Perfecting Service Management

Issue #89

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

How to Find and Hire Stellar Customer Support Representatives, Part 4
by Harry Heermans, Ph.D.

This is the final installment in our series. Previously we have described how to write an accurate job description and select resumes of ideal candidates, as well as effectively interview them. In this installment, we wrap up with how to check references and decide who to hire.


Who checks references and when should they be done? Companies often have a policy stating that "the job offer is contingent on satisfactory references." This means that essentially the hiring manager has already decided to offer the position to a candidate and that reference checks are done after that. They are often done by the Human Resources department, not the hiring manager. Resist these temptations.

Check references yourself. You know the candidate best, so you are the best judge of what references are telling you. Have two sets of questions, a standard set you ask all references for each candidate, and a different set, specific to each candidate and developed as you are interviewing.

Check references after you have interviewed the top candidates but before you have made a hiring decision. If you check references after you have decided on the candidate, you have already committed in your mind that this is the best person for the job. After all the work you have done to this point, how open are you going to be to evidence disconfirming the candidate's strong points? How much energy are you going to put into probing for weaknesses? Instead, human nature suggests you are likely to "hear" only the good news and discount the bad. Rather than being dispassionate about your decision, your desire to "get this over with" can cloud your decision-making. Of course it is more work to check references on three candidates than one but in the long run it is less work than repeating the entire hiring process because you made a bad hiring decision.

References are an excellent target for behavioral interviewing, because they have seen candidates in action. Ask for examples of how they handled certain situations and get estimates of their skill level. Don't forget to find out about candidates' job habits. You are better off knowing someone spreads malicious gossip, is constantly late, and yaks incessantly on a personal cell phone before you hire someone than afterwards.

Look for what is not said. If a particular skill is absolutely essential, the candidate has convinced you he has it, but the reference does not mention it, find out why. If, in reviewing work history, there is a job from which you would logically expect to see a reference but the candidate does not provide one, it could be a red flag.

Hire for attitude, train for skills

After all the work you have put in to get to the point of deciding who to hire, the truth is that you will not have found the perfect candidate. Each will be lacking something and the key is to know which skills, attributes, and experience the employee must have day one, which you can get along without, and which you need but the candidate can learn.

CSRs must have a customer service orientation, which is a personality attribute they either have or they don't. Trying to train someone who is not customer focused is an uphill battle at best, so look for people who have it; don't think you can develop it. Likewise, we have stressed the need for good written and verbal communication skills in dealing with customers. These skills are developed over a number of years and if the prospective employee does not bring these to the job initially, even with training they are not going to develop them quickly or competently enough to make a difference.

It is unlikely you will find CSRs with specific job knowledge, such as how to use your CRM and ACD systems and what your procedures are for getting work done, like escalating issues and communicating with other departments. You will have to train them. What about subject matter or domain expertise? How much of that you require depends on how quickly you need new CSRs to be productive and how technical or subject-specific the customer queries are likely to be. In the long run, it is less important what CSRs know prior to getting hired than how quickly they can learn new things. Look for an aptitude to pick up skills you need. Even if prospective employees arrive with technical and domain-specific skills, the pace of change has accelerated so quickly that what employees know now may not be relevant in the future. New products and services are released, existing products are changed, and new procedures are introduced. CSRs are directly affected by these changes. Great performers embrace change and learn quickly; mediocre performers are threatened by it and are reluctant to let go.

In short, if there are two factors that differentiate great CSRs from the rest of the pack, they are attitude and aptitude. Look for passion, energy, enthusiasm, and adaptability. Concentrate less on the specific job-related skills prospective employees bring to the job but focus more on their ability to add to their skill set quickly.

Finally, do not settle for a mediocre candidate. This can be difficult when you think you need someone immediately. While it is painful not having someone in place, consider how long and painful it is to terminate someone, then go through the entire hiring process again. Mediocre talent produces mediocre results. If you follow the process we have outlined in this series, you will find stellar CSRs who will dazzle your customers and enhance your company's prospects.

View previous articles in this series.



+ How to Find and Hire Stellar Customer Support Representatives, Part 4
+ Recommended Reading

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Recommended Reading
This issue's recommended reading comes from the Experts Column of CRM Today Magazine. The question posed to Cliff Conneighton, SVP of Marketing at ATG (and a former BBN colleague) is: What obstacles prevent companies from delivering a satisfying customer experience and how can they be overcome? Click here to read his expert opinion.

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