The quality of your customer support will never exceed the quality of the people providing it.
Successful support departments often operate like winning sports teams. They promote and encourage stars and mitigate weakness through coaching and candid feedback.
There is one trait, however, that is too complicated to successfully teach to every top player: social sensitivity—the ability to read and react to people’s emotions.
People can change, but as a founder or support lead, you don’t have time to be a therapist. Great interpersonal skills and a fortified, patient personality are rare enough; you need to set these as the bar from the get-go.
Before experience and before technical skills, those on support need to have the right personality in order to succeed.
Why Personality Matters So Much
It matters because a single personality in your support department will have tens of thousands of interactions with customers.
Unlike protocol and a majority of company-specific skills that can be learned with time, the way someone treats others is ingrained.
Yikes. You don’t want any part of that. How difficult is it to train someone to be more kind? To be empathetic? Proactive? Helpful? Patient? Attentive?
Training is a weird term in itself. You don’t want to train, you want to teach. It’s far easier to teach process over personality. Most new hires will have no problem working out the details (where this is, how to do that) in the first few weeks. But when it comes to people skills, you either have them or you don’t.
This isn’t to say that technical experience or previous work in support doesn’t matter; they certainly do, but only after the “minimum viable personality” is present. The way you weigh relevant jobs skills will be on a sliding scale depending on the complexity of your product and the nature of your customer support.
For most businesses, however, support is not rocket science—this doesn’t mean it isn’t difficult or that it doesn’t take a special kind of person; it just means that you won’t need to sit down and open a textbook to learn the basics of support. It is best described as an ongoing learning experience built first on a great personality.
Some companies, like Sweetgreen, care greatly about personality because they believe that an enthusiastic and motivated employee will have a much greater impact for the business than an average employee with experience:
To keep their brand aligned, Sweetgreen likes to hire people who don't necessarily have experience but are super passionate. One of those employees came up with what the company calls "Random Acts of Sweetness."
Sweetgreen's street team randomly hands out gift cards to recognize other people doing good in the community. When it rains, they'll sometimes put a shower cap over bike seats with a gift certificate tucked underneath. They've been known to slip gift cards on car window shields alongside a city-issued ticket to offset the downer of returning to a parking violation.
Thoughtful, proactive service like that comes from character, not job skills you can list on a resume.
Jon Taffer, in his book Raise the Bar, made a blunt (but true) point about experience and mediocrity: a lackluster employee with experience simply knows how to play the game better. More often than not, they use their experience to skate by, making their average work look better.
Meanwhile, someone with the right attitude, energy, and motivation might actually benefit from having little or no experience. They haven’t formed any bad habits, and they can grow and flourish into the role. Here’s a short excerpt from Raise the Bar that explains Taffer’s view on personality and the role it plays in great service:
Experience is not a factor in creating great customer reactions. Some of the worst and most dishonest employees [I’ve worked with] had both experience and professional training! I define employee greatness in terms of attitude and energy… but it seems we rarely interview for these qualities."
A comparison to a successful salesperson is warranted here—sure, those in sales succeed when they know their products, but those working in sales go from good to great when they understand people. The same is true for support.
Which Traits to Look For
There’s a certain intuition some people have when talking with others that helps them identify how the other person will react to what they say, and what they might say in order to get a desired reaction.
Can we be completely frank? They are good manipulators—but in a completely positive way. They see a positive reaction as a destination, a goal, and they will structure what they do and say to ensure they reach that destination.
Take a look at this (made up) complaint from a customer:
I just ordered this item last week, and when I received the package, the item was broken! Seriously frustrating, you guys dropped the ball big time."
People skills 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 empathize with a customer and craft a message that steers things toward a better outcome will make all the difference.
Consider the following two responses:
- “Sorry you are having issues. Let’s get that fixed.”
- “I’m so sorry about that! I know how upsetting that must be. Let me make things right by…”
The second response wins by a mile, and it’s not hard to see why.
The game-changing difference between them is that the second response doesn’t simply focus on “problem fixed.” The primary goal is a happy customer.
Folks with high levels of social sensitivity seem to have a natural understanding of this. They don’t just want the problem fixed; they want the customer’s emotion to change from frustrated to content. It’s not always possible, but the best support crews in the business consistently strive for this.
That is why the right personality matters, because if those on your support team don’t know how (or can’t stand) to interact with people who have problems, their only objective will be “get them out of my hair.”
That said, there are many key traits that make up the somewhat nebulous description of a “people person.” Here are a few characteristics that you should look for when searching for excellence in support.
1. They are active listeners.
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 let the customer know “I’ve been heard.”
2. They are proactive.
It feels good when a waiter refills your drink before you have 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. They 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. The best reps 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!” They know to curb the customer’s frustration by stating why a temporary inconvenience will be to their benefit in the long run.
4. They know how to be conversational.
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.” Social sensitivity means having a conversational style that avoids business speak and an overly friendly tone. Great reps strive for a professional attitude that customers deserve but with an informal style that they’d enjoy hearing in a natural conversation.
5. They are always 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, 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. Someone with people skills recognizes this and will use alternative phrases to mitigate these common problems. If they don’t know the answer, they’ll say: “Great question, let me double-check our documentation so I can confirm that for you!”
6. They default to doing good.
The best support reps are self-motivated and creative. They realize that not every request is possible but that many are reasonable. It often doesn’t take much to impress customers, so they will seek autonomy in order to have the leeway they need to best fulfill requests and special circumstances. They actually work better when you cut excess rules, and they will often simply need a little bit of coaching to understand your business objectives. Once that is obvious, they will seek to creatively reach those goals when interacting with customers (e.g., not defaulting to random refunds and fee waiving).
Chase Clemons, of Basecamp and Support Ops, has some great thoughts on this self-starter attitude:
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."
7. They have thick skin.
Despite their ability to empathize with others, those successful in support know when to let things go. It is a tough balancing act, but nobody said this job was easy. Sometimes you are simply going to deal with people who treat you unfairly; when working in support, you can’t be someone who lets this treatment push you over the edge. Look out for folks who know how to relate to others, but who also recognize that just because someone is upset doesn’t mean they are right or are behaving properly.
8. They are clear communicators.
There’s an old wives tale often passed around about a doctor working with a patient who was having pain in his right ear. In the middle of diagnosing the patient, the doctor gets paged for an emergency, so he quickly writes down the medication needed with the instructions “Apply to R Ear.” The patient, not wanting to question the doctor, heads home and confidently applies the medication to his rear-end. Yikes!
As silly as this story is, it makes an important point — uncertain or inexperienced customers will sometimes follow directions exactly, without question, or will not be able to intuit an unexplained but seemingly obvious step. Many problems can be avoided with elaboration and clear writing. People working in support get this; they always seek to over-explain rather than leave anything to guesswork.