Tuesday, April 18, 2017

What are some good questions to ask a customer service candidate in an interview?

Define 'service'.

(This assumes you use your interview process to not only acquaint your applicant with your company culture, and what the expectations are like, etc., but to actually get to know him or her in a meaningful way, as well . . .)

You do encounter a lot of people in this business who like to see that Wind-up Barbie Doll 'Service Personality' With The Beaming Pan-Am Smile - and accordingly, you do have applicants show up with the notion that that's what'll be expected of them and that's what they should try to project. (It only shows that applicants and experienced managers alike have a pretty screwed up idea of what 'service' is all about.)

Image result for customer service

Let's start by defining what service is not. Service is not self-demeaning. It's not self-deprecating. It's not sycophancy. It's not inauthentic. It's not dressing up your staff in an organ grinder's monkey vest or a fake, cheap tux. It's not using scripted customer greeting: you don't 'make the guest feel welcome' by manipulating the guest.

The best attempt to encapsulate a definition that I've ever heard -- and I don't expect most interviewees to know this off the top of their head -- actually came from a Zen koan: "Where the fulfillment of extraordinary service is registered for the provider is in the experience of the customer only." (Most Zen koans have been around for so long that I'm sure that that's not the original translation of it, but there's still an underlying concept in it that is timeless.)

To simplify it, if it's not something the guest wants, if it doesn't make a positive, appreciated difference for the guest himself or herself, then it's not service; regardless of any starry-eyed dreamer's notions of what 'guests expect', 'guests want' or 'guests appreciate'; and no matter how satisfied you are, or any third-party might be, that you're 'doing' service. It's the impact and result, not the intention or the 'attitude' behind it, that counts.

To simplify it even further using an analogy: ever hear the old saying, 'If the learner didn't learn, then the teacher didn't teach'? Likewise, if the guest isn't being served in some way, then it's not service.

When the demands and expectations are cut down to an appropriate size, it's actually pretty easy - and even comes naturally to most people. (Certainly you don't mind doing a favor or a small service for a friend, on a casual request, right? You even find fulfillment and self-expression in it: to you, it's not obligation, burden, effort or inconvenience. The only person who's going to have a problem is someone so anti-social or lacking in manners that you wonder how they made it through a hiring interview . . .)

Lots of hospitality management types talk a good game about 'service', so long as they can make some underling 'do' the 'service' - and they wouldn't be able to actually define 'service' on the best day they ever had. Accordingly, so do a lot of applicants.

You'd be surprised where service actually fits into it. (Indeed, you may think that, coming from someone in the hotel business, what I'm about to share with you sounds like heresy . . .) We've done focus groups, gotten feedback from guests, etc., but you can pick up on a lot of it right here on Quora if you go back to questions within the Hotels and Hotel Management topic on what people like to see in a hotel.

Have you ever seen a Herzberg diagram? (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fre... , http://www.businessballs.com/her... ) It's a graphic representation of things that motivate people in a given situation, that looks like a rocket on a launch pad.

On the 'rocket' -- for a hotel -- would be listed 'motivating' factors (the property's location, unique amenities, unique features - things that actually move people to stay in that hotel, and keep coming back); on the 'launch pad' are shown 'maintenance' or 'hygiene' factors. An immaculately clean hotel, for example, is not alone enough to sell a stay at the hotel for most people - but if housekeeping is a problem at a hotel, it'll drive people away: no one wants to stay in a filthy voodoo hellhole. Same with maintenance: hotels are supposed to be fresh and up to date, and everything's supposed to work, so that's not really a selling point; but no one wants to stay in a run-down dump that looks old and you have to hack around things that don't work. This is always going to be true no matter how you demand that your individual employees 'do service', and stroke them, and suck up to them.

In a hotel, believe it or not, 'service' is actually a maintenance/hygiene factor. Greasy, inauthentic, faux-'service' - 'We're having a great day at the Courtyard by Marriott in Waterbury, how may I direct your call? . . .', 'use the guest's name three times in every conversation', 'my pleasure, sir', ' . . . you had lots of choices, and we thank you for choosing Choice Hotels', etc. - appeals to very few people, and isn't enough to move most people to stay at a certain place. Indeed, even the most gullible and naive guests can spot it a mile away as phony and insincere (especially if it sounds mechanical or 'recited', as most hourly employees upon whom it is forced tend to do . . . ), and a lot of people want personal space and are just as happy to not have you interact with them unnecessarily. Such behavior is a testament to nothing except the ability of some managers, whose own competence is questionable, to make hourly employees kowtow, step and fetch. Or to micromanage even the most trivial guest transaction or verbal exchange, by any employee in the hotel, even transactions that perhaps the employee herself could manage better out of his own self-expression and commitment to the guest.

Service shows up as an issue only where it shows up as missing, or is a problem. It's a virtue more honored - and appreciated - in its breach than in its observance.

So, you don't have to worry so much about 'doing' service. The big thing is to never, ever show up as uncaring - that's where it all starts to break down. And caring is a simple matter of common sense. You respond quickly to any need as soon as you pick up on it, you try to not deny the guest something it shouldn't be that hard to let her have, you don't let personal issues or work distractions become an opportunity for inattention or edginess. Greeting every guest that comes within ten feet of you is material out of the 'faux service' playbook, but it's actually good practice because it keeps you from going over like you're ignoring them, and gives them an opportunity to express any need they might have.

Two of the items in my rule book, that I ask of my own people, are 1) always avoid doing something that's going to cause a problem for the guest, or make him or her unhappy: even if you think it's something your job requires you to do, run it by someone before you go through with it whenever you can; and 2) anytime you do have a problem with a guest, anytime a guest walks away from you unhappy or disappointed for any reason, regardless of fault or blame, you have to come and tell me as soon as possible: when I hear about it for the first time, I want to hear it from you, not the guest.

The other big thing is, stay focused on making a difference for the guest, and never miss an opportunity to do just that. (You can actually get away with doing it pretty sloppy when you have to if you do that much -- "Why the service is falling apart at our yuppie-poo restaurants" by Mike Royko on WWMD: What Would Mike Do? The hotel blog, one of my all-time favorite writings on the subject -- but don't abuse the privilege: most people want to see more of a class act . . .) And don't get too drawn into things that don't make a difference for the guest: it takes away from time and resources you have to do things that do make a difference.

So, when I ask an applicant to define 'service', what I hope I get back is a response reflective of an understanding of those two things - caring, and making a difference. Have those two things handled, and service follows.

On the other hand, if I hear a response that reflects a notion on the part of the applicant that it's all about running an act, or includes weasel words such as 'attitude' and 'professionalism'; then I know I'm dealing with someone who is either lacking in clarity on the subject, is just telling me what I want to hear (and therefore, cannot be counted upon day to day to live by what she's telling me, unless she really believes it herself), or is just feeding me something they heard from someone else and hasn't internalized a meaning of the term 'service' that they can make their own and live up to consistently as a matter of practice (and for that matter, probably can't give me a good definition of 'attitude' or 'professionalism', either). If they're coachable, and not too attached to a faulty or grossly inadequate definition of 'service', and have compensating attributes to offer in other areas, I might give them a try after explaining my own concept of 'service' to them, if I'm confident that I've made it very clear to them what will be expected of them.

That way, all I have to do is hire nice people, and let them be themselves.

Originally appeared on Quora

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