Tips to Hire for Customer Support

When you have just under two hours to determine if the person sitting opposite you is the right fit for your company or not, every question matters.
While this can be quite difficult even for roles with skills that can be determined right off like coding or writing, the complexity increases exponentially when soft skills come into the picture. Imagine trying to figure out if the candidate has qualities like empathy, attributes that usually take people days, months, years to figure out, on a time constraint.

This is also a question that pops up often in the Secret Sauce series, a series of interviews that we’ve conducted with customer personnel from all over the world, on the Freshdesk blog. The funny thing is, during our interviews, we’ve discovered through the question, ‘What’s the Secret Sauce in your support,’ that a lot of support managers single out hiring as their ace in the hole.
We’ve accrued so much free advice on how to hire for customer support that we decided to put it together in one place and share the love.

How to Hire for Customer Support
“The secret is in the hiring process. Hiring people that share goals, sentiments, values and culture in general makes all the difference.” – Luis Hernandez, Geckoboard.
The list of qualities might vary from support manager to support manager but we discovered that nearly every support manager agrees on the following. A good support rep is
Empathetic
Detail-oriented
A good communicator
A culture fit
If you’re wondering why technical knowledge isn’t on the list, it’s because…well, you can teach technical knowledge. You can even teach communication skills (even if it’s not really your job). But you can’t teach someone to be empathetic. And you can’t teach someone to be a culture fit.

This is at the core of Rob La Gesse (VP of Social Support at Rackspace)’s hiring philosophy. “Empathy. That’s what I look for in all my employees. Only when they can understand the feelings of their customers, can they provide top notch service. I can teach them Linux or Windows but nobody can teach them empathy; you’re either born with it or you aren’t.”

So, all you have to do is focus on hiring someone empathetic, someone who will be easy to work with. Someone who is a good communicator. Someone who fits in well with the team and company’s culture.
No pressure.

Because everyone’s so divisive about the list, we’d recommend you modify it to your needs. Figure out the qualities you like best in the support personnel you’ve spoken to/worked with and go from there. When the list in mind you have, follow the questions will.
A lot of businesses get around the pressure of the short interview by having a series of interviews. Our approach works best if you’re on a tighter schedule and don’t have the luxury of conducting a series of interviews or bootcamp.

“Teach Me Something”
When Girish Mathrubootham, the CEO of Freshdesk, interviews potential support reps, he asks them to teach him something. Anything. Often, it’s something they know well (he picks a topic based on their projects and hobbies) so that he can gauge if they have the most defining quality of a support rep: empathy.

After all, good customer service means the ability to put yourself in your customer’s shoes and see the problem from their point of view before figuring out the solution.
Sometimes, he likes to pretend like he’s not listening and asks them to repeat themselves a couple of times to see how patient they are. If they assume a condescending tone, he marks them down.

While this exercise helps you mark off a lot of qualities in the list, we’d recommend you stick to topics you know. If they try to BS their way through the topic, you’ll be on them faster than Garfield on lasagna.

Sample Scenario
Girish likes to follows this question with a simple exercise that helps him figure out if the candidate is a good role fit. He comes up with a sample support scenario – something simple like an airline reservation gone wrong or a Netflix bug – and asks them to put themselves in the support rep’s shoes and write an email to the customer.

This tells him three things:

Their language proficiency.
How well they can communicate their intentions.
Their attention to detail, a fact that can be gleaned from the way they present the solution. Is it concise and precise? Are they using all the tools at their disposal to explain the solution?

Jeff Vincent, Director of Customer Happiness at Wistia, differs from Girish in the sense that he does some pre-interview research. He looks for attention to detail in the cover letters of the applicants.
“When I’m looking at applications, I look for detail-oriented folks who are willing to put themselves out there a bit. No stock resumes but rather, a cover letter that indicates research and displays personality.”

Motivation and Culture Fit
Self-motivation is another key quality that you should keep an eye out for, especially if you’re hiring remotely. This can be determined by the projects they’ve worked on in the past. By listening to them describe how they worked on the project and engaged with their team members, you’ll be able to find out just how self-driven they are.
Chase Clemons, Support Pro at Basecamp, sets a lot of stock by this. “You want someone driven, someone able to work on their own. You’ve got customers to help—you don’t want to have to babysit one of your team members at the same time.”

As for culture fit, open-ended questions, like “Tell me about yourself” work best. You could also, alternatively (because most people have rehearsed answers for “Tell me about yourself”), ask them about their hobbies or chat with them about something random. Maybe, not the weather. This exercise will help you bring them out of interview mode and get them to talk like they would, naturally. If, after the chat, they seem like someone you wouldn’t mind being stuck with in an elevator, they’re the right fit. Because, why wouldn’t you want your support reps to be people that your customers would want to have conversations with?

To Sum Up
The weapons that will do you good, during an interview are:
The points you will need to help you create a process and answer
“Teach me something”
A sample support scenario. The simpler, the better. This way, you’ll be able to figure out if even a layman can understand the fix by the end of the email.
Pre-interview perusal of their cover letters
Open-ended conversation
Hopefully our experiences and advice here on how to hire for customer support will help in your hiring process.