The Corporate Shrink

How to interview job candidates effectively.

How can an employer tell in a first interview if a prospective hire will be loyal and focused on customer service? I understand that it's up to us to motivate and train employees. But finding the right people at the start makes that a whole lot easier.

I couldn't agree more. So much time and money is wasted on the fantasy that employees can be molded into people they're not. Skills can be learned, and experience always helps. But when it comes to customer service and loyalty, you're really talking about deeply ingrained interpersonal abilities more than easily learned behavior.

In a recent column, I took aim at the use of personality tests in the screening of new hires. I'm not backing off that stand (despite the considerable flack it provoked). But I do believe deeply in the predictive value of psychologically informed interviewing. Such a conversation is more art than science, and there's no sure formula for divining loyalty and customer focus. But I can offer some rough guidelines.

First, pay attention to the stories that prospective hires tell. It's a good sign if they describe key relationships with colleagues and customers in ways that make these people come to life. And it bodes well for loyalty if they express feelings of loss about their former jobs, even if they're better off not being there. Sadness and longing convey emotional depth to their relationships.

But if others in these stories come across as cardboard figures rather than as living, breathing people, it doesn't bode well for empathy; I probably wouldn't put such a person in charge of my customer-service department. At least as important, take note of how an interviewee relates to you — as in any conversation. If the talk never gets beyond superficialities or generalizations, or if he doesn't seem interested in you as a person, then I'd say (at least to myself), "Next."

Having built many successful business relationships with customers, I suddenly find myself experiencing call reluctance. I've lost all confidence in my ability to create the win-win scenario. How can I get my confidence back?

Nearly everyone, even someone like you with skills that are mostly innate, is prone to slumps. Writers and baseball sluggers alike can get embroiled in emotional conflicts that leave them temporarily blocked. It's frustrating, but you're not alone.

Sometimes you have to understand why you've lost something before you can get it back. So focus on how you lost confidence in your ability to connect with customers. Try to pinpoint exactly when you started to feel uncomfortable making a client call. Did you have an unexpected or embarrassing disappointment in a business relationship? Did the consequences of success or failure change around the same time? And what was going on in your personal life? Deep down, you could be worried that something will slip out if you speak your mind. Or you might be punishing yourself for previous successes.

If you're open and introspective, just thinking about these issues might be enough to get you back on track. Giving yourself a little psychological shove to try again can also help. Otherwise it might take a rockier road of fits and starts, a turnaround in your personal troubles, a new mentor whose confidence is contagious, or a course of psychotherapy to free you up again.

Dr. Kerry J. Sulkowicz, a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, and founder of The Boswell Group LLC, advises CEOs on people and corporate culture. Send him questions about the psychology of business.

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