When people think of “customer service” sometimes they think of call centers. Sometimes they think of the people they get on the chat with when their internet or credit card stops working. Maybe they think about being at an automated machine that’s not working and calling the hotline number they found on the peeling sticker on the machine.
But, customer service—and it’s cousin customer support—is all that and so much more. In fact, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics1, support is one of the occupations with the most forecasted job growth from 2016-2026. It’s also ranked as the 23rd best job by US News2. Those are some pretty impressive metrics for something that started as call centers in the 1960s. There is stability to be found in a career in support that didn’t previously exist.
Not only is support a valuable role to fulfill given the potential for career growth, but it’s also fun. Support people get to spend all day solving varying issues for their customers and depending on what kind of team they work on, they also get to handle extra projects outside of the inbox. There is always something new to learn in support, as the product is always changing, so it’s an ideal role for a person who is always looking to grow. Here are some of the makings of a successful customer service representative.
Technical Aptitude or Curiosity
An ideal candidate for a customer support role will have the aptitude for technical subjects or at least a curiosity towards the technical. For example, they should have either worked with HTML or CSS in the past or at least tried a course on it. If they haven’t been required to use this kind of technical aptitude in their past, it is important to uncover if they would really be interested in taking it on in a role permanently. Frequently, candidates will say that they are interested in learning more but haven’t been given the chance to do so yet. Pushback on this: if they were passionate and curious about a certain topic, they would have likely already tried to learn it.
It doesn’t take long or much to start learning something, even building a program in a coding language3. Look for curious, hungry people who have technical knowledge in what you’re looking for, or have started trying to learn it on their own outside of available work opportunities, and you’ll be good to go.
Problem or Puzzle-solving
Much of the work that support does within customer conversations is problem or puzzle-solving. They need to uncover exactly what the sometimes partially-hidden message is within a ticket and try to get to the answer in the first try for the customer, but they also need to help innovate the support team’s practices for the future.
According to Forbes4, more than 90% of employees are fixated on dealing with day-to-day workload and emergencies, rather than looking toward the future. Look for a customer support candidate who is good at problem-solving in the inbox and also wants to think proactively about moving the team forward.
There are three aspects of problem-solving in support:
Product knowledge: During the interview process, this presents itself as having learned about what your company provides. While employed, it will mean showing a constant drive to learn more about what your product offering looks like, and being up to date on new trends or features coming out.
Proactive thinking: Support is not always about answering tickets. Occasionally, your new hire should think proactively about how to make a customer’s experience better before they reach out. Many people can do support, but not many people are prepared to think about things they can do to make people not require support in the first place.
Critical thinking: Being able to creatively and critically think about the issues that a customer is having5 is an important aspect of working in customer support. Many times a customer will reach out without providing all the context or information around an issue and it will be the representative’s job to find an answer. Using critical thinking skills makes solving these types of incomplete issues more straightforward, as your customer service agent will be better equipped to dig in and determine what’s missing.
Excellent Written and Verbal Communication Skills
Customer support representatives spend a majority of their time communicating with customers via different support channels: email, phone or chat. So, it should come as no surprise that excellent written and verbal communication skills are incredibly important.
There are a few key aspects of written and verbal communication that are the most valuable in support roles, though:
Clarity: Given that some of the conversations support people have can be a bit convoluted or complex, it is important that they are able to convey answers with clarity and conciseness. Being able to match the tone of the customer and create a response that makes them feel supported and heard while answering their question is one of the most valuable ways to show the worth of your product and support team.
Active listening: There will be times that your customer will not tell your support agent everything that they need to know. Listening actively to what the customer is saying (or reading between the lines when supporting them via email) can help your customer support representatives get to the bottom of the issue earlier than they otherwise might. Pay attention to what your customer is saying, and clarify that you are sure what they mean by using confirming language6.
Ability to be persuasive: There are some times when the customer might want something that your team cannot provide them. During those times, it can be useful to have people on your team that are comfortable being persuasive, or who know how to use the right language to convey shifted value and importance to a customer. The ability to be persuasive isn’t one that is often sought in customer service employees, but it can be very useful.
Given that customer support representatives are talking to people all day long, it is valuable if they are also people-focused. Rather than thinking about how they can end the interaction, or how they can benefit the company, it’s better for support representatives to focus on how they can move the customer forward in their goals. Empathy and emotion are extremely important in these roles7. There are a few ways that this can express itself in support, but the four most important ways are:
Emotional mirroring: Sometimes, if a customer is upset, support agents can let their own emotions get ramped up. A good customer service representative will recognize when a customer’s emotions are getting ramped up and will start to take extra steps to make themselves calmer in order to ramp down and better help the customer.
Empathy: Empathy is often a skill that is overlooked, especially in individualistic cultures, but it is one that is so impactful in the support inbox. When customers write in, they are already frustrated and discouraged about not being able to find an answer. Having empathy, understanding where they are coming from, and explaining things at their level can make all the difference in a customer’s experience.
Resilient: there are times when customer support people bear the brunt of a customer’s anger and then have to move right on to helping someone else without so much as a breath in between. Because of that, resiliency is a very important trait for people looking to make support and service their career.
Patience: sometimes the instructions that you’ve written and your documentation can be really confusing for customers. It takes a patient person to go through bit by bit and explain the whole thing over again. Support people have to do this all the time and patience is integral for any candidate who wants to succeed.
When interviewing, ask people “What do you do when you see something that needs to get done?” and see how they respond. Support people should almost always respond with “I do it.” Unlike most other departments, things can’t wait in support. So, a strong sense of initiative is needed. The National Business Research Institute says8 “62% of employees are more motivated by outside aspects like approachable management, having the appropriate resources for their jobs, and the ability to stay informed about important issues and changes.” But hiring for people that are internally-motivated, have the initiative and drive on their own is much more meaningful for support team hires. Here are the three reasons why:
Taking ownership: When something goes awry, they are willing to admit they made a mistake. When something needs doing, they step up to the plate and drive their goals forward. People with initiative are not afraid to get their hands dirty or try new, adventurous things.
Works well under pressure: The queue can be a tricky place to be in. It can be incredibly busy, and sometimes people are waiting for things that are actually impacting their business and money. Someone who takes initiative will know where to start and what to prioritize when things get complicated. This will be super useful in the support inbox.
Time management: People who take initiative are also excellent at managing their own time. They know what needs to get done and when, and they are likely fairly productive because of it. While not everyone on the support team needs to be such a master go-getter, it can be good to have a handle on this quality when working in support.
The best customer service representatives are multi-faceted. They need to have the hard skills of technical aptitude, the soft skills of communication and problem solving, and the innate skills of having initiative and being people-focused. Finding a person with all of those traits can be difficult and overwhelming, but will lead you to have a support team hire that blows your customers and teammates away, both in and out of the inbox.
Main illustration done by Vinodhkumar Neelakandan
1 – https://www.bls.gov/emp/tables/occupations-most-job-growth.htm
2 – https://money.usnews.com/careers/best-jobs/rankings/best-business-jobs
3 – https://www.benefitfocus.com/blogs/shawn-jenkins/technical-curiosity
4 – https://www.forbes.com/sites/larrymyler/2014/06/13/innovation-is-problem-solving-and-a-whole-lot-more/
5 – https://www.jstor.org/stable/43603902?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents
6 – https://blog.hubspot.com/marketing/phrases-for-active-listening
7 – http://www.forbes.com/sites/sap/2014/10/06/44-facts-defining-the-future-of-customer-engagement/#3bfba47fa26b
8 – https://www.nbrii.com/employee-survey-white-papers/the-truth-about-motivating-employees-to-be-more-productive/