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Three Tactics for Hiring Customer-Centric Engineers

Look for traits and behaviors that reveal the presence of customer-centric DNA

 By: Leslie Stevens-Huffman

Engineers are renowned for their ability to solve problems and manage details, but they aren’t typically known for their customer service skills. Frankly, finding customer-centric contract professionals is so difficult that engineering managers often employ product managers or other go-betweens to facilitate communication between customers and engineers.

But recent changes have forced engineering managers to revise their hiring profiles as contractors take on new responsibilities for marketing and customer retention. A recent IBM survey reveals that global CEOs view interpersonal skills such as collaboration, communication, creativity and flexibility as key drivers of employee success.

Here are three tactics to help you acquire customer-centric engineers.

 1.      Attract customer-centric professionals

Start by creating customer-facing-specific job descriptions. “Managers stand a better chance of attracting engineering professionals who possess the innate ability and desire to interface with customers by creating unique job descriptions for customer-facing roles,” says Jim Watson, founder of J.L. Watson Consulting based in Portland, Maine.

Contractors who prefer internally-focused projects may shy away after reading the job description, notes Watson, while customer-centric professionals will leap at the chance to recount success stories or tout their interpersonal skills during interviews.

John Greene, director of Customer-Centric Engineering, adopted a similar strategy at San Francisco-based Salesforce.com. He created a customer-focused job description and video that offers contractors and full-time candidates a realistic preview of the company’s values and engineering environment.

2.      Screen for traits, not experience

Screening for desirable traits, such as flexibility, adaptability, empathy and communication, will increase the candidate pool. Demanding previous experience will eliminate contractors who haven’t had the opportunity to flex their customer-centric muscles.

“Engineers need an insatiable curiosity about the customer’s world to see problems from their perspective and create customer-centric designs,” says Lynn Hunsaker, a customer experience optimization consultant and president of ClearAction, based in Sunnyvale, California. “You can’t always identify professionals with customer-centric DNA by reading resumes.”

3.      Analyze behaviors

Behavioral interviewing was developed by industrial psychologists in the 1970s and is regarded as an accurate predictor of future behavior. Managers can assess whether a contractor is passionate about customers, beating the competition and/or designing cutting-edge products by asking them to describe their approach to specific engineering problems or circumstances via situational questions like these.

  • Describe a time when you had a particularly difficult problem to solve. How did you go about it?
  • How would you collaborate with diverse colleagues to meet the sometimes demanding expectations of clients and customers?
  • Tell me about a time you missed a customer deadline and what you did about it.
  • Have you ever been forced to adjust to changes over which you had no control? How did you handle that?
  • How do you go about explaining a complex technical problem to a person who does not understand technical jargon?
  • How do you go about establishing rapport with a customer?

“I ask candidates open-ended questions about what they enjoy, or what makes a great day, because their answers reveal where their true passions lie,” said Greene.

In conclusion, start by making sure you’re casting after the right kind of engineers. When screening, be sure to screen for customer-centric traits; and, when interviewing, ask a mix of questions that give you a pretty good idea of the candidate’s DNA with respect to how he or she is likely to interact with your customers.

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