How to hire for customer support

Managing people is hard and hiring people is even harder. You can’t hire someone based on just their experience and skills, you also have to make sure that they’re a good fit for the team and the role. And you have to find that out in just an hour or two when they walk in for an interview. After all, there’s no such thing as a bad employee – just a bad fit for the role.When you think about it, hiring a product developer can be quite straight forward, but how do you do it for support reps? How do you know what makes a great support rep and how do you determine if your interviewee has these qualities?

I have managed different customer support teams during my career and today, I run a business that is focused on helping companies provide great support to their customers. Over the years, I have had the chance to interview and hire many support people. And most of the time, I end up making hiring decisions based on my instincts. However, I have my ways to find out if they’d fit the job. These are some questions I ask when I interview for customer support:

1) “What are you most proud of?”

When I ask people what they’re most proud of, I really want to know the few events in their life where they think they’ve done a really good job – a contest they won years ago, an event they were a part of, something they organized. I want to know about the challenges they faced, how they overcame them and what they’ve learnt from it.

And when they narrate their story, I’ll be able to tell what they’ll be good at. If they talk about how they had to struggle to convince their family and friends about their aspirations, I know they’re persuasive, a quality that every good sales person has. I also look to see if they are passionate  – I want to know if there’s something that motivates them, day in and out. I look for people who ran things in college (clubs, magazines, newspapers etc), people who tell me stories about how they got through crises, and people who go above and beyond the call of duty to do their job.

This will also tell me if they’re capable of ownership: are they willing to take on projects, own up to faults and go all out for a task but the question is primarily to find out what they’ll shine at.

2) “Teach me something.”

This is one of my favourite questions in an interview, and it’s not just because I get to learn something new and random. Often, I ask candidates to teach me a concept that they know well so that I can find out if they have the most defining quality of a support rep: empathy. After all, good customer service means that the support rep has to put herself in the customer’s shoes and see the problem from the customer’s point of view and before coming up with a solution.

So when I ask them to teach me something, I look for three things in their explanation:

a) Have they tried to find out how much I know before they start? If they explain things in such a way that I don’t really have to have any prerequisite knowledge, it’s a win.

b) Are they trying to make it as simple as it can be?

c) On a scale of 1-10, how much of their answer is BS?

Sometimes, I pretend like I’m not listening and ask them to repeat themselves a couple of times to see how patient they are. Are they still as enthusiastic about the topic as they were the first time? Are they able to hide their frustration? Customers are incredibly busy people too, people who might be experts in their own fields but not in the product that you’ve built from ground up. Sometimes, a lot of handholding might be needed. And patience is a good virtue for a support professional to have.

3) “How would you respond to this customer?”

Of all the qualities we look for in a support rep, the one most difficult to find out in under an hour is attention to detail. So, I bring a scenario to them and ask the candidate how they’d help the customer resolve the problem at hand – it could be a refund request, a bug report, or something similar. I ask them to write an email to show me how they communicate with customers (a phone call is rather impractical). The email gives me a good idea of a couple of things:

a) Are they able to communicate themselves coherently? I don’t look for wordsmiths – just people who’re able to communicate effectively with simple, clear sentences.

b) What is the tone of the email? Do they own up and apologize or do they come across as uncaring?

c) Is their solution concise and precise? Are they using all tools at their disposal – screenshots, screencasts etc. to explain the solution. There’s a fine line between vague and overtly-detailed – the candidate should have a knack for making sure a layman can understand the fix at the end of the email.

4) Open ended questions like: “Tell me about yourself”

Break down the truly great support reps of our age and you’d find that they all have one thing in common: they are great conversationalists. And as Chase Clemons of Basecamp puts it, “helping customers is all about having a natural conversation with them”. You need someone who can communicate well, be personable with others and manage themselves so that you don’t have to constantly micromanage them. Customers love talking to friendly agents; in fact, we’ve had customers call our support line and always ask to talk to a specific person because they’re so friendly and nice.

So, even though I know that by now most people have scripted answers for “tell me about yourself”, I usually start off with it. And then, when they’re two sentences in, I derail them by asking them something random. If they tell me that they love to read, I ask them about their favorite books, their favorite authors, the last book that they read and so on. If it ends up being a pleasant conversation where I learnt something new, bonus points. At the end of the day, I want our support reps to be people our customers love having conversations with.

These questions help me quickly assess if candidates would make great support reps, no matter who they are – young and fresh out of college or experienced professionals. And they’ve really helped us in our mission to enable people deliver great customer support; something we try to do ourselves as well.

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9 thoughts on “How to hire for customer support

  1. Thank you! I would appreciate more articles like this one. I am an owner of a small business that is 100% online. I am slowly but surely learning how to hire and train people. These types of articles are very useful.

  2. Nice one Girish!
    Like the part where you are testing how persuasive they are.
    Also the one where you are testing written skills.

    I am going to start PF16 test as an experiment. I think its a scientific approach towards knowing about the personality of the candidate.

    Also, “Most Challenging Situation” you have faced as a support rep. I try to see to what extent they have stretched themselves to take care of a customer issue.

    “Tell me about 2 customers you lost in life” I try to see whether they take ownership of any loss of customer or not? Do they take any learning out of it or not. This is only for tenured guys.

  3. Nice blog!!!
    You can even ask the candidate to narrate “The thirsty crow” or some other kinder garden story in his own words. Every one knows the story well, no BIG deal but if you could listen to him, as how well they narrate the story to you is what that matters the most, besides no one will expect this in an interview 🙂

    I have tried this many times and it works 🙂

  4. “One more thing”, so these are the frequently asked interview questions one should prepare himself to get a job in Freshdesk 🙂