Finding, recruiting and interviewing quality candidates can be a daunting experience at the best of times, but stick to the fundamentals and you’ll have a great fit in no time.

Guest post by Sarah Chambers, Founder, Supported Content.

Hiring new team members is one of the most important tasks a new support manager faces. It can also be one of the most stressful ones.

Support is the front line that interacts with customers in their hour of need. It’s essential to fill your team with people who are able to represent your company’s brand, tone and values whilst empathizing with customers and getting customers the solutions they need.

Get this wrong and you may find out first hand that a bad hire can not only be an incredibly difficult and stressful situation to resolve, but it can also have a negative effect on the rest of the team.

Whether you’re in the midst of hiring right now or are looking to make your first hire soon, there are some techniques that will give you the best chance of getting this right. In this section we cover how to decide when to hire your next agent, and how to recruit and hire the perfect fit.

When to hire

There are two philosophies around when customer support teams should be hiring their next agent: Hire when it hurts or hire preemptively.

Hire when it hurts is a common startup philosophy where teams want to operate as lean as possible. The theory is that your metrics and your customers will tell you when it’s time to grow your team. If first reply times are increasing, if the queue is becoming longer and longer, and agents are consistently working long hours, it’s time to bring in more help. It prevents unnecessary hires and keeps the focus on scaling effectively.

The problem is that if you don’t start your search until it already hurts, your team is going to face a lot more pain before that new hire gets up to speed. It can take weeks or months to hire the right person and months to get them onboarded. In that time, your customer base is still growing, your team is getting more burnt out and all those extra tasks are falling by the wayside while you struggle to support customers effectively.

Plus, many customer support teams are responsible for more than just answering tickets. They have to keep documentation up to date, analyze ticket trends and provide proactive support to customers. This highly valuable non-queue work suffers if you choose to only hire when it hurts. You might not have realized how much you’ve sacrificed to keep answering tickets on time.

On the other hand, hire too early and you might find it was just a temporary increase in volume, or that the volume could have been managed through finding some new efficiency. Preemptive hiring can be a costly strategy if you’re left with more people than you really need.

Teams need to understand how their volume changes over time in order to accurately forecast when they need the next agent. To do so, examine the two following metrics:

  • Contact Index: How many tickets does the average customer submit each month? Looking at the forecasted growth of your customer base will help you understand how much additional volume you can expect.
  • Average Tickets per Agent: How many tickets does each agent answer each month? Understanding how much volume each agent can handle will help you forecast how many agents will be required to handle an increase in customers.

Knowing how many tickets your customers generate, and how quickly your existing team can work through that volume, will help you understand when to hire.

In addition to looking at ticket volume, write down all the tasks your team would be doing if you had the bandwidth. For example, do you need to be spending more time catching up with product training? Would you be able to do more to onboard new users? If your ticket volume doesn’t necessitate a new employee for another six months, but you still decide to hire, you can take your time hiring the best candidate and training them. In a few months time, when they are fully trained, you will have made a massive investment in getting all of that other work done. Hiring preemptively can have a big impact on the quality of your support.

As your company grows, you can determine ahead of time when you’ll need your next agent, while still investing in non-queue work too!

Writing a Job Description

A thorough, well written job description will help you attract qualified candidates. The process of writing a job description can also help you understand exactly what role you’re looking to fill.

Overview

Start off your job description with a couple of paragraphs describing the role and how it fits into the company. This is where you can be descriptive of the vision and how you think about support. It should also include some simple logistics, like where their desk will be located and what team they are joining.

Good sentences to include:

  • “We believe that …”
  • “You’ll enjoy this role if you are …”
  • “This role will be based … and reports to …”

Responsibilities

Next up, include a day to day list of the tasks, goals and outcomes the role will be responsible for. If they will spend 10% or more of their day on it, include it in the job description.

Sample responsibilities:

  • Respond to our 2 million customers through phone, email and chat support.
  • Update our knowledge base articles weekly based on customer feedback and new product releases.
  • Present customer feedback to product management, acting as an advocate for customer driven development.

Qualities and experience

Next up, describe the person you’re looking to hire. What skills and abilities do they need to have to succeed at the responsibilities above? Rather than just describing hard skills, it’s important to think about the qualities the ideal person has. Are they caring? Conscientious? A problem solver?

Once you’ve written the list, look it over with a critical eye – do they actually need all these qualifications? For example, do they need to be familiar with financial products before starting, or can you train them? Is a post-secondary required to do their job, or will equivalent work experience have given them the same skills? Many hard skills can be trained, but you’re usually stuck with the attitude of the person you hired.

For me, hiring for associates at Trussle is almost identical to hiring for frontline advocates in the other companies I’ve worked in, in that, as long as they’ve spoken to customers in some capacity in their previous experience and they’ve enjoyed it, we’re happy to take them on and teach them the unique technical aspects. This makes it a little bit easier to fill those roles and you end up with a team full of people from a variety of backgrounds, which gives teams amazing culture and creativity.

Teri Bayrock, Head of Customer Success at Trussle

There’s the old joke about entry level jobs with entry level pay, requiring five years experience – don’t be that hiring manager!

Sample qualities:

  • Excellent written communicator
  • Experience working with Linux server environments
  • Native French speaker, fluent in English
  • Basic understanding of HTML, CSS and Javascript
  • Strong empathy and customer service skills
  • Past experience supporting a SaaS product an asset, but not required
I’ve learned, especially at my current company, that you don’t have to have experience in live chat to do live chat. You don’t have to have experience in answering emails to answer emails. For example, the person who front-lines our customer support had never done live chat before. But, their personality, characteristics and qualities stood out more than anything else. In two months, they’re now full-time on front-line support, and they do it very, very well. You can spend months searching for one person who has had experience in support, but in reality, it’s just about finding people who care and can prove it.

Adam Maskell, Head of Customer Success at Hubble

Selling the role and the company

Job descriptions aren’t just about describing the perfect candidate. They also have to give a good reason for the perfect candidate to apply. It’s an advertisement to attract the best people!

Include the future opportunities for career progression, the company benefits, and other attractive parts of the role. Advertising a salary range can also help set the right expectations for applicants.

Don’t oversell though. If you attract a candidate that’s expecting the opportunity to manage a team of five, but it turns out they actually spend 100% of their time answering tickets, you’ll lose them pretty quickly. Be realistic about what you can offer. If you don’t think it’s enough, maybe you need to consider why that is.

Recruiting

Once you’ve developed the job description, it’s time to put it out into the world and start collecting applications. Recruiting by referrals can be a great resource, but it shouldn’t be your only source of candidates. Not only is it a finite group of people, it also restricts your recruiting pool to a small bubble of candidates.

Instead, try promoting outside your usual network. You’ll have a more diverse pool to choose from, and you might just find the perfect candidate you weren’t expecting. Besides posting the job description on your website, make sure to share it through social media and on customer support specific job sites. Hiring a recruiter to find suitable candidates is an option, but they aren’t common in customer support.

Specific job boards for great customer support hires:

  • Support Driven: $150 for 30 days – The job board component of a community of customer support professionals. Most applicants here will already have experience working with customers online.
  • WeWorkRemotely: $200 for 30 days – Featuring a dedicated Support category, and high quality leads, WeWorkRemotely is worth the higher price for what it provides. Only applicable to hiring remote employees, obviously.
  • Support Focused: $99 for 30 days – A cheaper price point but fewer website visitors. Worth a try for more exposure!

Interviewing

You’ve got qualified resumes streaming into your inbox. How do you filter through the noise and choose the best fit for your team? The key is not to spend too much time talking to unsuccessful candidates, but have lots of quality time with potential hires. Your HR department might have a set process to follow for evaluating potential candidates. If not, here’s a common process that you can adapt for your needs to find the best candidate available.

Screening applications

5–10 minutes per candidate

The first step is to quickly read through applications and resumes and determine who you definitely want to talk to some more.

Look for:

  • Written skills – If their resume and cover letter are riddled with errors, imagine how they will work with customers when they don’t have time to get someone else to check it.
  • Ability to follow instructions – If you asked for a cover letter and they didn’t submit one, or if they didn’t fill out the preliminary screening questions, that should be an automatic no.
  • Past experience – Do they have the necessary experience, or can they be trained to be successful in the role? It’s also helpful to note big gaps in employment history or quick jumps between roles. While these factors shouldn’t disqualify a candidate at this stage, it is worth discussing in the phone screen.

Phone screen

20–30 minutes per candidate

Schedule a short phone screen (or video call) with applicants you’d like to talk to further. This can help identify a mismatch in expectations of the role, and just give you a better idea of their work history and personality. The phone screen can be done by HR, if you’re lucky enough to work with a people operations team.

The phone call should explain the role to them, walk through their past employment history, and answer any questions they have. At the end of the call, explain what the rest of the interview process will look like, if you choose to move them forward, and provide a timeline.

Talk about:

  • Past experience – What did they do at each position? Why did they change jobs?
  • Logistics – Are they legally able to be hired in your state or country? What are their salary expectations? What date are they able to begin working?
  • Questions – Do they have any questions about the role or the company?

Interview

1 hour per candidate

The meat of the interview process! This is where you really dig into the skills and abilities of the candidate to decide if they are a good fit. Read through the job description again. How will you inquire about each of these skills?

Interviews are usually conducted by the hiring manager, along with one or two other stakeholders. Some teams will bring in a senior customer support advocate, while others will involve a team lead, an HR specialist or someone from a different department (to bring in a non-biased opinion).

Sample questions:

  • Tell me about a time when you made a mistake. What did you do?
  • What do you consider a good customer support experience? Tell me about the last great customer service experience you had.
  • Imagine a customer wrote in with a problem, and you didn’t have all the information you needed to resolve it. What would you do?

You might find your company wants to do more than one interview and involve a culture fit test, like taking the candidate out to lunch or a 15 minute executive interview for a final screening. There’s no perfect formula. Do what you need to do to be confident that your new hire is someone who will be successful in the role.

Practical task

Finally, many teams include a practical task in the interview process to assess the specific required skills for the role. It might be a written test where they simulate solving a problem for a customer or a call simulation test. This helps you get a good understanding of the abilities of the candidate, and how they problem solve when faced with an unusual situation.

Before we even speak to anyone, we ask them to fill out a survey. We ask them a series of interview type questions so we can see how they respond. We’ve had people who fill it out very quickly and don’t really give thoughtful answers. That’s a clear no to us, because they didn’t treat it as part of the interview process, and just provided generic answers. That’s been really useful as a filter.

We also recently added a work type test for support. We’ve done a response to a client by email, using our email tool, and then we’ll also do a call simulation with them as part of the later steps. It puts them on the spot, and it’s a way to see how they think on their feet and what their personality is like on the phone.

Nicole Morinière, Operations Manager at Lexoo

Hiring

Once you’ve made your decision, take time to contact references. They usually go smoothly but are worth checking for any potential red flags that arise. References can also give you a preview into what working with the successful candidate will be like. Some businesses will have policies around personalized reference calls, so you might only be able to get a ‘perfunctory record of employment’ reference, which will only give you pure data on things like start date, end date, absence record and disciplinary record.

If you can, ask:

  • What was X responsible for while they worked with you? Why did they move on from this job?
  • How did X fit in with the team? What kind of professional relationships did they form with others?
  • Is there any reason you’d hesitate to hire X back again in the future?

Then comes one of the best parts of being a hiring manager – contacting a successful applicant with an offer. Work with HR to write an offer letter that includes all the necessary details (they probably already have one!) like salary, start date, and a benefits package.

A final note: Your new employee may come back to negotiate the offer. Don’t take it personally! Instead, listen to the rationale. See if you can come to a mutually beneficial agreement that makes sense based on their past experience and the job market. No one wants to start a job thinking they are paid less than they deserve.

Introduction

The Center of Happiness

Stages of a customer support team

Firefighting

You’re swamped, but it doesn’t have to be this way. Carving out time to think beyond the barrage of tickets, and being smart about your priorities, can turn things around.

Levelling up

You can’t firefight forever. It’s time to get some fundamental tools and processes in place, so you can give consistently brilliant support to your customers.

Above and beyond

Your team is firing on all cylinders and your customers are delighted. How do you take things to the next level?

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Motivation & happiness: stay energized!

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Self-service done well: help your customers help themselves

Move beyond a simple knowledge base or FAQ and reap the benefits of a channel that’s efficient, functional, relevant and open 24/7.

Onboarding team members: make the first weeks count

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Distributing workloads: balancing inbox zero and long term improvements

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