When interviewing potential support hires you always run the risk of repeating the same questions, receiving the same answers, having the same small talk, and then promptly forgetting all the important details.

The antidote? Think creatively, establish a system, and then stick to it. You won’t be left groping for questions, your interactions will be more memorable, and you’ll be able to standardize the circumstances under which you assess candidates.

A strategic approach makes for less fuss, more focus, and leads to the best person possible joining your customer service team. Here are some useful ways to conduct better interviews.

Use storytelling to draw out details

Great support reps possess an abstract set of skills that can be difficult to address head on. You need to find conversational side doors to draw these qualities out. How? By asking questions that require a story to answer.

Sarah Judd Welch, founder of community-building company Loyal, handily employs this tactic by inquiring about advocacy:

“I ask them to give an example of a time they advocated on behalf of someone else. I also ask for an example of a recent conflict and how it was resolved. I’m closely paying attention to how they describe the actions of others; you don’t want them to harshly blame anyone else, but objectively assess the situation and how they tried to resolve it.”

These questions encourage candidates to share a relevant on-the-job anecdote, but they also require them to tell a story in a coherent, narrative fashion. Why is that subtext so important? Because you need to appraise their ability to break down complex ideas into relatable, easily understood steps; one of the most fundamental support skills.

People can reveal a lot about their personal psychology by how they frame a story.

Reading between the lines, what do a candidate's stories say about their penchant for patience, their willingness to help, or their talents as a team player? “I've rejected people who otherwise seemed really good because once they started telling stories, all of their examples lead to, ‘Someone else made a dumb decision and that’s why didn't work’,” says Mathew Patterson of Campaign Monitor.

Here are some good storytelling questions to get you started:

  • Tell me about a time when you were trying to convince somebody to do something. Give a specific instance and detail how you handled it.
  • Did your previous team ever have a project go completely awry? What went wrong? What was the final outcome? (Leave out “What could you have done better?” to give them a chance to respond unasked or completely miss the opportunity).
  • Describe a negative interaction you had in a customer service situation with a different company. What do you think they could have done differently to make it better?

Listen to how they listen

An active listener is a prepared problem solver. Instead of auto-piloting to a solution based on what they expect to hear, they’re patient enough to listen to how a customer feels and respond accordingly. The same answer can be packaged in wildly different ways according to a customer’s temperament, and it’s important to know if your future teammate can adapt their tone.

You can tease this out during an interview by asking multi-part questions. If a candidate carefully addresses each point you’ve asked them to discuss, that means they’re an engaged and sincere listener. It’s also a good indication you’ve found somebody who will treat users well when they show up to talk to your company.

Try some of these examples:

  • What interests you about customer service, in particular? Where do you see this role taking you?
  • How did you hear about our company? Is there something specific that stands out to you about the product or team?
  • What’s a time you had to give somebody an answer they didn’t want to hear? Were you able to approach it in a way that resulted in an overall positive outcome? If so, how?

Throw a ‘zag’ into your interviews

Boilerplate questions don’t reflect the reality of support. They surprise no one, they won’t surface an ability to thrive under pressure, and their limited framing begets limited answers.

That’s no good, because you’re searching for creativity; work isn’t a multiple choice test.

Instead, complement your must-ask questions, your “zigs,” with a few questions that zag.

  1. Ask a question the candidate won’t know the answer to. How do they respond? When they’re new, they’ll face many questions in the queue that will leave them stumped.
  2. Ask a question that has nothing to do with the product: “Who’s the most underappreciated hero/heroine in any story? Why?” Is their response charming, or does it fall flatter than an ‘N/A’ reply in a written interview?
  3. Get people to commit with one question (“What are you a perfectionist about?”) and then dig deeper with a second (“When has this created conflict between you and someone else?”)

You can also zag by how you conduct interviews. I encourage managers to take potential support hires out for coffee. Observing how someone interacts with the outside world will speak volumes about their self-awareness and personal motivations. A person who can’t be bothered to say “please” and “thanks” is not a person who should be in the business of professionally making other people happy.

If your support team is based remotely, the digital common space provides just as many opportunities for unconventional interviewing. At Basecamp, they swap coffee for Campfire, setting up a chat between the potential hire and existing teammates. Chase Clemons, who’s on their support team, says:

“All ten of us will participate, asking questions and seeing how they communicate. That helps us see how they’ll be on a day-to-day basis interacting with us. Maybe somebody nails their phone interview, but in a chat situation they’re giving more ‘yes’ and ‘no’ answers. That gives us some important insight into them.”

Get real answers from references

References can be a valuable component of the interview process if handled correctly. Granted, it can be a challenge to have a forthright conversation with a person who has been hand-picked to deliver a glowing review, but the right attitude (and some good questions!) will go far.

Help Scout’s own Ivana Flodr has honed her technique down to a particularly revealing pair of questions. First, she asks a reference to rate a candidate from 1-10 in terms of living up to their potential. Most people will respond warmly (“A 9!”), but her follow-up coaches more candor into the dialogue: “How could they get to a 10?”

The question often lowers people’s guards and gets them talking about both a candidate’s shortcomings and their ability to improve. You’ll get honest feedback about a person’s trajectory and their commitment to self-improvement; information that’s hard to glean from anywhere else.

It’s also important to ask for specific anecdotes and to frame questions so they can’t be answered with a pat “yes” or “no.” For example, “What’s a time that this person resolved an intra-team conflict?” will get you a lot further than, “So, do they work well with others?”

One chance to get it right

The tricky thing about interviews is you only have one shot to set the right tone and learn what you need.

Even good candidates will struggle to shine in a bad interview.

With a considerate process and clever questions in hand, you’ll own up to your end of the bargain and set the stage for candidates to reveal who they are, how they work, and if they’re the person you’ve been looking for.

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.