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How to Hire Extraordinary Employees for Your Customer-facing Vacancies

Hiring the best employees for customer-facing jobs is an absolute essential for providing great customer service. Yet company after company overlooks the necessity of finding employees who are inclined and equipped to work face to face (or terminal to terminal) with customers. This shortsightedness grows from the extreme urgency of business life, the feeling that customer-facing positions need to be filled now, by whomever is breathing and in the neighborhood, so that the phones get answered and customers get served, no matter how imperfectly.

In addition, many company leaders are simply unaware that there are effective, reliable ways to go about customer service hiring. They assume that hiring is always going to be hit and miss, that inappropriate employees are always going to slip in, no matter what methodology you use, and that all you can do is wait to see which new hires will be the ones to wash out.

Happily, the reality is different. Who and how to hire for customer service – for customer-facing positions in general – is a well-developed discipline.

The overall principle: hire based on traits

Markets change. Technologies change. Day-to-day job descriptions change. But the essence of what’s needed to serve customers doesn’t. While some of this can be taught, there is a significant element that is unteachable, that resides within the nature of the employees who are tasked with providing customer service — the personality traits that make an employee both more inclined and more equipped to serve customers appropriately and successfully. Personality traits are unlikely to change once a person reaches adulthood; there are exceptions to this rule, but they’re rare enough that it’s not the way to place your bets. Rather, you can pretty much assume that if you uncover an employee with the right traits for customer service, those traits will hold constant throughout their time of employment with your company.

Sadly, many businesses do the opposite. They set their hiring sights on existing skills, training and experience, without regard to the inherent nature of the applicant. I certainly understand this inclination; being able to bring a new employee quickly up to speed is a much appreciated — but very temporary — advantage that is very appealing to overstressed employers. But the reality is that prior experience is one of the least useful characteristics in an employee, if you’re thinking in the long term. A year from now, are you going to care that your employee came to your company already knowing your particular CRM, or how to run credit card charges on your current POS system? Probably not. But it will matter a lot, long-term, whether that employee has the attitude and aptitude to work effectively — day in and day out — with customers, in a variety of often stressful situations.

How to accomplish trait-based hiring

Option 1: DIY.

If you’re a small company with minimal resources, or you’re congenitally opposed to procedural formality, you can take a DIY approach to trait-based hiring. You can, for example, start with my WETCO rule of thumb; as a general rule, the best employees for serving customers are those who possess the following five traits, which form my well-known WETCO framework.

  • Warmth: Simple human kindness
  • Empathy: The ability to sense what another person is feeling
  • Teamwork: An inclination toward ‘‘Let’s work together to make this happen’’ and against ‘‘I’d rather do it all myself’’
  • Conscientiousness: Detail orientation, including an ability and willingness to follow through to completion
  • Optimism: The ability to bounce back and to not internalize challenges

(You’ll never forget “WETCO” if you involve all your senses in remembering it: Visualize a wet —and, if you like, fragrant — dog shaking itself off outside of a Petco store.)

You’re still going to need to figure out how to find those “WETCO” employees. If you have great faith in your interviewing skills, you can use interviews to attempt to uncover how well your prospects line up to the WETCO guidelines. Or, as several of my favorite HR practitioners suggest, do the exact opposite. Pay minimal attention to the formal interview, but a lot of time digging into how the applicant acted when they weren’t aware of being interviewed: how they treated the receptionist, the person with whom they made the appointment, their temporary team members when they were being shown around, and so forth.

Alternatively, you can self-administer one of the personality profiling tools that can be purchased off the shelf, looking for one that is as close to the personality traits you feel are important (WETCO or otherwise). Before you get too reliant on such an off-the-shelf and un-customized tool, it’s best to do some company-specific pretesting. Ask one or more of the standout performers at your company to take the assessment, as well as an average performer or two. If the assessment tool can differentiate between these two types of current employees, you can consider it scientifically (or at least semi-scientifically) vetted for your own particular use.

Option 2: Bring in the experts

Another approach is to employ one of the established companies that offer personality based hiring tools and counsel. Working with this type of company allows you to benefit from its vast knowledge of what has worked at similar companies in the past. It can also offer insight into how to work with that person once hired. "We provide assessments and interviews for positions from front-line (employees) to senior leaders,” is how Talent Plus company spokesperson Cydney Koukol explained its offerings to the Lincoln Journal-Star. "Our tools provide not only a determination if an individual has the potential to be a top performer in a particular role, but it provides content that is helpful to managers and leaders for further development of that individual once they are selected.”

For more on this topic, read NewVoiceMedia’s whitepaper, Attention Service Leaders.

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