Hiring the Best Customer Service Staff: Tools and Techniques

Customer Relationship Management, Vol. IV, No. 1, March 1999

By Jeanan Yasiri

Customer Service Programs. The easy part was developing your mission statement. Even getting administrative buy-in on the expanded budget your new service initiative will need wasn't so bad. The toughest part of continuing and maintaining the momentum of your organization's customer service initiative may be hiring excellent customer service representatives that are capable of carrying out your grand plan.

Before you go too far, have you asked yourself, are internal people really best suited to make the recruitment and screening decisions?

Usually internal managers are best at identifying the skill sets necessary to have a department or specific group of employees succeed. However, when it comes to customer service representatives, many organizations are finding efficiencies and other very real advantages to outsourcing the recruitment and screening of customer service applicants.

"There are life themes that run through people that make them best for this job," says Ann Sweet of Talent+, a ten year old human resource consulting firm based in Lincoln, Nebraska. "These are not necessarily the same life themes that a great manager or other employee will have."

Like many consulting groups, Talent+ works with their clients to identify the characteristics in potential employees that produce supreme service experiences. The recruitment and screening process used by Talent+ includes evaluation of criteria including: values, work intensity, achievement, positivity, relationship and resourcefulness. These characteristics are less often as well described in a resume as they are in initial phone interviews. Sweet uses the example of an ad produced for Nordstroms to highlight how this can be achieved in the first steps of the recruitment process.

"In the ad, you want to tap into the life themes right away with questions like, 'Can customers hear a smile in your voice? Do you like helping people find just the right gift for themselves or a friend? Are you a positive, upbeat person? Do you instinctively know how people feel at the other end of the phone?'", outlines Sweet. "Some people will see themselves in this ad right away. Those are the people you want to respond."

One major efficiency, according to Sweet, is that when the screening of applicants take place by an outside firm, the job of internal managers can be focused on reviewing the finalists instead of a huge pool of wannabes. When working with an outside screener, the hiring organization may ultimately not see more than a handful of prime candidates in the final round. Advice on how to approach the interview can also enhance the process.-

"We have a quality selection process after the initial screening," says Sweet. "We then send the applicant into the manager for a 'listening interview'. We develop this with the client based on their needs. Unfortunately, a lot of managers feel like they need to talk when in fact they need to be listening. An interviewer should talk about 20 percent of the time and the candidate should talk about 80 percent of the time."

Anand Rao, Director of Organizational Development for the Ritz Carlton Hotel Company, says using an outside recruiter is an excellent way to help an organization get started in establishing a longer term selection process. Such was the case for the Atlanta-based hotel company which now uses self directed work teams in the selection process at each Ritz Carlton location. After using a consultant for five years, in 1992, the Ritz Carlton became the first hotel company to win the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award.

"We use conceptual matching interviews. The very best performers tend to respond conceptually the same way to the same question," says Rao. Through the self directed work teams, and the initial help of Talent+, each Ritz Carlton hotel now has an average of 30 people that are prepared to perform the interview. Hourly employees help managers by driving the selection process. Rao says another major benefit of their refined process is a drastic decline in employee turnover.

Whether to look for talent inside or outside your organization also becomes a question with which an outside consultant can assist. Pat Lombardo, Consumer Affairs Manager of Sargento Foods of Plymouth, Wisconsin says promoting from within is important to her organization. "People who already are working with us know the products. They know the people," says Lombardo. "I hire people from within the company who want to improve their position. That includes a lot of reception staff and people with demonstrated customer service and phone experience."

Such is not necessarily the case for all organizations though. "We have discovered that many people promote from within based on subjective criteria," says Sweet. "There are some employee markets that haven't been tapped into like at-home parents or seniors who want to re-enter the workforce. We find they are some of the best recruits. We work to identify people who like to work: work at home, work on vacation, work at work. These people have 'customer panic' or in other words they get intrinsic satisfaction from pleasing people."

Part of the interview process should involve assessing how much supervision an individual requires. Are they capable of accepting and using the empowerment that successful customer service initiatives require?

"If you ask a good customer service representative, 'what can your manager do to help you', most will say 'leave me alone'," says Sweet. "We know that these are the people who will do a good job on their own."

Empowering customer service staff to deliver whatever the customer needs is a key component of the Ritz Carlton's award-winning plan. "It is all important. We place no restrictions on empowerment in as much as it is to deliver service to a guest or assist a guest who is complaining," says Rao. "We used to have a $2,000 cap, but we don't anymore." Instead, the Ritz Carlton has moved to incorporating stories of empowered staff doing good jobs into the weekly meetings in which all staff participate. "Every Monday we celebrate an employee story." Rao says that staff anxiously submit their suggestions to the human resources area in hopes of being selected.

Whether using an outside consultant or counting on internal resources, the bottom line on selecting the right representatives is recognition that customer perceptions will dictate whether you've chosen the right people. Looking for individuals that have a natural desire to serve and a passion to meet the needs of your customers will translate into a perception of superior service and commitment to your customers.

Asking Questions That Matter

Asking the right questions during the screening process is critical. How can you determine that the individual can truly deliver on what their resume promises? Ask questions that require thoughtful, honest responses. Here are a few offered by the Lincoln, Nebraska-based Talent+:

  • How do you feel when you make a mistake? What do you do about it?
  • When you're not busy, what do you do?
  • Are you a person who initiates action or waits to see what needs to be done?
  • Are you good at creating ways to improve your work? Give me a recent example.
  • What type of learning or jobs challenge you most?
  • Have you given positive recognition to another person or developed enthusiasm in other people within the past two weeks? Give an example.