In lists of customer service skills, things like “being a people person” often take the spotlight. But being a people person isn’t a skill — it’s a trait — so it’s not really actionable advice. You can’t develop the skill of being a people person, nor can you observe whether or not someone is a “people person” in an interview.
So to put together our list, we asked two questions: What skills can customer service professionals develop to get better at their jobs, and what skills can leaders look for during interviews to make sure they’re hiring the right people? The result: a list of skills — not traits — that are both developable and observable.
16 key customer service skills
Here are the 16 customer service skills that every professional should seek to develop and every leader should look for when hiring new team members.
Patience is crucial for customer service professionals. After all, customers who reach out to support are often confused and frustrated. Being listened to and handled with patience goes a long way in helping customers feel like you’re going to alleviate their current frustrations.
But patience among customer service teams is also important to the business at large because great service beats fast service every single time. It’s not enough to close out interactions with customers as quickly as possible. You have to be willing to take the time to listen and fully understand each customer’s problems and needs.
If you deal with customers on a daily basis, be sure to stay patient when they come to you stumped and frustrated, but also be sure to take the time to truly figure out what they truly need.
The ability to truly listen to customers is crucial to providing great service for a number of reasons. Not only is it important to pay attention to individual customers’ experiences, but it’s also important to be mindful and attentive to the feedback that you receive at large.
For instance, customers may not be saying it outright, but perhaps there is a pervasive feeling that your software’s dashboard isn’t laid out correctly. Customers aren’t likely to say, “Please improve your UX,” but they may say things like, “I can never find the search feature” or “Where is (specific function), again?”
You have to be attentive to pick up on what your customers are telling you without directly saying it.
3. Ability to communicate clearly
It’s important to be mindful of how some of your communication habits translate to customers, and it’s best to err on the side of caution whenever you find yourself questioning a situation.
More importantly, you need to be cautious about how some of your communication habits translate to customers. For example, the last time I went to get work done on my car, I was told by an employee that if I wanted to get an oil change, it would be “included” in my final bill.
I thought that meant I’d be getting it for free, yet as it turns out, that wasn’t the case. The employee apologized — and I truly believe it was an accident — but I haven’t been back to that shop since because of the miscommunication.
When it comes to important points that you need to relay clearly to customers, keep it simple and leave nothing to doubt.
4. Knowledge of the product
The best customer service professionals have a deep knowledge of how their companies’ products work. After all, without knowing your product from front to back, you won’t know how to help customers when they run into problems.
Take the time to get to know your company’s product as well as a customer who uses it every day does. Every new Help Scout employee, for example, is trained on customer support during their first or second week on the job — it’s a critical component of our employee onboarding process.
Knowing the product that you support inside and out is mission critical for anyone in support,” says Help Scout’s Elyse Roach.
“Having that solid product foundation not only ensures you’ve got the best tricks up your sleeve to help customers navigate even the most complex situations, it also helps you build understanding about their experience so that you can become their strongest advocate.”
5. Ability to use positive language
Effective customer service means having the ability to make minor changes in your conversational patterns. This can truly go a long way in creating happy customers.
Language is a crucial part of persuasion, and people (especially customers) create perceptions about you and your company based on the language that you use.
For example, let’s say a customer contacts you with an interest in a particular product, but that product happens to be back-ordered until next month.
Responding to questions with positive language can greatly affect how the customer hears your response:
- Without positive language: “I can’t get you that product until next month; it is back-ordered and unavailable at this time.”
- With positive language: “That product will be available next month. I can place the order for you right now and make sure that it is sent to you as soon as it reaches our warehouse.”
The first example isn’t negative per se, but the tone it conveys feels abrupt and impersonal and could be taken the wrong way by customers — especially in email support when the perception of written language can skew negative.
Conversely, the second example is stating the same thing (the item is unavailable), but it focuses on when and how the issue will be resolved instead of focusing on the negative.
6. Acting skills
Sometimes you’re going to come across people who you’ll never be able to make happy.
Situations outside of your control (they had a terrible day, or they are just a natural-born complainer) will sometimes creep into your usual support routine, and you’ll be greeted with those “barnacle” customers that seem to want nothing else but to pull you down.
Every great customer service professional needs basic acting skills to maintain their usual cheery persona in spite of dealing with people who are just plain grumpy.
7. Time management skills
On the one hand, it’s good to be patient and spend a little extra time with customers to understand their problems and needs. On the other hand, there is a limit to the amount of time you can dedicate to each customer, so you need to be concerned with getting customers what they want in an efficient manner.
The trick here is applying your time management skills when realizing when you simply cannot help a customer. If you don’t know the solution to a problem, the best kind of support professional will get a customer over to someone who does.
Don’t waste time trying to go above and beyond for a customer in an area where you will just end up wasting both of your time!
8. Ability to read customers
You won’t always be able to see customers face-to-face, and in many instances, you won’t even hear a customer’s voice. But that doesn’t exempt you from understanding some basic principles of behavioral psychology and being able to read the customer’s current emotional state.
You don’t want to misread a customer and end up losing them due to confusion and miscommunication. As Emily Triplett Lentz wrote in Boost Customer Happiness with Exclamations and Emoticons:
“I rarely use a smiley face in a support email when the customer’s signature includes ‘PhD,’ for example. Not that academics are humorless, it’s just that
:)isn’t likely to get you taken seriously by someone who spent five years deconstructing utopian undertones in nineteenth-century autobiographical fiction.”
Look and listen for subtle clues about a customer’s current mood, patience level, personality, etc., and you’ll go far in keeping your customer interactions positive.
There are a lot of metaphors for this type of personality: “keeps their cool,” “staying cool under pressure,” and so on, but it all represents the same thing: The ability some people have to stay calm and even influence others when things get a little hectic.
I’ve had my fair share of hairy hosting situations, and I can tell you in all honesty that the number-one reason I stick with certain hosting companies is due to the ability of their customer support team to keep me from pulling my hair out.
The best customer service reps know that they can’t let a heated customer force them to lose their cool. In fact, it is their job to try to be the “rock” for customers who think the world is falling apart as a result of their current problems.
10. Goal-oriented focus
This may seem like a strange thing to list as a good customer service skill, but I assure you it’s vitally important.
Many customer service experts have shown how giving employees unfettered power to “wow” customers doesn’t always generate the returns many businesses expect to see. That’s because it leaves employees without goals, and business goals and customer happiness can work hand-in-hand without resulting in poor service.
Relying on frameworks like the Net Promoter Score can help businesses come up with guidelines for their employees that allow plenty of freedom to handle customers on a case-to-case basis, but also leave them priority solutions and “go-to” fixes for common problems.
11. Ability to handle surprises
Sometimes the customer support world is going to throw you a curveball.
Maybe the problem you encounter isn’t specifically covered in the company’s guidelines, or maybe the customer isn’t reacting how you thought they would.
Whatever the case, it’s best to be able to think on your feet, but it’s even better to create guidelines for yourself in these sorts of situations.
Let’s say, for instance, you want to come up with a quick system for when you come across a customer who has a product or service problem you’ve never seen before. You need to know:
- Who? Decide who should be your go-to person when you don’t know what to do. The CEO might be able to help you, but you can’t go to them with every single question. Define a logical escalation path so you won’t be left wondering who you should reach out to.
- What? When the problem is noticeably out of your league, what are you going to send to the people above? The full conversation, just the important parts, or maybe some highlights and an example of a similar conversation?
- How? When it comes time to get someone else involved, how are you going to contact them? For instance, at Help Scout, we use our own product to assign conversations to another team member, or @mention the person from whom we need help in a note within the conversation.
12. Persuasion skills
Experienced customer support personnel know that oftentimes, you’ll get messages in your inbox that are from people who aren’t looking for support; they’re considering purchasing your company’s product.
To truly take your customer service skills to the next level, you need to have some mastery of persuasion so you can convince interested prospects that your product is right for them (if it truly is).
It’s not about making a sales pitch in each email, but it is about not letting potential customers slip away because you couldn’t create a compelling message that your company’s product is worth purchasing!
Call it what you want, but a great work ethic and a willingness to do what needs to be done (and not take shortcuts) is a key skill when providing the kind of service that people talk about.
The most memorable customer service stories out there — many of which had a huge impact on the business — were created by a single employee who refused to just follow the standard process when it came to helping someone out.
Remembering that your customers are people too — and knowing that putting in the extra effort will come back to you ten-fold — should be your driving motivation to never cheat your customers with lazy service.
14. Closing ability
Being able to close with a customer as a customer service professional means being able to end the conversation with confirmed customer satisfaction (or as close to it as you can achieve) and with the customer feeling that everything has been taken care of (or will be).
Getting booted before all of their problems have been addressed is the last thing that customers want, so be sure to take the time to confirm with customers that each and every issue they had was entirely resolved.
Your willingness to do this shows the customer three very important things:
- You care about getting it right.
- You’re willing to keep going until you solve their problems.
- The customer is the one who determines what “right” is.
You know the conversation is over when you get a customer to “Yes, I’m all set!”
Perhaps empathy — the ability to understand and share the feelings of another — is more of a character trait than a skill. But since empathy can be learned and improved upon, we’d be remiss not to include it here.
In fact, if your organization tests job applicants for customer service aptitude, you’d be hard pressed to look for a more critical skill than empathy.
That’s because even when you can’t tell the customer exactly what they want to hear, a dose of care, concern, and understanding will go a long way. A support rep’s ability to empathize with a customer and craft a message that steers things toward a better outcome can often make all the difference.
16. Willingness to learn
While this is probably the most general skill on this list, it’s also one of the most important. After all, willingness to learn is the basis for growing your skills as a customer service professional.
You have to be willing to learn your product inside and out, willing to learn how to communicate better (and when you’re communicating poorly), willing to learn when it’s okay to follow a process — and when it’s more appropriate to choose your own adventure.
Those who don’t seek to improve what they do — whether it’s building products, marketing businesses, or helping customers — will get left behind by the people who are willing to invest in their own skills.
The good news: if you came across this article and read all the way to the bottom, you likely already have this skill!
What if someone on your team is lacking these skills?
What if you’re leading a team of support professionals who aren’t open to improving their approach to customer service? What if they lack the skills above and don’t seem to be interested in developing them? Help Scout’s Mathew Patterson answered that question recently; see his response in the video below.
Often, the root cause of what could be perceived as a lack of skill or unwillingness to learn is the result of a work environment (current or prior) that didn’t reward going above and beyond to provide excellent service.
Try providing your team with some clear guidelines for what you expect and some examples of what great customer service looks like at your company in a way that brings to bear all of these skills, and as you do it, make sure that you’re celebrating those small wins as you see people starting to use these skills.
Once your team starts to see that their efforts are being acknowledged and rewarded, you’ll have people start to get more engaged, and you’ll have a clearer picture of whether or not there are actually people on your team who have real skill gaps that you need to work on.
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