Seven Essential Traits for Success in a Customer Service Role

How do you really know at an interview if someone will be successful in a customer service role?


I fell into hospitality at an early age, and the only thing I remember from my first interview was the question, “when can you start?”. Since then, I have recruited hundreds of times and been responsible for thousands of recruits. As a young manager, I recruited with a ‘gut feel’. I have made lots of great decisions but also LOTS of bad ones. I wish I knew from the beginning the recipe for success.

The hospitality industry is facing a recruitment crisis. Not only has the net immigration rate dropped by nearly 10% each year since 2019, but the emigration rates in most Eastern countries are also declining, compounding the recruitment difficulties. Let’s put aside our frustrations with the consequences of Brexit and the aftermath of Covid and perhaps focus on something we can influence.

Early in my career, I was introduced to the idea that an interview wasn’t about getting to know if you like a candidate, but how can you predict how they are likely to perform in the job role. To do that, you need to know the behaviours you are looking for from a candidate.

In an interview, you might ask a question like, “What do you like doing in your spare time?” But what’s the correct answer to the question? “I am passionate about football” might be a typical response. We can all agree that watching football from your sofa with a beer in hand is very different from someone that might talk about how active they are in coaching a team of 8-year-olds every weekend. There is no right or wrong answer to the question, but we are probably looking for Energy, Enthusiasm, and Engagement.

What behaviours are we looking for in hospitality? Here are our top seven essential traits for success in a customer service role.

#7 – Takes initiative

Your receptionist takes the initiative to deal with a complaint personally. Your waiter takes the initiative to upsell your premium wines. Your bartender takes the initiative to see if a guest sitting at the bar would like another drink or simply a chat with a lone traveller. That’s hospitality gold dust right there.

#6 – Diplomatic

Giving excellent customer service to a happy guest is easy! But what about the guest that arrives in a foul mood after a long journey, a stormy meeting at the office or furious that they can’t check-in before 3 pm? Didn’t they read the damn website or the terms and conditions of their booking? Perhaps, a degree of diplomacy is in order!

#5 – Warmth / Empathy

Your team needs to show warmth and empathy as guests always need to be listened to and reassured. We can closely connect this trait to being diplomatic; both qualities are about having a high level of interpersonal abilities.

#4 – Outgoing

I am not talking about introversion and extroversion, but the enjoyment of meeting new people. If you don’t like meeting new people, customer service is unlikely for you; however, be careful not to dismiss applicants who are not extroverted.

#3 – Organised

For those who worked in the front office, I am sure you remember when you had a queue of fifty people for check-in whilst dealing with fifteen other tasks. In these moments, front line staff need to be organised. If they do not have a plan for handling these situations, this may have repercussions on the service provided and will, undoubtedly, lead to unhappy customers.

#2 – Optimistic

Hospitality can be demanding, at times, extremely tough! In these moments, candidates need to be optimistic about why they are working in the hospitality industry. Optimism is an attitude that rubs off on the guest and lightens spirits when having a difficult day.

#1 – Helpful

Hands down, this is the most critical trait we should be looking for when recruiting. If you think of any poor customer service experience you have received, I am sure the word “unhelpful” (along with some other expletives) comes to mind.

A few years ago, I was hosting a student event in one of my hotels. During the meal, one of the service team dropped a glass of beer all over our table. One student jumped up, and her immediate reaction was to help the waitress clean up the mess while other students laughed at the situation, and other staff members ignored what had happened. I made an immediate decision that I was going to offer a job to this student. Today she is excelling in her career, having worked at some of the best luxury hotels in the world. Helpful is the very first trait recruiters should be looking for, and this was, without a doubt, one of the best recruits I have ever made.

We would love to hear from you about your experiences of recruiting for customer service in the comments below!