Finding and hiring great customer service agents is hard. Over three years ago, in a post that’s still one of our most popular, Zendesk published a list of 10 interview questions to help contact center leaders identify the most effective agents.
It’s time to update that list with one more question: “What did you learn from the last book you read?” In the article “The best customer service agents read fiction” on our Relate site, I explain why. Research shows that all readers have qualities that prove useful for customer service—inference and connection capabilities, prioritization of details, and the ability to quickly summarize information. Arguably, readers of fiction come with more added value than those prone to non-fiction works: increased empathy, higher social understanding, and a greater comfort in uncertainty and chaos.
But the benefits of fiction reading aren’t limited to front-line agents. Those in leadership positions should keep their library cards or their Kindle at the ready as well. If you look for it, there’s a customer service lesson in almost every story.
“If you don't know what you want,” the doorman said, "you end up with a lot you don't.” - Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club
Customer support leaders serve many masters. They need to know what the company requires, what employees want, and what customers demand. Talk with the executive team to understand their expectations of support’s role in the company’s success. Conduct focus groups and employee satisfaction surveys to gauge improvement areas that may affect loyalty and attrition. Closely review CSAT results and quality assurance interactions for customer concerns and recommendations.
And as a customer service leader, make sure you know what kind of support team you want to run and be consistent about it. Take all the masters into consideration and then put your stamp on the style that your team exemplifies. Not sure where to start? There are great resources that can help you manage your amazing customer service team. Know what you want, lead consistently, and your team will likely deliver.
“A rat in a maze is free to go anywhere, as long as it stays inside the maze.” - Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid's Tale
Empowerment is a slippery slope with any customer service team. Too little and agents feel handcuffed to policy. Too much and consistency can be a big challenge. What’s a good support leader to do?
Start with training. Train your people on the right tone, voice, and delivery that speaks best to your customers and represents your brand. Make sure team members are well-versed on your products and that they have the right resources—technology, leaders, and knowledge—to get help quickly. Guide them with good leadership.
And yes, have policies in place. You particularly need policies for the hard stuff. Have clear direction for things like understanding difficult customers, managing anger, or dealing with a customer death. You want agents to be empowered, but you also want them to feel comfortable and capable. It’s okay to stay inside the maze if the front-lines and customers are satisfied.
“The thought process can never be complete without articulation.” - Stephen King, The Stand
Once you know what you want and need, you have to talk it out. In order for all the planning and training to come into fruition, leaders must clearly articulate what their expectations are. This requires a lot of open and transparent communication with fellow leaders and with the front-lines.
Rodney Lewis, one of Zendesk’s Tier 1 team leads, thinks they have the communication figured out. “We have a Tier 1 Functional Council. This is where all the team leads and some global managers call in and just talk about what’s happening in other offices and what we’re doing with our teams, things we’re noticing in the queue, either from customers or the way the team is interacting with tickets.”
Rodney believes that this council, along with uniform training across sites, mentoring, shadowing, and Tier 1 all-hands meetings, keep everyone informed and aligned to the same goals. “As far as performance, we make sure we’re measuring the same things and reviewing advocates in the same way,” he says. As leaders, they know what they want, and they ask for it.
Sarah Stealey Reed is the editor of Relate, an online magazine from Zendesk. When she's not wandering the world, she's a loud writer of customer experiences, contact centers, and optimistic relationships. Find her on Twitter: @stealeyreed.