Your first customer service team member is arguably the most important person you will hire for this new function. Their skills and attitude will establish the internal culture of the customer service team and the impressions they leave with customers will be the start of your company’s customer service reputation. Finding the right person to fill this role is essential. They will need to be independent, flexible and be able to wear many hats while the function is getting started. And as your customer service team grows, they will need to be a team-player. They will need to be able to both deliver and to train/mentor others.
For small companies, new companies, or those establishing a customer service function for the first time, selecting the right first hire can be challenging. When you consider the blend of technical skills, product knowledge, people skills, organization, attitude and experience needed, it might seem like you are searching for a unicorn (a mythical creature that doesn’t exist). Or you might fear that if you are able to find this ideal person, you won’t be able to afford them with the limited financial resources available to a growing business.
While there may be some cases where that is the case, good customer service resources are out there, you just need to know what you are looking for. There is a core set of expectations that go along with jobs in the customer service field — you are going to be looking for these whether it is your first customer service hire or your 100th. In addition to the baseline expectations, there is another set of traits that you specifically need for your first customer service hire due to the nature of the role and how it will evolve over time.
Baseline expectations of any customer service hire
In customer service, there are a lot of skills and knowledge that can be learned through training, mentoring and experience, but there are some fundamental traits (sometimes referred to as soft-skills or mindset) that people either have, or don’t. Without these core skills and organizational traits, it doesn’t matter how much product knowledge or work experience the person has, they aren’t likely to be a good fit in customer service.
The first set of baseline traits are people skills. Customer service is fundamentally a social discipline and requires team members to interact with customers in ways that make the customer feel like your company cares about them and their business.
- Positive demeanor — Positivity is contagious and your customer service team member’s demeanor will set the tone for the interaction with the customer. Even if the customer’s issue is cannot be fully resolved to their satisfaction, a positive and friendly interaction with your customer service team member can lead to increased customer loyalty.
- Great listening skills — The starting place for good customer service is listening to customers and understanding their needs and concerns. Customer service team members are different from sales staff in that the customer’s needs are their primary focus. Understanding those needs starts with great listening skills.
- Patience —Your customer service staff is there to help and to be the expert resources that the customer needs. To provide help effectively, they need to show patience for limitations in the customer’s skill level, knowledge and understanding. Often, customer service involves teaching the customer something new and good teachers must be patient as their students learn.
- Empathetic—Most customers don’t contact customer service unless they have a problem or need help doing something that they are struggling to do on their own. This often means that when they do ask for help, they are entering the interaction already frustrated. Your customer service team members need to show empathy for both the underlying issue and for the frustration it is causing the customer, enabling you to achieve a positive outcome.
- Great communication skills — Communication and language skills are essential for all customer service roles. Depending on your business, this could be verbal or written communication, but either way, your team members need to be able to communicate effectively with customers.
Basic organizational skills are also an important part of providing quality customer service. Customer issues will likely come in at an unpredictable pace and may require follow-up to resolve completely. Your customer service team will need to bring structure to an environment that is somewhat chaotic and ensure that each of the requests receive the attention required and is brought to a complete and timely resolution. All your customer service team members will need to be:
- Organized — Team members need to understand the various pieces of the puzzle required to resolve the customer’s issues and manage the information and resources they need to get the job done. This includes keeping diligent notes and records of conversations, actions taken, and open issues related to the customer request.
- Detail oriented — Attention to detail is critical in customer service. Customer issues, business processes, data and systems involved can all be complex. Looking at each of these things with a critical eye and being detailed in both analysis of the issue and actions taken to resolve it will ensure a more consistent and higher quality result.
- Ability to multi-task — Rarely does a customer service team member only have one issue or activity they are working on. Multi-tasking is an essential skill, ensuring the most important and urgent activities receive the attention they need while making sure other tasks still get done.
- Goal oriented — The goal of customer service is resolving the customer’s issue and making them feel satisfied with the service they are receiving. Each of your team members need to understand these goals and align their activities to achieve them efficiently and effectively.
Important traits for your 1st customer service hire
While the baseline customer service skills are applicable to all customer service hires, there are an additional set of traits that you need in the first person to join your team. This person is going to be well rounded and a one-person band of sorts in order to cover the broad scope of activities that a customer service function entails. While this independent spirit is critical initially, as additional people join the team, the initial hire will need to learn to share the function with others, segmenting workloads, delegating, partnering and to transform into a team player. As the team grows, the initial hire may take on a management role or become a mentor to new team members — sharing lessons learned and helping to develop processes that enable your customer service function to scale.
Collaboration is all about working with others. This starts with your initial hire understanding their own strengths, weaknesses, abilities and limitations and developing relationships with other individuals and departments to provide a holistic service experience to the customer that is effective and efficient. When your customer service team is small, collaboration is critically important and your initial hire needs to be able to work well with different departments across the company to achieve the overall customer service objectives — they won’t be successful working on their own or in isolation. The collaborative attitude that you are looking for include:
- Persuasion skills — Your first customer service hire will need the help of others across the company to be successful. Everyone is busy and will have their own priorities so persuasion skills are essential to effectiveness. They can’t look to management to make things happen, they need to take control and convince people to work with them.
- Tenacity — Starting any new function is introducing change to the environment. It is human nature for people to resist change and your first customer service team member is likely to encounter a lot of roadblocks and resistance as they are getting things going. They will need to demonstrate tenacity and resolve to overcome this resistance and persistence to achieve the results that they are seeking.
- Willingness to learn — Everyone has something to share, and everyone has something to learn from others. Your new customer service team hire may have a lot of experience, knowledge or skills, but they won’t know everything. They will need to be humble enough to recognize what they don’t know and be open to learning from the knowledge and experience of others.
- Someone who will own the outcome — As the first person in the customer service function, the initial team member will need to take ownership of both the customer issues (the work) as well as the customer service function itself (processes, standards, etc). They are not just there to do the job, they are there to create something of lasting value for your company and need to truly “own” that outcome.
Subject Matter Expertise
In order to resolve customer issues, be them product issues or process issues, your first customer service hire is going to need to have subject matter expertise about your company and the things they are supporting. This expertise may come in different forms — expertise on how customer service processes work, technical knowledge about your company’s product and service offerings or experience as a customer of products in your industry. While customer service functions are common across all industries, they are not a commodity. Your first customer service hire needs to be both good at customer service as well as a subject matter expert for the things they are providing service for.
- Technical skills — Depending on the nature of your businesses and industry, your first customer service team member may require deep technical skills and experience. This is particularly true in situations where customers are highly technical, resolving simple issues themselves and contacting your company when they get stuck and need help.
- Product expertise — Your products and services are what make your company unique. Your customer service team needs to understand what products and services you offer and how they are differentiated from the competition. While they are not typically in a sales role, customer service team members are in an excellent position to educate customers about your offerings, helping them to understand how the things you sell can assist them in solving problems and developing deeper levels of customer loyalty.
- Good problem solver — A large part of customer service is solving problems. In an ideal world, simple problems will be fixed so the customer doesn’t need to seek help to resolve them. But in all cases, your customer service team members need to understand how to correctly identify a problem, diagnose it, figure out what actions need to be taken and then do those things that are needed to bring resolution. As your new function is just getting started, your first hire is going to be presented with a lot of problems that need solving.
Customer service functions are always chaotic and busy places within a company. Keeping the workload organized and under control is critically important for ensuring that customers receive the levels of service that they expect and that problems are solved in a timely manner. Your first customer service hire will need to not only do the work but also manage the workload to maximize the value and impact created from the time and resources available to them.
This will require both excellent time management (to ensure that things get done on schedule and don’t fall behind) as well as an ability to prioritize the customer service workload. Not every request or activity should have the same priority or criticality. Your customer service team will need to prioritize based on urgency and importance to ensure resources are allocated effectively.
Deliver Today, Prepare for Tomorrow
The role that you will need your first customer service team member to play today will not likely be the same role you need them to play in the future. When they are first hired, they will need to excel as an independent resource with most of their time focused on delivery. As time goes on and the delivery activities become easier, you will need them to shift focus to customer service processes and putting the pieces in place to prepare your customer service function for the future. This will require teamwork and sharing control with others with a “we win together or we lose together” mindset.
With more people joining the team, processes will need to be defined that bring structure and consistency to your customer service function and enable work to be shared amongst team members. The experience and process knowledge that your first hire brings with them into the role will be highly valuable as you transition from just getting the job done to making things work well.
A Choice: Perfect-fit Candidate or Someone Who Can Grow into the Role?
Very rarely will you be able to find a 100% perfect candidate for your first customer service position that is an expert in all the diverse facets that the role will require. You are likely to be faced with a series of trade-offs and compromises to find the best candidate to meet your company’s unique needs. Every candidate will have areas of strength and areas of weakness that will impact their performance potential either in the near term or later as the customer service function is growing.
While a more experienced resource with deeper strengths may be more successful initially, they may struggle with adapting and evolving as the function grows. A less experienced candidate may struggle initially and require additional training and support, but their ambition combined with a clear opportunity for growth may result in your customer service function maturing more quickly. And finally, there is always a cost consideration when staffing a new function.
Most businesses that are hiring their first customer service team member are either young companies or are expanding and experiencing growing pains. In either of these situations, the company needs the customer service function to be successful but is likely constrained by the financial resources available to support the new function. Selection of the first customer service hire will likely be a trade off between what you can get and what you can afford.
Your first customer service hire is the most important decision you will make about the new function you are creating. You will need a person that both excels at customer service and someone with leadership potential to help guide the function as it grows and evolves. There are a set of core/baseline skills that apply to all customer service roles, but for your first hire, there is an additional set of traits that you need to look for.
The candidate you are looking for is out there. They may be someone with a lot of experience and knowledge, or they may be someone with ambition, flexibility and personal drive. The key is to understand your company’s unique needs and find the best candidate with the ability to meet those needs.