How to Find and Hire Top Customer Service Employees

by Richard D'Ambrosio
How to Find and Hire Top Customer Service Employees

Photo: rawpixel


Across the United States, the unemployment rate has held at just above 4 percent for the last three months, creating a tight market for skilled employees.

This has made it increasingly more difficult for travel agency owners to find and hire good agents, forcing them to recruit from outside the travel industry and refocus their training efforts.

As a result, agencies and owners may need to shift their mindset from looking for resumes with travel experience, to candidates with personality traits suited for delivering great customer service, experts say.

Travel Market Report interviewed James Houran, Ph.D. and managing director of AETHOS Consulting Group, to offer agents advice on how to recruit in this new age.

Are recruiting and hiring practices in the travel and hospitality industries right for the current labor market?
Good customer service equates to effective people skills, which itself reflects the combination of emotional intelligence, service orientation and the ability to take the initiative to set priorities and problem-solve. Together, these abilities are what many people call the hospitality “X Factor.”  It’s a competency that goes far beyond technical expertise or domain knowledge, and it can be especially difficult to assess when companies evaluate candidates primarily through resumes or Linkedin profiles. Strong expertise is exactly what colleges, universities and technical programs provide. But the X Factor tends to be learned the hard way and honed through street smarts, so competency in this area is more elusive.

What do you advise hiring/recruiting managers to do in writing job descriptions to attract candidates with high service standards?
Prepare “opportunity profiles” versus “job descriptions.” Job descriptions explain what the work is, while an opportunity profile tells candidates about how that work is achieved in your organization, what success looks like, and how one’s career trajectory can be propelled. Opportunity profiles can outline the technical expertise needed to perform the “manual” aspects of a role, but it speaks further about the elements of “purpose, principles and platform.” Make certain that you are describing your company’s culture, its core values and the team dynamics. High performers – A players – strive for a sense of ownership, accountability and a cultural fit rather than the chance to punch the clock.

What hiring mindset is required by employers to make this shift?
The common mantra of “hire for personality or attitude and train for skill” is a misnomer.  Instead, employers must address the extent to that “X Factor,” should be included among the core competencies that define success in specific roles. I advocate for hiring people with the right competencies – a balance of technical abilities with interpersonal abilities. It’s not an either/or proposition – both are critical for success in today’s marketplace.

What are some of the best questions an employer can ask to discern if a prospective candidate has the right emotional customer service makeup?
We have never found a 100% fool-proof set of questions that reveal the ‘X Factor” – probably because these don’t exist. That said, here are some tips on each aspect of a due diligence process:

  • Before a structured interview, use an assessment that focuses less on classic personality traits and more on trainable, learned interpersonal and stress management skills involving emotional intelligence, self-motivation and self-directedness, grit and resilience, tolerance for ambiguity, service orientation and cognitive ability.
  • During the interview, ask for specific, concrete examples of building and reinforcing relationships within and between teams, as well as addressing conflict and managing and delivering on customer expectations. A common but useful tactic is the STAR method – ask the applicant to talk about a specific Situation they faced and the Tasks s/he needed to accomplish; then discuss the Actions taken with a focus on their personal contribution; and finally, the Results, or the outcomes, e.g., what happened, how did the event end, what did you accomplish, or what did you learn?
  • Lastly, reference checking is often regarded as meaningless, since most previous employers are hesitant to say anything that could expose the company to legal or negative PR issues. However, one specific and very revealing question to ask is, “Would you enthusiastically rehire this person?” Even a simple – yes or no – response speaks volumes.


How can agency owners better market their companies to prospective X Factor candidates?
Always be prospecting for talent – even in places where you think it’s unlikely to find superstars. When you are in public spaces or stores, look for individuals who:

  • Are smiling even when not interacting with others
  • Seem to take initiative or are assertive with asking others if they need help
  • People who make great eye contact with others


Engage with these people and ask questions like, “How long have you worked here?” or “What do you like best about working here.” Throw in some questions that ask for service from the person, yet without an obvious pay-off (like a tip), e.g., “Where’s the best restaurant in town?” or “Would you please point me to the restroom?” Questions like these take up the person’s time, so watch for how well the person stops, pays attention in the moment and responds to your request for service. If someone excels at some or all of these service actions, then be sure to compliment them sincerely as you hand out your business card, and add that people like them are valued employees at your business.

James Houran, Ph.D., is managing director of AETHOS Consulting Group, and a 25-year veteran in applied psychological research. A published expert on peak performance, online testing and interpersonal and organizational compatibility, Houran has authored over 150 articles, and his award-winning work has been profiled on the Discovery Channel, the BBC, National Geographic, NBC’s Today Show, USA Today, New Scientist, Psychology Today and Forbes.com.

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Tip of the Day

The cruise experience starts the moment a guest books their cruise. It won’t finish until they are back at home after their vacation. Many things happen in between. Airports, flights, transfers, terminals, embarkation, life onboard, ports of call, shore excursions, disembarkation, etc. None of us, alone, is in a position to guarantee a front-to-end amazing experience. But together, we can.

Pierfrancesco Vago
MSC Cruises

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