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I have a small but growing software company and the number of support requests as well as "how do I do something almost plainly simple with the software" are coming up more and more frequently as the user base expands.

I'm looking at hiring some additional eyes and hands to filter/respond to the basic data that comes through these questions.

How do I tell if candidate is suitable for job like that? What are factors to take into account when hiring for customer support?


UPDATE:

Nic's comment below about discussing tying shoelaces got me thinking on the questions to ask a prospective applicant to do. Many applicants (though not all) are not US-based so testing English language ability is fairly important.

I ended up asking some basic checkbox questions on software packages they have used, then asked two natural language questions:

  1. Please describe as simply as you would like, how would you tell a Mac computer user to find their Documents folder.
  2. Please describe as simply as you would like, how to tie your shoelaces.

I had them submit all answers into a Google Docs form and the answers thus far have proved perfectly insightful as to what I'm looking for and not looking for e.g.

Hello ,

The best way to find the documents folder would be searching via the finder's toolbar. When you type ""Documents"" in the Search field and press Return, your MAC will search for items whose names contain the terms you typed.

Please let me know if you need any additional assistance.

Regards, John

Another one:

to be honest I have no idea since I am not a mac user.

I'm not easily dismissive but the above contender also wrote:

No good, then stretched shoes!

...whatever that means.

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    Hi SWL - I'm concerned your question is overly broad and could be voted for closure. Could you edit your question to instead focus more on asking what you should look for in hiring general purpose customer support and how best to onboard those new employees? Also, if you're specifically only looking outside the company, or growing someone from inside -- details like that can help us formulate better and more specific answers. You can also ask for guidance in The Workplace Meta or The Workplace Chat. Thanks! – jcmeloni Jul 25 '12 at 0:00
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    During the interview process for customer support positions, I test communication skills by having the interviewee turn their back to the interviewers and explain how to tie a shoelace. There's no right answer, but you get a great sense of their communication skills. – Nic Jul 30 '12 at 2:12
  • Nic, your comment was the briefest yet the most helpful. The shoelace idea got me thinking and I did ask it. The answers varied from simple and easy to horrible. If I could mark your comment as the solution, I would! – SWL Jul 31 '12 at 19:01
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To interview for this position, pick several commonly used applications (to be sure the candidate will be familiar with at least one), and come up with a list of questions about how to use each. These questions should range from the simple "how do I create a new file?" to the complex "I tried to foo the bar by clicking "foo", but that fooed the baz instead. How can I unfoo the baz and foo the bar?".

Don't necessarily expect them to know how to answer every single in-depth question (after all, customer support for these products is (probably) not their job). What you should consider is how they go about answering the simple questions and explaining to you how to do each task. Since you're (presumably) going to train them on what your product does and how it's used, the only two things you need to look for are ability to translate understanding into a helpful explanation and demeanor/attitude.

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Hire people that want to help people. Maybe someone who enjoyed working in customer service, but wants to get into a technical field. You don't want someone who was a waiter/waitress and hated it because customers were rude.

All things being equal, get someone who can write and type fast. There will be a lot of email and chat support, but they need to be professional. They won't get away with most of the 'styles' they use with their friends.

If you think you can take someone who wants to be a future developer, you may be able to have them do support for a very short period of time. They will get bored and frustrated quickly, but may stick it out for a future position doing what they really want. This could also be true for someone wanting to get into sales.

  • I agree with your advice. The person's ability to communicate will be the most important skill. The technical knowlege of area can be taught to that person to a certain degree, it certainly can be brought beyond the knowlege level of the user's asking the question, which allows them to provide an answer most cases. – Donald Jul 30 '12 at 14:39
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Since it sounds like is your first customer support focused hire, and it isn't something you have a core company exepertise in already, I'd strongly lean towards someone with similar job experience in the long term. And when interviewing, I'd be looking for candidates who like the work and want to keep doing it -- there's a different personality type that excels at this vs. someone who likes development on its own, and you want your first few people doing support to be easy to manage.

Things to look for:

  • customer talking skills - able to communicate technical things non-technically, able to ask good question, able to set and meet very clear expectations - you might even roleplay a sample call with them. There's a pattern to how good customer support folks communicate.

  • able to document the problem - I've noticed bug reports always have worse grammar than externally facing communication, but even within some level of tolerance, the person has to write clearly enough to ask for help by email. Can do a writing sample to verify.

  • Some level of technical skill. You don't need a programmer, but you do nees someone who gets the basic parts of your system enough to do diagnostics. This is like more of a "is he smart? can get things done?" sort of verification than asking for code samples and having in depth archectural discussion.

  • able to follow a process - you'll likely have a process for when and how to escalate - you want to make sure this guy is doing it.

You may find quickly that the support folks require a different style of management than you have in your current company, as well. I've been watching the customer facing folks in my own department and they have a different rhythm.

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My advice would be to test candidates with tasks from your daily support activities.

Do role playing - you or someone else play the customer and then have the candidate solve the issue. You could water down the real life situations to make them easier to solve on the spot/ in a phone interview but do keep the underlying problem's structure.

Then watch the candidate's behaviour. Is s/he intelligent enough to grasp the core issue in seconds? Or doe s/he picker at minor details instead and not help the customer at all? Is s/he friendly enough? Does s/he follow the customer's mood and speed of reaction or does s/he try to impose her/ his own over the customer? Does s/he seem to have the most important thing - the mindset of a problem solver and not that of yet another administrator who needs to follow a script and who needs excuses in formalities so as to do the minimum effort to help a customer?

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