Ask most people working in customer support what it takes to be a good agent, and they’ll tell you that it should be someone who’s a good listener, who enjoys solving other people’s problems. Someone who’s empathetic. Which is why we were struck when we read a study published on Harvard Business Review, claiming that agents who are empathetic, good listeners and who try to understand other people’s problems are not the best performers.

After conducting a global, cross-industry study with 1,440 reps, they determined 7 profiles for customer support agents: Accommodators, Competitors, Controllers, Empathisers, Hard Workers, Innovators, and Rocks — and all of them were outperformed by the Controllers, who were more efficient and increased customer satisfaction overall.

The Controllers are described as “outspoken, opinionated” and those who “like demonstrating expertise and directing the customer interaction.” But why are they better at customer support than all the other profiles?

According to Harvard Business Review, “they are driven to deliver fast, easy service and are comfortable exerting their strong personalities in order to demonstrate their expertise.” They take control and guide the customer through the best possible experience, which in this case is getting the problem solved fast.

This is important because Controllers are efficient and able to solve the most complex issues.

Controllers focus less on asking customers what they’d like to do and more on telling them what they should do — the aim always being to get to the fastest and easiest resolution.

Harvard Business Review

And as we’ve seen in recent studies, most consumers are so impatient that they’re only willing to spend up to 10 minutes resolving their issues. So, the people you’re looking for really need to deliver a fast and easy service.

A little bit country, little bit rock ‘n’ roll

Which, again, doesn’t mean empathy is irrelevant. There’s a reason why so many managers think it’s a key skill — agents should be empathetic by nature, as this is a very difficult skill to teach.

I say that we need people with limitless empathy,” Suri Ratnatunga, Senior Director of Community and Support at Vimeo, told us last Summer. “Ideally you’re hiring customer support agents because they have a ton of empathy and they’re really good at talking to your users, not because they know how to search through 13 databases very quickly.”

We tend to agree with Suri. Over the years, we’ve been asking a lot of customer experience leaders what they’re looking for when hiring top-performing agents. To Daniel Mooney, Head of Customer Experience & Operations at GoCardless, you need someone who’s got a bit of both profiles:

 

Daniel Mooney

Head of Customer Experience & Operations at GoCardless

One of the questions we ask them on interviews is like, explain to us a game you like and tell us the rules and teach us how to play. And in five minutes you get to see how well they can walk you through something. It’s that support mentality that you need, to guide people and being able to explain and be patient with them. That’s huge amounts of empathy, but also problem solving.

 

Finding the right people

Chances are, they never worked in customer service before.

If you ask in the job description for previous experience in the field you probably won’t get the people you need.

And indeed, everyone we’ve talked to seems to agree with this. Previous experience in the role, or even a specific degree, is not really what you should focus your energy on. When you’re working in a fast-paced, high-growth environment, there are other things that you should be looking for. Instead, you can figure out if the person you’re trying to hire is good at solving logistical problems. For example, if the person organized a group trip or a sports tournament before, that’s a pretty good indicator because both tasks can turn into logistical nightmares.

Mick Frederick, VP of Customer Experience at Eaze, a California-based legal cannabis delivery platform, says it’s not even about previous experience:

 

Mick Frederick

VP of Customer Experience at Eaze

Maybe you were a bartender, maybe you were food server. We had somebody who was selling CBD oil in the past. For the most part it was just like, are you authentic? And I can kind of spot that stuff pretty quickly. As a matter of fact, one of the first hires I ever made was a delivery driver who delivered to my house. I basically interviewed her on my doorstep. Then I told her who I was and we had her hired two days later. I loved her authenticity. She was very sweet about the way she went through my order, the products I had, what to expect. I was like, wow, I’m looking for somebody like you. I need somebody like you. Authentic, accountable, honest, trustworthy.

 

At GoCardless, they’re not looking for people who have specific degrees, but people who are not “set in their ways,” Daniel explains. “They have to be comfortable working in a place that’s going to change every four months that we’re going to have.”

The Harvard Business Review study also says that top-performing agents tend to prefer expressing their personality and handling issues on their own, which often means going off script. For this reason, if you make the job opening look like you’re looking for someone good with processes and who can follow the rules, you’re not going to attract the right crowd.

That’s especially the case with Jenn Bane, Community Director at Cards Against Humanity. In an interview with Freshdesk, she explains how going off-script is pretty much the job description.

“Our goal as a support team is to delight and surprise our customers with a helpful and entertaining email. I think businesses underestimate how well customers can take a joke,” she told Freshdesk. “One time we sent an unhappy customer a Chicago deep dish pizza. Another time, after a customer told us their puppy ripped up their cards, I mailed over some dog toys with a new copy of the game. We’ll write poems, draw cartoons, good-naturedly tease the customer if they said something dumb.” And there’s definitely no playbook for that.

 

Jenn Bane

Director of Community at Cards Against Humanity, in an interview with Freshdesk

Cards Against Humanity is a comedy writing company, and there’s creativity in our customer support: our first goal is to make the customer happy by fixing their problem, and our secondary goal is to make them laugh. If there’s a joke to be made, we go for it. We swear in our emails. We’re totally honest if we fuck up. In fact, that’s what we call it: “I’m sorry we f-ed up your order.” We’re very lucky that we get to write in the voice of our game.

 

Sticking the landing

Mara Figueiredo, Global Head of Customer Support at Pipedrive, also looks for candidates with a good sense of humor. It’s actually one of the many steps of their interview process:

 

Mara Figueiredo

Global Head of Customer Support at Pipedrive

I think your average call center does two interviews at the most, sometimes three. We have up to six. Sometimes people come to us and say our interview process is like NASA. But in the end, they always understand the why and they really value it, because it makes sense. We have an interview with HR, we have an interview with the hiring manager, another one with the team, another one with myself, and we even have founders interviewing people because it’s that important. We don’t hire people for a season. We don’t hire people to see how it goes. We want to hire for as long as the company exists.

 

With the rise of self-service, automation, and AI-powered technologies, customer service agents are getting less of these low hanging fruit requests, the “I-forgot-my-password-type” inquiries.

This way, agents have more time to have meaningful conversations with your customers, to focus on the more complex problems, the ones that actually build loyalty.

“I think that relates very much to our mission in support at Pipedrive, which is getting fast and useful solutions with a human touch,” Mara told us. In other words, hire people who are aligned with your company vision.

Sure, in most companies, you can’t really tell a customer who’s writing about mistyping his email “well, that was dumb of you.” But this kind of creative problem-solving is an asset in any context — it’s just a matter of adapting it to the reality of your business.