The Five Traits That Great Customer-facing Employees Share

Who are the right employees to hire for customer-facing positions?  You’ll be most successful if you select your customer-facing team based on the following psychological traits, even before you start thinking about the specific skill set you're looking for. The crucial customer-centric traits are contained in my acronym “WETCO.” (Goofy but effective suggestion: You’ll never forget this if you picture a wet dog standing outside the PETCO superstore.)

WETCO: The five traits to look for when hiring

W is for Warmth: Simple human kindness. Warmth is perhaps the simplest and yet most fundamental of these five personality traits. In essence, it means enjoying our human commonality, flaws and all.

E is for Empathy: The ability to sense what another person is feeling. Empathy is a step up from warmth; empathy moves beyond the plateau of liking other people and is more like reading hearts—the ability to sense what a customer needs or wants, whether or not this desire is even yet apparent to the customer.

T is for Teamwork: An inclination toward ‘‘Let’s work together to make this happen’’ and against ‘‘I’d rather do it all myself.’’ Teamwork is a slightly paradoxical member of the WETCO group of traits. After all, customers need the help of entrepreneurially minded employees who will take charge of the situation without prodding, people who are willing to fix a problem all by themselves, if necessary. But that attitude needs to be seasoned by an inclination to favor a team approach, or your organization will soon suffer from the friction created.

C is for Conscientiousness: Detail orientation, including an ability and willingness to follow through to completion. Conscientiousness is a key trait for successfully serving customers, and unfortunately may not always be found in those who are otherwise suited to customer service work. The quintessential ‘‘people person’’ may lack conscientiousness, and this one flaw can be fatal: An employee can smile, empathize, and play well with the team, but if he can’t remember to follow through on the promises he made to customers, he’ll kill your company image.

O is for Optimism: The ability to bounce back and to not internalize challenges. Optimism is a necessity in customer-facing positions. Employees who can’t shake off a drubbing from a customer won’t last long. Support from management is, of course, important here, but the employees themselves need a positive, optimistic self-image as well to propel themselves forward in the face of daily adversity.

(By the way, optimism isn’t what you hire for in every position. We all saw some years ago what an excess of optimism in the likes of Jeffrey Skilling at Enron wrought, with his mark-to-market accounting practices, and more recently at S&P and Moody personnel who blessed worthless mortgage-backed securities as ‘‘cash equivalent.’’ But it’s safe to say across the board that you need optimistic customer-facing employees, because, otherwise, customers will eventually wear your employees down to a nub.)

How to find them

How to select such people? An ideal approach is to match candidates to the psychological profiles of existing, successful employees. You may not have gathered this data for yourself yet, in which case you’ll be dependent on an outside company to provide it. That’s okay, because some of the available external tools are excellent. But you need to use your chosen methodology consistently: on every hire, rather than as the whim hits you. If you use scientific methods only sporadically you’ll never know what worked and what didn’t. Instead, the selectiveness of your inherently biased—that is, human—memory will trick you and you’ll continue to favor unscientific, ineffective hiring patterns that will hamper your organization for years to come.

If you start with externally generated profiles, as you grow be sure to gather data specific to your company. This process isn’t that complicated. Have your best performers answer profile questions and then bank these results. Have your average performers do the same, and then bank those results. If you show a consistently measurable difference between these two categories of employee, you have a valid test.

Of course, employee selection is only a first step in providing superior customer service and a standout customer experience. Onboarding, training, and cultural support are of nearly equal importance.  But ensuring that you’re working with the right human beings to start with goes a long way toward success.

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Micah Solomon
Micah Solomon

Business speaker, consultant and #1 bestselling business author Micah Solomon is known for his ability to transform business results and build true customer engagement and loyalty. Micah has been named by The Financial Post, “New Guru of Customer Service Excellence.”

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