The Art of Interviewing and Hiring Tech Support

by Jared Van Doorn
October 1, 2015

Hiring is the most important thing a manager does. Who you hire is a reflection on your ability as a leader; your team will execute your vision and create your culture. Anyone who has been through a culture change at an organization can confirm this: new people joined the organization and were the drivers for the culture change. We often hear the axiom that “people are your most important asset.” In Good to Great (HarperCollins 2001), Jim Collins clarifies this idea when he says, "People are not your most important asset. The right people are."

Despite hiring being so vital, there is an alarming lack of training at many organizations on how to hire the best people. Support departments (service desk and field support) tend to be the teams with the highest turnover, hopefully because analysts are being promoted to other teams in the IT department. Because of this, support team leadership needs to be very good at finding high quality people to join their teams. As a leader, you owe it to yourself and your team to insist on the best and hire high quality analysts. A trap leaders commonly succumb to is to compare a bad candidate to an empty seat and think that a warm body is better than nothing. This is a great way to build a team that doesn’t execute your vision and for top performers to get frustrated with your decisions and look for options elsewhere. When your team sees the rock stars you hire, they will have no issue with an empty seat while you search for the best candidate.

You owe it to yourself and your team to insist on the best and hire high quality analysts.
Tweet: You owe it to yourself and your team to insist on the best and hire high quality analysts. @ThinkHDI

Recruiting and keeping top talent is a challenge. Your recruiting partners are going to be vital to your success, so make sure you are actively working with your internal HR/recruiting teams or staffing agencies. Give them specific direction about what you are looking for, from personality to specific skills on a resume. Understand that for every resume they send you, they’ve likely seen five or more. Provide detailed feedback on candidates, both good and bad, so they can learn your needs and what qualities you are looking for. If you get a resume that you dislike, don’t waste your time interviewing the candidate. Let your recruiter know, specifically, why the resume isn’t ideal and request another candidate. This is the only way you improve the quality of resumes you get and will help the recruiter build a pattern for the type of candidate you need. For more on recruiting and keeping top talent, check out HDI’s The War for Talent.

There are five steps to the interview process. First, you need to review resumes and select candidates you want to speak to. Second, prepare your interview questions and structure. Third, schedule a brief phone interview. Fourth, bring the candidate in for a face-to-face interview. Finally, either reject the candidate or extend an offer.

1. Resume Review

You have five resumes that have made it past your recruiter to your inbox. Now what? Your time is important and you need to spend some of it reviewing the resumes so you don’t waste time interviewing the wrong candidates. Remember, the resumes you reject without an interview need to be communicated back to your recruiter with specific feedback as to why you rejected it.

What are some things you want to look for in a good resume? For starters, proper grammar and general readability are vital. Your analysts will have to communicate with the written word using many methods (email, ticket notes, instant message, knowledge base articles, and so on). If they misuse punctuation or the wrong form of a homonym (to, too, two), you will likely not want them representing your department to your customers.  In their professional experience section, do they highlight what they did and how well they did it? You need to understand both, since job titles vary. What does their education/certification section look like? Review each resume for minimum qualifications; if your job description requires an A+ certification, is it listed on the resume? How relevant are their experience and education to the position? Often, a non-technical recruiter may send you a resume for someone with a systems engineer background for a level 1 service desk position. While this may not always be a bad choice, the skill sets between a system engineer and a service desk analyst don’t always overlap. Also, you might not be looking for mid-career applicants for an early career position.

Before moving to the next step, take a moment to Google the applicant’s name and look them up on LinkedIn. If you don’t do this, and you end up hiring the person, your team will do both of these things. You don’t want your team coming across a mug shot of someone you just hired, do you?

Finally, when reviewing a resume, there are some pretty clear warning signs to look out for. One of the most common signs is the citation of certification training instead of listing the certification. This indicates to me that they took a class and never took the certification exam but still wanted to put it on their resume.

Another detail that raises warning flags for me is when a candidate lists education without dates or does not list the degree. This is a common tactic by candidates to try to get through minimum criteria scans by stating they went to a university or took classes for a bachelor’s degree. When I don’t see a graduation date, attendance dates, or a degree, I will assume the candidate did not graduate but wants to put some education on their resume.  Along the same vein is a candidate listing professional positions with start and end dates listing only the years. For example, 2012–2013 looks like a year at first glance, but they might have worked December 2012 to January 2013, which is only a month. Get in the habit of looking for what the resume is not saying as much as for what it is saying.

2. Preparing for the Interview

After focusing on this stage thoroughly once, this will become the quickest step. You need to prepare a question list, both for the phone interview and the in-person interview. After you have a good list of standard questions to ask, you’ll just need to review these questions during this step and make appropriate changes to the questions. Adjust wording for clarity, remove ineffective questions, and add new questions you want to ask. Each candidate will have a unique resume, and you might want to ask specific questions tailored to each candidate.

There are two types of standard interview questions: behavioral and technical. Ask technical questions to assess the technical ability of a candidate. Use two types of technical questions: vague and specific. Your organization may have specific technical needs that you need to ask about. Ask about their experience with particular technology with specific questions. Phrase the question as a statement (Tell me about your experience with remote support tools) or place it in the context of the position (You’ll be required to offer remote support in this role. How have you supported customers remotely in your past roles?).

I use vague technical questions to gauge troubleshooting ability. I will preface the question explaining that the question is vague on purpose, and ask them to talk through their troubleshooting so I can hear their thought process. Use a situation that has common troubleshooting steps regardless of work environment. A question I have had success with is “A customer calls you and says they can’t print from Word. How do you troubleshoot?” I want to hear a number of steps and will prompt the candidate to continue as if each step did not work by asking “What else would you check? Any other troubleshooting steps you can think of?”

Behavioral questions are questions that will trip up a lot of candidates. The goal of the interview is not to trip them up, but a lot of candidates struggle with behavioral questions. With a behavioral question, you are looking for specific answers to specific situations that anyone in this position would have been in. A behavioral question is easy to structure. Behavioral questions almost always start with “Tell me about a time when…” or “Describe how you have dealt with….”

“Tell me about a time you had an irate customer and how you handled them.”

These types of questions focus on past performance. The expected response from a candidate is an example of a time when they were in that situation and how they handled it. For example, “Tell me about a time you had an irate customer and how you handled them.”

Once you have prepared a set of questions (eight to twelve should be plenty), you are ready to start the interview.

3. Phone Interview

For positions like a service desk analyst, I conduct a 30-minute phone interview to assess phone presence. Since most service desk analyst jobs are heavily dependent on phone skills, this can save you time interviewing the wrong people that may do well in person but have limited phone skills. Select a few important questions that you can ask; you don’t need to ask every question on your list. You should be able to assess whether you want to bring them in for a second interview within 30 minutes.

Start the interview with a brief explanation of your role. Explain the position they are interviewing for, including shift information and general duties, so everyone is on the same page during the interview. After verifying the position details, open with “Tell me about yourself and why you applied for this position” or a similar variant that gives the candidate an opportunity to easily discuss their history and future goals. Ask three to five of your prepared questions. Take note of not only their specific answer, but how they communicate over the phone. This is going to be a significant indicator to how they will handle callers and how effective they are on the phone. If they take 10 minutes to answer a question and ramble a lot, they might not be able to effectively manage a phone conversation. They might talk over you or not let you interject, which would also be a problem when talking to customers. How did they answer and end the call? I love when I hear someone introduce themselves when I call them for a phone interview rather than just answering “Hello?”

Ask your questions and end the phone interview by letting the candidate know that your recruiting team will follow up with next steps.

4. Face-to-Face Interview

Interview format is personal preference. I strongly recommend having one or two senior analysts involved in the interview process to help assess culture fit and technical skill. Whether you have one interviewer speak to the candidate at a time or have all interviewers conduct a panel style interview is up to you. Panel interviews can intimidate candidates but also save time and are common practice. If you have multiple interviewers in the same interview, prepare with all interviewers beforehand who will ask what question in what order. If you have two interviewers, the best method is to alternate questions.

Have the questions and the candidate’s resume available and a way to take notes. I recommend printing the resume and questions during the face-to-face interview as it can be very distracting for a candidate to have the interviewer typing while they respond to questions.

Ask the prepared questions, but be ready to ask probing follow-up questions when you aren’t getting complete answers. Silence is okay in small doses when asking someone to dig deeper for an answer. The behavioral questions will frequently result in a candidate answering vaguely or not actually answering by explaining hypothetical situations. It is your job as the interviewer to focus on getting a real answer, even if you have to pry it out. Here’s a sample script of a behavioral question, deflected/vague answer, and the interviewer putting the effort into finding an actual answer:

Interviewer: Tell me about a time you had an irate customer and how you handled them.

Candidate: Well, what you want to do in those situations is keep calm and make sure you address the problem. What I would do is say I understood and do my best to help.

Interviewer: Sure, so can you tell me about a time when you had to do that and how it ended?

Candidate: Oh, it happens every day! In that situation I just stay calm and get that they aren’t mad at me but the broken computer and do my best to fix it up.

Interviewer: Good tactic. Could you tell me a specific example that sticks in your mind?

As the interviewer, keep the focus on the actual answer. Don’t accept hypotheticals, unless the candidate really has never experienced the situation in the question. Acknowledge that they’ve provided an answer but you want more. Be careful not to badger. I like to give the candidate two or three chances to answer. If they aren’t getting it, take note and move on.

Periodically, you will know before running out of questions in the face-to-face interview that this candidate is not right for the position. There is absolutely no reason to continue the interview when you know that you won’t extend an offer. Save everyone time by moving straight to the ending question.

When you are ready to end the interview, explain that you are finished and give the candidate an opportunity to ask any questions they may have about the position, company, or department. A great sample ending is “That’s all the questions we have for you. Is there anything you’d like to ask us?” Answer questions as appropriate, and again, let the candidate know that your recruiting team will be in touch for next steps.

5. Extend the Offer or Reject the Candidate

As soon as possible after the interview, discuss the candidate with all interviewers and compare notes. The discussion should be focused on the candidate, the quality of answers, how they will fit in with the culture of the team, and if you want to extend an offer. Treat each candidate individually. It will be easy to compare candidates to each other. In the wake of a particularly bad interview, a mediocre candidate can seem excellent by comparison, and just about any candidate can be more appealing than an empty seat. Each candidate, however, stands on their own. Collect notes from all interviewers, write objective and detailed feedback and send it to the recruiter, especially in the case of a rejected candidate. The better the feedback, the more likely the recruiter will be able to find better people for you at a faster rate. When you are ready for an offer, be flexible with the candidate on a start date that works for you both.

You will find the right candidate. It may take time, but your team deserves the best you can find. With the right process, some effort, and patience, your team will be better and your customers will notice and thank you for it.

Jared Van Doorn is vice president of IT support services at Consulate Health Care, one of the largest long-term healthcare organizations in the United States. He is responsible for all aspects of end-user support, including service desk, desktop support, access management, application support, asset management, and desktop administration. He has fifteen years of professional experience in IT support as an analyst and manager. He holds numerous ITIL and HDI certifications as well as an MBA.

Tag(s): culture, employee satisfaction, human resources, job descriptions, leadership, people, staffing, supportworld, workforce enablement, workforce enablement


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