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11 must-have Customer Service Skills + How to develop them

Mar 17, 2021
  |  
Customer Service
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10 min read
customer-service-skills
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At its heart, customer service is about human relationships. How you make the person on the other side ‘feel’ when they reach out to you for help is what matters the most. 

Famous American Poet Maya Angelou puts it across in the best possible manner: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.

Your team might be handling hundreds or even thousands of queries on a daily basis, but at the end of the day, they’re dealing with human emotions. Some customers might be frustrated, some confused, some incredibly pissed. 

So, unless your agents have the right set of customer service skills to tackle this repertoire of human emotions, they can’t deliver great customer service. They can’t genuinely delight customers, and win over their long-term trust and loyalty.

Why is this important? Well, offering great customer service can help you achieve a higher ROI from close to 71% of your customers. In a detailed research published by Harvard Business Review, it was concluded that customers who had the best past experiences are willing to spend 140% more than those who had the poorest past experiences!

Another study conducted in 2019 found out that customers today are more discerning of the service they receive from brands and also extremely vocal about it. 

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Knowing how important quality of service has become today, let’s find out the customer service skills and traits that make a difference in this job.

Let’s also look at ways in which your support agents can nurture these skills and get really good at them.

1. The “Big Picture” Mindset

This trait is best explained via a famous anecdote. When the late John F. Kennedy visited the NASA space center, he saw a janitor carrying a broom. JFK went over and asked what he was doing.

The janitor replied “Mr. President, I’m helping put a man on the moon

When you see the bigger picture and have a clear vision, your everyday tasks become much more meaningful and give you a sense of purpose.

As a customer service professional, you need to understand and cherish the responsibility you’ve been given. You’re the face of your company and one of the primary reference points customers will use to form an opinion about your brand.

You’re not just picking up queries and resolving them but representing your company and shaping experiences that’ll eventually impact everything from how prospective customers see your brand to revenue, retention rates, and churn.

How to develop the ‘Big Picture’ mindset

  • For every task you perform, try mapping it to a larger goal or objective.
  • Regularly block off some time to think about the bigger things in life like the legacy you’ll leave behind, how you’d want people to remember you, and so on.
  • In his best-selling book, The Magic of Thinking Big, Ph.D. author, David J. Schwartz recommends improving your life by asking questions. He asks readers to “see what can be, not just what is.” Developing this kind of mindset enables you to think broader and always look at the bigger picture. 
  • Write down the bigger things you want to achieve in your job. This could be something such as “I want to leave a memorable impression with customers” or “I want to delight customers and make them smile”. Then, break this down into smaller, actionable tasks so that you’ll know the everyday things you need to do in order to move towards the bigger goal.

2. Lots of Empathy

Empathy is the ability to place yourself in the other person’s shoes, see things from their perspective, and truly understand how they feel about something.

It is the foundation of any strong relationship, and perhaps the most important customer service skill. Even in situations where you can’t help a customer, understanding their perspective and accordingly engaging with them, goes a long way in enabling you to be tactful while navigating issues.

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This trait becomes even more important when you’re communicating via email, because customers can’t associate facial expressions or tone of voice with what you’re saying.

How to develop empathy in customer service

  • The first step in developing empathy is to be a patient and conscious listener. Listen, before you can talk. 
  • Make it a point to spend time with people who’re different from you. Also, try joining various different communities – you could start with the ones that align with your interests. The idea here is to basically get out of your comfort zone and expose yourself to different perspectives and experiences.
  • Ask a lot of questions, but more importantly, ask better questions. Asking questions shows your curiosity in getting to know more about a query or problem. At the same time, make sure your questions are thoughtful and add value to the conversation.
  • Recommended reading: Mindset – Transform Your Brain With The New Science of Empathy

3. Clarity in Communication

One of the most underrated traits in customer service is knowing to communicate with clarity. Keep things simple, clear and concise. 

It turns out that lack of clear communication is one of the biggest roadblocks to offering great customer service. Ambiguous, vague, jargon-filled responses not only confuse customers but lead to more back and forth and result in a delayed resolution.

If you’re writing emails to customers, make sure to keep the language direct and actionable. Use bullet points wherever necessary to explain the steps that need to be taken. Also, making use of screenshots definitely helps. 

How to develop clarity in communication

  • Avoid using technical jargon as much as possible
  • Speak your customer’s language and use the terms they understand.
  • Breakdown your emails using bullet points and subheadings.
  • Avoid unnecessarily long introductions or overly formal closings.
  • Avoid using idioms.
  • Share additional resource/FAQ links wherever possible. 
  • Recommended Reading: Everybody Writes – Ann Handley

You might like: How to write awesome customer service emails: Rules and templates

4. Asking the right questions

Empathizing with customers becomes easier when you ask the right questions

Instead of assuming what caused the problem and sending out a templatized response, show a bit more interest in your customer’s problem and try to dig deeper to identify the root cause of the issue.

Here are a few questions you can ask especially during your initial conversations with customers:

Can you help me understand your issue better? Please share more details.

Let me rephrase your problem just to make sure I’ve understood it correctly. Is this what you’re saying?

Is there anything specific you want me to do about this?” 

Make sure your questions don’t come across as aggressive interrogation. Stay polite, and ask questions to understand the problem, not to shift blame.

How to ask the right questions

  • Ask open-ended questions that give your customers the liberty to describe the problem in detail.
  • Listen patiently and control the urge to respond immediately.
  • Rephrase customer queries to confirm your understanding.
  • Recommended Reading: How To Win Friends & Influence People – Dale Carnegie.

5. Ownership and Responsibility

Apologize even if it’s not your fault” is one of the golden rules of customer service. The last thing you’d want to do is play the blame game when you have an angry customer on the other side. 

Keep this in mind: customers don’t care about your company’s internal problems, approval cycles, or bureaucratic formalities. They’re using your product/service and when you have an issue, it’s up to you to fix it. As simple as that.

Jeff Bezos’ apology when Amazon took down certain books from Kindle is a great example of brands owning up and taking responsibility for their actions.

So, for customer service professionals who are actually the face of a company, apologizing for the trouble caused and taking ownership to fix it is a must-have quality.

Here’s a simple four-As procedure to cultivating a sense of ownership.

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How to take ownership of customer problems

  • Assure the customer that they’re in good hands and that you’re personally handling the issue.
  • Explain the steps involved in resolving the problem and tell them what you’re doing right now.
  • Update the customer on the progress of the issue.
  • The HEARD technique – Disney’s way of handling customer service failures – is a great framework for building ownership. 
  • Recommended Reading: The Thank You Economy –  Gary Vaynerchuk

6. Handling difficult customers

You need to be thick-skinned to succeed in customer service.

Every customer is different. There will be those who shout at you, make a big deal out of nothing, and even go to the extent of using abusive language.

But you need to keep in mind that they aren’t attacking you personally. They’re mainly angry and frustrated with your brand and since you’re their point of contact, they’re taking it out on you.

In such instances, it’s important that you don’t overreact or take things to your heart. Stay patient, hear them out completely, and try your best to steer the conversation towards an amicable resolution. 

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How to develop patience and self-control

  • Meditate regularly. This helps keep your emotions in check 
  • Understand your anger triggers and list down the things that can cause you to lose control.
  • Keep reminding yourself that the customer’s anger is towards your company, not you as a person.
  • Consult with a senior or a teammate before responding to a customer when you’re angry.
  • Recommended Reading: Master Your Emotions – Thibaut Meurisse

7. Product Expertise

To be a good customer service professional, having a fundamental understanding of your company’s products/services is a prerequisite.  

That doesn’t mean you have to be a technical expert. What’s important is that you know how the product works, the various features it offers, have basic troubleshooting skills, amongst other things. 

Understanding all of these things from a user’s perspective is even more important, as it helps you empathize more with their queries. 

How to develop product knowledge

  • Understand and analyze the customer journey in using your product/service. Also, use the product yourself, by taking the same customer journey.
  • Stay on top of product updates. Regularly read product manuals and user guides.
  • Having clear, established lines of communication with the R&D team in your company also helps.

8. Collaboration Skills

“What separates those who achieve from those who do not is in direct proportion to one’s ability to ask for help.” the late American Businessman Donald Keough.

This holds true in customer service as well. Taking ownership of customer issues doesn’t mean you have to do everything yourself.

If you think about it, most customer queries are usually related to some other department or function, say product (queries around product malfunction), or finance (queries around invoices), for that matter. 

So, one of the more efficient ways to handle queries is to collaborate with other teams. They might be having more information on resolving the issue and so it’s always best to loop them in. 

In order to do so, one of the main things you need to ensure is establishing clear lines of communication between the customer service team and other functions — whilst navigating various internal silos. This can be done by investing in the right technology

How to improve collaboration skills

  • Identify the relevant stakeholder responsible for resolving a customer issue.
  • Collaborate with the relevant departments and provide them with all the necessary context needed to solve the query.
  • Create an internal follow-up mechanism to stay updated.
  • Invest in the right tools and technology to enable seamless internal communication with various non-customer facing teams.
  • Recommended Reading: Free To Focus – Michael Hyatt

9. Being Tech-Savvy

The use of digital touchpoints has seen an incredible surge of late. Famous Customer Experience leader Shep Hyken had this to say: “A major trend for 2021 will be the use of a digital customer experience. COVID-19 accelerated the use of technology, putting us three to five years into the future. More companies are finding ways to digitize and automate their customer experience. Brands are pushing to use digital and self-service solutions to create an easier, low-or-no friction process for their customers.

When that’s the case, it helps if customer service representatives are tech-savvy

If you’re good with tech, it becomes easier to work with different tools – be it a helpdesk, or an internal collaboration tool, for instance. You can also seamlessly switch between answering queries on multiple platforms – live chat, email, social media, and so on. 

All of this automatically improves your efficiency at work as you don’t have to spend too much time figuring out software.

How to get comfortable with technology

  • Take up courses to learn about the latest software used in customer support
  • Identify the tools that come under your team’s tech stack. Then, look up how-to guides, videos, and manuals on these solutions. 
  • When you have trouble figuring something out in a tool, don’t hesitate to ask your team members or manager for help.

10. Managing Time

Not all tasks in customer service involve interacting with the customer. There’s quite a bit of grunt, repetitive work that is done on a daily basis. Work that is time-consuming and energy-sapping.

From following up on the status of queries to assigning work to support staff to changing the status of queries, a lot of these tasks are done manually. This, in turn, eats into the productivity of your team, resulting in delayed service. 

Today, speed of service is just as important as quality, if not more. So, if you’re to provide quick responses and not keep customers waiting, how you manage your time is extremely crucial. 

Pro tip: for individuals who are looking to make productive use of time, divide your tasks into four quadrants as shown below and accordingly prioritize.

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How to manage time more efficiently

  • Leveraging automations can be a game changer. You can create automation rules to tag and demarcate queries based on their nature and order of priority. For instance, all queries that contain the word urgent in the subject line can be tagged as ‘high priority’. All invoice-related queries can be tagged as ‘invoice’ and so on.
  • Constantly update your knowledge base. This helps you answer the most common customer queries by simply redirecting them to the relevant knowledge base article, instead of typing out long replies.
  • Recommended Reading: Tyranny Of The Urgent – Charles E. Hummel

11. Growth Mindset

In a function like customer service where you’re the face of the company and get to constantly interact with new people everyday, there’s always room to learn and improve. 

Like the late Steve Job famously said, “Stay hungry, stay foolish”. No matter how experienced you are, having the right attitude and mindset has a huge impact on not just the work you do, but on your team and ultimately, on your customers.  

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Didn’t handle a customer query in the best possible way? Ask your supervisor where you went wrong and make a conscious effort to fix it. 

Not sure how to use a particular tool or technology? Talk to your manager and see if you’d be able to enroll in a brief course where you get to learn this.

The fact that in customer service you expose yourself to different people, different challenges, different problems on a daily basis is quite an exciting proposition. And the best way to make the most of it is to remain curious and always be open to feedback.

How to stay broad-minded and develop a positive attitude

  • Develop a habit of reading every day.
  • Surround yourself with like-minded folks, who are always looking to learn more.
  • Mentorship is key. Find a mentor who can help improve you on a personal as well as professional level.
  • Recommended Reading: Mindset – Carol Dweck

Bringing it all together

The quality of support you deliver depends on the kind of people you have in your team. Which is why it’s extremely important that you look for these above-mentioned customer service skills while hiring for your support team. At the same time, keep in mind that not everyone is going to tick all boxes and that some of these skills can be learned on the job – through proper training.

It’s when you have empathetic, knowledgeable, and ownership-driven support reps by your side and enable them with the right tools and solutions that great customer service happens!

Hiver HQ
Jawad Khan is an experienced project manager, a content marketing consultant and a freelance blogger for hire. He's an active consultant to several tech startups and SaaS companies in the US, Middle East and Australia. Follow him on his blog Writing My Destiny, Twitter and Google+
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