The 21 most important customer service skills
• Communication skills
• Product knowledge
• Problem-solving skills
• Positive attitude
• Positive language
• Listening skills
• A willingness to go the extra mile
• Personal responsibility
• Desire to learn
• Acting ability
• The ability to respond quickly
• Time management skills
• The ability to let it go.
Understanding the customer and the problem is key for anyone in a customer facing role. (Plus, it helps when collaborating with your co-workers!)
In a recent Marketing Profs podcast with speaker and author Jay Baer, he shared why empathy has an impact on a business’ bottom line:
“At one point, empathy was the default. When we interacted with customers and prospects, we did so almost reflexively with a degree of humanity, a degree of warmth, a degree of caring. It’s safe to say now that we are operating in an era of empathy deficit, not only in business, but [also] in politics and in life. The default state is no longer warmth and caring, it is knives out. Consequently, if you can be disproportionately empathetic in your business, it is noticeable in a way that it wouldn’t have been in the past and can create customer conversations accordingly.”
The default state is no longer warmth and caring, it is knives out. Consequently, if you can be disproportionately empathetic in your business, it is noticeable…and can create customer conversations accordingly.
Jay Baer Marketing author, influencer, and keynote speaker
One-to-one customer interactions with your customer success team are the biggest place you can show empathy. Anyone on the phone, live chat, or social media customer support must understand that they are talking to a real live person.
It can’t be stated enough that customers are human beings, not another stat for your spreadsheets.
Sometimes, empathy will mean you have to break the rules or make an exception. If someone needs you to bend the rules due to a family emergency or extenuating circumstances, and you do so, you could develop a lifelong brand advocate.
2. Clear communication skills
Service reps must be able to explain the potential solutions to customers’ problems, and do so in a clear, concise manner. As a communication studies major, I have extra excitement for this customer centric skill.
Clear communication skills mean speaking without jargon, especially if it’s terminology specific to your company. Those who communicate well also understand when their point isn’t getting across and know how to offer alternative explanations if the original doesn’t make sense.
On the technical side, when it comes to verbal communication, those speaking to customers in person or on the phone must also speak clearly – no mumbling allowed!
Non-verbal communications also come into play during these conversations, even when they’re on the phone.
Take a look at the studies done by Dr. Albert Mehrabian in the 1970’s. According to his extensive research, only 7 percent of his communication is the words we say.
The remaining elements of communication come down to non-verbal signals you give people. 38 percent of these include voice and tone. In order words, “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.” The remaining 55 percent depends on body language.
Think of the employees at a retail shop or those who work trade shows as part of an event marketing strategy. Those with exceptional communication skills will have a confident, open stance and make eye-contact with ease. No slouching or crossed arms – this makes employees much more approachable.
Why do these non-verbal skills matter so much?
As described by Dr. Mehrabian, “The non-verbal elements are particularly important for communicating feelings and attitude, especially when they are incongruent: if words and body language disagree, one tends to believe the body language.”
So, if the words you’re saying don’t match up to how you’re saying them, people trust your tone more.
And yes, in case you were wondering, the lack of non-verbals can be the cause of communication issues in text messages, especially for the easily offended. If you are using chatbots and email for customer support, ensure employees have a history of excellent written communication, including grammar.
It’s no surprise these 93 percent of non-verbal communication skills apply to those in an in-person customer facing role. However, don’t forget their importance in phone support, too. For example, posture has a huge impact on a person’s tone and vocal quality. (I’m an actor, trust me on this one!)
Communication skills are interlinked with the ability to listen, which we’ll discuss in point No. 8, and being attentive, point No. 15.
3. Product knowledge
While it may seem like a given, product knowledge is a crucial element that can’t be ignored. Regular training and product updates to give your reps a true understanding of your product, as well as any product changes that will affect customers, is key to the success for your company.
In order to truly help people, your reps must be able to give accurate and up-to-date information about your product or service.
If not, you’ll upset your customers even more!
According to a survey of more than 1,000 adults by the Consumer Reports National Research Centre, 70 percent of people are highly annoyed when they are transferred to a representative who can’t help or is wrong.
In-depth product knowledge does more than enable service agents to troubleshoot customer problems it allows reps to help customers get the most out of your product, ensuring your product or service provides the maximum value.
When they do face a question they can’t answer, make sure that customer service professionals know who to turn to when they need additional information.
4. Problem-solving skills
In essence, problem-solving is what customer service is all about.
While there are many problem-solving models, those interacting with customers need to be quick on their feet. There’s no time for group brainstorming. Your clients want their problems fixed and they want them fixed now.
Here is an example of the problem-solving process that applies to customer service situations:
Great customer service means getting to the heart of problems immediately, then coming up with solutions. It’s important to note step No. 5 in relation to the customer experience.
You may have come up with a solution to the problem, but did it actually work for the customer? If not, it’s time to go back to the beginning and identify new potential solutions.
The circle doesn’t stop until your customer’s issue is solved.
Customer service reps will often find themselves on the front line against unhappy customers. Depending on the situation, people may have worked themselves up into quite a state before speaking with a customer service representative. The ability to stay calm and keep from taking things personally will help diffuse tense situations with angry customers.
A customer service representative may find themselves with a customer who doesn’t know how to describe the problem or struggles to accurately answer the reps questions.
Service reps who maintain their patience are less likely to get irked (making a negative situation even worse) when interacting with a frustrating customer.
Let’s face it: No one is perfect, but there are, no doubt, some frustrating people out there. And, as anyone who works in customer support will tell you, sometimes it seems as if these are the ones who call the most!
Knowing when to take a big (silent!) breath in, then out can come in quite handy.
6. Positive attitude
According to Winston Churchill, “Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference.”
Do you know what? He’s right.
It’s a lesson I learned from my Dad at a young age. While I love all of his life lessons, thanks to his career in sales, this one is applicable when discussing customer service skills. Growing up, my Dad not only pointed out poor customer service, but he also made a point of letting managers know when employees showed exemplary customer service.
There’s no doubt each one of these people displayed a positive attitude.
I remember reading the following poem by Charles Swindoll on my Dad’s desk when I was at that susceptible middle-school age when motivational skills have the strongest impact.
Image source: The Little Rebellion
Notice those words towards the end, “I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me and 90% how I react to it.”
Even if a customer service agent is having a bad day, the calls are going to keep happening. The important part is how that agent reacts, even if a particularly feisty customer happens to be pushing their buttons.
Image source: Randy Glasbergen via Hamilton Writing
Having a positive attitude is one of those customer service skills that is essential for all employees. These people are more enjoyable to be around. Plus, they’re more ready to solve problems and able to execute the next skill: Positive language.
7. Positive language
Those with positive attitudes are able to focus on solutions. Building on that, those who speak positive language also speak in positive terms – they don’t mention the negatives.
I know what you’re thinking: “Isn’t that the definition of an optimist?”
While it’s likely an optimist has a positive attitude, positive language is a more technical skill. Positive language is how a customer service rep uses their communication skills to share information.
Imagine you receive a catalogue sent using direct mail marketing. You call to order a sweater (old-school, I know!), only to find it’s out of stock.
Many times, this is what you’ll hear: “I’m sorry we don’t have that in stock, it’s backordered and you can’t get it for two weeks.”
Now, image you instead hear, “That product will be available in two weeks. I can place your order now, and you will receive it on approximately November 15th.”
Notice the difference?
By using positive language, customer service managers can overcome a customer’s problem before they even knew they had one.
8. Listening skills
Even though a rep might face the same problem 15-to-20 times a day, it is imperative they still listen to each person and each call.
Customer experiences vary from person to person. A problem may be common, but that doesn’t mean that’s this customer’s problem.
If your customer service representatives are making assumptions, you’ll find yourself with customers who are increasingly agitated.
In addition to not assuming, consider the following ways to improve listening skills:
Asking questions, taking notes, and avoiding interruptions are all excellent tactics to improve listening.
Encourage all employees to take these actions as a way to increase productivity through heightened communication skills.
9. A willingness to go the extra mile
A willingness to go the extra mile can also be thought of as “wow” customer service. Forbes author Micah Solomon describes wow customer service as “service that goes beyond fulfilling basic customer expectations and does so in a creative, unexpected way.”
Put simply, it makes people go, “Wow.” (Who would have guessed?)
While the dedication to a customer-centric approach comes from management, it is the customer service representatives interacting with customers day in and day out, listening to customers’ stories and needs for their furry family members, who make that wow factor happen.
10. Personal responsibility
Personal responsibility is critical in all decisions and relationships, be it in or out of the office.
While it’s quite understandable for mistakes to be made in customer service roles, authentic customer support employees know when they have made a misstep. We’re all human, and we make mistakes. Accepting responsibility for those mistakes and looking for ways to fix them is how you turn a negative to a positive.
And, just like responding to negative customer reviews can turn the tides, acknowledging the mistake and fixing it is how you can turn a frustrated client into a brand advocate.
Customers will have faith they are getting the right answer (and one that will work!) when they talk to someone with confidence. And, when you go back to the third skill – training service reps on your product and service – this should come naturally!
Confident employees are a positive reflection on your brand, increasing your company’s trust and credibility. Proper training and internal communication channels to troubleshoot new customer issues as they arise will naturally give reps the confidence to excel.
If you have a customer service agent with great empathy, listening, and problem-solving skills, but who’s lacking just a bit in their self-confidence, consider doing what you can to give them a confidence boost.
Provide employees with positive feedback and some physical tips on how to be confident. Just like those who need some help with easy networking tips, smiling and maintaining a confident posture will go a long way. (Plus it helps those communication skills!)
12. Tenacity and resilience
Let’s face it – most people only call customer service when they have a problem. This means that your customer service reps are often faced with unhappy people non-stop throughout the day. Sometimes, it’s a simple problem to fix. Other times, not so much.
Customer Service reps need the ability to deal with other people’s frustrations day in and day out, while still maintaining that positive attitude.
“Patience and tenacity are worth more than twice their weight of cleverness.”
Tenacity is also required when support agents are facing problems that aren’t easy to solve. Sometimes, it may be an usual technical difficulty. Alternatively, service reps could find themselves working with the un-tech savvy who need some extra time to get through the basics.
Other times, employees might be helping a customer with extenuating circumstances. Customer service reps will have to spend extra time, or take measures not usually taken, to ensure the issue is resolved.
Think of tenacity as resilience: the dogged determination not to stop until the problem is solved.
Authenticity will go a long way when it comes to customer service. As a midwestern girl (I grew up surrounded by cows and cornfields), I grew accustomed to people who care about each other.
This goes back to empathy and listening – you’re not just reading a script, you’re not pretending to listen, you are giving your best solution to each and every customer.
It means that you’re not trying to help a customer to fulfill your own goals (whether it’s making a renewal, hitting your target, or avoiding looking bad to your boss). You want to help every individual you cross paths with.
While you may have a standard customer service script, customers are not made from cookie cutters. Each individual’s situation is unique, and you need to be ready to adapt to each one.
Finding employees with strong adaptability skills will not only help your customer success rate, it will also help you find strong leaders. In fact, according to the Center for Creative Leadership, the ability to adapt or develop was cited as the No. 1 most cited success factor for North American managers.
The good news is, according to a 2017 global study by PricewaterhouseCoopers, 86 percent of those in the workforce believe they have this skill.
Image source: Job Market Monitor
As you’ll notice in the image, adaptability is closely followed by problem-solving as the top two skills members of the workforce believe they have.
Assuming people responded with an accurate self-assessment, there’s a good chance most employees will have these two critical customer service skills.
Think of your standard romantic comedy with the dreamy leading man. What do all the girls say? “He made me feel like I was the only one in the room.”
Be attentive to your customers and make them feel like they matter.
Instead of movie scripts, think of applying a small business strategy. Coming from a small town, I grew up witnessing businesses that showed appreciation to all customers by spending time with them.
Sometimes, small businesses are the ones that understand their clients the most; they have lifelong customers because of the time they spend building relationships.
Putting quality over quantity (rather than speed and moving on to the next customer), gives each customer all the time they need. This is one of the reasons online fashion retailer Zappos has seen such success.
Its longest customer service call? Take a guess.
20 minutes? 30 minutes? An hour? Try over 10. Ten hours and 43 minutes, to be precise.
Here, you can watch the Steven Weinstein, the Zappos employee with the record for the longest customer-service call, tell the story in his own words:
Listen to those words, “An obsession with making sure our customers are perfectly happy.”
Not only did he make a very happy customer, Zappos found itself with a story to tell and journalists wanting to tell it. Publications sharing the story include Huffington Post, Business Insider, and The Today Show. The story even made Jimmy Fallon’s opening monologue, where he helped Steven meet his customer in person.
In addition to reaping the return on investment (ROI) rewards of lifelong customers, who knows, you could find yourself getting press coverage, just like Zappos!
16. Desire to learn
Over time, your product, service, and procedures will continue to change. You need customer service employees who are both ready and willing to learn. Support reps are the front line, educating customers about changes.
Like the other customer service skills that apply to all employees, those eager to learn show that positive attitude we discussed in point No. 6. In addition, this trait shows a commitment to the investment you have made in an employee and the sincere desire to advance their career.
Plus, when you provide employees with opportunities to learn, their appreciation will show in the high levels of customer service they provide.
Earlier, I mentioned Chewy. According to UJET, this concept is a direct reflection on the high levels of customer support its team gives: “Chewy makes a commitment to training its agents when they join the company and on a continuing basis, contributing to high morale, low turnover, and a great work environment that facilitates friendly, thoughtful customer service interactions.”
When a customer has a problem, they don’t care about the fact that your customer service agent didn’t sleep last night, broke up with their boyfriend, or had a fight with their mom.
As soon as that phone is picked up, all personal problems are left behind. It’s time to put on a smile (even over the phone!) and focus on the needs of the customer first.
It’s worth noting that this doesn’t just apply to your customer relationship team. We can all have a bad day now and then, but your co-workers may get fatigued when every day is full of complaints. Both clients and co-workers appreciate when you can set aside complaints to get the job done – which is the perfect tie-in to our next customer service skill of acting ability.
18. Acting ability
Fake it till you make it – it doesn’t just apply to actors. All service agents need to know how to put on a happy face.
No one wants to talk to a robot. Whether or not you have a script, showing some personality will go a long way to help customers make a connection with your customer service rep. That connection is what gives them a positive experience.
Even if you’re having the same conversation for the 100th time, it’s the first time this customer is having it with you. Every time a customer service professional hears, “I can’t get your website page to work,” they need to act like they’re hearing it for the first time.
This means that those in a customer facing role need to show their energetic side in every interaction. Whether they’re bored, tired, or stressed, reps can’t let it show.
19. The ability to respond quickly
No customer wants to be kept waiting. This is true for in-person interactions, as well as chatbox software and phone calls. Good customer service skills require being able to not only adapt, but do so quickly.
If you leave someone waiting too long for a response on that chat box, there’s a good chance their frustration levels will increase, making it even harder to get their satisfaction levels up. (This is especially true with awful on-hold music. Let’s not get into how much of that I’ve listened to waiting to speak to an airline representative. Ahem, United Airlines.)
Help your employees show off their ability to respond quickly by ensuring you have enough staff. This skill is intertwined with product knowledge and confidence. Arm your customer service representatives with everything they need and help them help customers avoid that dreaded elevator music!
20. Time management skills
Time management skills are especially applicable to serving customers while working for a B2B company. Customer service software can play a part in giving customers quick response time. At the same time, each employee must take personal responsibility as well.
Customer relationship managers and implementation specialists have many customers to take care of, and no one can feel forgotten.
This is where time management skills are crucial.
Customer support teams have a variety of responsibilities to juggle each day when it comes to strategizing time management, including:
• Which customers will need a little extra love, costing the service rep more of their time
• How long onboarding calls will take
• How much time to budget for responding to emails
• When preparation is needed before meeting with a customer
• How to prioritize time spent researching answers to unusual customer questions
Customer service representatives can maximize their productivity by using The Action Matrix (shown below) for prioritizing their tasks.
21. The ability to let it go
Knowing how to let it go is a skill that I often advocate.
Those in customer support roles, such as call centers, are often the brunt of verbal abuse. People call up wanting to vent and have a source to dispel their anger.
If this is you, understand when it’s not your fault. Just like the path to productivity, you may need to take a break or step back. And, if all else fails, create a music playlist that helps you move on, with “Shake it Off” by Taylor Swift as the first song.
Customer service comes down to caring
In the end, the skills of a customer service employee come down to caring.
Having empathy to understand the situation of each person a rep interacts with and the authentic desire to help them will go a long way.
Consider this marketing quote by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos: “We see our customers as invited guests to a party, and we are the hosts. It’s our job every day to make every important aspect of the customer experience a little bit better.”
The best way to build a positive customer experience is by hiring employees with these 21 customer service skills, then giving them the ability to put those skills to work.
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