Your support team represents a lot of things: your first line of defense, a first point of contact, and the first (maybe last) people that a disgruntled user may speak with.

They’re the ones who will convince users to stay. When things don't go well, a bad customer service interaction may be the final straw that convinces a customer to leave for good. Your support team represents the voice of your company, and it's critical that they deliver positivity with every single interaction.

That’s a lot of responsibility. Let’s take a look at what can you do to make sure it all goes well.

Hire the Right Team

Making the right choices about who to add to your support team is tough. Hiring well is an art, not a science. You’ll make mistakes along the way and hopefully learn a ton in the process.

Keeping your eye out for a few key qualities will make it easier for you to distinguish between the would-be’s and the must-hires.

The Best People Are Emotionally Intelligent

“You can learn about grammar and tone and voice, but first and foremost you need to have empathy,” says Katherine Pan, director of community support at Kickstarter. “You need to be able to let things go and not allow a single bad interaction (or five in a row!) ruin your entire day.”

How to assess: If you can, take a potential hire out for coffee. Observing how he or she interacts with the outside world—especially people they’re not necessarily trying to impress—will speak volumes about self-awareness and personal motivations. A person who can’t be bothered to say “Please” and “Thanks” is probably not a person who should be in the business of professionally making other people happy.

On the other hand, somebody who seems to be a natural people pleaser is likely to perform comfortably and politely when under fire from a disgruntled user. Meeting outside of the office also presents an opportunity to introduce spontaneity into the interview process, giving you the chance to see how somebody sincerely reacts when not in controlled circumstances.

Why does this matter so much? “What we've seen is that empathy and patience with customers is absolutely essential,” explains Jamie Wilkinson, co-founder of VHX. “Every time someone writes in with an angry complaint, a kind, well-written response 100% turns them into an advocate.”

The Best People Communicate Well

Communication in support is key because it flows two ways. First, it’s between you and the customer; second, it’s between you and the rest of your team. At the front lines of support, you must possess an exceedingly rare skill: the ability to sound both like a human being and a capable professional who can be trusted to solve a problem.

You must be able to succinctly and effectively explain complex concepts, like when a user has run into a bug or is having trouble understanding the product. On the back end, you must be able to advocate for user needs by helping set clearly articulated product goals.

How to assess: A candidate’s initial emails are key, and even typos should be considered a red flag. Being good at support means proofreading as a rule and never firing off a thoughtless message.

“I would say that I pay close attention to the entire application process, not just the in-person interview. Is the candidate a direct and clear emailer? What is their communication style like?” says Aaron Lammer, co-founder of Longform. “Someone who can write a direct paragraph explaining their interest in the job is going to be someone who I want talking to customers.”

Don’t be afraid to ask directly, either. “One of the things I'll sometimes ask is for a candidate to talk about a situation where they did not agree with a decision being made, and how they managed it,” says Cindy Au, former VP of Community at Kickstarter. “Some of this is just to learn more about how a candidate thinks through a problem, but the other part is to understand how someone might fit into a team, and how they communicate in tough situations.”

Bonus points to any candidate who leads with an anecdote where something went wrong but they were able to turn that situation into lessons learned for the future. That shows positive thinking, adaptability, and self-awareness—all crucial characteristics for anyone in support.

The Best People Are Process-Oriented

Or, better yet, process-obsessed. Beyond the day-to-day conversations are bigger picture questions like:

  • How are emergencies handled when they occur on the weekend?
  • How are bugs reported and tracked?
  • Who are the points of contact for each team?

A solid hire understands how to handle that support email today but is also thinking about how to refine the processes to more efficiently answer it tomorrow. He or she understands how to turn one-off conversations into scalable processes.

This is an especially important quality to nail from the first hire, too. “Usually when you're at the point when you need that first CS hire, it's likely you've got very few processes in place — just a giant stream of incoming questions and tickets piling up on every side,” says Au. “Ideally your first hire can come in and help get tickets to manageable levels by developing your company's voice and answering questions from users. Perhaps more importantly, they can identify where your inefficiencies are and where you can start creating actual process around that pile.”

How to assess: Ask questions about how they stay organized. What tools do they use and how do they prioritize their personal to-do lists? Somebody who is a natural at organization will serve up great answers without even blinking.

The Best People Listen with Intent

“I'll never forget the guy who interrupted me constantly when I was speaking, but never interrupted my male counterpart,” recalls Katherine Pan, director of community support at Kickstarter. “He probably didn't even realize he was doing it, but he didn't move to the next round.”

A good listener is often a lifelong learner, which means she will be prepared to figure things out as she goes—a crucial characteristic for anyone at a growing company where the product and processes are apt to evolve quickly. Even if she doesn’t have deep programming knowledge or a ton of experience in the field, if she’s a good listener and a demonstrative learner, that means she’ll be ambitious to prove herself and will hit the ground running.

How to assess: Pay attention to how often a candidate interrupts you and how patiently he or she listens to what you have to say. Ask multi-part questions. If he carefully addresses each point you’ve asked him to discuss, that means he’s an engaged and sincere audience. It’s also a good indication that you’ve found somebody who will treat users well when they show up to talk to your company.

Always Worth the Effort

Hiring talented support people is tough, but it’s a worthwhile challenge that can make all the difference when it comes to building a happy community around your product.

You set the ceiling for the quality of your support through the people you hire. The team you build is the company you build, making the time, effort, money, and focus you spend on finding the perfect people all worth it in the end.

Cassie Marketos

About the author: Cassie Marketos runs the show at Dollar A Day, hosts an annual co-working event called LadyParts, and works with WNYC and Longform.