how to hire for the future, not fill seats

How to Hire for the Future, Not Fill Seats

Dania McDermottLast updated on January 2, 2024
9 min

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There’s a problem with customer service recruitment.

Once someone in leadership gives the green light to hire new agents, support managers respond by filling seats as quickly as they can.

They move fast to meet growing customer service needs. They move fast because they believe a role in support is something anyone can handle.

But hiring in haste often makes waste. In the call center industry, employee turnover hovers between 30 and 45 percent, more than double the U.S average.

With every departure, these businesses lose time, money, and teammates, rebooting the hiring cycle in the process.

To beat these odds, organizations must slow down enough to consider the future so that as the business grows, its support team can too—and not just in size.

Here’s how.

Make sense of support data

One of the biggest obstacles to effective customer service recruitment is knowing when to start the hiring process. For support managers, timing is challenging for two reasons:

  • Forecasting is complicated. You have to project the expected workload (e.g. ticket volume, new product/feature releases, number of customers vs. active users) against agent productivity—how many tickets each person can realistically handle. You also have to consider ramp-up time for new hires.

  • Hiring isn’t always up to you. Companies deprioritize hiring for a variety of reasons, but most wait too long to expand their support teams. Not only does this encourage rush hiring, it also leads to backlogs that, when left unchecked, cause a decline in service quality.

Proving your case with customer service data will better the odds of winning the executive support needed to hire new reps—both at the right time and at a reasonable pace.

In terms of which data points to consider, start with the following metrics:

  • Daily number of tickets received in each month

  • Daily number of tickets solved in each month

  • Ticket resolution time based on issue type

Then cross-reference these figures with:

  • Average response time

  • First-response time

  • Customer satisfaction (CSAT)

  • Average daily tickets handled per agent

Include any factors unrelated to customer acquisition that also impact agents or support volume, like bugs or new feature releases. When you’ve identified trends worth talking about, schedule a meeting with relevant decision-makers to share these insights and propose your solution.

You’ll strengthen your cause if you can demonstrate a measurable difference in service quality that can be traced back to ticket volume, but don’t shy away from submitting interactions as evidence. When your team is stretched too thin, it’s bound to filter through.

Even if they can’t budge on hiring timelines yet, having a data-driven understanding of your team’s workload will empower you to make the most of limited resources and prepare your agents accordingly.

Take inventory of your existing team

Strong teams share several traits. They focus on results, they put company needs before ego, and they take care to embrace diversity.

For support teams, this should go beyond demographics like age, race, and gender. It should also mean recruiting individuals with different but complementary skill sets.

customer service teamWhen a team possesses a spectrum of interests, talents, and experiences, its members tend to approach the same problems from a variety of positions, making it easier for the group to innovate.

Before anyone else joins your support squad, take the time to evaluate your current team’s strengths and weaknesses:

  • What’s something the team is doing well?

  • What’s something the team could be doing better or differently?

  • What’s something you want to learn or work on in the next 6 months?

You may find that while having technical people on-hand is an absolute must, they’re less inclined to show patience with customers who need extra attention. You may realize that agents who could melt ice over the phone are less adept at work that isn’t customer-facing. You may finally accept that no one has the drive to keep your knowledge base up-to-date.

The truth is, you need a team of people who can not only resolve immediate issues but can head off future ones. This might mean trying to hire:

  • People with top-notch writing skills

  • People who are highly organized or process-driven

  • People with basic web development or design skills

  • People who love to teach (ideally, there’s a bit of this in everyone)

If you can identify such gaps on your team, create a list of “must-haves” and “nice-to-haves” to help guide your recruitment efforts.

If you’re starting from scratch, prioritize your must-haves without expecting to find everything in one candidate. No single person (or type of person) will possess everything you want, nor should everyone be the same.

By taking an honest look at your current team, you can figure out what to double-down on, what you have enough of, and what to add.

Most importantly, remain open—you may not realize your team needs something until you meet the right candidate.

Careering in Customer Service

Accept the limits of HR technology

To shave time off the hiring process, organizations increasingly turn to technology.

From applicant tracking systems (ATS) to computer games that can predict good hires from bad, hiring trends have become decidedly less focused on humans evaluating humans.

According to HBR, companies receive an average of five to seven pitches per day—most of them about hiring—from vendors using data science to solve HR issues.

humans vs algorithms in hiring

In spite of their lofty claims, it’s unknown whether such assessments produce better hires because they’re rarely validated against actual job performance.

Making matters worse, as these platforms continue to gain traction, other platforms aimed at helping candidates game their systems also emerge.

Whether candidates sign up for these services or resort to stuffing their resumes with what they believe to be relevant keywords isn’t the issue. The problem lies in believing it’s possible to make sound hiring decisions by relying on technology. It’s not.

With support roles especially, there are bound to be great candidates who don’t make it past your ATS filters due to a lack of very specific experience. Likewise, the presence of appropriate keywords can’t guarantee a person will make meaningful contributions to your organization.

To make confident, well-informed decisions around growing your team, forget about algorithms—and commit to putting in the work. Remember, the primary goal of hiring isn’t to weed out the bad, it’s to identify the potential for good.

Prioritize quality of applicants over quantity

quality candidates over quantityWhile nothing can prevent poor-fit applications from rolling in, there are a few things you can do to narrow your candidate pool well before you start reviewing resumes.

Craft a stand-out job description

Vague or lackluster job listings make it harder to attract top talent. They also have a way of inviting everyone you don’t want to apply. Instead of slapping together a list of bulleted job duties, aim to inject candor and personality into your listing to make an immediate impression on discerning candidates. Your job description should:

  • Be transparent about baseline expectations and inevitable challenges of the role

  • Highlight growth opportunities so the right candidates know what’s in it for them

  • Get applicants excited about discussing their transferable interests and passions

Front-load the application process

If you make it harder to apply, fewer candidates will. But you don’t want to make the application process so labor-intensive that you turn more qualified candidates off.

Striking that balance is tough—and will depend somewhat on your expectations for the role—but if you’re serious about discouraging the wrong people from applying, bite-sized, pre-interview “projects” are a great play.

If you were looking for someone with an eye for improvement, for example, you might prompt them to spend 20 minutes looking through your knowledge base before offering 1-2 suggestions about how to make it better. If you were looking for a good writer, you might ask them to revise an article for clarity.

The amount of effort you put into your search will reflect in the candidates who apply. We’ve all read lifeless job descriptions that don’t leave us feeling jazzed about tossing our hats in the ring, let alone answering their exhaustive questions. Don’t be one of those guys.

Avoid interview pitfalls—and talk about goals instead

customer service recruitment and interview best practicesWhether it’s a phone screen, an in-person, or a panel, all interviews run the risk of being too brief, formulaic, or infused with bias. According to Forbes, these common interview pitfalls should be retired:

  • Brain teasers: Tricky questions put people on the spot at a time when they’re already nervous. Depending on their personality, they may be able to roll with it—but should you dismiss candidates who get thrown off over a random scenario that in no way reflects their ability to do the job? We think not.

  • Looking for “culture fit”: Unless your culture is one of commitment to unconditional acceptance, this is usually code for Let’s hire people who are exactly like us. Do try to leave these biases at the door.

  • Unstructured interviews: The best interviews feel like natural conversations, but if they’re too off the cuff, you’ll have a harder time deciding on the best fit—and you’ll be more likely to go with the person who made you laugh or smile the most.

  • Behavioral questions: Past behavior isn’t always the biggest predictor of future behavior. When prompted to share specific examples of job-related successes or failures, entry-level candidates can have a hard time providing meaningful responses without a rich history to draw from.

Instead, interviewers should prepare meaningful questions to elicit stories from all candidates. They’ll look and feel a lot like traditional behavioral questions, but their broader scope will allow for answers unrelated to work:

  • Tell me about a time you advocated on behalf of someone else. What happened?

  • Tell me about a time you had to convince someone to do something. How did you do it?

  • Have you ever had a project go completely awry? How did you handle it?

  • Tell me about a negative interaction with a company’s customer service. What could they have done better?

We also recommend referring back to your list of must-haves and nice-to-haves. If you emphasized team-specific needs in your job description—like someone who enjoys writing—you can address that in interviews and follow it up with a relevant project.

The goal is to make sure a candidate’s goals are something your team can support and something they can use to help the team.

Trusting your gut

Hiring decisions often come down to instincts. This doesn’t mean support managers should rush the process—especially if their haste is driven in part by a belief that working in customer service is easy. It’s not.

It requires a dynamic mix of skills to be successful in support. The managers who acknowledge this treat the hiring process as an opportunity to assess whether a candidate seems like a person who can grow and evolve as the team and organization inevitably change. They know those are the people they need.

Enjoy this post? You may also like these:

Hiring Support Reps: 5 Questions You Should Be Asking

How to Unlock Creativity in Customer Service

The Science Behind Customer Service Attrition Rates

Published on November 26, 2019.

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