In the 2006 movie “Rocky Balboa”, Sylvester Stallone wanted to cast a real boxer (Antonio Tarver) in the role of Mason Dixon, as he thought it would be easier to teach a real boxer how to act than to teach an actor how to box convincingly. In the world of customer service, it’s been my experience that it’s easier to train a passionate customer service rep the technical skills they need to solve problems than it is to teach a technician the soft skills, empathy and caring that many would recognize as world-class customer service.

In the 20+ years I’ve built teams and thinking about customer service in a variety of startups, some of my best successes were hiring non-technical candidates, passionate about customer service, despite a lack of technical skills. In short, don’t put your candidates’ tech skills on a pedestal; their technical abilities are just one piece of the overall customer service experience you want for your customers.

If you want to put anything on a pedestal, consider the importance that customer service plays. A well handled complaint or problem can cement the customer relationship with your company, and their loyalty for years to come.

But first, a story about how I got here.

A company I worked for (one of the first telecom competitors to Bell Canada, post deregulation) launched competitive DSL services. I needed to hire a technical team of people to manage the orders, talk to customers about their existing network infrastructure, and project manage their service installation (back then a DSL installation took 30-45 days).

[pullquote position=”right”]…that we could hire the most customer-focused candidates, regardless of technical ability, and then train the technical skills was a very powerful realization that changed everything.[/pullquote]Nobody knew what DSL was back then, so that was already a concern. I started my search looking for tech support reps at existing dial-up Internet Service Providers.  Some of the most arrogant people I’ve ever met. For a number of candidates, solving a problem for a customer was tantamount to a surgeon saving a patient’s life. Another thing I noticed that happened, as smart as these tech-savvy candidates were, they lied to me when I asked them a technical question they didn’t know the answer to, assuming that somehow I wouldn’t realize it. And yes, bullshitting an answer to a question during the interview is a lie, folks.

I knew that having a successful team was going to make or break what I was trying to do and I wasn’t content to just hire the smartest of the bunch and hope we could do some training for some of the soft skills we wanted from our customer service reps.

The realization

Things were moving pretty fast back then and we were building some of the training materials we needed while the interviews were going on. One day I realized that a network hub wasn’t much different from a switch. And a router just moved packets from one destination to another. And a router sometimes had a switch built-in. And a DSL line was just a telephone line split in two. I found myself thinking “What’s so complicated about this stuff?” and I started putting together a timeline around what it would take to get an employee up to speed quickly. Two, maybe three weeks as it turns out.

We stopped poaching ISPs for job candidates. Instead, I asked my HR rep to open up the search to any employees with 2-3 years experience in a people-facing role. There was a downside to this approach, but only if you mind being flooded with resumes from great candidates! It didn’t take long to narrow down our options after some quick phone screening.

The benefits of hiring people who care about… people

When you hire staff who care about things like customer happiness and problem solving, and train them on skills they need to help, some really awesome things happen.

Not only do problems get solved, but customers say great things about the experience they had with your company. The problem your customer called or emailed about is all but forgotten because the person who helped them cared enough to explain what happened, and took steps to make sure it won’t happen again.

This kind of empathetic, compassionate service just doesn’t happen unless your team is staffed with employees who care about the person they’re helping, as much as the technical problem they’re solving.

Do this

  • Focus your search on happy, articulate, caring people with passion, a love for technology and superior verbal and written communication skills. Look for detailed examples where the employee has demonstrated a strong desire for a happy customer.
  • If you have technical requirements for your role, that’s fine, but consider what the absolute bare minimum requirement is.
  • Make sure you’re ready to give the candidates the training (and retraining) they need to ensure success. Remember that, in a way, you’re hiring an employee lacking in certain qualifications. Help them achieve these qualifications as quickly as possible. Invest in their success.

Other considerations

  • During the interview, remember to judge based on the candidates ability to give awesome service. If you’ve interviewed for tech before, there will be a natural tendency to shift back to a more technical line of questioning, so be sure to recognized (and avoid) this. Instead, ask behavioral-style questions that will help you paint a picture that tells you how this person will help solve your customers’ problems.
  • Look out for bullshit. It’s really easy to spot when you know what to look for. Vague or weak answers around what they’ve done to show customers they really care. Drill down into answers the employee has given.
  • Be mindful when hiring candidates with work experience from a company that is much smaller, or larger in size, to yours. They may have a totally different idea of what customer service means to your company. Share your company’s ideals with them and make sure they understand what customer service means to you before you ask them to answer your questions.
  • Assuming you’re hiring curious, knowledge-thirsty employees, hiring non-technical staff means you’ll have a wide-open opportunity to increase their skills, something most employees look for in an employer.
  • Oftentimes, companies hire employees already over-qualified for the role, which means employees aren’t learning anything new and end up looking for career progression not long before their probationary period is even over.
  • By reducing the need to hire more technical staff, you’ll probably save 15-20% in salaries, and still maintain salary competitiveness within your industry.
  • Use online scenario testing to rate candidates’ written communication skills.

This isn’t an exercise in avoiding great customer service reps who also have the required technical skills. When you find these people, hire them right away! My point is that it will always be easier to find great candidates with an intrinsic desire to please people… and you should focus on finding them.