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How to Hire & Train Top Customer Service Reps

Hire and train the elite.

Hire and train the elite.

Customer service can be trying, difficult work. Finding and training great customer service reps can be equally as demanding.

“I’ve learned that a customer service rep can have a lengthy list of skills and experience in other industries but still struggle with this position,” says Sara Webb, founder of InTandem Promotions. “It’s a challenging role. You are juggling multiple factors with multiple orders, each having their own challenges and opportunities.”

So how do you acquire and retain savvy, capable customer service reps who will be a great fit long-term within your company? Here are five steps.

Make Interviews Real

As part of the interview process at her firm, Webb asks applicants to come into her office for a “day in the life” experience.

“This affords them the opportunity to see a 360-degree view of their potential position, all of the highs and lows, the demographics of the team, and it provides us with the insight into how they handle pressure,” she says.

Providing applicants with a snapshot of that real-job experience can also be a test of practical skill.

“The skills that are most important for this role are the ability to be calm but a bulldog in moving the orders through to the next stage,” Webb says. “Great reps see the pattern where there often doesn’t seem to be one. They’re able to juggle the phone ringing as they deal with salespeople stressing, clients needing information, supplier partners not having stock – and still get through the day.”

Customer Focus

Determining Service Resources

Shep Hyken, founder of Shepard Presentations and author of The Cult of the Customer, believes your business model should dictate the personnel resources you dedicate to service. He uses retail stores Nordstrom and Walmart to make a comparison.

“You realize you’re going to pay more at Nordstrom, but you’re going to get people helping you, you’re going to get support, and you might find a personal shopper,” he says. “When you walk into Walmart, if you need help, you’ve got to find someone. That’s not bad – that’s just their business model.”

So, does your distributorship fall more into the Nordstrom model or the Walmart model? “Are you a low-cost provider? Are you a value-add?” Hyken asks. “You can’t be all things to all people, so you have to decide what is it you want to be to your customers, and then make sure you know it and focus on it, and don’t jump lanes.”

That’s not to say customer service isn’t crucial for low-cost distributors. It just may take on a different look that corresponds to the expectations of low-cost consumers, according to Hyken. “If you’re going to basically commoditize yourself and shoot for low prices, chances are you’re not going to be able to afford a high level of service,” he says. “You can still be a low-cost provider and give very friendly customer service. You just may not give the top level of high-touch customer service.”

Conduct Assessments

Having customer service applicants go through a behavioral assessment, experts say, is a great way to learn about their strengths and weaknesses.

“You might want to consider some type of an assessment just to make sure they have the right mindset and behavioral style,” says Shep Hyken, author of The Cult of the Customer. “It doesn’t guarantee success, but it goes a long way to understanding if they will be successful.”

Hyken recommends utilizing a DiSC assessment that gauges people in four different behavioral traits: dominance, influence, steadiness and conscientiousness. “Salespeople are definitely influencers,” he says. “Or maybe, a relator-type of person might be important for you. You’ll know what your best behavioral styles and traits are for different jobs based on the information you’ve gathered with these profiles.”

There are no wrong or right answers in the DiSC assessment, but Hyken thinks it can help ensure you’re getting the right fit for your company’s needs. “One category is not better than another,” he says, “but in certain jobs, like a customer service rep, you want somebody that has a high profile of people skills.”

Invest in Hospitality Workers

Hyken notes that Jim Bush, senior vice president for customer service worldwide at American Express, is a major proponent of bringing aboard customer service reps directly from the hotel and restaurant world. “He opened up my eyes to hiring people from the hospitality industry as a great way to bring in people who have that customer service mentality,” Hyken says.

Today, Hyken is an avid proponent of converting former members of that industry into a customer service role. “In the promotional products industry, you’re looking for people who understand how to work with people,” he says. “What I’d be looking for is somebody who has a background in working at a hotel, perhaps a restaurant, where they understand how to integrate with people.”

Whether you accept résumés from an online job site or actively search for people at a job fair, Hyken says it’s OK to be picky and let applicants know that a background in the hospitality industry is required, or at least preferred. “You can get specific and say, ‘If you don’t have this background, don’t apply,’” he says. “Just be clear.”

Immerse Hires in Good Culture

The people you hire to fill your customer service needs should also understand and embrace your company’s core values. The best way to do that, according to Hyken, is through constant refresher courses.

“They need to be indoctrinated into your style and your culture,” he says. “But if you want to teach customer service, this is not something you do at onboarding – this is something that you do ongoing.”

Hyken’s company has its own set of online virtual training programs. “They’re interactive. You can track and monitor their progress. You can see where they’re struggling, what questions they missed on their quizzes,” he says.

But Hyken also says the indoctrination into a company culture is learned, and relearned, over a longer period of time. “You may put someone in a four- or eight-hour training period when they first start, and you may not need to do that again for two years, but between the first day and two years, you should hit them with something to reinforce it,” he says. “It could be five or 10 minutes worth of training or discussion. It could be an article you ask them to read, and then sit down and have a discussion about the relevance to your business.”

Teach Problem Solving

To err is human, and as such, your business will inevitably make mistakes. But it’s when those mistakes occur that your customer service reps have an outstanding opportunity to shine. “It’s how you deal with mistakes that doesn’t just fix the problem, but actually restores the confidence that the customer has in doing business with you,” Hyken says.

Hyken suggests customer service reps implement a five-step process to handle every customer complaint: acknowledge the problem, apologize for it, fix it, have the right attitude, and convey a sense of urgency.

Take, for example, a package that was damaged in the shipping process. “It may not be your fault, but it’s your opportunity,” Hyken says. “And the goal isn’t to just fix the problem, it’s to restore confidence. Anybody can fix the problem.”

By apologizing for the mistake and doing everything reasonably possible to make it right, reps let customers know that they’re there for them, and they can turn an unpleasant business experience into a welcome reminder of that.

“Nobody’s perfect, so there’s going to be a mistake or a problem at some point,” Hyken says. “What you’re looking for is for the person to say, ‘I love working with them because I know that when there’s a problem, they’ll always take care of me.’ That word ‘always’ is a really important word.”

Service Tips

Improve Off-Hours Service

Few people are fond of automated, push-button phone systems. Shep Hyken doesn’t like them, either. “The automated system is a potential turnoff to people. They want to get somebody,” says Hyken, founder of Shepard Presentations and author of The Cult of the Customer.

So, rather than setting up an automated “Press 1, Press 2” system, Hyken suggests setting up a simple voicemail and automatic email system during non-business hours that lets customers know when they can expect a reply.

“You have to set an expectation. We’re not necessarily a 24/7 business, so we let our customers know: We’re always going to get back to you within one business day,” he says. “If they call us at 4 in the afternoon, I’d like to get back to them by 5, but at worst, they’re going to hear from us the next day.”

Hyken says the same mentality applies for Saturdays and Sundays. “Every once in a while we’ll get a call or email on the weekends, and if somebody happens to see it, we want to acknowledge it, and if we can fix it easily, great. Otherwise, we’ll get back to you first thing Monday morning,” he says.

However, Hyken says business owners should consider providing their cellphone numbers as a way to build confidence among their customers.

“If I recognize I have to separate myself from my competitors, there is no way I am not going to give my customer my personal cellphone number if they have a problem so they can call me anytime, 24/7,” he says. “They’re probably not going to call me at four in the morning, but I want them to have my number. I just want them to have that confidence that I’m there for them.”