How to Hire and Retain Great Customer Service Staff for Your Small Business | Essential Business Owner Skills

Sean Lund-Brown

Customer service can be difficult but also incredibly rewarding. Staff members with the ability to work with difficult clients and situations, solve problems, and brighten up a customer's day are priceless.  

For employers, finding an individual who is realistic and positive about the job is an absolute must. These are the employees you want; the ones who will work hard for your company, take pride in their work, and should never be taken for granted. Hiring great staff for your small business can be daunting, but there are many ways to do so.

Qualities of great customer service

Source: Nextiva

When you're looking for a qualified customer service employee, you need to keep in mind the value of your company and what people expect from customer service. There are other things besides personality you'll need to implement in your customer service plan, too.

It's not always the employee. You need to set up your business for success so your staff can excel at their jobs. So let's look at what a business can do to put its employees in a good position.

Training your employees on proper processes

The first thing you'll want to keep in mind is to have all your ducks in a row. Understand what your FAQs are and the answers you want your customer service staff to give. You should also train your employees on how to process customer feedback for management’s review.  

Proper budgeting and fair pay

You'll also want to consider customer accessibility and what you can afford. In other words, do you need 24/7 customer service agents but can't afford to employ someone? In this case, your company has the option to hire a third-party company like Smith.ai to handle customer service calls. Our services are more affordable than hiring someone on salary — but more on that later.

We're emphasizing accessibility and budget because if you mostly conduct business online, you need to be available to "the world" at any point to generate the most leads possible. Missed leads could result in a drop in business, missed opportunities among locales and demographics, and some angry emails asking why they can't consult with someone at 2 am. Be sure that you budget this need into your finances.

But don't just budget to be able to run a "department." Budget so you can pay an overnight employee what they deserve. When the pay matches the job's demands, you'll attract employees who know their worth and are ready to do your company good.

Certain customer service positions also require you to have physical tools available for your employees.

For instance, if you own a restaurant, you'll want your servers to be prepared with a check presenter, apron, pens, etc. If you work in a hotel, make sure your concierges have up-to-date room booking software, working phones, and access to rooms they may need to use. Sure, a true chef isn't held back by the wrong tool, but it does make the job easier if you have what you need.

You can't expect customer service staff to excel and be happy if you don't give them what they need to do the job.

Consider the kind of experience the customer wants

Now into the nitty-gritty. Do you want to hire a stellar customer service employee? Then you need to know what customers expect from a customer service experience. By understanding these qualities, you can better identify the candidates who can present the information you need to convey and convert customers.

Your employee should know the product

A potential customer wants to know that the product you're selling is reliable and worth the price. If they can't test the product out, as is the case with internet services and consumables, then you need someone to sell the product *honestly* in a way that makes the customer feel like they've used it before.

A customer usually wants to know the following about a product:

● Relatability (why do I need it?)

● User Experience

● Design

● Compatibility (particularly important with electronic and Bluetooth devices)

● Ease of use

● Price

● Durability

● Functionality (does it actually work?)

Your customer service employee should properly convey this information as succinctly and clearly as possible to a customer. At the same time, they don't have to know everything about the product. They should be able to tell a convincing tale of the product personably without being hyperbolic.

Hiring a customer service agent can make customers feel valued

Hiring a person to man the phones can benefit your business, as the representative won’t use canned answers and can offer a real connection with the customer. The representative can personalize the experience for your target audience. But you need a little more than just the human element.

Customers will want the following from their customer service agent:

● Empathy

● Compassion

● Honesty

● Transparency

● Options

● Information

● Manners

● Fairness

A customer service agent should also be able to separate themselves from the job to an extent. Higher tolerance for frustration is particularly helpful, as it allows them to stay even-tempered for longer and de-escalate situations that call for intervention. You want an individual who is comfortable talking to people, can problem solve, knows just the right thing to say, and is, above all, friendly.

Again, looking at a customer service position in restaurants, a good server can make up for quite a few mistakes from the kitchen. Food comes out wrong? "Let me have them refire that for you." Has a customer been waiting for a table for 30 minutes? "I can take your phone number and call you when it's ready. That way, you don't have to wait in a crowded lobby." Usually, simple solutions like this are all a customer needs to turn that frown upside down.

Now, if your food is great, but your server took 20 minutes to acknowledge you, was sarcastic, or ignored you, no cut of filet mignon is going to let you forget the terrible service you received. Look for a friendly individual who can function under pressure. It will eventually rub off on the customer.

And though friendliness is key, don't hire someone who will cave to the customer's demands all the time. Your employees may butt heads with dissatisfied customers. The ideal employee will know when to turn to upper management for guidance.

Why finding the right person is important for small businesses

Small businesses don’t have the extensive workforce of larger corporations, but you are just as relevant. You should pay special importance to customer service for this reason.

Your company will feel any mistake more than if an employee made it at a big corporation. Many large corporations face mistakes they have to apologize for in the public eye. All businesses have to manage their images and reputations. However, a small business doesn't always have the resources or the money for PR management.

You can rely on relationships with the local community and smaller-scale clients, though. Don't let poor customer service be the reason people don't want to do business with you. You can connect with your base on a greater level than a corporate entity could. Use this to your advantage!

Hiring the right customer service agent

Now that you know the type of person you want for the job, go out there and find them. The basic steps for hiring anyone apply.

● Write a job description.

● Post the job on multiple recruitment sites.

● Review resumes.

● Schedule an interview.

● Interview.

● Hire or fire.

For this job, you'll want to assess the candidate’s customer service skills. You could do this in a few ways; it depends on the service you provide. If you can offer a customer support position that's entirely remote, there's no reason why you can't hold a virtual interview or go through an automated skill assessment service.

You want to pay attention to the first impression. Though looks don't matter, you want your employee to be well-kept, well-spoken, and can present a warm and helpful image to your customers. Make sure they establish a connection with you, as that will reflect on their ability to connect with your clients.

You could present the candidate with hypothetical scenarios. The candidate's answers will give you insight into how well they will follow your guidelines and how they process information. Ask them about their work experience and seriously consider their personality and anecdotes about past customer interactions. Call their references.

Retaining your customer service employees

Source: EduMe

Employee retention refers to the number of employees who stay with your company for a certain amount of time. Because customer service is such an emotionally challenging work area, turnover can be fairly high.

Give your employees the support they need so they'll stay with you. Most people won't accept neglect or abuse in a professional environment. Here are some strategies for employee retention.

Mutual respect

If you show respect, ideally, you'll receive it back. This goes for everyone, including an employer and employee. Never treat an employee as a lesser individual for being lower on the chain of command. These are the people trying to keep your company afloat. The least you can do is be courteous, appreciative, and gracious.

Acknowledge employee concerns

Don't be the boss who doesn't do anything for their employees. If they are having a problem and want to meet with you, give them time. Even if you cannot come up with a solution on the day of, you should make your staff feel heard. You can always follow up with an email or another meeting date to communicate your response.

Give your employees the tools they need to work

As mentioned before, your business should have everything an employee needs to excel at their job. But sometimes you don't know what you need until they start working. This is especially true with customer service. You can always sit in on a call to determine the problem firsthand. You might find that your employee might benefit from training on a certain software.

Pay them fairly

You want to pay your employees fairly. If they are working overtime, pay them overtime. No employee should have to work for free. And if you don't want to pay someone, find volunteers.

Show your employees that you're willing to work, too

Don't just sit in your closed-door office all day surfing Facebook. Show your employees that you want to learn about their experience. Get on a headset and answer calls for a couple of hours. Sit in on team meetings and give feedback. Be a team player.

Don't micromanage

Micromanaging shows an employee that you don't trust them to do their job. This can be very off-putting, especially if they're in the middle of working their magic on a customer. Trust that you hired capable and talented staff that can stand on their own.

Be transparent with your expectations

When you hire someone, let them know what you expect of them. Do you need them to repeat the company slogan every time they answer the phone? Tell them. Do you need them to convert at least ten customers a month? Tell them that, too.

Go over company expectations for a role at the initial interview and regularly remind your staff of their duties. You can always provide feedback about how well you think your staff is doing during performance reviews.

Offer benefits

If your company can afford to provide benefits, you may see an increase in your employee retention. Something like insurance and a 401k can go a long way.

Recognize your existing employees

You should dedicate as much enthusiasm and time to new hires as the employees who have been working for you for years. There's nothing worse than working at a company for five years, and being overlooked for a promotion (despite being qualified).

Regularly check in with your existing employees and ask them where they see themselves at the company in five or ten years. If they would like to move up, create opportunities for them to do so. If they aren't qualified to move up, tell them the steps they need to take to qualify for a raise or promotion. Maybe the employee needs to go back to school. Maybe they need a few more years with the company. Whatever the case, let them know.

Be a supportive boss

Don't be the boss who ignores the fact that the customer is not always right. Be the boss who can sympathize with the employee. Praise your employees when called for and jump in to "save" your employees when things get heated. Be there for victories and milestones, but also customer freak-outs and bad days. Praise your staff for handling tough situations.

Conduct employee exit interviews

Want to know why your employees really left? Interview the ones on the way out. Why are they quitting? How was their experience with your business? Look for patterns and places where you can improve.

Be an active listener

If your employee comes to you enthusiastically with a suggestion, listen to them. They will have a great idea to improve how things work at your business. You could get inspired by their suggestions and restructure processes or roles to better fit staff needs.

Celebrate employee birthdays

A cupcake and a "Happy Birthday" can go a long way. Not only does it show that you know how to check your calendar (it's okay, we can't remember birthdays, either), but it humanizes you.

By recognizing the person who is always putting themselves out there for your company, you show that you care for them, not just a worker bee. You can hold a monthly birthday celebration on a Friday or privately recognize birthdays via email. Either way, it's a kind gesture.

Positive work environment

If your customer service setting is public — storefront, restaurant, etc. — or you require employees to work in an office, build a positive work environment. This means fostering a place free from health and environmental hazards. Keep bathrooms and floors clean. Incorporate daily affirmations into memos and keep intense conversations between other team members private. Identify toxic employees and gossipers and intervene if possible. Don't let a bad egg ruin a fantastic team.

Approach deadlines and work-related pressure with a sense of determination and practicality. Don't set ridiculous expectations and then chastise someone for not making them. Instead, incentivize outstanding employee performance and only use harsh words when you have to.

If you want your customer support team to smile with their voice, make sure you help them smile in real life.

Be all about aesthetics

Again, if you're working from an office, it's pretty much a second home for your employees. If working full-time, that's 35-40 hours a week for about 40 years in a place that requires you to be out of your pajamas at all times. That's why you should make your office space welcoming and psychologically pleasing — get some plants! A little green can increase employee productivity and happiness. Not to mention it adds a little color to a grey cubicle officescape.

Another solution is to avoid fluorescent lights and bring in as much natural light as possible. Softer lights and sunshine will make both the mind and eyes happier.

And if you own your space, don't be afraid to incorporate a little personality into your office decor. You can also consider your workers’ needs. Think about open office spaces, standing desks, and clean lines. Create a space your employees want to be in.

Hold wellness programs after work hours

Sitting in a chair all day with someone's voice in your ear is exhausting physically and can lead to health issues: back pain, poor posture, carpal tunnel, stress, etc. Offer after-work health and wellness programs like yoga, meditation, or a cardio class if you really want to get your team moving.

Maintain a team feel with remote workers — send swag!

Remote work is a fabulous way to employ qualified customer service professionals without worrying about exhausting your locale. The only problem is that it's hard to "build" a team when someone is so far away.

Sure, you keep in touch virtually, but you also miss out on the in-person camaraderie. So make sure remote workers remember they are an integral part of the team. Send them some company swag!

A company t-shirt, a coffee mug, or even a mouse pad is a simple gesture to let them know that you feel proud that they are on your team. When they feel part of something, they are more willing to stay with the people they love working with.

How to keep your great team great

Impressive customer service allows you to generate customer loyalty, build your brand's positive reputation, and convert customers. In the words of Salesforce, one of the country's leading experts in customer relations, customer service "is more than just providing answers; it's an important part of the promise your brand makes to its customers."

You put together a great team that is ready to stick with you till the very end. So don't let that fire go out. Help keep your great customer service team great.

Training and check-ins

Sales and customer service approach ideologies are constantly changing. So, you should make an effort to keep your team in the know with the latest strategies. Hold regular monthly training and team check-ins. Make these check-ins an opportunity for employees to express their concerns.

You can hold training virtually or in-house, with a third-party professional or one-on-one with an in-house mentor. You also have the option of signing your employees up for an online class series. Website services like Talent Library and The Customer Focus offer customer service essentials. If it's in your budget to buy training, you may want to consider it.

Pay for certifications

Another option is to pay a portion of your employees' tuition to get their certification in customer service-related fields. Receiving a certification from institutions like HDI or HubSpot Academy shows you and others that someone is ready to take customer service seriously and has the know-how to back up their performance.

Remind them of their importance

Let your customer service employees know exactly where they fall in the sales funnel (not everyone will be intaking leads or handling customer complaints) and why they are important to your company's success.

Employees are more likely to stay if they feel appreciated and that their tasks have a purpose in the company.

Weed out problematic employees

Assess your team regularly and cut the fat if you notice a problem. This is your business, and you need a customer service team that is in tip-top shape. If someone is not improving despite training, it may be time to let them go.

The urgency behind employee retention

Employee retention now determines whether a business remains in operation or not. Every business is susceptible to this, but the hospitality and leisure industries have seen many changes in recent years. Most of these jobs are customer service-related.

Between the virality of the internet and the distrust in corporate workspaces, a reputation for employee mistreatment might as well be a death sentence for a small business. For this reason, knowing effective hiring and firing techniques and processes is important for retaining great customer service staff for your small business.

At any time, your employees could decide their professional needs are not being met and leave. Staying on top of what your company needs to thrive is very important.

Smith.ai can effectively help your customer service offerings

Smith.ai offers 24/7 call answering with live agents, as well as website chat responses from live agents and AI chatbots. Our service is a more affordable option compared to hiring salaried employees, and our agents are trained to adapt to your company's needs. We are a great service for small businesses on a budget and will allow you and your employees to focus on tasks besides customer service that help the company grow.

Besides the AI chat service, live agents are actual living, breathing humans. Choosing Smith.ai over developing an in-house customer service team doesn't mean you're selling out. Rather, you're reaching out to a service that can help you. Hand Smith.ai's agents prompts, questions to ask, and things to look out for, and we will answer customer calls just as someone who was working in-house would.

Smith.ai wants to help you take your small business to the next level

So, the next time you face financial uncertainty but still need customer support or need all hands on deck, consider Smith.ai. It seems like the simple answer to how to hire and retain great customer service staff is to be a decent, well-intentioned boss, but there is much more than that. You need the right candidate, the right tools, and the right attitude.

You can get started with our team by booking a free consultation today. Speak with us for 30 minutes at no cost to you so we can identify your pain points and communicate how our services could help your staff. Our team can discuss pricing for our services.

Sean Lund-Brown

Sean Lund-Brown is a current Marketing Assistant for Smith.ai. A graduate from Metropolitan State University of Denver, Sean graduated with a BA in Music and an individualized degree in Teaching Vocal Pedagogy.

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