Anyone who has spent time managing a call center or customer service operation will have come across competent employees who are less then customer friendly.
It sounds like a paradox, but it isn’t. Some of the most efficient and productive customer service employees are often – well, rude to customers.
In many cases this is simply a result of managers hiring experienced staff over novices.
Of course everybody knows that hiring individuals who have demonstrated success in any field makes loads of sense.
It reduces training time, shortens the learning curve and gives the hiring manager a nice warm feeling because the new employee understands what they’re getting into.
And experienced customer service staff are especially appealing. Customer-facing organizations are known for being complex and difficult to run.
There are endless reports to prepare, government regulations to consider, personnel issues, budgets, correspondence, not to mention the irate customers, the challenging service targets, the new product launches creating spikes in the volume of calls.
With all of that going on, it is very easy to see why leaders of these organizations frequently take the easy way out and hire experienced frontline staff.
But experience is not without its own inherent problems. Here are a few examples of the difficulties that can be encountered when hiring experienced personnel:
The “Know-It-All” Worker
This is the competent person who worked for your competitor. They have seen it/done it all. And as far as they are concerned, there is nothing you can teach them. They are entrenched in the methods they used before, and they have no desire to change. This is a hard thing to get past for the hiring manager. Their experience with another business is getting in their way of embracing your methodology.
The “Customer-Is-Stupid-And-I-Will-Let-Them-Know-It” Worker
This new hire thinks all customers are fools. After all, if they were smart they wouldn’t be ringing the call center for solutions, would they? This worker has probably spoken to thousands of customers in the past, and has always done an adequate job at the fundamentals. But they have never fully understood the core responsibility of the job at hand – i.e. that they must make the customer feel happy so that they will return time and again to your business.
The “Technically Superior” Worker
This person clearly understands every nuance of the theoretical side of customer service. They can enter data into the most difficult of system, blindfolded. They have memorized every methodology and process ever devised by management. They can tell you the square root of service level metrics. But they are hopeless at dealing with customers.
The “Showed-Up-Everyday” Worker
Woody Allen gets credit for the saying, “80% of success is showing up”. Many an experienced applicant’s résumé has reliability as a trait. And that’s great. One of the biggest problems a customer service manager has to contend with is poor attendance. But showing up isn’t everything. It can sometimes indicate an uninspired employee, lacking the spark and drive to deal with customers in a bright, proactive way. As an old boss of mine used to say, this type of worker “quit and stayed”.
Let’s face it, any one of these folks could be said to be in the wrong job. A bad fit. Yet everyday these are the “experienced” people that are placed in customer service centers by busy management.
Truly another, better way exists. “Hire for Attitude” by following these DOs and DON’Ts:
1. DO develop a very clear and ugly scenario for the applicant to address during their interview. Ask them to talk to you about someone they did not like in the past, someone they would prefer never to see again. (Assure them that it’s perfectly normal to feel this way about someone.) Ask them to describe this person’s flaws, what bothered them most in dealing with them before. Now ask them to talk through their approach in dealing with this person within your prepared scenario. Let them know that this is the sort of person they will be dealing with day in and day out. See if they can handle it. Watch their expressions when they speak. Is this the kind of work for them?
2. DO consider a filtering device. Many companies use sophisticated filtering tests during interviews to highlight applicants who may or may not have an aptitude for customer service. These tests can be conducted online or manually, but should never be seen as a complete solution. Unless they supplement an overall hiring approach, you are unlikely to find that superstar performer. The filters will require some homework and input from the user, and they can be pricey, but so can a poor decision in your choice of frontline staff.
3. DO ask the applicant to explain what customer service is, during the interview. Many people stammer through this answer, even though they may have been in customer service for years. Applicants may not understand the strategic reason for a call center, or the exact role of the position they are being interviewed for. The right answer of course will vary, but you will discover whether or not they fully understand what is expected of them in this role.
4. DO make the decision to hire a novice. Applicants who have never been in a customer service role before have a huge advantage over those who have – they are unbiased. Yes they will require more training, but it will be YOUR training, not their last employer’s.
5. DON’T try to right parents’ wrongs. If an applicant has been raised with a negative outlook and surly disposition, it is unlikely that you will have the resources, or inclination, to change them. Certainly you will run into some people who, once they’ve seen the light, are converted into stellar customer service performers, but the odds are bad and the failure rate is expensive.
6. DON’T be tempted by experience over attitude when you know, deep down, there could be trouble ahead. I have interviewed people who were burned out by customer service and who could not disguise their contempt for the customer. Yet they had that vital technical experience. And experience is a powerful driving force – both for the hiring manager, and for the unhappy applicant who becomes disinclined to search for more suitable work.
Hiring for attitude can never be the only solution, and like most things, it has its pitfalls. Sometimes good attitude can be faked. Few people are better-behaved then when they are in an interview.
After all, it is the first date of the business world. And even if you have truly identified the candidate with a great attitude, their work ethic or technical ability may prove wanting later on.
But searching for folks that are cheerful, ready to learn and open to being coached is a clear alternative to focusing first and heaviest on experience.
And when the attitude of your staff is up, then so is your bottom line.
About the Author
Neil Newcomb is a recognized authority on customer service, having spent 15 years managing customer service operations and call centers. Neil specializes in conducting seminars to improve customer service & relationships, and also works directly with management teams, helping them find ways to include customer service skills within their hiring process.