How to Hire for Culture Fit

There are two employees almost every customer service leader has had.

One employee has crazy talent. She has all the skills you could ever want and a resume a mile long. She’s also a pain to work with. Customers sometimes complain about her attitude.

Another employee is a little lighter in the skill department. He needs a lot of training, but he’s a natural problem-solver and a quick learner. Customers love his can-do attitude. Co-workers love his teamwork.

Who would you rather have on your team?

Most of us would prefer the employee who fits our culture over the highly skilled, but highly difficult employee.

Here’s a guide that can help you find more of those people.

Step 1: Define Culture

Imagine what the world would be like if there were no shoe sizes. You would walk into a shoe store and be completely unable to tell the salesperson what size shoe you needed. The only way to find shoes that fit was to try on pair after pair until you found one you liked.

Pretty tedious, right?

Hiring for culture fit without a clearly defined culture is the same thing. It’s pretty difficult to find something if you don’t really know what you’re looking for.

So, what is culture?

Culture is what we do. And, what we do is shaped by all the signals around us. Some signals are good and point us in the right direction. Some signals are bad and distract us

You can fix this by creating a customer service vision. This is a shared definition of outstanding customer service that serves as a compass to point everyone in the right direction. You can use my customer service vision worksheet as a guide. 


Step 2: Create an Ideal Candidate Profile

An ideal candidate profile describes the attributes of an employee who is most likely to be successful in the job. It combines the skills they need to do the work with the qualities they must possess to fully embrace the customer service vision.

You can use this handy worksheet to help you.

The key to this exercise is narrowing down your list to just a few must-have skills and attributes. The more must-haves you add to the list, the harder it will be to actually find a person who fits.


Step 3: Develop Tests

The last step is to devise ways to determine if a job applicant possesses the attributes they need to be successful.

Think beyond interview questions here. How can you get concrete evidence that they’re a great fit?

Here are a few examples:

A technical support team asks applicants to respond to a customer email. This allows them to test the applicants’ resourcefulness (the answers are on the company’s website) along with their communication and customer service skills.

The parking department on a college campus deliberately neglects to offer directions to their office when they schedule interviews with job applicants. They rely on applicants to either be assertive enough to ask or creative enough to figure it out on their own. An applicant who arrives late for an interview because they couldn’t find parking is probably ill-suited to helping customers navigate the same obstacles.


Additional Resources

Whole Foods, Southwest Airlines, and Zappos are all known for outstanding service and strong cultures. Check out the hiring page for each company. They all focus deeply on culture fit. 

Five reasons why ratings are down at Southwest Airlines

The American Customer Service Index released it's annual airline service ratings this week and the results for Southwest Airlines underscore what many travelers know already: the legendary customer service at Southwest is on the decline. The airline relinquished their long-held position at the top to Jet Blue after suffering a 4.9% drop in their satisfaction ratings, although their 77% rating still puts them well ahead of traditional legacy carriers US Airways, Delta, American, and United. (See the results here.)

What's behind the decrease in service quality? Here are my top five reasons:

1. The Merger
The airline's merger with Air-Tran is clearly pulling executives' attention away from other issues like service. While this is normal during an airline merger (see my post on the United-Contintental merger), it's unsettling to see it happening at Southwest. There's a great break down on the challenges Southwest is facing as a result of the Air-Tran merger on the website (see their explanation).

2. Seating
It's getting harder to get a good seat on a Southwest flight. Their open seating system, unaffectionately referred to as the "cattle call," has long been a disadvantage for Southwest Airlines. However, the process is starting to get worse as their are more options for people to pay a fee to get a better spot in line. A-list frequent flyers, Business Select passengers, and people purchasing the EarlyBird check-in option all get on before everyone else who either doesn't fly Southwest often enough or isn't willing to pay an extra fee. A recent J.D. Power survey found that fees for checked baggage leads to significantly lower customer satisfaction (see their study here) and Southwest has so far managed to steer clear of this practice, but charging fees to get on the plane sooner is likely to have a similar effect.

3. Cleanliness
Southwest's planes seem to be getting dirtier. They pride themselves in turning around a plane between flights faster than their competitors which ultimately means they have to invest in fewer planes. However, this efficiency is starting to come at a price. The lavatories are often disgusting, food wrappers are left in the pockets behind the seats, and crumbs are all over the cabin floor. 

4. Rapid Rewards
The changes Southwest made to their Rapid Rewards frequently flyer program are, uh, unrewarding. In his book, The Amazement Revolution, Shep Hyken talks about the power of making customers feel like members. The old Rapid Rewards program accomplished this nicely. You received a free round trip ticket after flying eight round trips (or sixteen one-way flights) and they even tossed in some drink coupons. It was simple to understand and chart your way towards your next free trip. The new program is based on points that somehow correspond with the fares you pay and can be redeemed for... Well, I'm not really sure how it works. I stopped caring once I had to get out my calculator to figure out if I was getting close to a free flight. I'm sure the new program makes perfect sense to Southwest's accountants, but it fails to create the same emotional connections with customers that their old program did.

5. Customer Service
A little redundant, I know, but hear me out. I sent all of this feedback in an email to Southwest Airlines in keeping with my personal policy of sharing this sort of thing with companies before I write about it on my blog. Even the process of providing feedback was a service failure. I had to fill out thirteen required fields on their form just to submit my message and then I was directed to a screen that informed me it would take approximately five days for them to respond. Yikes! As you may know from my recent email response time survey (read that here), people generally expect a response within one business day. Five days is simply too long and after waiting three days without a response I've decided to go ahead with this post.

I'm a huge fan of Southwest Airlines and I hope they can turn things around. However, until they take steps to address some of these issues I know I'll be choosing them less frequently.

Is there such thing as the "United Airlines Effect"?

Just over a year ago, United Airlines and Continental Airlines announced they were merging. At the time, I predicted that the combined company would get bigger, ruder, and less efficient

The American Customer Satisfaction Index has just released their latest airline passenger satisfaction index and it appears my ruder prediction is coming true. The index is still tracking United and Continental as individual airlines, so you can see an interesting trend. I call it the "United Airlines Effect" where you take something bad (United Airlines customer service) and merge it with something mediocre (Continental Airlines customer service) and end up with something bad.

I've thrown in industry service leader Southwest Airlines for the sake of comparison.

Source: The American Customer Satisfaction Index

You can see that United Airlines hit rock bottom in 2009. Service at both United and Continental went up in the 2010 index, which was released just after the merger was announced. Since the merger, service at United Airlines has risen slightly while the service rating for Continental Airlines has tanked. The "United Airlines Effect" appears to be real.

Some of my friends and colleagues regularly fly both United and Continental. Some have even reported a few instances of unusually good service when flying United. Is there a newly discovered service spirit within United? Are they motivated by a desire to prove themselves during the merger? Or, is service at both airlines simply heading towards a mid-point that reflects their newly combined operations?

Whatever it is, I'll stick with Southwest Airlines whenever I can.

5 Ways to Help Employees Empathize More

Empathy is an amazing customer service skill that can solve a lot of problems, lead to enormous goodwill, and create customers for life. A popular story on the internet today details how a Southwest Airlines pilot held his plane so a late passenger was able to travel from Los Angeles to Colorado in time to see his grandson before he died. An understanding of what the grandfather was experiencing prompted the pilot to take extraordinary action. (Read the story here.)

Unfortunately, demonstrating empathy can be difficult for many customer service professionals, especially when the situation isn't quite so extreme.

A housekeeper in an upscale hotel may never have spent $200 to spend the night on a luxury hotel room.

A tech support rep may fix his own computer, so he has a hard time understanding why so many customers can't fix seemling simple issues.

A sales rep at an office supply store might not own a small business, so she can't related to the needs of the business owners she serves.

How can you help employees empathize?

There are simple techniques you can use to ensure your employees are better able to demonstrate empathy with your customers. Here are a few of my favorites.

#1 Hire people who have been there, done that. I love buying outdoor gear at REI because the people who work there are passionate about the gear they sell. When my wife, Sally, and I bought backpacking equipment a year ago, a sales associate who was an avid backpacker gave us all sorts of useful pointers. Compare this to a big box sporting goods store where the only 'pointer' you might get is the sales associate's finger pointing at an intimidating wall of backpacks.

#2 Help employees acquire customer experiences. If your employees aren't already customers, help them temporarily become one. For example, some hotels have associates spend the night as a guest to gain a new perspective. Another great one is a catalog company that gives its reps gift cards to other catalog companies so they can see what it's like to be an a customer. And, there's always the time-honored employee discount!

#3 Coach employees to empathize. Employees can develop a better sense of empathy through coaching. Start by having them identify why a customer might be upset in a particular situation. Next, ask the employee to think of a similar experience and how they felt. Finally, discuss ways they can provide assistance so the customer won't feel like they did.

#4 Conduct after action reviews. Empathy skills can take time and patience to develop. Try conducting an 'after action review' when an employee misses an opportunity to serve with empathy. This will help the employee identify alternative strategies that might yield a better result the next time they encounter a similar situation. An after action review also helps the employee focus on future performance rather than feeling upset at being blamed or scolded by the boss.

#5 Remove anti-empathy pressure. You'll naturally create more empathetic employees when you remove negative pressures that might convince them to act without concern for their customer. The Southwest Airlines pilot who held his plane for the grandparent risked upsetting the other passengers and possibly getting into trouble. However, Southwest Airlines quickly reinforced his actions by releasing a public statement that made it clear they were proud of their pilot's actions.

How else can you help your employees demonstrate empathy? Chime in a share your ideas!