Your customers are looking for more than the latest model or best price.
They want to engage with employees who not only know the products and services, but are also sensitive to their needs.
Savvy business owners treasure the peace of mind that comes from having employees with whom they can communicate easily, and are eager to help the business be successful.
Have you ever lost sleep over having to reprimand or fire an employee? Most likely this due to an unpleasant interaction with a customer or co-worker. Many managers were taught to look for candidates with a background in needed skills. For businesses that depend on excellent customer service, it’s often wiser to hire people who naturally care about others. This is because it is easier to train good-hearted people in practical skills than to try to teach empathy.
You may wonder if you have the knowledge, skill, or patience to direct such a hiring process. Take heart. If you love your business and know your customers, you have all the information you need.
Hire In Haste, Repent In Leisure
It’s tempting to hire someone after one lively conversation. However, this magical feeling of rapport is only one of many important elements that may indicate a good fit. A thorough hiring process benefits everyone. You gain the confidence to make a commitment to new employees, and they are invited to communicate honestly with you.
For more than twenty years as a psychotherapist and business consultant, I have counseled business owners in solving problems caused by mismatched, unproductive, or insensitive personnel. The best way to avoid this struggle is to use a hiring process that highlights interpersonal qualities as well as an aptitude for the job.
Three Elements of a Thorough Hiring Process
To identify a candidate’s personal qualities, a hiring process needs three distinct elements of screening, probation, and evaluation. Each step gives you the opportunity to determine if a prospective employee can help you meet the goals unique to your business. No one can hurry this exploration and count on good results.
Using all three elements allows you to detach from the natural tendency to want to like and be liked. You are not pressured to make an important decision with too little information. Your reward will be finding employees who make your business a delight for the customers, co-workers, and you.
A. Screening for Qualities As Well As Skills
Ask the following questions at the end of the first week. They are designed to deepen the candidate’s understanding of the goals for your business and how he or she can help you achieve them. Take advantage of quiet times during work, and ask about specific topics one at a time in your own style. Be sure to check in each week to see if there is follow-up on suggestions. Ask:
Promise yourself to base this important decision on more than an initial interview. People who shine under pressure and claim dazzling skills will not necessarily have empathy for customers or loyalty to you. Someone who appears less confident initially may turn out to be an ideal employee.
Make sure the job application includes questions to answer in writing. What are their interests, unusual background, or skills? What are their hobbies? Where have they traveled? What books do they read?
You can sense how they’d interact with your customers while discussing their interests and experiences. You can weigh their ability to carry on unpressured conversation, which is a basis of good sales and customer satisfaction.
Use Educational Questions in Screening
Begin the interview by reading the application with care. Did they follow instructions? How do they communicate in writing? Invite them to discuss work and life experiences, and if there was anything they want to add after they’ve seen your business. Notice if they interrupt you and how thoughtfully they answer questions. You’re looking for clues about their ability to listen to customers and other staff.
Always use a script when interviewing candidates. Prepared questions allow you to focus on the most important topics. Avoid setting them up for “yes/no” answers. Take this opportunity to educate them about the responsibilities of the job.
Give real examples from your own experiences. You want them to see the importance of discretion and customer service. Let their answers direct your follow-up comments and queries to disclose their strengths and limitations. The following questions take you deeper than surface impressions.
● What do you imagine you would like best about working here?
Caution: a) “It’ll be easier than my last job.” b) “The hours fit my school/other job schedule.” c) “I don’t know.” or “I haven’t thought about it.”
Welcome: a) “I love the kinds of projects and products you have.” b) “I like helping people.” c) “I’m intrigued by what you do/sell.”
Follow up comment and questions: The most important part of the job may be helping customers who are looking for solutions. Some will be anxious about discussing private problems with a stranger. Ask your prospective employee:
● How would you go about helping a customer feel welcome?
● How do you think you would handle a delicate or complicated request if you didn’t know what resources we could offer?”
Give examples of the kinds of customer questions or problems typically faced in your business. Listen to the responses to determine the prospect’s level of skill, sensitivity, and personal style.
The job is undoubtedly more complicated than an applicant could initially perceive. Discuss challenges you’ve had to handle in your business. Then ask the prospect:
● How do you best learn new skills and routines?
Caution: a) “Just tell me what to do.” a) “I don’t know” (or a shrug). c) “I can handle it; it’s not that different from my last job.”
Welcome: a) “Show me exactly how you want me to do things.” b) “Explain how I can do things the best way possible.” c) “I’ll watch and ask other staff.” d) “I’d love to learn more about ______.”
Follow-up comment and questions: It’s your job to watch for where employees are doing well and where they need training. This includes appearance and work habits, and how they interact with you, other staff, and customers. Pay attention to how they talk to you. Will you enjoy training them? Do you think this candidate will be able to ask questions of you?
To get a picture of how the employee views challenges at work, ask:
● What do you guess your biggest challenge working here might be?
● What were difficult elements of your last job? Also, what were your favorite parts?
Caution: a) Notice body language: Is she really thinking, or merely treating these as tricky questions? b) Quick denial that there could be any challenges. c) Defensive or blaming comments about her last boss or co-workers.
Welcome: a) She meets your gaze and gives genuine responses that reveal self-doubts or fears. b) Talks about previous employment with a positive spin on facing difficulties; honest assessment about why she didn’t work out there. c) Likes similar elements of this job opening.
Follow-up comments and questions: Everyone starting a new job runs into obstacles. They need to ask questions and suggest new ideas. When someone makes a mistake, they need to be able to come to their supervisor and explain what happened. Ask:
● How might we work together to avoid the problems you had in other work situations?”
B. The Probation Period Reduces Stress for Everyone
Once you have decided to offer someone a probationary position, make the details of the job absolutely clear. How are wages and responsibilities increased? How long does probation last? If the job is full-time, thirty days is long enough. For a part-time position, make it sixty days. This gives her time to find out if she likes the work, while you discern if the position matches with her skills and personal qualities.
No standard job description can include every expectation. Improve on this by writing brief instructions of each task. Even better, ask that she write her own notes about each item as you explain what you expect her to do. Keep the task list informal yet specific.
Put this original written job description in the prospective employee’s file. Hand her a copy, with instructions to keep it up-to-date regarding expanding responsibilities. Make it clear that she must prove the ability not only to handle the tasks on the job, but also to show empathy with customers and co-workers. Explain that you want to hear her opinions and concerns as soon as they arise.
Focus on the worker’s affinity for tasks, along with her effect on the emotional energy in your business. If she does not fit in, encourage her to find a job that is better suited to her skills and interests. Major problems in behavior or attitude, such as creating a scene or breaking a known rule, reveal immaturity and seldom improve with second chances. Let a mismatched or disrespectful worker go immediately.
Initiate Discussion as Part of Training
Caution: a) “It’s quiet and easy.” b) Candidate looks around as if she weren’t paying attention to details.
Follow-up comments and questions: You want all employees to feel free to suggest new products, ideas for better service, and ways to improve business. To find out where the employee is most comfortable talking with you and brainstorm ideas, ask:
It’s your job to keep the interaction fresh. Ask at least once a week:
Caution: a) “I’m reading some good stuff.” b) “I’m doing okay. The job’s pretty easy.”
Welcome answers: a) “I’m learning to research topics people are asking about.” b) “How can I help increase sales?” c) “How to run a store so it works well.”
● What do you like so far about working here?
Evaluation starts on day one and continues throughout probation. Evaluation consists of feedback and the formal hiring interview. Respectful evaluation allows you to measure your candidate’s progress, and also builds the morale and loyalty that turns a good candidate into a terrific long-term employee.
Use these three elements of screening, probation, and evaluation to avoid making a snap decision on a long-term commitment. Each completed element informs your intuition about whether you have the right person for the job. HBM
Cynthia Wall, LCSW is a therapist, consultant, and the author of The Courage to Trust (
Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publication, 2005). Starting her own practice and seminar business in 1985 opened her eyes to the complexity of managing personnel in even the smallest of ventures. In her workshops and individual consultations, she helps small businesses translate the successful strategies of larger corporations so they can supervise their employees with compassionate honesty.
Follow-up comments and questions: Your customers may need answers to very personal problems. Ask:
● What kind of questions are you getting from customers? How do you think you’ve handled them?”
Tell stories from your own learning experiences to model how you want them to handle problems. This encourages them to see you as a resource, making it easier to admit difficulties and ask your advice.
● What are you learning? What more are you ready to learn?
● How would you feel the most comfortable offering suggestions to me? In my office? Walking around the floor of the business?
Welcome: a) “I love the products and the people I work with.” b) “Customers are great.” c) “I like the way it’s organized.”
By Cynthia Wall