When you opened for business, you were responsible for everything. Every order that came through, every email from a customer—it all rested on your shoulders.
But as your store grows, you’ll be answering more and more customer inquiries, and your time will be consumed with front line work. The rest of the business suffers, or customers start to become impatient with longer wait times.
When more of your time is spent answering customer questions than building your business, it’s time to hire some help.
Your first customer support rep will probably be a part-time employee who can jump in and respond to customer inquiries when needed. They might also help you out with writing FAQs, social media, and other projects.
In this post, we break down how to recruit, hire and onboard your very first customer support rep, so you can get back to running the business, knowing your customers are in good hands.
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, Careerbuilder estimates that a single bad hire can cost your team $50,000 in lost productivity, morale, and customer complaints. 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 might seem obvious, but you need someone who is great at talking to frustrated customers, and who likes helping people. 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: If their resume and cover letter are littered with spelling mistakes, their emails to customers will be too. They should be easy to communicate with through text. Plus, if you don’t work in the same office, you’ll spend most of your time communicating in writing. You want to avoid any potential miscommunications!
Empathy: Hiring someone who already demonstrates a strong empathetic nature means you’ll never have to worry about them going to bat for your customers. An empathetic support rep will always go above and beyond to make things right for the customer.
Works independently: When you’re hiring someone to save your time and reduce your workload, you want to make sure they can sort things out for themselves. That means searching for information that might not be readily available, making decisions on refunds (within guidelines, of course) and taking initiative on improving the customer experience.
Process minded: The first customer support rep will set the scene for future hires. Hiring someone who can document processes and improve workflows will set you up for success later on.
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 $4000). You want to make sure they are going to stick around for awhile. 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 or 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 and,
- the skills or qualifications the candidate needs to be successful.
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 resume. 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 customer support 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.
- WeWorkRemotely: $200 for 30 days - featuring a dedicated Support category, and high quality leads, WeWorkRemotely 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!
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.
- Resume Screening. Using the list of requirements you developed for the job description, filter through resumes, spending no more than 5 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 Skype. Give them a brief description of the job, and briefly review their past employment history. Provide 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 the candidate. 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 provide 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 probably 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 support 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’s a few easy-to-use help desks to get you started:
- Inbox by Zendesk (free)
- Help Scout ($8/month/user)
- Front App ($15/month/user)
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
Hiring the right person will be a huge helping in getting them up and running quickly. Even if you’ve found someone that echos your company’s voice and desire to help customers, the job doesn’t stop there. 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. You don’t want them to feel like an inconvenience or a bother. Walk them through your operations, focussing on parts that affect customer support like order fulfilment and returns. If you’re working remotely, set up a Google Hangout 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 your response.
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.
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.
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 support rep.
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 keep 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 receive a reply to their responses. Setting goals will help your new team member understand how they impact their 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.
What could you do with another 20 hours in your week?