Debra Robins, president of a San Francisco multimedia creative services firm, used to hire technicians and artists for their technical talents but was often disappointed with their customer-service skills. There had to be a better way to screen applicants.

It occurred to Robins that the best way to learn about an applicant's commitment to customers is from past customers themselves. Prospective employees are now asked to provide references from clients in addition to those from employers and coworkers. During reference checks, clients are asked open-ended questions about their working relationship with the applicant. Even in an era of cautious references, a picture emerges about the applicant's customer-service orientation. What is not said is often as important as what is said.

Robins, who employs 40 full-time and 20 freelance workers, has been delighted with the results. She now screens all prospective employees for their commitment to customer service.

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