How to Hire Customer Service Reps


Fred Perrotta

I was nervous to hire Tortuga's first customer service (CS) person. Hiring a good rep would be a challenge, but the scariest part was that we weren't just hiring our first CS employee, we were hiring our first employee.

What if we hire the wrong person? What if I'm a shity boss? Will anyone good want to work with us? Can we find someone part-time?

I brought all of these questions and fears to a mini-retreat run by Sean Keener of Bootsnall. At the retreat, I met Sean, Travis from Extra Pack of Peanuts, and Jenn, now the editor of Packsmith. Along with the rest of the group, they allayed my fears of hiring. Travis had recently been through the same process. My next step was to do what I knew we need to do.

Using their advice and the book Who?, I posted our first job listing on Packsmith, the Tortuga blog. Three years later, we've hired a total of three reps, two of whom (Lauren and Angela) are still with the team.

This post outlines how we hire customer service reps at Tortuga.

Our Philosophy

Cable, phone, and other big companies have continually lowered our expectations of customer service. We now expect bad service. I see it in customers who email us, already angry and demanding satisfaction. As soon as we reply and show them that they're talking to a person and will get the help they need, they calm down and apologize. Customers contact support anticipating the worst. Our first job is to adjust their expections.

At most large companies, CS is farmed out to the lowest cost option, whether that's an automated service or a call center in the Phillipines. I'm location agnostic but strongly object to geting by with the cheapest option.

Support should not be an expense that you tolerate. Support should be an investment that you make for your customers and for your CS team. Support is not a cost center but an indirect form of marketing. If your customers love the support they get, they will love you, spread the word, and buy more.

Support is so important that Andy Dunn included it in definition of digitally-native, vertical brands.

The digitally-native vertical brand is maniacally focused on the customer experience. There is no precedent for this in most categories, as these are bundles of two businesses that normally standalone... It’s a physical products brand and strong service experience at the same time.

If you're looking for the lowest cost option or intend to get by with the least support you can offer, stop reading. If you're willing to invest in your customers, please continue.

Give Them a Title and a Mission

Words matter.

Companies that value support use titles to signal to those employees and to their customers that this is not a typical customer service person or role. Support reps now have creative titles like Customer Happiness Specialist or Customer Success Manager.

At Tortuga, we call our customer service team Concierges. The name change is not to obscure the role but to clarify their mission.

Our Concierges' mission is to help people take great trips. That's it. Their job is not to sell backpacks.

If a person would have a better trip with another brand of luggage, we tell them that. If a customer writes in to ask where to eat in Barcelona, we get them an answer.

To avoid the shitty support trap, we give our team a title that reflects their (real) job and a mission to fulfill. They do the rest.

Where to Hire

The biggest hack for hiring customer service reps is to hire your customers.

Your past customers already know the product and the brand. They are on board. They get it. As past customers themselves, they are more likely to understand and to emphathize with prospective and current customers because they've been in their shoes.

Like most of our best ideas at Tortuga, this one happened by accident. We started our first job search by posting the opportunity on our blog and emailing that post to our newsletter subscribers. Before we could post it to any job sites, applications came pouring in. Since then, we've only posted Concierge roles internally, never externally.

If you don't have enough past customers, don't hire yet.

You, the founder, should be answering emails yourself to learn what your customers need and, consequently, what you need in a good support rep. I answered all of Tortuga's support emails for years before Lauren joined the team.

Once you're ready, write a blog post or email your customers explaining the role's mission and the required experience or skills.

Here's our first job listing. We've changed it since then, but the "You Might Be a Good Fit If" and "Do Not Apply If" sections still hold true.

You will likely get a lot of applications. We always do. People think that customer service is an "easy" job that "anyone can do." It is neither.

How do you filter through all of those applications?

What to Look For

I ignore education and past customer service experience when reviewing applications. If anything, past experience with the wrong company would be a red flag. We do things differently at Tortuga and don't want to hire anyone who may have developed bad habits from working at a company like Comcast that doesn't value customer service.

I look for two things in applications and interviews:

  1. Experience working in hard, humbling jobs like retail or food service. This type of experience is more important than having answered customer emails in the past. As a former pizza cook, junk hauler, and steel worker, I value experience in jobs that are tough and thankless.
  2. The right attitude. Our ideal Concierge cares deeply about our work and his/her fellow customers. Empathy is the most important trait for a Concierge.

The rest of our job listing puts an emphasis on remote work skills and a love of travel.

What to Look for When Hiring Remotely

If you're hiring a remote customer service rep, you should additionally look for:

  1. Writing skills. Written communication is crucial for collaborating with a remote team and for communicating with customers. While speed isn't the primary goal, a good Concierge should be able to address a customer's problem or question quickly, with minimal back-and-forth, then move on to helping the next person.
  2. Systems thinking. A Concierge must be able to turn institutional knowledge into Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs). Any frequently repeated process should be documented to avoid mistakes and for training furure hires.
  3. Bias towards action. Everyone on a remote team must take initiative without the pressure of a manager looking over their shoulder. Every company want self-starters, but remote companies need them.
  4. Desire to get better. Remote teamamtes should be comfortable asking for help, getting feedback, and acknowledging (and fixing) mistakes.

What to Avoid

Previous support experience shouldn't be an immediate disqualifier, but you should scruitinize those candidates more closely.

If they worked at a company known for poor support, you should make sure they haven't learned any bad habits that can't be un-learned. The ideal candidate from a company like that is someone who wants to do a better job and was frustrated by that company's approach to support. Lauren previously worked at a certain horsedrawn-carriage-themed bank but did not agree with or follow-through on their approach to customer "service."

If a candidate worked at a company known for great support, confirm that they were up to that company's standards. You don't want to rely on a resume line only to find out that they left becuase they couldn't maintain that company's high standards.

The other red flag is when someone wants to use an intro-level CS role as a way into the company and a stepping stone to another role. If someone doesn't care about the CS role, you will know. We always reiterate in job listings that "you will be answering customer emails" and "if you aren’t interested in helping people, don’t apply."

Support is a crucial and challenging role. Someone with their eye on their next role will not do a good job at this one.

What Else?

What other questions do you have about hiring support reps? Let me know on Twitter.

In the future, I'll write a separate post on training support reps.