the characteristics of top performing CSRs and how to cull resumes to find good candidates. In this segment, we outline how to screen and interview effectively.

Telephone screening

Once you have identified solid potential candidates by reading their answers to your targeted questions and by reviewing their resumes, follow up with a telephone interview. Do not push this task off on Human Resources. It is crucial that you make this telephone contact yourself. The chances are high your CSRs will be dealing with customers via the telephone and it is critical that they present well on the phone. You are the best person to judge this.

Prepare by having a standard set of questions ready to ask. Since this is your first direct contact, a good way to put candidates at ease is to ask questions that confirm items on the resume that relate to the job requirements. Keep the list short enough so the conversation lasts no more than 20 minutes because the phone screen is as much about how candidates sound as it is about what they say. Listen for their choice of words, their grammar, their energy and enthusiasm. Picture yourself as a customer and ask yourself, "Does this sound like someone I have confidence in solving my problem?" If you like what you hear, the next step is the in-person interview.

In-person interview

There is an adage in human resources that at the point where you invite candidates to an in-person interview, you have already decided they can do the job. After all, you have reviewed their resumes and talked with them on the telephone, so you know they meet the minimum qualifications. What you are looking for in the interview is how well they can do the job and how well they will fit the culture of your organization. Remember, you are looking for superior performers, not merely adequate fill-ins. What questions do you ask and how do you ask them to get satisfactory answers?

As with the telephone interview, have a standard set of questions for all candidates. Target your questions at the required and desired skills from the job description, the attributes you uncovered in the success profile, and way your company does work, its culture. The most effective technique is to craft behavioral questions. There is a basic psychological principle that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. Behavioral interviewing elicits from candidates their past behavior in the form of PARs, Problems, Actions, and Results. You are looking for the problems they faced, the actions they took, and the results they achieved. Typical behavioral questions begin with "Tell me about a time when . . ." or "Give me an example of . . ." Savvy interviewees know how powerful PAR stories are in conveying their qualifications but more often you will encounter interviewees who are not familiar with the technique so you will need to help them along. For example, if your CSRs have to deal with disgruntled customers on a regular basis, ask "Tell me about a time when a customer called and gave you a hard time. What did they complain about, what did you do, and how did it turn out?" Just this one question can tell you about their product/service knowledge, initiative, follow-through, interaction style, and emotional maturity.

Be careful of "Should" or "Would" questions, which at first blush appear to be behavioral questions. For example, notice the subtle difference between "Give me an example of . . ." and "What would you do if . . ." The former asks for previous experience, a behavioral question, while the latter is a hypothetical question, which can be answered by what the candidate thinks you want to hear rather than what he might actually do. Beware of other types of ineffective questions, like leading questions (e.g. "You are a good team player, right?") and questions that can be simply answered "Yes" or "No".

A vast amount of information is conveyed via non-verbal cues. Tune in to facial expressions, eye contact, tone of voice, body posture and motions. All of these are keys to personality and style and add to the total picture of the candidate.

So much of a CSR's responsibilities involves written communication, such as emailing customers, logging cases and escalating them, and authoring FAQs; well-developed written communicate skills are essential. You need to get a sample of the candidates' writing. Ask them to bring it in with them to the interview or have them email it to you after the interview. The closer the writing sample is to the subject matter they will be dealing with the better, but any sample that illustrates their ability to convey concepts clearly and concisely using proper grammar and punctuation will do.

If your CSRs do training, you will also want to see a sample presentation. This should be short, no more than 15-20 minutes, because this is all you need to judge their comfort speaking before others and their ability to articulate a concept, perhaps using visuals. Give them sufficient time to prepare and as with the writing sample the subject matter is not as important as how well they perform.

Standardized tests

It is increasingly common to administer standardized tests to job candidates. They can be useful adjuncts to other data gathering techniques but they need to be kept in proper context. Ask these questions:

  • Have the tests been psychometrically validated by a reliable vendor?
  • What information will be gained that is not available via other techniques?
  • How will the information be used in the decision process and how much weight will the results be given?
  • Most importantly, how well do test results correlate with job performance?

In the next issue, we will wrap up the process with reference checking and candidate selection.

View previous articles in this series.

Thumbs Up / Thumbs Down

This column is devoted to memorable customer experiences, the good, the bad, and the ugly. This issue provides an example where customer service was better than expected.

I bought the Windows XP Professional upgrade last week while on vacation. My home PC has long been in need of an OS upgrade. Something went wrong with the upgrade and it failed to load correctly. Panicked, I quickly exhausted my limited technical ability and then looked in the instructions for the tech support line. As I dialed, I dreaded what lay ahead. I had visions of being on-hold for an hour only to then be transferred around continually until I gave up and sought assistance elsewhere. Initially my call was answered quickly by Tier 1 who opened the ticket and then transferred me to tech support. I was disconnected 3 times while Microsoft Reps tried to transfer me. I called back each time explained my situation and was transferred/disconnected each time. On the 4th try, I was placed in a hold queue, as previously mentioned, I was expecting this to be a terminal hold. To my surprise, I was connected to a rep in less than 5 minutes. He asked some questions and pinpointed the most likely cause. He walked me through some corrective actions and then stayed on the line with me while I reinstalled the upgrade. I was on the phone with him for over two hours while he determined the problem, gave me corrective steps, and waited for the upgrade to fully load. I was blown away. What I expected was him to disconnect after the initial troubleshooting and tell me to call back if I had any other issues. Instead, I had first call resolution (after some initial hiccups with the transfer). When the call was over, my PC was up and running with the new OS and I was a happy customer. My technical capabilities are limited and I expected I was going to have to reach out to someone for help or pay the store to fix what I started. I guess I had low expectations for Microsoft Support and they proved me wrong. I have written a letter to the techs manager to let him know how pleased I was. The P.S. to this story is that Microsoft out-sources their support to
India. Everyone I spoke with was offshore. While there were accents, it in no way impeded the service delivery. Illustrative that offshore solutions can work for some applications.

Editor's note: While this illustrates an effective example of off-shore customer service, it also demonstrates a couple of other things:

  • Thorough, comprehensive, personal customer service can overcome technical support difficulties: enabling a customer to reach a human being without too much hassle, then resolving the issue during that same call makes up for disconnecting them a few times in the beginning.
  • Customer expectations are an important factor in achieving customer satisfaction: it is easier to meet or exceed customer expectations when those expectations are low to begin with. While we wouldn't suggest under-promising in order to over-deliver, we would suggest accurately setting customer expectations with what they should expect, then meeting those expectations.

Have your own customer service experience to share?
Email us. Names will be changed to protect the guilty....

View previous Thumbs Up/Thumbs Down articles.


+ How to Find and Hire Stellar Customer Support Representatives, Part 3
+ Thumbs Up/Thumbs Down
+ Recommended Reading

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Recommended Reading
This issue's recommended reading comes from CRM Today Magazine: What Builds Customer Loyalty? Take the Long View by Paul Ward. This two-part article talks about the need to re-engineer customer-facing processes to support how customers buy, when they buy, and what they buy. Giving customers choices about how they do business with you will make them want to do business with you, on their terms.

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