Smart customer service managers know that hiring is one of the most important things we do; how important becomes painfully obvious when we hire people who lack the written communications skills needed for the role. In this article, I want to share the method I’ve used to test our job candidates written skills. It’s simple, and very powerful; so powerful in fact, that I can walk into most  interviews having never read a candidate’s resume and have a pretty good sense about their fit within our organization.

For the record, I’m not an HR expert. Not even close. I thank my lucky stars that I have a great HR department to help me with recruiting. That being said, I’ve always been fond of interviewing candidates, especially smart, friendly ones. I’ve been successfully recruiting for the better part of fifteen years, and I can tell you that it’s almost impossible to tell how well a candidate communicates in writing without asking them to actually write something. Even a well-executed behavioural-style interview doesn’t capture the nuances that come from seeing how an actual candidate writes.

If you’re hiring staff to do live chat, or email support and you don’t test for written skills before hiring, you’re playing Russian Roulette with their career and your customer satisfaction scores.

Test the candidate as soon as they arrive to the interview

Here’s the general approach that I’ve found works really well:

  1. After the candidate has been phone screened by HR, we arrange for them to come to the office for an interview.
  2. When they arrive, they’ll spend 30 minutes completing a short quiz that lays out two customer scenarios for them to consider respond to. The results of the survey are then emailed to the HR rep and the hiring manager.
  3. The candidate then meets with HR for their first interview. If all goes well (it usually does since they’ve already been phone screened), they’ll meeting with the hiring manager.
  4. The hiring manager, having read the scenario responses has real data that tells him or her how the candidate will respond in a real world situation with a customer.

It’s really important to set the proper expectations with the candidate before they even write a single word; here’s some wording that works well:

Effective Communication

Everything we write to our customers is an opportunity to let them know that we care about their happiness. Words matter. Tone matters. Words can also be interpreted differently than we intended; so it is critically important that we always make a strong effort to effectively communicate when we write and speak with each customer, every time.

In this section, for each scenario, we’d like you to write a response to your customer using proper paragraph structure, grammar, and spelling. Your communications should read as if they’re coming from you, not some corporate machine, or a call centre rep working from a script. Your customer should feel as if you truly care about them after reading your response to them.

Make sure that your words cannot be misinterpreted and that your customer leaves the interaction satisfied that you’ve fully answered their question(s), and resolved any / all concerns.

This preface to the quiz tells the candidate that we care about grammar, spelling and tone and that we want to sound like real humans. If we didn’t explain ahead of time, even the best customer service rep might be tempted to answer like a corporate robot. Make sure you’re clear in the beginning, interviews are nerve-wracking enough and it’s only fair to the candidate.

Scenario #1: The busy executive

Please write a helpful explanation describing the benefits of using LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook for a non-technical executive (Steve) within a large organization. As part of your response, also include some helpful tips that describe a common mistake often made by new users of the services and how they might avoid them.

Good customer service reps know that successful responses are tailored to the audience. In the case of Steve, we can make some immediate assumptions in order to tailor our advice. As an executive, it’s likely that Steve will care about social media from the perspective of how it will help his organization, not his personal life. A good response here would entail a brief overview of each service, and some bullet points about how Steve might use LinkedIn to find and hire great candidates, or source new sales leads and partnerships for his company.

A weak answer from a candidate might focus on using Twitter to follow celebrity news, or how Facebook is helpful to connect with friends from high school. Also making assumptions that Steve is familiar with any of these three services could be a mistake.

Scenario #2: The elderly woman on a budget

Lynda, an elderly customer of her mobile service wrote in with a concern about her monthly usage. It seems she’s received unwanted inbound SMS messages from a marketing company which has resulted in a $3 charge. She doesn’t use SMS and although she could have disabled the service herself, she did not. Please write a loving reply to this very nice lady with the proper amount of empathy, while recapping the situation, and offer a solution that will make sure she remains a satisfied customer.

This scenario really teases out a lot of valuable information from a candidate. We’re looking for a response that’s informative, patient, and understanding. It’s a great opportunity for candidates to show their empathy; candidates not right for the role will often fall down here. Some things I look for in a response to this one:

    • immediately waive the $3 charge because it’s the right thing to do (the fee is purposefully low to encourage the candidate to do this). This also has a disarming effect, so I like to see this happen as early as possible in the response.
    • taken the initiative to disable the SMS feature.
    • apologize for any possible confusion that led to this in the first place
    • thank her for being a customer
    • ask if she has any other questions
    • offer to walk her through the website by phone

With the exception of waiving the $3 charge, both scenarios were designed to not require the candidate to have any knowledge of the company policies. If there’s an area of knowledge that’s part of the job, we integrate into the scenario. For example, I want my customer service reps to be familiar with social media. If they can’t explain the high-level business benefits of Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn then it’s probably not the right fit.

Implementing the candidate quiz


All you need to set up the candidate quiz is an online form the candidate can reach from the meeting room they’re in. On the day we’re interviewing, I just take a spare laptop and set it up in the room.

Creating the quiz using Formstack

  1. Login to Formstack and create a new form.
  2. Click on Build.
  3. Add the Name field
  4. If you want, add a checkbox field and list the things your company is known for. Include one option that it is not know for (helpful for telling if the candidate did any homework)
  5. Add the Description Area for the section called Effectively Communicating
  6. Add a Long Answer field for Scenario #1
  7. Add a Long Answer field for Scenario #2
  8. Settings  ->  Email & Redirects, add a notification email with your email address (so you’ll be emailed the quiz immediately after completion
  9. Grab the public URL by clicking Publish  ->  URL Links. The URL will look something like

 Note: Don’t forget to make all fields mandatory.

Did you find this article helpful?

There’s a huge difference between hiring a star and a mediocre performer; that’s why hiring the absolute best people out there has always been a top priority for me. If you found this article helpful, you have any questions, or suggestions on how this method could be improved, I’d love to hear from you.