Customer Experience News & Trends

6 proven ways to hire customer service heroes

Every company vows to have great customer service. But when it comes to hiring the people who deliver it, there are a lot of easy-to-make mistakes. Here’s what you can do to avoid bad customer service hires.

You’ve probably heard it before: Hire for attitude, train for skills.

In theory, it sounds good — almost easy. But a bubbly airhead will probably never grasp all the technical and complex issues of your business.

On the flip side, a genius who can break down your products to the base and build them up again may not make friends with customers easily.

Can customer service hires have it all?

There are too things you look for when hiring customer service professionals: You want people who have a service spirit already in them. And you want people who are smart and trainable.

Here are six proven strategies to find people who’ve got it all and will deliver a “wow” experience to your customers:

Think outside what you know

Resumes from candidates who have had either experience in Customer Service or your industry tend to rise to the top of the pile. It makes sense — they know something about service and/or what customers might need help with. And it’s a good idea to interview those people, but you want to broaden the scope to candidates outside of those parameters.

We’re talking far outside the usual scope. Think about the barista who knows your order and delivers it with happiness every morning (even when you’re having a bad day and don’t treat him so well). Think about the hotel clerk who never fails to remember you and do something special . Consider your nephew’s best friend who never missed an appointment to cut your lawn, chatted a little and did the job very well.

This approach worked really well for Lida Souva, director of customer service at SquareTrade in San Francisco. When she needed to beef up her service operations, she posted job openings to attract people with pure service backgrounds who also had to have some initiative. She focused on people with experience at fitness centers, cell phone kiosks and shoe department salespeople.

The owner of the Ford dealership in State College, PA, invited the convenience store clerk with whom he chatted every day to interview for a sales position. The clerk-turned-salesman became one of his best hires.

Find outside candidates from the inside

Another powerful place to find great candidates: inside your walls. There you can connect with fellow employees who can recommend outside candidates.

Debbie Magnolia, global customer service and commercial operations manager at Intralox, LLC, in Harahan, LA, posts most of her job openings online, but focuses on getting the word out to her employees and other departments, asking them to refer people they know who give great service already.

Because like-minded people tend to associate with each other, Magnolia found current employees who love working at Intralox are the best resources for finding future employees.


Most service professionals spend a large portion of their day talking to customers — on the phone or in person. At the most basic level, they need to sound good.

Their diction, use of language and ability to say the right thing at the right time are imperative to making customers feel welcomed and appreciated.

A phone interview serves two purposes: finding out more about the person who sent the resume and uncovering how well he or she speaks.

For Daniel Dougherty, senior director at The Results Company, that meant a voice audition. He asked candidates with impressive resumes to call a number where they’d reach a recorded voice that told them about a fictional situation. For example, their car broke down and they were going to be late to work. They were then asked to explain how they’d handle it.

Dougherty and his team of managers listened to candidates’ voice quality and if the situation affected their ability to think on their feet.

Another manager uses this technique: She calls the candidate on his or her cell phone and asks about something the candidate doesn’t know well or at all. That gives her a good picture of how the candidate deals with the pressure of needing an answer on the spot with no previous knowledge of the problem (a common dilemma in customer service).

Ask for a story

To get a feel for how job candidates will guide customers through answers, explanations and even emotional issues, some managers get them to open up about something they know – but nothing too personal (more about that later). The idea is to find out if candidates can explain in a clear, understandable way how to do something.

For instance, one manager asks candidates to tell them a story about something they know how to do well, enjoy doing or have even taught others in the past. She’s heard stories about how to build the ultimate peanut butter and jelly sandwich, how to surf and how to jump start a car.

Don’t overlook the basics

When looking for the best candidates, many managers focus on skills, experience and personality. All important qualities. But in the hunt for those characteristics, they often overlook factors that are integral to any job — promptness, ability to work closely with others and being helpful in all capacities.

It’s important to check for these characteristics throughout the hiring process. One of the best ways is to actually test candidates, perhaps without them knowing they’re being tested.

When Dougherty needed to fill his customer service positions, he wanted the most reliable people possible. So after he screened many for the right attitude, voice and diction, and ability to learn, he checked on their dedication.

Dougherty invited the best candidates to a one-hour seminar where they’d learn more about the company. It served two purposes: If candidates arrived late or failed to pay attention during the seminar, he knew they weren’t good hires because they didn’t have the dedication he needed. It also gave the candidates a clear picture of what would be expected of them if hired — and self-eliminated others when they thought it was more than they wanted to sign on for.

Check their ability to learn

These days, most organizations test all job candidates on everything from personality traits to drug use. In addition, leaders want to ask questions that test candidates’ abilities to learn. One way: Refer back to something early in an interview, perhaps a key point that was emphasized about the company or its owner. If they know it, it’s proof they listened well and retained the knowledge.

At The Results Company, Dougherty has candidates go through a series of interviews in which several managers check candidates’ quest for knowledge and learning. They pay attention to how often candidates ask “Why” or “Can you please explain?” That way they can calculate how much candidates are interested in broadening their knowledge.

Warning: Don’t ask too much

There’s a danger in asking too much in your customer service hiring process. You can get slapped with a lawsuit if you get too personal or a question suggests you might make discriminatory hiring decisions.

Avoid these questions, which can lead to lawsuits under the Americans with Disabilities Act:

  • How old are you?
  • Are you married?
  • Do you live with anyone?
  • Do you have children? How many?
  • Do you own or rent your home?
  • What church do you attend?
  • What debt do you have?
  • Do you belong to any social or political groups?
  • How much or what kind of insurance do you have?
  • Do you suffer from an illness or disability?
  • Have you ever had or been treated for a disease or condition?
  • Have you ever been hospitalized? Why?
  • Have you ever had a major illness?
  • Do you have any disabilities or impairments that might affect your performance on this job?
  • Are you taking any prescribed drugs?
  • Have you ever been treated for drug addiction or alcoholism?
  • Do you plan to get married?
  • Do you intend to start a family?
  • What are your daycare plans?
  • Are you comfortable supervising men/women?
  • Do you think you can perform this job as well as men/women?
  • Are you likely to ask for time off under the Family and Medical Leave Act?

Another note of caution: If a candidate reveals the answers to any of these questions on his or her own, don’t pursue the subject. “She brought it up” isn’t a legal out. Instead, refocus on what the job entails and how the candidate may fit the position.

Subscribe Today

Get the latest customer experience news and insights delivered to your inbox.