In the early days of their business, most ecommerce owners are responsible for everything. Every order, every email, and every question is fielded by you and only you. But, as your store grows, you’ll start receiving more customer inquiries, more questions, and more orders. It’s impossible to do it all yourself–especially if you want to take a step back from the front line and work on growing your business behind the scenes.
When more of your time is spent answering customer questions than building your brand, it’s time to hire some help. Bringing a customer service team on board will help you field customer questions, identify friction points in the buying process, and provide a better customer experience all round.
In this post, we break down how to recruit, hire, and onboard your very first customer support rep, so you can rest easy knowing your customers are in good hands.
Know when to hire
If you’re finding yourself juggling multiple tasks at once with no time to breathe, it might be time to hire your first customer support reps. Here are some critical moments to look out for:
- When you’re feeling overwhelmed: If the number of customer tickets has gone from an easy-to-manage number a day to an endless ream you can’t keep up with, it’s time to hire help. If you already have a customer support team in place, you’ll need to expand it when team members start struggling to keep up or feel stressed about the number of tickets.
- When customer feedback goes downhill: If you start noticing your star rating dropping and customers leaving subpar reviews, it might be time to hire support staff. Not only can support staff answer customer questions, but they can quickly identify where there are friction points in the buying process and iron out any creases.
- When your metrics aren’t up to scratch: If the ecommerce metrics you tend to track are starting to slide, you might need the help of a customer support team. Look out for declining support metrics, like time to resolution and customer satisfaction, as well as generic ecommerce metrics like customer lifetime value and number of sales. Both can indicate unhappy customers and the need to ramp up support.
- When you’ve experienced fast growth: If your brand has experienced a growth surge, there’s a good chance you’ll need to bring in extra support. Growth means more customers, more orders, and more questions, which you’ll need more staff to help with.
Not ready to bring on a full-time customer support team member yet? Not a problem. There are plenty of tools, software, and options to help bridge the gap until you are ready to hire full time.
Advanced technology can be a great addition to a real-person customer support team, but it can also plug the gaps when you don’t have full-time staff members. Chatbots use AI technology to answer real-time customer questions, while customer support apps like Gorgias or Zendesk make it easier to manage a large influx of customer questions with a smaller team.
Tommy Hilfiger uses an automated chatbot to answer common customer questions.
Outsourcing customer support
There are multiple agencies that offer customer support services for a monthly fee. This might mean working alongside a dedicated agency or it might mean hiring a freelancer or customer support specialist to pick up the slack.
Shoppers today like to be in charge of their own purchasing destiny. If you can’t justify hiring a full-time customer support team, at the very least give customers the chance to get their questions answered on their own terms—create blog posts, video guides, and an FAQ section to cover the most common questions.
Parabo Press has an FAQ page dedicated to answering common questions.
Defining your perfect customer support rep
Your first support rep will quickly become the face of your company. Because they are on the front line, corresponding with customers, they need to represent your brand authentically. It’s really important that you trust your first hire, otherwise you’ll spend a lot of time micromanaging—which isn’t fun for you or them.
It’s tempting, especially when you’re very busy, to hire the first person you meet. But finding the best person for your small team will save you money and frustration down the line. In fact, research by the Department of Labor shows that the wrong hire can cost you up to $240,000. Take the time to hire the right person.
Start by making a list of skills you think the ideal candidate needs. What will make them successful at helping your customers effectively? Are there other responsibilities they’ll help with?
Here’s a few common skills we suggest looking for:
Customer service skills
It’s a no-brainer, but you need someone who is great at talking to frustrated customers with empathy and someone who enjoys helping people and providing excellent customer service. If they’ve worked in retail before but hated the annoying customers, they aren’t going to like working in support for very long.
Written communication skills
Most ecommerce support is carried out via Live Chat or email, which means it’s important for your team to have great writing skills. If their résumé and cover letter are littered with spelling mistakes, their emails to customers will be too.
Customer service professionals solve problems. They must solve customer questions and tackle new challenges as quickly as possible to keep customers happy. Plus, when you’re hiring someone to save your time and reduce your workload, you want to make sure they have the initiative to do things for themselves. This might mean searching for product information that might not be readily available, making decisions on refunds, and making steps to improve the customer experience.
The first customer support rep you hire will set the scene for future hires. Hiring someone who can document processes and improve workflows will help you get set for success later on. For example, if they realize they get a lot of questions about a tricky checkout process, they’ll be able to come up with ways to improve that.
The workload of a customer support team varies on a daily basis. One day you might receive hundreds of tickets, all of which require a different type of attention–some might be inquiring about when their recent order will be delivered, while others might want to get a refund and find out your returns policy. It’s important for your customer support team to manage their time efficiently by prioritizing the most important tickets.
Your customer support team won’t know every little detail about your product catalog when they start–it’s your job to train them–but having some experience working with products and understanding the fulfilment process can be really helpful. Knowing about stock, inventory, and the delivery process will ensure your staff can answer common questions confidently.
Customers tend to get in touch with an ecommerce support team when they have a problem with their order. This means they are likely having a bad experience or are frustrated. It’s important that your customer support reps maintain a positive spin on communications and can actively listen to what customers need.
Besides skills and qualifications, there are certain qualities the ideal candidate might need to possess. It’s important to think about the working conditions your new employee will have to adapt to.
- Availability: When are they available to work? And what times do your customers usually need help? Those two times need to match up to make sure customers get quick replies when they need them. Many companies will start with a part-time support rep, and then provide more hours as they become busier.
- Location: Are you happy hiring someone to work remotely or virtually? If you work in a small town, or a city with a high cost of living, you might have more success finding help online. In that case, they will need a reliable internet connection and a home office to work from.
- Future plans: Training a new team member is costly (many studies believe hiring and onboarding can cost up to $4,000). You want to make sure they are going to stick around for a while. Hiring a summer student might be a cost effective option for a couple months, but you’re sure to lose them once school starts up again.
List all of the qualities you think are important for your first customer support rep to have in a spreadsheet or document. Separate skills by “must have,” “nice to have,” and “bonus.” This will help you create a detailed job description and evaluate potential applicants.
Recruiting your new employee
You’ve got an idea of the perfect customer support rep in your mind, now you need to find them.
First up, write a job description that will attract qualified candidates. The best candidates want to work for the best companies, so you need to stand out as a great employer.
As Jamie Edwards, founder of Kayako, describes in this great blog post, you’ll want to include:
- A brief description of the position you want to fill, including hours needed
- An overview of your company
- A list of key responsibilities
- The skills or qualifications the candidate needs to be successful
This job description describes the company, what the candidate will be doing on a day-to-day basis, and the requirements for the role.
You might also consider including a salary range along with any benefits the position includes.
Finally, tell interested applicants how to apply. Most companies will ask candidates to submit a cover letter and a résumé. These documents can help you quickly get an idea of a candidate’s past experience and their writing abilities. You might also want to ask candidates to answer a few additional questions, like their availability, or their idea of good customer support. This can help weed out applicants who don’t have an eye for detail. If they don’t answer the questions, or don’t provide all the information you ask for in a job application, then they’ll probably miss things in emails with customers.
Once you have your job description ready, it’s time to promote it. Using your personal network is a good start, but might not result in the most diverse applicant pool.
Job boards are really helpful for targeting the market of candidates you’re looking for. Here are some of the best ones I’ve found for recruiting the best talent:
- Support Driven: $150 for 30 days—the job board for a community of customer support professionals. Most applicants here will already have experience working with customers online.
- We Work Remotely: $200 for 30 days—featuring a dedicated Support category and high quality leads, We Work Remotely is worth the higher price for what it provides.
Casting a wide net will help you find the perfect fit for your company. Remember, this is the first person many of your customers will interact with if they have questions—you don’t want to take shortcuts!
“We hire largely via LinkedIn and the more traditional channels, however our focus is always on customer service representatives who have experience in our industry, or a firm interest in what we do as a business,” says Krystal Suffling, Branch Manager at Aspire2.
“This ensures that customer support staff a) know what the common pain points can be for customers in our sector, and b) understand the value of this role—and they’ll understand what ‘excellent’ needs to look like when it comes to sector-specific customer service.”
Once you have a flood of applicants coming in, you need to choose one. You want to minimize the amount of time spent talking to unsuccessful applicants, but maximize your chance of choosing the best applicant. The best method is to screen applicants, with each level having fewer applicants and longer, more in-depth interviews.
- Résumé screening. Using the list of requirements you developed for the job description, filter through résumés, spending no more than five to 10 minutes on each one. Highlight any that you’re interested in talking with further.
- Phone screening. Set up a time to talk with any interesting candidates over the phone or Zoom. Give them a brief description of the job, briefly review their past employment history, and offer them a chance to ask any questions that they might have. Can the candidate answer questions directly? Are they professional and courteous? Do they have genuine interest in the job?
- Full interview. Schedule a full one-hour interview with the top candidates after the phone screen. This list of interview questions from Help Scout will give you a well-rounded view of potential employees. Make sure to refer back to your document of required skills, perhaps even ranking each candidate on each skill.
- Check references. Once you’ve narrowed down the field to one or two final candidates, phone their provided references. While most references will give a positive review, listen for hesitations or big variations from the facts the candidate provided.
Now, for the most exciting part—making an offer!
You’ll need to draw up an employment contract for the successful candidate to sign. This should include their salary (or hourly wage) and benefits, a short job description, and terms of employment. A contract protects both you as the business owner and your new employee. You can find some standard employment contracts online, or consider talking to a small business HR consultant to ensure you’ve got everything covered.
Setting up tools for your new employee
As you’re going through the hiring process, you’ll need to get your business ready to onboard a new customer support rep.
How will the new support rep communicate with customers? If you’re currently forwarding all emails to your own inbox, it’s time to stop. You’ll want to set up a dedicated support email and think about implementing a help desk. A help desk is a software tool for customer service reps to organize, track, and respond to customer inquiries across a variety of channels (email, social, and SMS). It keeps all communication in one place and helps teams work together by assigning conversations to the right person.
Here are a few easy-to-use help desks to get you started:
How will you share information with the new employee?
As the owner of your business, you already know everything there is to know about your products, systems, and customers. Getting all of this valuable information out of your head and into a new employee will take time.
The easiest way to share information? Write it down. This way, you only have to do it once. Internal documentation or a handbook for new employees makes onboarding much easier. Employees can read through it on their own, and refer back to it when needed.
Finally, there are legal requirements to hiring a new employee. If the customer support rep is your first-ever employee, make sure you have an EIN (employer identification number) or the equivalent in your country of business. You need to register with state and federal authorities, and set up records for tax withholding. Paperwork stinks, but setting everything up properly will save you time (and money) later on.
Onboarding your new hire
Onboarding your new customer support rep correctly will set them up for success.
Set aside a good amount of time on their first day to welcome them properly. Walk them through your operations, focussing on parts that affect customer support, like order fulfillment and returns. If you’re working remotely, set up a Zoom call or video call to chat.
Work through a few customer emails together. Explain your thought process as you type up a reply. Where do they need to go to get information about shipping or deliveries? What’s your return policy? It’s helpful to pull out emails (even ones you might have already answered) from situations that they might run into. That way, they can see how you’d respond and copy what you did.
Once you’ve worked through a few common scenarios together, it’s time for them to dive in. Make sure they’re set up with all the tools they need, and then let them draft a few replies for you to approve. When they’re getting started, make sure you’re readily available to answer questions. Edit outgoing replies for tone and accuracy, and be sure to give specific feedback to your new employee.
Here’s an example of a Zappos’ customer service email packed full of personality. This might match your brand personality, but otherwise you might want to show your new hire how to tone it down a bit, like this example from H&M:
As they become more confident drafting replies, give them more freedom to reply without approval, but set clear guidelines on what needs to be escalated to you. Most teams will keep manager approval required on refunds over a certain amount, exchanges outside of company policy, and any custom orders.
On the first day, you also need to cover:
- Any necessary paperwork, like tax forms
- Bank account details for direct deposit
- Getting copies of IDs and SSN
- Expectations of the first 30 days
- Who to go to for questions
“We focus all onboarding around our values, with an extensive hub of documentation or our customer support staff to utilize. These serve as a library of information related to the customer support role, and also our company.” —Krystal Suffling, Branch Manager at Aspire2.
Ongoing support and development
Over the next few weeks, your new employee will settle into a routine and hopefully require very little oversight day to day. But it’s still important to be available and provide ongoing support to your new customer service specialist.
Develop a method of providing feedback to your new employee. Plan to meet once a week to go over any questions that have come up, plan new projects and check in on how things are going. By keeping lines of communication open, your employee will feel comfortable surfacing problems when they need help.
Finally, once your new customer support rep is comfortably onboarded, it’s time to set some more ambitious goals. Maybe you want to start tracking customer satisfaction and achieve 95% positive responses. Maybe you want to increase repeat customer purchases. Or maybe you just want to increase how quickly your customer receives a reply to their responses. Setting goals will help your new team member understand how they impact the business and focus their attention on positive outcomes.
Get back to growing your business
Hiring your first customer support rep can be a scary proposition. You’re giving up control over customer communications and trusting that someone else will do as good of a job as you.
But hiring the right person means that you can rest easy knowing your customers are in good hands. And it means that you have time to get back to the bigger picture. Hiring a dedicated support rep will increase your focus on higher impact activities and improve customer loyalty.
What could you do with another 20 hours in your week?