It can be said that customer service training is the blueprint for your entire support process. When absent, your team operates without a game plan to consistently deliver good service to your customers.

While a big part of creating a stellar support team is hiring the right people, even great employees can use a little guidance when working with customers.

Today, let’s examine some of the essentials in guiding employees from “square one” of interacting with customers to the stage of support champ.

At the end of this primer, you’ll have a better grasp on what sorts of traits, tactics, and methods are most important to hone with your support reps in order to set them up for success.

How to Hire for Support

There are few companies who invest so heavily in support as 37Signals. Frankly, their support is nothing short of amazing, as you can see from these publicly available stats on their Happiness Report page:

37 Signals Happiness Report

Seeing 94/100 customers rating the customer service as “great” with a one minute response time can seem pretty intimidating. Tactics alone cannot manifest support numbers that good; it’s obvious that a stellar team is at the core of these results.

How then, does one hire for support? I asked Basecamp support champion (and all-around customer service expert) Chase Clemons that exact question, and here was his very insightful response:

Chase Clemons

It's all about the soft skills. Here's the key things I recommend looking for in a potential hire.

Personality. They need a great personality to start. You want someone upbeat, cheerful, and always smiling. They need to be able to win over angry customers. A side note here—don’t feel that you have to always hire loud, boisterous people. The quiet guy in the corner could be a right fit too. This is just part of what you’re looking for in a great support rep.

Communication. They need to communicate clearly and concisely. Teaching grammar skills is the school’s job, not yours. Ask to see some writing samples before you hire them. If they have some sort of online blog or website, check it out to get a feel for their writing style. For the in-person interview, role play a few customer interactions to see how well they can talk with customers.

Creativity. Every customer you have is unique and every trouble they find themselves in is different. You don’t want to set a bunch of rules and regulations when it comes to customers. When you have a rep that’s creative, they’ll use their best judgment to figure out how to make the customer happy.

Creative reps go out of their way to help customers and even do crazy things like send a box of chocolate to make up for a customer’s bad day. I remember having a customer once whose boss was being horrible to her for his mistake. She was just trying to fix it. After we got it fixed, I sent her a box of chocolate-dipped strawberries. She got them the following day and absolutely loved them. It didn’t erase how bad the boss was, but it definitely made her day.

Self-motivated. There are lots of things wrapped up in this one. You want someone driven, able to work on their own, and such. You’ve got customers to help—you don’t want to have to babysit one of your team members at the same time. To find this one, find out about personal projects that they lead or run. If they’re raising money for a local charity in their off-time, they’re probably able to be their own boss.

Culture. You want someone that’s a good fit for your team and company culture. When you do the interview, take them out for a meal with the rest of your team. See if they naturally fit in or if it’s a forced relationship. There’s no reason to try to push a square block into a round hole.

Notice these are all qualities called soft skills. These are really things that the person either has or doesn’t. Compare that to hard skills like typing, being able to use a computer, knowing how HTML coding works. Hard skills can always be taught. I can teach anyone how to reply to an email. I can’t teach them how to empathize with a customer. Hire for soft skills—train for hard skills.

Type. As far as type, you just want someone that has previous experience helping people. It could be they worked in retail or at a restaurant. Maybe they managed an apartment complex or a library. Any kind of people experience works.

Perfectly stated, I’m not sure if I could add a single thing to Chase’s very insightful thoughts on hiring; he’s really covered all the bases. The only thing I will add is that you should visit Chase’s site Support Ops for more superb information on customer service.

Focus on Social Sensitivity

As mentioned above by Chase and in our article on team building, “social sensitivity”—the ability to understand how someone feels—has been shown time and time again to be of paramount importance in any workplace, but it’s especially important for customer service reps.

Protocol will be learned in time. Most new hires will have no problem working out the details (where this is, how to do that) in their first few weeks. Social sensitivity, however, needs to be emphasized and practiced from day one.

The ability to understand the emotions of others is a critical trait in any support rep. It’s important to realize that most people who reach out to support are doing so because they have a problem that needs to be solved. In other words, they may not be in the best of moods.

Take, for instance, a customer who reports ordering a product from you, only to have it arrive broken or malfunctioning:

"I just ordered this item last week, and when I received the package, the item was broken! This is simply unacceptable!”

Social sensitivity will play a big role in the outcome of this situation.

You can’t control a customer’s reaction, but you can influence it. A support rep’s ability to display social sensitivity here can make all the difference.

Consider the following two responses:

  1. “Sorry you are having issues. Let’s get that fixed for you.”
  2. “I’m very sorry about that! I know how disappointing that must be, and I’d like to make things right by…"

The second response wins by a mile, and it’s not hard to see why.

People care about others empathizing with their situation, which is why apologies can be given out liberally—even if an employee didn’t do anything wrong. It’s not about placing blame; it’s about letting a customer know that you are personally apologetic that their experience didn’t live up to their expectations.

Those folks with high levels of social sensitivity seem to have a natural understanding of this, but the reality is that all employees need to be adept in dealing with customers.

Here are a few other traits that relate to social sensitivity that your team should be briefed on in order to excel:

  1. Active listening. Sometimes when we’re conversing with others, we refrain from speaking or confirming that we've heard them. For customers, this can create the impression that you’re not paying attention. People with high social sensitivity engage in active listening, or listening closely and confirming that they’ve heard the speaker. In many conversations we simply wait for our turn to speak, but actively listening can help reduce conversational narcissism and increase customer happiness.
  2. Proactive service. It feels good when a waiter refills your drink just when you were just about to ask. This practice applies online as well—if a customer is having atypical problems with Step 3 of your setup process, and Step 4 is more of the same, a simple email offering assistance may save the day. According to this study, “ignoring a potential order is deemed worse than erroneously inviting customers to order.” In other words, it’s better to ask than to accidentally ignore.
  3. Help with understanding. “Please hold while we transfer you.” Nobody wants to hear that, but sometimes you do have to transfer a customer to someone else. Help them understand why with a simple change in language: “Hey Steve, I’m going to get you in touch with our ____ specialist who can better answer your question!” Curb your customer’s frustration by stating why a temporary inconvenience may be to their benefit in the long run.
  4. True sincerity. While customers probably don’t want the “real” you, that doesn’t mean they want talk to someone who sounds stiff and impersonal. As Chase Clemons highlights in A Brief Guide to Better Support Emails: “Words like inquiry and correspondence are too formal, unless you’re writing to the Queen of England. Then you can use them.” Keep your tone business-casual, with the professional attitude that customers deserve, but the informal style that they enjoy hearing in a natural conversation.
  5. Always be in control. The old adage of “fake it ‘til you make it” is very applicable to customer service. Customers do not want to hear, “I don’t know that, I’m new here.” It may be true, but it lacks understanding of the customer’s needs—to find a solution, not to find out about how your new job is going. Instead, coach support reps to find alternative phrases for these common problems. If you don’t know the answer, instead say: “Do we integrate with ____? Great question, let me double check so I can find that out for you!”
  6. Default to doing good. Not every request is reasonable. Most are, which is why your ability to make doing business easy and (gasp!) even fun is so important. It often doesn’t take much to impress customers, but your employees need guidance on what kind of leeway they have with requests and special circumstances. Empower employees but cutting excess rules, and instead encourage them to understand and think about business objectives and how they can creatively reach those goals when interacting with customers.
  7. Thick skin. Perhaps the one thing people with high levels of social sensitivity have to their disadvantage is less of an ability to let things go. While the customer may be the boss, every once in a while you’re going to get one of those “barnacle” customers who just seems to want to make people miserable. Establish that in some cases, as long as you did your best, the best course is to move on.

Parse Out Responsibilities

In many instances, it can be smart to “jump into the deep end” to really learn what needs to be done, but I don’t recommend this methodology with customer service.

Great service is hard enough as it is, and although it’s perfectly fine for early mistakes to happen, without a tiered system for new hires you could end up with a lot of unhappy customers if you just send them on their way.

If you have the opportunity, parse out responsibilities in the following 3 stages:

1. Orientation

This is especially important for those helping to support a technical product with multiple features. I know my first week at Help Scout consisted of little more than me using the product constantly, visiting our FAQs and tutorials section, and poring over our resources and webinars.

Depending on the job, this stage will vary in complexity and length, but at a minimum it should include a rundown of all of the common tasks that the new hire will be accountable for. Since our focus is mainly on providing online support, I will also mention that a shadowing period can be especially helpful for the first week or so, giving them an opportunity to see how things are done.

This can be achieved for email support by having them write drafts (to be checked) before responding to customers. New reps should also be BCC’d to another employee’s responses so that they can go through their messages to see how different situations were handled.

2. Training Wheels

Now it’s time for your new hire to get into the thick of things! Have them auto BCC all outgoing messages so that a manager or an experienced rep can see them. This allows the new hire to see valuable feedback about their actual responses (you could use Help Scout’s Notes feature to do this; it’s invisible to customers).

Another great activity in this stage is writing documentation and clearing out to-dos for your knowledgebase or other help content areas. Not only are these tasks easy to fix should something go wrong (unlike a livechat incident), they help new employees learn all about your product.

3. Showtime!

They grow up so fast, don’t they? At this stage, employees should be comfortable answering support requests on their own, but it’s great to have some sort of messaging program in place (we use HipChat) so that they can ask questions without clogging up the team’s inbox.

A great way to help your whole team feel this comfortable with customers is to apply a Whole Company Support schedule, where members of your other departments (marketing, product, etc.) join the regular support team in helping out with a few incoming tickets. This gives everyone a glimpse at how your customers regularly communicate with support, which can be very eye-opening (even world-class companies like Amazon utilize this technique).

Mary Lynne YoungWe have a training program that allows our reps to shadow every department within the company. This instills a big picture view of the company’s process and gives that rep the knowledge they need to think though problems. This benefits our customers because they are interacting with reps that have a wide range of knowledge." Mary Lynne Young
Customer Account Manager,

Proactively Plan for Bad Situations

There is no way to totally avoid customer complaints or unhappy clients—despite even the most admirable efforts, not everyone can be pleased all of the time.

That’s why it’s important for your training to include planned scenarios for responding to bad and potentially bad situations.

As I highlighted in a previous post, Ritz-Carlton has a system for “resetting a customer’s internal clock” that serves as a perfect example. Their employees have nearly unfettered control in helping to reduce perceived wait time:

"When my wife and I were staying at the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead, we were waiting a long time for our entrées. Just when my wife was about to ask about our order, the waiter appeared and gave us a tomato and mozzarella appetizer ‘courtesy of the chef.'”

This helps alleviate frustration by re-engaging waiting customers. You should also remember that these sorts of triggers can be used to create proactive responses to customer needs. These are the small details (the “frugal wows”) that create a lasting impact with customers due to their thoughtfulness and sincerity.

Just as Ritz-Carlton encourages their employees to be proactive with their guests (If a customer is checking out before 7am, then offer to leave them a fresh pot of coffee outside their door), your business should look for key touch-points with customers and find ways to create similarly frugal, yet very powerful gestures that show your sincere commitment to providing them with the best experience.

Use Culture as Your Compass

Building a customer-centric culture is one of the most important things you can do in your efforts to provide outstanding service, because it acts as the foundation for everything else.

Companies vary in how seriously they take culture, but one trend that you probably aren’t surprised to hear about is that many of the most beloved companies take their culture very seriously.

Take, for instance, the notorious Valve employee handbook, which makes bold statements like:

"Every company will tell you that 'the customer is boss,' but here that statement has weight. There’s no red tape stopping you from figuring out for yourself what our customers want, and then giving it to them.”

It becomes clear that Valve wants the company’s culture to act as an internal compass for employees when deciding what they should do.

This stuff may seem lofty at first glance, but an internal company culture creates a mindset that is present in how your support team handles customer service.

Buffer has some excellent standards for their culture, and it’s easy to see how the attributes they promote have helped them become so well known for their incredible support:

The Buffer Culture, Clarity Slide

Weave this sort of culture into the very fabric of how you operate. Look at the difference in treatment that service speaker James Lloyd received when he ran into a jam before a speaking engagement:

When he asks the audience who in the clothing industry is constantly referenced for having outstanding service, they unanimously shout “Nordstrom!”

That’s because Nordstrom has built a culture with customer satisfaction as the foundation, and they encourage and even reward employees for making sure customers walk out satisfied.

While “creating” a culture may not be for everyone, culture needs to be closely monitored at any business looking to raise the bar for customers. That’s because a company’s culture will form whether you like it or not, or as Jason Cohen says:

“Every company has a culture.
The only question is whether or not you decide what it is.”

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Gregory Ciotti

About the author: Gregory Ciotti is on the marketing team at Help Scout, the invisible help desk software. Learn how Help Scout takes the headache out of email support.