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Recruit People Who Customers Like

January 1, 1999
Related Topics: Candidate Sourcing, Featured Article
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Most companies that fail at customer service fail at the first hurdle: They don’t recruit people that their customers like. The resulting problems often go undetected for long periods. The penalties are severe in terms of customers defecting and lost revenue.

When selecting front-line people who deal with customers, the most important criterion must be the likeability of the chosen candidate. Skills, knowledge and experience are important, but must take second place to the personal attributes of the person to be appointed. To quote James Dyson: "Anyone can become an expert in six months." In other words, with personal drive and company support, any employee can acquire the requisite skills and experience to do any front-line job effectively over a short period. The skills and experience of employees are not the main issue when it comes to serving customers. What is more at issue is their own emotional drives and their ability to connect emotionally with customers.

Conventional methods of selection are limited when it comes to this. Too often, the priority is technical skills and experience rather than ability to relate to customers. The worst type of selection is one that’s made by default, where the pay is so low and the applicants so few that a company hires the only person who applies.

Here are 14 guidelines for adding emotional value to your recruitment process and selecting people your customers will like. Some of these guidelines may be surprising.

Eliminate person specifications and job descriptions.
Written person specifications and job descriptions are extremely limited when it comes to this process. They tend to be two-dimensional and essentially devoid of emotion as they strive for objectivity. They are frequently boring and border on being meaningless. The essential requirements of color, vibrancy, bright personality, esprit, positive emotion and energy are squeezed out of these uninspired documents. They provide little effective guidance to the type of person who will do a great job at the front line.

Be subjective in making selection decisions.
It might be heresy to say this, but subjectivity is essential when selecting the right candidate. Reliance on objective selection measures will frequently lead to the wrong person being appointed. Mercifully, most decisions are made for subjective reasons. Recruiters just delude themselves that they are being objective!

Many personnel experts and their internal customers—line managers—have fallen into the trap of equating fairness in selection with objectivity. Can you imagine selecting a future spouse on the basis of objective selection criteria?

The best selection decisions are made when you use a combination of heart and mind to judge a candidate. Eliminate the heart from this process and you will only select two-dimensional candidates who’ll have no feel for customers and thus will not be liked by them.

The objective criteria for selecting a candidate must be complemented by the subjective and personal likes of the manager making that appointment. If a manager does not like the person they are hiring, then there’s no hope of service excellence.

To quote Denille Girardat, a store manager for Seattle, Washington based Nordstrom Inc.: "We like to recruit the friends of our staff. We think Frank Pizzano, for example, on our customer service desk is wonderful, and we feel his friends will be wonderful, too. So we recruit them if we can."

Increase the pool of available candidates.
To ensure that a likeable candidate is selected, it’s essential that a company create as large a pool of available candidates as possible. This becomes increasingly difficult in a tight marketplace, but is relatively easy when there’s widespread unemployment in the locality.

The pool can be increased by ensuring that pay levels (and associated conditions) are in the upper quartile of the marketplace for this particular type of job. Pay is a reflection of emotional value. To be motivated, employees need to feel that their pay levels are fair and equitable.

Anton Najjar, for example, says that he is accused by other employers in Dubai of "spoiling" his people. The terms and conditions for people working at the J.W. Marriott hotel are definitely far better than those provided by most other employers for similar jobs.

Also ensure that the company has an excellent reputation as an employer. To deliver customer care, it’s essential that a company deliver staff care. How can an employee care for a customer when the company doesn’t care for its employees?

Furthermore, a company that regularly indulges in a "hire and fire" approach to people will find its reputation will be damaged, and the best candidates will avoid it.

Each employee should receive effective and adequate training. Employees are attracted to companies that provide them with training and development opportunities because it enhances their sense of worth and provides a necessary stimulus for further improvement. Lack of training invariably reflects through poor service and creates problems that make both employees and customers feel awful in the end.

The available pool can also be increased by excellent PR and by word of mouth from employees, friends and people in the local community. Every opportunity needs to be seized to promote any positive news the company has. Creating job opportunities is excellent news in most places and local managers need to exploit this as far as possible.

Clarify accountability for the selection decision.
The person who is finally accountable for making a selection must be the manager who will be accountable for the work of that person. The only thing the personnel experts are accountable for is the supply of a steady stream of first-class candidates, together with meaningful information and advice about them.

This was a lesson that was taught to me in my first management position at Mars Inc., a chocolate manufacturer based in McLean, Virginia, where the company’s production managers were totally accountable for the people in each team. At Mars and other progressive companies, there’s no way that other people who do the recruitment and selection can impose a candidate on a manager.

In a number of the companies that I’ve studied, the accountability for selection was very unclear. In one case, at a company in the Middle East, people in central personnel undertook recruitment and selection. The successful candidates were then assigned to one of the company’s branches. The branch manager had absolutely no say in the process. Regardless, having taken no part in the selection process, he or she would have to work with the new hire.

In another company in the UK, a recruitment agency supplied people to work at the front line on a temporary six-month contract. Managers had no say about who would come in on these contracts. If these people proved themselves after six months, managers could give them permanent appointments. However, many of the complaints made by customers related to the service provided by these new people during their first six months while on temporary contracts.

Create a mental model of the successful candidate.
Before you embark on a recruitment and selection process, create a colorful and dynamic mental picture of the ideal candidate. Try to envisage them operating effectively at the front line, providing a "dream" service that customers love. The more you can create this picture and bring it into focus, the more likely you are to select the successful candidate.

The best way to develop this picture or model is to invite your existing team to produce it for you.

Do not rely on résumés.
Résumés yield relatively little useful information. I’ve seen thousands of résumés, and most of them leave me cold, telling me very little about the people writing them. Most of them only give hard facts about the person’s background, and there’s scant indication of the person’s capabilities and personality.

There are exceptions. If the candidate is a skilled writer, then he or she might be able to convey the essence of their spirit, emotions and energies on a blank sheet of paper. Even this, however, is impossible if you force an applicant to fill in an application form. Application forms squeeze out essential information while distorting the rest. Worst of all, you learn virtually nothing from most completed application forms about how a candidate interacts with customers.

Devote a lot of time to the selection process.
Selection cannot be done in a hurry. If you rush an interview you’ll miss vital signals. A hurried decision is more likely to be a wrong decision as opposed to a well-considered decision made after a lengthy and in-depth selection process. One interview can never be sufficient. At least two meetings are required before committing to a chosen candidate.

Call the applicant back for an appointment at least once more. Spend at least 45 minutes at each session. While you’re with the candidate, try to imagine that you are a customer and how you might feel about this person.

The more time you spend with candidates, the more likely you are to discover things about them that aren’t evident from their paperwork. If you confine the selection process to a half-hour interview, the impression you gain from them will only be skin deep. With subsequent meetings, you’ll find candidates increasingly reveal more about themselves. Don’t miss the opportunity to obtain such critical information.

Furthermore, you need time in a relaxed environment after the selection interviews to reflect on the decision to be made. With relaxation and reflection, the mind allows other factors to come to the surface. Gradually, the correct decision will appear to you. Retrospectively, you will be able to justify this decision with specific logic that explains your feelings.

Use a team approach to selection.
The biggest selection mistakes are made when one person alone undertakes the interview and makes the selection decision. No matter how wise that person may be, they’re always vulnerable to misjudging a candidate.

A senior personnel person from Hewlett Packard once told me that in his company, they "interview people to death." Often a candidate might be subjected to interviews with nine different people, any one of whom could veto the appointment of that candidate.

Likeable leaders always involve their existing team members in choosing candidates to join that team. A bad apple in the barrel can rot the others. Team members are in the best position to judge whether a candidate has all the essential attributes for helping the team provide excellent service. If team members don’t like the new recruit, you’re going to have immense problems with motivation and the delivery of customer service.

Prioritize your selection criteria.
When it comes to selecting people for jobs at the customer front line, it’s important to prioritize the criteria as follows:

First Priority—Personal attributes

  • Customer-oriented approach
  • Positive attitude
  • Prepared to take initiatives
  • Warm and friendly
  • Kind and compassionate
  • Has an inquiring mind
  • Good listener
  • Articulate
  • Decisive
  • Open, honest, trustworthy, sincere
  • Genuinely interested in people
  • Genuinely loves people
  • Genuinely wants to help people
  • Emotional intelligence
  • Rational intelligence
  • High degree of self-awareness
  • Desperate desire to learn
  • Energy
  • Creative with a degree of flair
  • Clearly articulated principles, beliefs and values that align with your own
  • Bright, positive personality.

Second Priority—Skills and knowledge

  • Potential competency in using the systems required to undertake the job effectively
  • Able to write a good letter
  • Can do figure work efficiently
  • Can read, assimilate and comprehend complex text quickly
  • Speaks a second language (if necessary)
  • Able to acquire knowledge of the product and organization quickly
  • Good memory (e.g. for past customers and their names).

Third Priority—Experience

  • Has a varied and interesting background.

Be creative in your approach to recruitment and selection.
One company was opening a new store in New York. Its sole criterion for selecting people was "performance." It wanted good performers in the theatrical sense of the word, people who could make customers happy, who could entertain them as part of their total shopping experience. It even wanted people who could be a little outrageous at times.

The company discarded all the conventions of selecting new hires. It placed an advertisement in a newspaper and invited people to call. Many applicants thought they were calling to request an application form. What they didn’t realize was that they were being screened on the telephone.

Those who made it to the next stage were observed as they entered the room. Did they talk to the other candidates? Did they sit at an empty table or next to other people? Did they offer to pour the coffee (which was on tap) for other people entering the room? How did they hand the coffee cup to the person? When they were asked to undertake some practical work (simulating the front line job for which they were being selected), they thought that they were being tested for their proficiency in handling simple tools and materials. In fact, they were being assessed for the way they interacted with customers (simulated in turn by other candidates).

This company didn’t carry out any interviews, but merely observed how groups of candidates conducted themselves during a one-hour session. The company had no preconceived ideas about the past experience of successful candidates. All it wanted was performers.

The key to selection isn’t to get into a routine. The recruitment and selection process for each new job should be a creative challenge. Be creative in the way you advertise a job. Why not set a simple 50-word job-related task in the advertisement and invite people to write in with the answers? You can then take it from there.

Be creative in choosing the type of people you wish to invite to help you with selecting employees. Have you ever thought about asking your customers to take part in the decision?

Be creative in designing the techniques you will use for the selection process. Have you ever thought about visiting a candidate at home to undertake an interview? (Ideally, an employee should treat your premises as their home, giving a warm welcome to any visitor who comes in the front door.)

Treat all candidates as potential customers.
When I was appointed director of personnel at British Caledonian Airways, one of the first things to hit me was a series of written complaints from people who had applied for jobs but not received replies over a period of months.

The airline business is a "glamour" business and attracts many unsolicited applications from people who want to fly around the world as cabin crew.

When I visited our recruitment section at British Caledonian, I was staggered to find that we had a backlog of over 4,000 unsolicited applications to which we had not replied. Our team there was just overwhelmed and only contacted the applicants who had been screened and selected for first interview. The rest, the large majority of unsolicited applications, were ignored.

Our recruitment team had failed to realize that each applicant was a human being and a potential customer. Instead, the recruiters just saw another piece of paper, a job application, which had to wait for eventual processing (if ever). Our challenge as managers was to get the recruitment team to see applicants as real people and even potential customers, and treat them with the care and deference they deserved.

What customer’s like about you is that you treat them as human beings. The word "customer" is a mere label. You can’t differentiate between human beings. They should all be treated equally, whether they’re customers or job applicants.

Rely on your intuition.
Collect as many relevant facts as possible about the people you are considering selecting, together with opinions of that person from other people. The more information you have about the person in relation to the job vacancy, the better placed you’ll be to make a considered decision. However, that decision must still take into account your gut feelings about this person. Your choice must take into account whether or not you genuinely like the candidate. Failure to do so will lead to immense relationship problems in the future.

Therefore, you shouldn’t simply rely on objective selection criteria as a basis for making your final choice. It’s a delusion that you can evaluate a person solely by using quantitative scores, analytical ratings and objective rationales. Psychometric and aptitude tests, while yielding helpful information, have their limits in the selection process.

No matter how much objectivity and rationality you attempt to inject into the selection process, your ultimate decision will always be subjective. You’ll always choose the candidate who "feels right." You will then subsequently attempt to justify your selection decision using the objective data and rational analyses you have at hand. In other words, your rational mind will attempt to provide an objective reason for your subjective, intuitive feelings about a chosen candidate.

Remember the basic binary code of behavioral choice: People move towards what makes them feel good and away from what makes them feel bad. This definitely applies to selection. You will not appoint a candidate who makes you feel bad, whatever the reason.

The objective data you gather about a person will always be too simplistic and too limited. It will always tell you only part of the story. Everyone has a complex psychology and as a result a unique set of behaviors. Everyone thinks differently and has a different way of doing things. Mechanical selection processes rarely detect the minutiae of this. Yet it’s this minutiae that have a substantial impact on the relationship with a customer. For example, the way a person shakes hands, speaks or what they do with their eyes will have a substantial effect on a relationship. But these fine points of behavior go undetected in the relatively clumsy formal selection procedures that are available.

You’ll intuitively be sensitive to the details of this behavior, often without realizing it. Deeply embedded in your subconscious is a software program that senses the character and capability of another person and relates them to your past experience of successful and unsuccessful people.

It is important that you raise this program to a conscious level to develop a rationale for your assessment. However, this rationale is limited to those facts you can consciously acquire. These facts themselves are subject to interpretation based on subconscious prejudices. Other key attributes will escape this conscious process, even though they will be detected by your "sixth sense" and relayed to your subconscious.

Therefore, what you must do when approaching a selection decision is to assess all the available facts and then allow your subconscious, intuitive mind to take over. Both your emotional and rational intelligence will come to the fore at this point as you analyze your own feelings about each candidate together with the assembled facts.

There’s a great deal of evidence that the application of logic is severely limited in attempts to resolve intractable problems. Resolution always comes when someone applies a high degree of intuition (a combination of emotional and rational intelligence) to a problem. The same applies to a selection decision. When two or more candidates appear to be "equal on paper," you must use your intuition to guide you.

Move fast to appoint the chosen candidate.
As soon as you’ve made a selection, move fast to appoint the person, treating them like your best customer. You must remember that the best candidates will have greater choice of who they should be employed with. An excellent candidate won’t automatically accept your offer. When you like a candidate and wish to offer them the position, impress on them how much you want them to join your team.

The best way to do this is to call the chosen candidate at home during the evening, immediately after the final interview. Demonstrate your enthusiasm and excitement about having this person come on board. Demonstrate your relief at having found such a high-caliber person to contribute to the excellent service that you aim to provide all your customers. You must make the person feel wanted. You must make them feel that they are of exceptionally high value to you and your team. In other words, it’s critically important that you inject a high degree of emotion into communicating your decision to the chosen candidate.

What you must not do is merely inform your personnel staff of your decision and leave it to them to communicate with the chosen candidate. All they’ll do is write a standard letter that might take days to arrive. Such standard letters are a complete turn-off and can undermine all the hard work you have put in.

Give little weight to references.
Everyone plays the reference game. We all know people who will write good things about us. We all know that it’s only in the most extreme circumstances that a previous boss will put into writing anything bad about a person.

References have one useful purpose—to corroborate facts. There are one or two deceitful people around who deliberately misstate facts on their applications, for example, that they received a degree at the University of California in 1995 or that they were employed with XYZ Co. between 1991 and 1994. All critical facts on an application should therefore be corroborated by way of written references.

However, references are of relatively little value when it comes to eliciting opinions on a candidate’s character and capability. If there’s an element of doubt, pick up the phone and call the candidate’s previous boss (you can’t call the current boss if the person has yet to resign). Have a quiet word with the previous employer and find out over the phone what the boss really thought about the candidate.

In relatively small industries, a network of executives and personnel professionals will already exist and be quite powerful. Use these contacts to elicit opinion and then judge that the weight the information deserves.

SOURCE: Excerpted from "What Customers Like About You," by David Freemantle, available from Nicholas Brealey Publishing at 888/273-2539.

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