Hiring for Excellent Customer Support

Don't over-prioritise product evangelism. Seek out empathy.

Posted by Andrew on 28 June 2015 • 8 minutes reading time

I write this post as a support leader who’s been privileged to work with businesses who are truly customer focused, and who therefore value customer service excellence. If you’re reading this as someone who is driven by KPIs, requiring you to get customers off the phone as quickly as possible, what I propose may not be agreeable.

Common “Wisdom”

I’ll be frank; it’s my experience that you don’t need to hire product evangelists to build an exceptional support team. If other key service characteristics are overlooked in favour of recruiting product aficionados, this may in fact come at the expense of good service.

Common wisdom is that, to provide an exceptional support experience to your customers, you must recruit support team members who, above all else, are extremely passionate and knowledgeable about your product, service or field. The successful hire should know it better than most others before they come on board.

I see this logic in job descriptions explicitly requiring x amount of experience in the product or service in order to be considered for the role. I also see it when contacting a support team member who is highly engaged with the product they’re supporting, yet unable to contemplate an alternate use case, and lacks the understanding required to truly address the issue. The resulting support may come across as arrogant but I’d propose that it is, instead, a symptom of a poorly considered service approach.

An Empathetic Approach

There is a crucial attribute which is often overlooked in hiring for support: empathy.

Empathy is described by Wikipedia as:

The capacity to understand what another person is experiencing from within the other person’s frame of reference, i.e., the capacity to place oneself in another’s shoes.

A team member with the capacity for empathy will listen to the customer with ease, putting their own biases aside, and genuinely understand the customer’s point of view. They will not try to downplay an issue, or sell the customer on another feature or product. They will appreciate what the customer is trying to achieve and respond honestly, with integrity, so the customer will leave the interaction without ambiguity regarding the outcome.

Empathy can sometimes seemingly fly in the face of a business’ best interests. An empathetic team member may realise that their product cannot (and will not in the foreseeable future) do what the customer needs. Rather than providing a half-hearted workaround, they instead refer the customer to a competing product which does offer that feature. Sales may have a conniption, yet the customer will truly appreciate the integrity demonstrated.

Consider, for a moment, two possible outcomes for the following scenario. You visit a shoe store and find the ideal pair at the perfect price. Unfortunately they don’t have them in your size. The assistant phones around to other stores yet finds your size is sold out throughout their stores. Now there’s a Sliding Doors moment:

1. Alternative One: the assistant apologises that they don’t have your size and recommends you consider another colour or style. None of the others are suitable for you and you leave, disappointed. You wander to a different store a few metres down the road and, lo and behold, they have the shoe in your size and you buy the pair immediately.

2. Alternative Two: the assistant apologises that they don’t have your size and mentions that they saw this shoe in the window of a competitor’s store a few metres down the road. They recommend you pop down to their competitor and see if they carry your size. Indeed they do, and you buy them immediately.

In both outcomes, you end up purchasing the shoe from the competitor. But think, for a moment, about your perception of the experience in the first store. In outcome two you’ll remember the empathetic assistant who put your needs, as the customer, ahead of their sales agenda. Even if you don’t return there any time soon, it’s likely you’ll mention the great, honest service to a friend or two.

Customers are, unfortunately, not used to receiving honest responses from most support teams so I’ve seen frustrated customers turned loyal by support experiences which demonstrate to them that the business is prepared to be up front in their interactions. At CoinJar, we were focused on making bitcoin consumer-friendly meaning that, during a product upgrade, we intentionally left out some features that our more technical customers wished for. We were up front with these customers about our reasoning and we recommended alternate options for them, often suggesting competitor services. We found that, while the customer would use the competitor service for the feature they required, they’d often continue using CoinJar nonetheless. And they’d tell us why: they knew that we would listen, understand their position, and respond with their best interests in mind, even if that meant referring them elsewhere.

In his book, Startupland, Mikkel Svane, CEO and Founder of Zendesk, describes (on page 139) a situation where he learnt the hard way that you can “destroy everything with a single wrong interaction in which you forget the basic principle for any type of personal interaction: empathy.” Your support team are likely interacting with your customers more than anybody else in your business, often unchecked, so you better be sure they have this attribute.

In my experience, true empathy is difficult to teach. Product knowledge can be taught, passion fostered. The same is not so for empathy. If you hire someone who is lacking in this capacity, you are unlikely to be able to instill it down the line.

Seeking Empathy

Soft skills can be difficult to assess during the hiring process, so how can you seek out empathy during recruiting? Some ways in which I’ve done this successfully are as follows.

  1. Ask the candidate to answer a _difficult customer_ scenario as part of their written application. I usually have the _difficult customer_ try to use the product / service for something it’s clearly not designed to do. Does the candidate relate to the customer’s goal / needs? Do they offer a workaround? If so, does the workaround assist the customer, or rather benefit your business?

  2. Ask the candidate to respond to an angry customer who, through entirely their own fault, has suffered a minor loss (financial / data / other). Is there any hint of chastisement? Do they act as though the customer is in no way responsible? Either extreme is undesirable. A strong candidate should offer a good workaround, while balancing understanding with education, leaving the customer feeling informed but not rebuked.

  3. Have the candidate describe excellent customer service from a customer perspective. Does their description hone in on the customer’s needs, or does it focus too heavily on the behaviours of the service-giver (friendly, polite, etc).

For those of you who subscribe to Myers–Briggs theory, **FJ types, particularly ESFJ, are likely to make positive, empathetic, robust, practical, customer-focused support team members. Depending upon the environment (i.e. phone vs email support) and industry (e.g. finance vs social media) ENFJ, ISFJ and INFJ types are also well suited. **TP types, on the other hand, may lack the capacity to empathise with customers, particularly those they perceive to be irrational. Remember that it is considered unethical to compel anyone to take the Myers–Briggs Type Indicator test.

Be on the lookout for candidates who mistake empathy for sympathy and commence their objection handling responses with dramatic, insincere apologies (“I’m so sorry to hear that x feature didn’t work for you. I can only imagine how terribly frustrating that must have been for you.”).


What I am proposing isn’t to throw out the requirement for product knowledge and passion. These are fundamental, though they can be taught and fostered. Rather, I’m suggesting an adjustment to the priority placed upon empathy.

Move empathy well up the list. Don’t list it as a requirement in your job ad, it’s easy enough to fake. Instead seek it out throughout the hiring process.

Then sit back and watch your customer satisfaction soar.