Recruiting staff for better customer service

Contributor - Andrew McMillan

Happy smiling male and female shop floor workers

Your members of staff are the key to delivering top-notch customer service. Consultant Andrew McMillan explains why you should hire - and fire - for attitude

Establishing the right recruitment strategy is essential in order to create a defined customer experience and positive internal culture. Ideally, businesses need to bring existing staff into line with the business culture and customer service goals and use the same parameters to inform future recruitment.

You don't want new recruits "tarnished" by negative behaviour that may exist in the business and likewise you don't want the existing employees to be working to develop a culture that their newest colleagues don't seem to support.

The approach that I have followed for ten years comes from Rita Bailey, formerly of Southwest Airlines in the USA. Bailey has a simple mantra: "Hire for attitude, fire for attitude."

The importance of attitude

The question is, why don't more businesses follow this approach? The answer is that many firms can't articulate exactly what the attitude is that they are looking for. Meanwhile, those businesses that have developed a successful mission statement will be able to easily describe the type of person that would fit the bill. In other words, the mission statement itself defines what the right attitude is.

Of course, some roles require specific qualifications or substantial previous experience, but these attributes should only open the door to the selection process - it's the person you are recruiting, not their qualifications or experience. If those qualifications or experience are in short supply, there may be a trade-off against the ideal attitude profile you are looking for and that can happen with existing employees, too. However, you need to be conscious that every time a compromise is made on the attitude of the individual recruited it serves to dilute the culture and may threaten the customer experience you are trying to create.

How to recruit the best person for the job

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to recruitment. The process must be tailored to the type of business and to the type of people the business wants to recruit. A simple one-to-one interview may not provide enough information. By studying application forms and accompanying letters, you can do some initial screening. Even on paper, it can be possible to spot applicants with the right, or wrong, attitude. One business I know asked applicants to draw their greatest achievement on the back of the application form which proved to be very revealing while also being wholly relevant to their business.

The next stage may be a brief one-to-one interview or it could be a telephone interview. Ideally, if there is any team working involved in the role, the next stage should be a half-day group assessment. It doesn't matter too much what you ask the candidates to do, what you should be looking for is evidence of openness, collaboration and the ability to relate to others.

A hotel manager once told me that they started their assessment mornings by bringing in a trolley of tea and coffee and then withdrawing from the room. The candidates that jumped up and asked who would like tea or coffee were almost invariably the ones they offered jobs to at the end of the process. That might sound like a trick, but actually it's a very clever way of identifying which candidates have an in-built service ethic. It's certainly more revealing than a one-to-one interview where clever candidates can make themselves appear to be exactly what the business is looking for. That deception is easy to achieve in an hour's interview, but much harder to maintain over a half-day activity based assessment.

If you have a group of candidates together at one time, it can also be helpful to talk to them about the culture of the business, what it's like to work in the business and the expectations on both sides. If there aren't a sufficient number of candidates for group assessment, an alternative approach could be to invite the candidates in to work alongside their potential future colleagues. Again, it's very difficult to maintain a facade in that situation. Moreover, if the business has an established positive culture they should listen to the views of that colleague.

The final stage should be another interview with a number of competency questions as well as more conventional fact-finding questions. Competency interviewing is one of the most effective ways I have seen of predicting future behaviour and is another way to break though a candidate's interview facade. For example, if a sense of fun at work is central to the business culture a question might be: "Describe an occasion on which you made a group of people laugh, what happened and how did you feel about it?" That is likely to be so much more revealing than simply asking: "Do you enjoy having fun at work?"

An offer of employment

The offer letter is another opportunity to reinforce the culture and service aims of the business. It should be written as a two way contract along the lines of: "We are offering you this job with the following salary and package of benefits. In return we will expect you to meet these expectations and spell out what the business aims for internal culture and external service are". In this way there is absolute transparency at the beginning of the relationship and should the new recruit prove to be unsuitable, then you have covered the first base of employment law by being absolutely clear about what is expected - even before they have signed a contract!

On-going job support

But all that is still not enough! So many organisations have great recruitment processes but then fail to provide on-the-job support and follow up. A great mantra for this is: be 100% honest, 100% kind.

In other words, talk to new recruits at a very early stage about their performance in an honest, direct way and be kind in giving them support to adjust if necessary. If nothing else, it covers the next base of employment law should they not meet the required standard and are subsequently asked to leave the business. But for me, it's just as much about a combination of doing the right thing morally and using common sense as it is about jumping through legal hoops.

Yet so many businesses I talk to describe a poor performing individual and then go on to say how many years they have been in post. Why? I assume a combination of the business failing to grasp the nettle at an early stage, perhaps combined with a poor or non-existent articulation of what the required standard is. By that point they will have done inestimable damage both to the business' customer experience and internal culture.

Written by Andrew McMillan of Charteris.

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Andrew McMillan

Andrew spent most of his career at John Lewis, starting as a management trainee, and subsequently held a number of operational trading roles across several branches, culminating in running the furniture floor at Oxford Street.

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