Best Practices for Staffing Support
How We Hire and Why
When scaling a software company, where does your focus in hiring go? Typically software developers, quality assurance engineers, sales, and other roles that expand your feature and client set. Putting the same hiring efforts into expanding and developing your client support staff is likely lower on the list—maybe you reason support can be handled by another department, or a great product won’t need heavy support resources. However, being less invested in constructing your support team can cost more than you think in terms of client satisfaction and retention, building strong working relationships, staff development, and even sales and marketing opportunities.
My role in hiring for the Exago Technical Support staff has changed over the years as I transitioned from Analyst to Team Lead to Support Manager; and through it all, I’ve helped fine-tune our hiring process. I’ve learned how important it is to make meaningful hiring decisions and ensure that your recruiting process is as streamlined as possible—both for your own sake and that of your talent pool. Although it continues to evolve, we’ve had great success with our current support hiring process and would like to take this opportunity to share it with you. There may be one or two pearls of wisdom worth incorporating into your own talent search.
Know What Role You’re Trying to Fill
There is little to gain from increasing your team size purely for the sake of numbers. When you have the opportunity to hire, take the coinciding opportunity to identify your team’s current skill set and hire for what is missing or could use further bolstering.
Our application requires technical skills in various arenas—OOP (Object-oriented programming), relational data models and SQL, CSS and HTML, web application basics, and XML for example. This doesn’t even touch on the soft skills fundamental to client-facing roles: the ability to remain calm and kind when a client is frustrated, being friendly and personable, confidence in your ability to communicate, and so on.
If a three-tier interviewing process seems overkill for a support role—it’s not.
Learn to embrace the differences in your staff’s skill sets as strengths rather than weaknesses. For instance, if you find your team’s technical skills are sufficient but you lack a member who has strong interpersonal communication skills, hire someone who is an excellent verbal and written communicator, who enjoys hopping on the phone and chatting with clients but who also demonstrates the ability to grasp technical concepts and could expand on those skills over time.
Once you’ve identified what skill set you want to see in your next hire, eliminate interviewees that are not a match. We use hiring software that allows us to match keywords from the job posting to that in the resume, such as “SQL” or “CSS”. This allows us to eliminate candidates upfront that don’t have the required skills we’re hiring for, saving time on pre-screening candidates before moving to the actual interview.
While you want to have a versatile skill set on your support team, it’s also helpful—even good—for new hires to have room for improvement and growth. Some abilities and interests, however, cannot be taught. We’ve found that the following features are essential in a prospective recruit. Someone lacking even one of these five qualities is a nonstarter and can be eliminated as a mismatch.
- An interest in software/Exago. You spend most of your time at work. You should enjoy what you do day in and day out because when you don’t, it shows—to everyone around you. When an interviewee asks about a typical work day at Exago, about the company culture, and about the problems we’re trying to solve, I know they care about working for an organization that they will truly enjoy being a part of and want to help make prosperous.
- Enjoys teaching and explaining. Support analysts are responsible for developing a thorough understanding of the way the product is intended to work and being able to explain these concepts both at a high level for the non-technical end user and deep in the weeds for developers and system architects.
- Genuinely likes problem solving. We’ve had such great luck in Support with not only employees from computer science backgrounds, but also with employees from a variety of STEM disciplines, most notably math. When someone gets really jazzed about complex problem solving and digging into a long, perplexing formula, I know we have a candidate who will not only excel in support also enjoy the work.
- Strong verbal and written communication skills. Let’s be real, this is the bread and butter of any customer service or support role: you need to be able to clearly communicate with your clients. As the primary medium for our client communications is a ticketing system, we have high standards for the tone, clarity, and grammar our team uses in correspondence.
- Patience. Customer service and support roles will challenge you. You are interfacing with customers who may be working to support their own end users, and we all know that troubleshooting software can be frustrating. If a candidate suggests in their interview that they get defensive easily or struggle with receiving constructive criticism, I will likely suggest that this may not be the right role for them. For their own sake, they need to be able to shake it off and move on. This does not only pertain to client interactions: demonstrating the ability to be patient with yourself is just as important as you’re onboarding at a new company and learning how to use a new product.
Being a company that fiercely values our culture and team dynamic, our interview process is thorough. We go out of our way to identify to the best of our ability if a potential hire is not only suited to this role as an individual, but as a gear of the machine that comprises the team as well.
- The phone screen. Create a phone screen outline or template so you have a consistent basis of comparison for your calls. I’ve created a template that touches on work history and allows me to start sussing out those core qualities I mentioned in the previous passage. When discussing work history, I’m digging into what the candidate enjoyed about their previous job, what they didn’t like, what accomplishment they’re proud of, etc. What I’m really looking for is a spark of passion. If our 20 minute phone screen goes on to 30 minutes because they’re excitedly explaining a project they put a lot of time and energy into, I’m going to listen! I want to hear what makes them tick, what topic of conversation makes their tone transition from nervous to excited and confident.
- The Manager Interview. After a prospective employee has a successful phone screen, we invite them to the office for an interview with the hiring manager and team lead. Here we get more detail on their work history—what they have enjoyed about their previous positions and more importantly why. If an interviewee alludes that they were unhappy at their last job, I expect productive feedback on what they or their boss could have done to make this role more rewarding. What would you have changed to make it more enjoyable? What advice would you give the next person going into that role so they can be successful? This can illuminate a lot about a person’s personality. Do they beat down their previous employer and take the opportunity to complain, or are they able to look back on the experience constructively and contribute good ideas for ways to improve the situation? A candidate with the latter outlook is going to be much more successful interfacing with clients.
- Assess Technical Skills. Next up, the support Technical Team Lead will dig into assessing technical skills post-Manager Interview. We also provide a take-home test that is more of a focus on problem-solving skills than anything else. We want the candidate to explain how they got from point A to point B such that someone else could trace their steps and come to the same conclusion. Their response doubles as a writing sample for measuring written communication skills.
- The Group Interview. If the manager interview goes well, the interviewee will immediately sit down with a select group of employees for the group interview. There, the primary focus for the group is gleaning the candidate’s interpersonal communication skills (soft skills!). With a team as collaborative as ours, it’s crucial that we screen for these qualities in the interview process. One of the questions we always make sure to ask during the Technical Support Analyst group interview is, “Explain a complex topic or concept such that that someone without experience in that area could understand it.” The topic explained is entirely up to the interviewee; we want to see that they can effectively accomplish the task. It’s also enjoyable for the staff to get to play student and learn something new.
If a three-tier interviewing process seems overkill for a support role—it’s not. Never underestimate the tremendous value you can bring to your organization and product by putting as much care and attention into developing your support staff as you do other roles. Members of the Exago Support team have gone on to become directors, managers, and engineers because of their deep understanding of the product, our clients, and their use cases. We are constantly reminded in our customer reviews that Exago Support is a differentiator for our clients and is a major reason Exago feels more like a partner than a vendor, and isn’t that what we all ultimately want for our clients? Devote some time and attention to developing your support team and watch that investment pay dividends.
Originally published with Software Business Growth.