Balancing Soft-Skills With Technical Ability

Illustration by Erik Blad
Illustration by Erik Blad

In Ask Help Scout, long-time customer service professional Mat “Patto” Patterson answers readers’ most challenging customer support delivery, leadership, and career questions.

Dear Patto,

How can I hire people for my customer service team who are strong in soft skills but are also capable of learning the more technical aspects of our complex product? What’s the best way to identify the right people without making the application process too onerous for them?

Thanks,
Simone, a SaaS Support Soft-Skill Seeker

Hello Simone!

Finding the right balance of excellent soft skills and just enough technical aptitude is a challenge, and I can tell you from personal experience that failing that challenge sucks for everyone involved. But the good news is that I learned from my failure, and so can you.

First, you need to understand how much technical skill is enough for your team. What sort of questions will they need to answer? Do you expect every team member to reach the same level of technical skill, or could you have a tiered team with different levels of knowledge?

Second, form an honest opinion about the resources you have on hand. What training materials do you already have, and how much time is realistically available to help people develop their skills?

Those two points will help you understand where to set your bar of technical capability. Your next challenge is to find promising candidates and to discover through the process whether they will be able to clear that bar and succeed in your role.

That begins with a good role description. You want to attract people who have the soft skills you need, but you should also be clear that they are expected to continually increase their technical knowledge.

Your best candidates will be excited to stretch themselves, and they may even have some background with more technical work but be looking for a change. These people do exist — I myself was a web designer before moving into SaaS support, and I know there are plenty of others like me.

Create opportunities to assess technical competence as people move through their application stages. At Help Scout, our support hiring process includes a short paid project which has folks demonstrate understanding and explain some technical issues. I appreciate that you don’t want to be too burdensome, but you may be able to tweak an existing step to draw out those skills earlier.

Ask customer service interview questions that dig into their attitude toward learning technical topics. A question like, “In your family, are you the one who gets a call when the printer breaks? How do you help?” can offer a low-key entry into a conversation about their troubleshooting approach.

Look for evidence of the ability to pick up new technical skills: Have they taught themselves CSS or taken a coding bootcamp? Ask about times they were faced with a question outside their expertise and what steps they took to resolve it.

The key for your situation will be finding people who are adaptable and resilient, with enough existing technical skill to build upon. My guide to hiring for customer service may help, too.

Best of luck with your soft-skill shuffle,

Have a question for Patto?

Have a question for Patto?

Mathew Patterson
Mathew Patterson

After running a support team for years, Mat joined the marketing team at Help Scout, where we make excellent customer service achievable for companies of all sizes. Connect with him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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