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Q&A Interview: How to Hire Great Customer Support Specialists

In Interviews — by Dave Anderson


Matt Dale is the Support Team Coordinator for Illuminate Education. He was nice enough to share his thoughts on modern customer support and Illuminate Education’s process when hiring new support specialists.

Can you provide an overview of Illuminate Education and how your support team operates?

We’re a software-as-a-service provider for the K12 education market. School districts use our solution to run all their operations – basically everything from creating class schedules to sending report cards.

Our other product does data assessment for how students progress on education standards. And our third product helps special education teachers set up individualized education plans for students. We have three different products ranging from everything you need to run a school district to specialized products for data assessment and special education.

Our support team is currently 33 people. We work closely with our implementation team who are essentially product managers. They’re proactive and reach out to clients to discuss different issues. We provide the reactive support. Anyone from a school district that uses our products can call in and get help. We field calls ranging from simple problems, like password resets, to more complex issues focused on how to best use our products.

In your view, why is it important for companies to provide great customer support?

I think we’re moving to an era where people expect great customer support. Back in the day, you would get good support because you personally knew and interacted with the business owner. But as the business world has gotten bigger and more distributed, people have come to expect bad support. If you have to call your cable company, there’s a good chance you’re going to hate your life for the next hour or so.

I believe we’re moving into a new era of customer support. Right now many companies are differentiating themselves by their good customer support. But I think we’re going in a direction where every company will soon have to offer quality support.

People today can use social media to complain in a public way that has never been available before. We see it every day. If you physically drag someone off an airplane there are going to be dozens of people recording the incident and preparing to share it with the world. Even a much more minor incident can end up being a huge black eye for a company.

If your company doesn’t do the right thing and take care of your customers when they ask for help, the world is going to hear about it. If you don’t get ahead and offer great support while it’s still an advantage, you risk being behind when it becomes a business requirement.

What do you look for in candidates when hiring a new customer support specialist?

There are a series of values we’ve come up with, both as a company and a support team. One of the most important values is having the right attitude. We like candidates who have a sense of humility and a desire to help people. We also look for people who have the ability to troubleshoot. I really like people who have a background in fixing things. People who fix a leaky pipe by watching YouTube videos instead of calling a plumber. Those are the type of support specialists who will dive into a problem and try to figure it out, instead of pushing it onto a developer or someone else in the company.

Teamwork is also super important for any role here at Illuminate Education. We want people who are team-focused, not self-focused. People who aren’t concerned with personal wins and losses but rather pull together with other team members so the company wins.

Clear communication is also important, both in the written and verbal form, along with a sense of empathy and compassion. Our agents have the desire to connect with people and understand where they’re coming from. It’s not enough to simply give the right answer; we also take care of their emotional needs.

What are the steps in your hiring process?

The last time we hired, we asked five specific questions on the application related to the values we look for. The answers helped us learn about each candidate’s customer support philosophy and if they were truly interested in a career in support.

There are a lot of advantages to asking application questions. You can see how each candidate thinks and responds when a question is asked. Plus, it’s a barrier for people who are shotgunning resumes out to every company. You can easily tell in their answers they have no idea what our company does and they’re just trying to get a job. Some of those people still end up being good candidates but it’s easier for us to have that barrier. It reduces the number of overall candidates while increasing the number of qualified candidates.

After that, we review the applications and resumes and our recruiting team schedules interviews with promising candidates. We ask nine interview questions that match our company and team values. We then evaluate each candidate on a rubric scale so we can accurately compare all the people under consideration.

We also do a mock phone conversation where the candidate troubleshoots a generic tech issue. We get to see how they think on their feet, handle curveballs and deal with stressful situations. Our interview process helps us understand if the candidate is going to fit in with our team while doing a great job supporting our customers.

After that, we make an offer, come to an employment agreement and prepare for the onboarding process.

Why is onboarding so important for customer support specialists?

In general, it’s a good idea to make sure new team members have a good experience when they first join the team. In our case, onboarding usually starts a couple days after they sign the offer letter. I’ll send an email welcoming them to the team and outline a few things for them to expect in the coming weeks.

The Thursday or Friday before their first day, I’ll send them a more detailed email on what their first day and week will look like. I want them to feel comfortable and not have a lot of uncertainty when they come in.

Because we have a fairly complex product, we spend about 4-6 weeks going through a hands-on training course. We cover who our customers are, how school districts work and how we operate internally.

We also focus on our internal processes. We go through existing tickets that have already been resolved and each new team member provides answers that we review and critique. The exercise makes them familiar with our ticketing software and helps normalize the tone and quality of the customer interaction.

Toward the end of onboarding, we give the new hire the opportunity to take calls with help from an experienced team member. They reflect on the call after and learn what went well and how they can improve.

By the time they start, they have a clear expectation of what we expect from them and what they should expect when supporting customers.

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