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The best customer service interview questions (and what to look for)

Updated: Jan 29, 2022

Customer service representatives are the front line for your company. They’re your connection to your customers. They are the ones who are answering the phone when your customers call, the ones who are first in line to receive feedback from your customers, and the ones who are providing feedback to your team about the customer experience.

That’s why it’s so important to hire the best customer service representatives you can. In order to do that, you have to know to assess their communication skills and problem-solving abilities. You also want to know about their emotional intelligence and empathy. And you want to know how their behavior will change under pressure in hypothetical situations.

What makes a good customer service representative?

The best customer service representatives handle customers with compassion, grace — and they are born troubleshooters.

Reps need to have a certain set of skills and personality traits in order to be effective. Customer service is a stressful business, often leading to burnout. If you get customer service skills & traits wrong, the result will likely be a poor customer experience.

But finding this ‘dream agent’ is going to require a clear understanding what you’re looking for:

  1. Communication skills – the ability to clearly express an idea to non-technical people

  2. Problem-solving skills – a knack (and even a passion!) for troubleshooting

  3. Empathy and emotional intelligence – understanding and relating to your customers’ point of view as if it were your own

  4. Calmness under pressure – the ability to remain professional under tight deadlines, or when customer frustration turns nasty

How to interview a customer service candidate

Interviewing is like speed-dating. You want to get a quick feel for what the candidate is like — where they’re coming from, what their values are, and how they might behave under a variety of different circumstances. You don’t have all the time in the world, so it’s important to hone in on key topics that will allow the other person to show you who they are. It’s important not to offend them by being too direct here — but you also want to get to know them on a deeper level than simply asking, "What are your strengths and weaknesses?"

Your job here is to get the heart of these qualities as quickly as possible by asking the right questions. Inoffensive questions that are designed to reveal as much as possible about their character and their potential as a customer support representative for your company. One way to do this is by asking friendly-yet-disarming questions that will allow the other person to open up comfortably.

What’s an example of a friendly-yet-disarming question?

Try asking your candidate, “Tell me about your favorite Star Wars character.” He or she might say, “Luke Skywalker.” If you ask why, they might continue by elaborating, “Well...he is a good leader, brave, cool-headed, thoughtful and also knows how to take care of his friends. He can think quickly.” You might press further, “Why do you think so?” until you get an insight into how they define these qualities for themselves.

Questions like this are not just an ice breaker. Yes it’s a way to bring some lightness into what is surely an artificial and uncomfortable situation. It also helps you understand what type of personality, behavior, and public impression they respect, and potentially want to emulate in himself or herself. Best of all, it allows them to tell you about themselves by talking about something else.

Communication skills

Having good communication skills is the first prerequisite for any customer-facing role, as it makes up the majority of your day to day work. Being able to communicate to a customer clearly and simply is important in any job, but when speaking with customers one needs to be able to explain how a product or service works as if they were talking to their own mother.

To get a sense of a candidate’s communication abilities, try asking some of the following questions:

  • Tell me about a time you needed to persuade a friend or colleague to try a new way of doing something (for example, a change in dinner plans or a different procedure for a group project)

  • Give me an example of how you would alert a customer their product or service was about to expire?

  • When might you decide to leave certain information out during a customer call? How would you arrive at that decision?

These questions help you to gain an understanding into how the candidate sees their role, and how they go about achieving things.

Another direction is to ask them to describe a time when they faced conflict, and how they addressed it. This will give you a sense of how they handle uncomfortable interpersonal situations.

Good problem-solving skills

When a customer is upset about something, the best customer support representatives help them through it. They’re friendly and supportive, but also pragmatic. They must be able to calmly get the person to understand the issue at hand.

While this can be a matter of understanding, it can also be a matter of urgency.

To get on the same page as quickly as possible, the best reps always know the right questions to ask in order to identify the issue and solve it.

To test a candidate’s problem-solving skills, try asking some of the following questions:

  • Tell me about a time when someone you knew needed help with a problem that you didn’t know how to fix. What was your approach and how did it work out?

  • Give me an example of a time when you yourself were having trouble with a product or service and you needed to fix it without having all the answers at hand. What did you do?

If the candidate has had prior experience as a customer service agent:

  • Can you tell me about a time with a customer when there was no clear precedent for a certain issue and you needed to make a judgment call?

The answer a candidate gives will often reveal their ability to communicate in a way that is focused on problem-solving.

Empathy and emotional intelligence

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think about a great customer support experience you’ve had? Do you think about the agent’s CV or the call center metrics? Or do you remember the way a particular agent was able to cut through the confusion and make your day a little better just by treating you like a human?

Customers notice and remember when their agent was cold, arrogant, rude or indifferent. The top complaint is something called ‘charming rudeness.' Customer service representatives who show real understanding are able to make customers feel seen while making their problems go away. By identifying with the customer’s needs, they can change their tone and react more empathetically in a more engaging way. Customers are also more likely to share their problems with an agent who cares — and to share positive experiences with friends and family.

To test a candidate’s empathy and emotional intelligence, try asking some of the following questions:

  • How do you de-stress after a bad day at work?

  • When did you last embarrass yourself?

  • How would some of your closest friends describe you?

  • Will you keep in touch with your current co-workers?

If the candidate has had prior experience as a customer service agent:

  • How would you advise someone who was about to start a job in customer support?

Once again, these questions are designed to let candidates tell you about themselves by talking about something else.

Calmness under pressure

Whether it’s handling angry customers or hanging up on difficult callers, the quickest way to test the steadiness of your customer service representative is to throw them a curveball.

Show them that they have your back and your support, but at the same time, you need to let them know that you’re expecting it in return. They’re taking on a lot of responsibility as a customer support representative, and they don’t want to be put on the spot without time to think.

  • Have you ever had to deal with a customer who is being inconsiderate to you?

  • Have you ever dealt with an unreasonable customer? How did you handle it then, and how would you handle it today?

  • Can you tell me about a customer who you found difficult to understand and how you approached that interaction?

  • Explain a time when you helped resolve a dispute between others.

Another way to test for difficult situations is simply by presenting hypotheticals. What do you do if the customer...

  • says you’re taking too long to solve the issue?

  • points out a well-known problem with your product?

  • asks a question you don’t know the answer to?

  • is frustrated, and also wrong?

We’ve all had experiences with unreasonable customers – that’s to be expected. What’s important to know is how a representative will react when these challenging situations arise.

Next Steps

Customer service representatives are the voice of your brand. They are the face behind the online communications. When you interview potential customer support representatives for your company, these questions will be your key to the best customer support representatives possible. You can’t avoid the fact that there will be customers who have bad experiences with your company. However, by finding the best customer support representatives possible, you can be able to ensure that these experiences are positive.

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