Main illustration: Beth Walrond
No matter how great the product, poor support guarantees a bad experience. As the face of your company, your support team is on the front line. One bad hire can damage your entire company’s reputation, wreak havoc on the morale of your team, and create long-lasting damage.
But what should you look for when hiring someone to join your team? What traits and qualities make a great support hire, and how do you create an interview process that will maximise your chances of finding the right candidate?
At Intercom, our interview process is long and challenging. However, many new hires tell us it made them want to work with us even more – it shows how much we care about who joins our team. The decision to add a new member to our team is not one we take lightly.
I’m going to share how we hire, strategies that work for us and pitfalls to watch out for when expanding your own support team.
Technical skills can be taught but teaching someone to operate in a way that isn’t natural to them is a different challenge.
Core qualities of a great customer support rep
Although it may sound obvious, getting enjoyment from helping people is key. There’s no point hiring someone who’s uncomfortable chatting with others or lacks empathy; your customers can spot this a mile away. We work as a pretty tight knit team and hold each other accountable for our actions. A strong sense of team spirit and ownership are necessary for a high performing group.
The Intercom platform and products are big and complicated with lots of moving parts. We encourage and nourish proactivity and resourcefulness on our support team. They need to able to work on their own initiative, find answers to questions themselves and recognize the best resources/people to consult when they get stuck.
A passion for problem solving, curiosity and a desire to dig into root causes make for great troubleshooting skills. Sometimes things break. Every software company experiences bugs, outages and just downright busy times. Keeping cool under pressure, multitasking and never letting quality slip contribute to our team’s high bar.
Radical candor across our organisation is not only encouraged, it’s mandatory. We give constant constructive feedback to each other; managers to reports, reports to managers, support teams to engineering teams. Critical thinking and expression of those thoughts in a clear manner are imperative in a cross functional organisation.
The above are examples of some our team values. Always consider your own company/team values when hiring and assess if potential candidates align with them. Technical skills can be taught but teaching someone to operate in a way that isn’t natural to them is a different challenge. At Intercom, someone with a sense of humor and an ability to carry that across to customers is important, because our product is all about being personal. We encourage casual conversations, peppered with smiley faces, gifs and emoji. We don’t deal in ‘Dear Sir/Madam’ interactions.
How we hire for support at Intercom
Our interview process for every role is in-depth – you have to meet and impress a lot of people.
The email and phone screeners
We’ve written before about the benefits of email screening when hiring engineers, and it’s something we do with support rep candidates too. You can use email screening to dig deeper than resumes, asking questions to gauge how candidates think about certain issues and evaluate their writing ability.
For example, some of the questions we ask focus on prioritization and resourcefulness. We provide a sample todo list, explain that they’re not going to get all tasks done in a day, but ask which three they would focus on, and why. There’s no right answer for something like that, but it gives you insight into how they think.
The real challenge is finding someone who thinks differently to you but also fits into the culture.
We explore what technology candidates are interested in. We have dedicated support engineers, so our support reps won’t need to handle overly technical queries. But a good support rep will become a product expert and intimately understand how your product works as well as grasp technical concepts. A keen interest in technology, even if not in engineering, is necessary for success in the tech world.
If answers to the email screener are in line with how we want people to work on our team, we move to a phone screener. Candidates applying to Intercom go through two phone screeners, which feature a mix of competency and value-based questions. If we’re happy with those calls, we bring the candidate on-site.
The on-site interview
Our in-house session involves 4-5 interview slots with different people across the team and company. It’s important for candidates to speak to people from different teams. We want to ensure they’re able to work and communicate clearly with a wide mix of people (not just the support team) and understand what those teams do.
We structure on-site interviews so each meeting has a focus. One might cover how the candidate deals with customers, another could explore their ambitions and goals and the next can look at how they work as part of a team. In each case, we ask questions specific to the topic of that interview. This way, candidates have a chance to show the entire interview panel lots of different skills and values and avoid repeating themselves.
After the interview, everyone involved gets together for a debrief. We review all feedback, discuss the candidate and make a decision, with the hiring manager making the final call. Our process is optimized to be very selective but also require minimal time commitment at each stage.
Five pitfalls to watch out for
Candidates can tick boxes for proactivity, resourcefulness, stress management etc. but there are still some warning signs you can uncover in the process. Here are some important things to look out for:
1. People solely interested in getting a foot in the door
Look out for anyone who wants to work at your company, but doesn’t necessarily want to work in support. It’s great to be ambitious and to want something else long term, but it’s not going to be worth it if they’re not all-in on the team they start with. They could potentially go on to become a great product manager, if that’s what they’re aspiring to, but if they’re not a great support rep they’re never going to prove themselves. You want people who are committed to the cause, who enjoy helping people and who won’t be looking elsewhere in three months’ time.
2. Hiring under pressure
Don’t hire somebody you’re not sure about to solve an immediate problem. When things are busy, your team is flat out and your inbox is on fire, it can be tempting to simply focus on getting someone in the door. In the long run, you’re shooting yourself, your team and the new hire in the foot if you rush in. Even under pressure, our team appreciates how much we want to bring a teammate to them who is exceptional, instead of somebody who ultimately doesn’t work out.
3. Not involving your team in the on-site interviews
When you involve support teammates in the hiring process, it gives them a taste of people management, a voice in the direction of the team and helps them understand how and why we hire who we do. Some of our in-house sessions will have two people in them, with one person simply observing as they learn the ropes.
4. Falling into the culture fit trap
A lot of startups hire for “culture fit”. Inevitably, this becomes people they think will easily fit into the team, which can end up meaning people who are like them. You’re never going to build a diverse team and tackle your weak points this way. The real challenge is finding someone who thinks differently to you but also fits into the culture. It’s important that new hires are aligned with your values, but that doesn’t mean they’ll always come in a familiar package.
5. Not giving rejected candidates feedback
If you’ve brought someone through your entire interview process and decided they’re not a right a fit, don’t simply send a stock “no, you’re not what we’re looking for right now” message.
We pride ourselves on giving detailed, candid feedback on the reasons why we didn’t hire someone. We want them to be able to understand our reasoning, and be able to learn from that and take it with them when they go somewhere else. Just because they’re not who you need right now doesn’t meant they may not be who somebody else needs, or what you may need on the team in the future. I applied to Intercom once before I was hired for my current role. I came back and tried again because I received genuine feedback and encouragement.
We built this process from the ground up; from disorganised and messy to a well-oiled machine. We’ve iterated on it and will continue to do so. We’ve made mistakes. We’ve hired the wrong person a couple of times, and we’ve lost good people we wanted to hire because we managed their hiring loop poorly.
When building your hiring process it’s important to try new ideas for interviewing, take suggestions on board and always ask your candidates (successful and unsuccessful) for feedback on their experience. Unsuccessful candidates are even more important in getting your company profile out there. You want them to say good things on recruitment boards, not rant about poor feedback and unfair decision making. If you can impress someone you’ve said no to, you know you’re onto a good thing.