Earning my way through university, back in the US in the 90s, I worked at a diner-type restaurant as a waitress. It was hard, but good, honest work, and it put me right through my paces on customer service. I sharpened my hustle to try to take my $2.90 hourly wage up to something more respectable. But the other waitresses taught me that to get the really good tips, you had to do more than smile pretty and bring the right burger – you needed to offer genuine, top-notch, thoughtful customer service. You look after them, and they'll look after you. And they'll come back, if they go down that stretch of highway again.
I always knew the work ethic I learned from waiting tables would help me in my career. But what I didn't realise was just how valuable that customer service experience was going to be. We now talk about creating 'consumer-grade' experiences for candidates and employees. As a partner to recruiters, I'm up for that challenge and it feels intuitively right to me. And when I search my experience to refer to my training on providing such experiences, I do actually cast my mind back to Friendly's Diner in Chenango Bridge, New York.
Here are 5 principles of good service, served up with the timeline of a meal:
"Welcome to Friendly's. Four for dinner?"
1. As soon as they turn up, you reciprocate their interest. You're there with a smile, because you've got a customer and that's what you need. In our restaurant, we had 60 seconds to greet customers when they came through the door. If we didn't get this right - the manager would have a word. If they have to wait too long, they'll walk out. Your greeting is way more important with candidates then it is with diners. Whatever your first impression is, make it count. A careers site that loads quick and easy, on any device. A recruiter who's done their research on the candidate. A job listing that reads nicely and tells people what's in it for them, instead of just being a role profile you flung online.
"That's gonna be about a 15-minute wait. Would you like to see the menu in the meantime?"
2. Set expectations. Explain the process. Give updates. You say hi, you check their party size, in those days you checked their smoking preference, you get some menus, and you seat them. Just like restaurant customers, your employment customers are looking for mutual interest. Do you want my business, do you want my talent? Show them you care by checking their needs, informing them of the process and letting them know what they can expect. This starts forming a psychological contract. It's a relationship, not a purchase. There will inevitably be a number touch points and bits of process from where they are to day one on the job. That will demand some amount of endurance and investment from your candidate. Prepare them for that so they don't waste energy wondering and lose engagement with you. Personally, if it was a 15-minute wait, I liked to tell them it was 20 and then pleasantly surprise them.
"Our soup today is the clam chowder and our special is the reuben melt. Did you need any help with the menu?"
3. Position your offer for your customer, but don't go on about yourself, and listen to them at every stage. You may know your product inside and out and want to tell somebody all about it. Educating them *lightly* is part of making them feel welcome. But it's worth quickly switching into concierge mode. How can I direct you? What are you looking for? Do you need help matching what you know about your preferences to what we offer? In waitressing land, that might have been, 'What have you got on the menu that's spicy?' and on a careers site that might be, 'I'm just finishing my lit degree, what can I do with it?'. A chatbot, a matching tool or just decent UX will help them get to that answer in a personal way.
"You all right there darlin? You need a top up on that coffee yet?"
4. Check how people are doing throughout your interactions. Well I don't recommend calling candidates 'darlin' these days. But I do recommend touching in for feedback. We had what we called the 'two-minute checkback'. This means, you serve the meal, you give them any sauces they need, and then go away and let them start. They need two minutes for their first bites, and that's the most likely time of any part of the meal for their satisfaction to drop off or something to be wrong. It's your opportunity to make things right, so they enjoy the rest of the meal. So you always go back after 2 minutes. (And of course, you make eye contact to check satisfaction every time you pass their table.) When should you be doing your checkbacks in the candidate process? The answer is, at whichever parts of the pipeline you're having unwanted drop out. Maybe right before a video interview. Before an assessment centre? It's often right before a candidate makes a big investment in the process. Know your problem area, and structure in a ramp-up in customer service for that moment. Feedback is your friend, your opportunity to turn disaster around. Don't just do it at the end. They've made up their mind about you by then. Ask them early and often, while there's still something you can do about it. NPS, email, phone call, survey monkey -- whatever you need to do. Get that 2, 4, 6 and 8 minute checkback.
"Thanks very much. Come back again soon. Heather 😃"
5. Humanise your process. Don't miss any opportunity to make it personal. After the burgers and the 5-scoop hot fudge sundae, comes the less desirable part of the meal: the bill. Your customer is going to look at that calculation and work out your tip, so this is the worst time of all to be boring or miss an opportunity. I used to sign the bill, and draw happy pictures on it. Maybe write their name if I knew it. It's the contractual part of the process but there's no reason it can't be made more fun and personal. Now think of your ATS. Think of all the automated messages it poops out to your candidates. Think of the risk-averse contracts HR has to draw up, written in dry legal language. You could in theory 'draw happy pictures' on any of these things with customisation, a covering note or some decent copy. If you don't make the effort, you might not keep your customer's love at the biggest moment of truth: the transaction.
I'm not putting flowers on myself here, but I promise you, I never had to work for $2.90 an hour. From Jim the Harley guy who used to just eat a sundae and tip me 300%, to the baseball team that made me a 'tip house' on the table out of $16 in one dollar bills, a genuine love of looking after my customers meant that I always had an apron padded with bank notes by the end of the shift. The virtuous circle worked for me and it can work for you too.
Here's hoping that the principles of good customer service can fill up your pipeline with so much talent that you'll find yourself investing in realistic job previews designed to put them off.
Tweet me @heatherdeland with your customer service tips for recruiters – and where you learned them!