Scaling customer service: hiring your first employee

Customer service is easy when it's just you, but bringing on your first employee can be tricky. This post discusses some ways to get it right.
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In the beginning of Less Annoying CRM, I handled pretty much every single customer interaction myself. Because we were still small, I was able to know each of our customers by name, and I did everything I could to give them outstanding customer service. As a matter of fact, customer service ended up becoming a cornerstone of our brand, and one of the main reasons our customers choose us.

But as with any growing company, I couldn’t keep doing it by myself forever. After about two years, we needed to bring in someone to take over customer service so that I could focus on other areas of the business. I was very anxious about this for a variety of reasons: I’d never hired anyone before and didn’t know how, it was a major extra expense, and most importantly, I was worried about having someone else take over these relationships which I’d worked so hard to develop.

Despite all of my concerns, hiring that first employee was one of the best things we’ve ever done, and it significantly improved our level of customer service. If you’re going through something like this right now, here are a few tips to make sure that your first customer service hire works out:

Hire someone who is passionate about the job

Obviously you want to hire someone smart and talented (just like you would with any position) but there’s one special quality that is more important than any of that: you need to find someone who genuinely likes helping people. It doesn’t matter how skilled they are at the job, if they don’t absolutely love helping others, that will be apparent to your customers, and their experience will suffer. Make sure that whoever you hire will be happy doing the job.

Invest heavily in training

I’ll admit that I was a bit surprised by how long training took. Customer service was easy for me because I built the product myself, so I knew everything there was to know about it. Our first hire was able to pick up the basic stuff almost immediately, but it took a long time for him to learn how to handle every single strange situation that can come up. It seemed like I was spending too much time working with him, but it quickly became apparent that every hour I put into training saved me several hours down the road because I could trust the employee to handle issues on his own. Now that we’ve hired a few more people I can say that for our company, a new hire can start contributing after a couple of weeks, but it takes about a year before I consider them completely trained.

Empower them to help

One of the reasons most companies have bad customer service is because they don’t give their employees the ability to help their customer even if they want to. I’m sure you’ve been on the line with your bank or cable company and the rep on the other end sounds nice enough, but they keep telling you something like, “Sorry, I’m afraid I don’t have the ability to do that on my end.” That’s what happens when you limit your employees too much. Once a customer service rep is trained, you should trust them enough to do whatever it takes to provide excellent customer service. I know it can be scary giving up control like that, but it’s the cost of growing your business.

Don’t incentivize the wrong behavior

There’s some debate about whether or not sales reps should be paid on commission, but there’s no debate when it comes to customer service. If you tie a customer service rep’s compensation to business results, you’re basically guaranteeing that they won’t give good service. Their only goal should be to make the customer happy, even if that’s not what maximizes your profit in the short term. Aside from the benefits of having happy customers, if you allow your customer service rep to focus on helping people, they’ll be much more likely to stick around, and it will make hiring the next person much easier.

Be prepared to step in if you’re needed

No matter how well you hire and train your customer service reps, sometimes an issue will arise that needs your personal attention. You should avoid putting up any walls between yourself and the customer service team, especially when you’re small. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve been dealing with a difficult customer and the second I got on the phone with them they calmed down. Some people just need to talk to the boss, or they have an issue that’s so complex that your employees aren’t trained to handle it. In those situations, your willingness to get in the trenches can make the difference between a happy customer, and someone badmouthing you to everyone they know.

If you’re in the process of hiring your first customer service employee, I hope this list helps out a bit. Whether you’re brand new to this, or you’re a veteran, I’d love to hear your thoughts on Twitter (@TylerMKing).

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