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Apr 1, 2020 3:32:34 PM

How to hire and retain talented customer service staff


Many customer service leads struggle to find and maintain great teams. Hiring and training new employees is time-consuming, the top performers often leave, the turnover rate is high and some team members don’t show up to work on time—or at all. 

Service departments are known for their high-pressure environment and large workloads, so it’s vital to hire people who are reliable and can take the heat. The hiring process should focus on skills and personality traits such as “cool in a crisis”, “ability to multitask” and “structured working style”, so that the department can continue delivering a top notch service experience.


In previous blog posts we have talked about the challenges of delivering world-class customer service and how high service quality is important to every company. Today we’ll highlight the key characteristics that will help you find great customer service employees—and the conditions that empower them to do great work.



Why is it so hard to find great customer service agents?


Customer service representatives are responsible for providing customers with a wide range of assistance, usually under considerable time pressure. Not everybody is cut out for it. Plus, it takes a certain rare skill set. While good social skills are valuable for any kind of service job, an empathetic approach makes all the difference when you’re assisting customers via phone, email or chat.


Since service departments have the most touchpoints with customers, they are in fact the frontline of the company. Customers will associate the brand with the kind of service they receive. That’s why it’s important for service employees to have both stellar interpersonal skills and excellent time management skills. After all, most service teams work at maximum capacity and time is a scarce resource.


People who manage customer support teams need to be able to identify job seekers who have this unique combination—and convince them to join on the team. It helps if the service lead really understands how these traits and skills manifest themselves, which can be tricky, since social skills are hard to measure. Nevertheless, managers who are growing their teams and operating within tight budgets need to learn how to identify the best of the bunch. 


Here are three things to keep an eye out for when interviewing for your next top performing customer service agent. 



What makes a great service agent?


1. Outstanding social skills – they can talk the talk


The most obvious traits to look out for are those that translate into great soft skills. Social behaviour and advanced emotional intelligence are crucial for any service agent, but what do these terms really mean?


It’s no secret that customer service representatives need a lot of patience. They should also be composed, tenacious and attentive—all while communicating clearly and in a positive tone. Since most customer communication is done either on the phone or in text form via the internet, agents need strong verbal and written skills.


Moreover, service agents should be empathetic and have the ability to dial their friendliness factor up to 11 if need be. Some customers are simply hard to satisfy and sometimes it’s better to put on an artificial smile or use an excessively courteous tone instead of accidentally causing offence.


It’s not uncommon for people to lose their temper when talking to customer service representatives, so basic negotiating or acting skills might come in handy for those situations. A classic trigger for a heated exchange is delayed shipping: The company may have no control over such delays, but it’s still up to the customer service agent to explain the situation to its customers. 


The final recommended soft skill is a positive “can do” attitude. When this is combined with flexibility, adaptability and a general desire to be of assistance, you’re onto a winner. 



2. Resilience – they’re cool, calm and collected


Being able to keep your cool is yet another skill that’s extremely helpful when working with the general public. This goes hand in hand with the scenarios mentioned above. Handling angry customers is a whole lot easier when staying calm is your modus operandi, even when you’re faced with complex or tricky situations.


Customer service departments are the link between customers and the company. They have to understand both parties and mediate between them, usually when things go wrong. Service agents need to manage customer expectations while simultaneously staying up-to-date with all aspects of the company—and maintaining a cheery disposition. They are often on the receiving end of intense emotions, especially from customers. What seems like a minor detail to the company might be a big deal to the customer. In many cases this creates a lot of time pressure (and psychological pressure).


Being able to perform under pressure is therefore the mark of a great service agent. Another (related) key indicator is an ability to prioritise tasks, even when things get hectic. Service employees have to juggle the demands of their customers, their managers and other departments. A skilled service employee is able to stay focused on the most important aspects even during peak times—be it their performance metrics or simply making customers happy.



3. Efficient – they learn fast and are incredibly well organised


Studies have shown that customers value efficient service agents, i.e. those who can quickly provide the right answers. In customer service, efficiency is essentially a combination of two things: knowledge and time management.


Most customers want their cases resolved quickly. If the troubleshooting runs smoothly, service agents also save time and are able to help more people. Consequently, an ability to effectively manage one’s time is crucial—not all cases can be tagged as urgent and some cases require a little extra attention and empathy. 


With regard to the knowledge part, when you’re hiring, look out for people with an eagerness to learn and improve themselves. Customer service representatives should be experts on your products or services, so they need to be ready, willing and able to learn fast. Someone who is not excited about this aspect of customer service might not be the right fit.


Time management and knowledge are not only essential for efficiency, they are also valuable when it comes to problem solving. After all, in a fast-paced service environment, tinkering on one issue for too long is not ideal.



How can I retain my most talented employees?


You’ve managed to find some great talent and grow your customer service team. Well done! Now it’s time to set your service representatives up for success by empowering them. Remember: great talent is always in demand, so your best employees will always have other options. If your company culture and motivation are lousy, the team won't be able to do its job and your staff will find somewhere else to work. A great service experience starts with happy service teams.


Employers can empower teams to do great work by creating conditions that motivate and inspire. To do this, a socially-minded work environment is equally as important as implementing the right working tools and service solutions. 


Give your team the information it needs. This might sound obvious, but sadly many service agents are confronted with workplaces where there is no centralised collection of information. This leads to a lot of unnecessary questions, searching and double checking. Therefore, to deliver top notch customer service you must ensure that agents have an excellent understanding of your product and all the facts at their fingertips. This should go without saying, but in reality, some service agents never even get to experience their company’s product. It’s hard to efficiently campaign for something you don’t really know, let alone provide effective troubleshooting for it.


Create an environment in which the service agents can thrive and you’ll see a decrease in employee fluctuation and a rise in employee loyalty. Employers can have a lot of influence on the turnover rate. Smart leaders know that even the most loyal employees might turn their back on a company if the overall working conditions are not up to scratch.



Choose wisely and set them up for success


When screening applications and conducting interviews, look out for the character traits mentioned above. Excellent social skills, strong nerves and an efficient working style are the key ingredients for outstanding customer service. 


Once you have assembled your all-star cast, it’s up to you to keep everyone motivated and encourage staff loyalty. You can do that by making sure your team has everything they need to deliver great service. Even the best service agents in the world won’t be able to reach their full potential and drive the customer satisfaction through the roof if they’re constrained by subpar working conditions.


It’s equally important to foster an enjoyable, professional environment, as it is to know what kind of people and skill sets to hire. With the right setup, the service team will deliver high-quality service, improve the CSAT scores and truly shine. 


Anna is part of Solvemate’s marketing team. She enjoys being creative, but has always had a weak spot for science and nerdy stuff, too. In her free time she loves expanding her horizon through travelling and many other opportunities that come her way.