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11 Soft Skills to Enhance Customer Retention

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11 Soft Skills to Enhance Customer Retention

Feb 09, 2024
14 min read

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I was recently talking to someone who works in customer support. He said, “​​I’ve been a customer service representative for over 10 years, and I’ve seen firsthand how the right soft skills can make a big difference.

“I’ve had customers who were so angry that they were ready to cancel their service, but I was able to calm them down and resolve their issue. I’ve also had customers who were so happy with the service I provided that they became loyal customers for life. That experience taught me that soft skills are essential for providing excellent customer service.” 

The biggest takeaway here is that soft skills matter in customer service. Yes, it’s about having the technical knowledge to solve problems. But, it’s all about being able to connect with customers on a human level, understand their needs, and go the extra mile to make them happy.

In this article, we’ll discuss:

  • Importance of soft skills in customer service
  • Difference between hard skills and soft skills 
  • 11 must-have soft skills for customer support agents
Best way to delight customers See how Hiver works

Table of Contents

What are Customer Service Soft Skills

Soft skills are personal attributes and interpersonal abilities that enable individuals to interact effectively and harmoniously with others. In the context of customer service, these skills are especially vital because they set the tone for how support staff communicate and interact with customers.

Difference Between Hard Skills and Soft Skills in Customer Service

In customer service, both hard skills and soft skills are crucial. Here’s the difference between them:

Hard Skills: These are teachable abilities or skill sets that can be easily quantified. They are often acquired through training, education, and direct experience. For a customer service role, here are some typical hard skills:

  • Technical Proficiency: Knowing how to use customer relationship management (CRM) systems, customer service software, and other specific tools.
  • Product Knowledge: Understanding the details of the product or service you’re supporting so that you can help customers effectively.
  • Troubleshooting: The ability to identify and resolve specific problems a customer might face.
  • Language Skills: For companies that serve a multilingual customer base, the ability to speak and write in those languages.
  • Data Analysis: In some roles, you might need to analyze customer data to understand common issues or trends.

Soft Skills: These are more intangible and are often related to personal attributes and emotional intelligence. They might be harder to quantify but play a crucial role in interacting with customers and colleagues.

Here’s how soft skills differ from hard skills:

-Soft Skills: Intangible, related to emotional intelligence and personal attributes.
-Hard Skills: Tangible, teachable abilities or skill sets.

-Soft Skills: Harder to quantify; based on interactions and responses.
-Hard Skills: Easily measurable and definable.

-Soft Skills: Developed through personal experiences and introspection.
-Hard Skills: Acquired through training, education, and practice.

-Soft Skills: Empathy, active listening, and patience.
-Hard Skills: Using customer service software, data entry, and technical troubleshooting.

-Soft Skills: Transferable across various jobs and industries.
-Hard Skills: Often specific to a particular job or industry.

-Soft Skills: Improved through mentoring, feedback, and self-awareness.
-Hard Skills: Improved through courses, workshops, and on-the-job training.

Both hard and soft skills are invaluable in customer service. While hard skills can help you handle the technical aspects of the job, soft skills will ensure that you can provide a positive experience for customers. 

15 Key Customer Service Skills in 2024 + Ways to Develop Them

Why are Soft Skills Important for Customer Retention?

Soft skills are pivotal when it comes to customer retention, and here’s why:

  • Building Trust and Credibility: Soft skills, especially those related to effective communication and active listening, allow businesses to build trust with their customers. When customers feel understood and valued, they are more likely to trust the company and remain loyal. 

    For instance, a customer who contacts support about a faulty product would be more likely to trust the brand if the representative expresses genuine concern and offers a solution, rather than just following a script.
  • Resolving Conflicts: Disagreements or issues are inevitable in business. How these conflicts are managed can significantly influence whether a customer stays with a company. Employees with strong conflict resolution skills can turn a potentially negative situation into a positive one. 

    For example, a hotel guest might be upset due to a booking error. Still, if the front desk manager handles the situation with empathy, and offers an upgrade or additional amenities, the guest might leave with an even better impression than if there hadn’t been an error.
  • Building Long-Term Relationships: Soft skills like empathy and effective communication are essential in cultivating long-term customer relationships. By consistently showing customers that they are more than just a transaction and genuinely valuing the relationship, businesses can ensure long-term loyalty. An example would be a bank relationship manager who remembers the personal details of a client and checks in on them during significant life events, such as a wedding or the birth of a child.
  • Creating a Positive Customer Experience: Customers remember how they felt when interacting with a business. Soft skills contribute to creating a positive, memorable experience. For instance, a cafe where the barista remembers regulars’ names and orders can make patrons feel special and valued, increasing the likelihood of repeat visits.
  • Facilitating Recommendations: A satisfied customer is more likely to recommend a business to others. When employees use their soft skills to exceed expectations, it not only ensures retention but can also lead to new business. Imagine a situation where a graphic designer goes the extra mile to understand a client’s vision and collaborates closely with them; the client is likely to recommend the designer to peers.
  • Adapting to Customer Feedback: Soft skills allow for more open dialogue and feedback. This feedback is invaluable for companies looking to improve their offerings. A company that actively seeks and graciously accepts customer feedback, then makes visible efforts to implement changes, stands a higher chance of retaining those customers.

11 Must-Have Soft Skills for Customer Service Representatives

Here are the 11 most important soft skills that are a must-have for every customer service representative. 

#1 Empathy

Empathy, in the context of customer service, is the capacity to understand, feel, and consider a customer’s perspective. It’s about grasping the emotions, needs, and concerns that a customer may have. Empathy goes beyond just hearing words; it’s about genuinely feeling and connecting with the emotions behind those words.

Here’s how Empathy in Customer Service Helps:

  • Builds Trust: Empathy helps in creating an environment where customers feel valued and understood. When businesses show that they genuinely care about their customers’ feelings and concerns, it lays the foundation for trust. And once trust is established, it becomes easier for customers to remain loyal to the brand.

    Consider a scenario where a customer calls a helpline with a complaint. If the customer service representative responds with, “I understand why you’d feel that way,” it immediately makes the customer feel acknowledged.
  • Personalized Solutions: Showing empathy towards customers’ issues allows businesses to provide more tailored solutions. By truly comprehending what the customer needs or feels, businesses can offer products, services, or solutions that genuinely cater to those unique needs.

    For instance, a travel agent who genuinely listens to a client’s expectations about a holiday and feels the kind of experience they want, can tailor a package that matches that dream – rather than just offering a generic package.
  • Reduces Negative Escalations: Customers are more forgiving and patient when they feel heard and understood. Empathy can often defuse situations where a customer might be frustrated or angry.

    For example, if a customer is upset about a delayed order, an empathetic response like, “I completely understand your frustration, and I would feel the same. Let me see how we can sort this out for you quickly,” can calm the situation and ensure it doesn’t escalate.

Ways to Cultivate Empathy:

  • Organize regular training sessions where team members act out both sides of a customer interaction. Change roles so everyone gets a chance to be the customer. For example, if you work in a retail setting, one person could act as a customer returning an item, while another acts as the store clerk. This helps employees understand potential frustrations or concerns customers might have during the process.
  • After a significant customer interaction, take 5 minutes to journal or discuss with a colleague about how the customer might have felt during the interaction. For instance, if a customer expresses frustration about a late shipment, consider their emotions. Were they anxious because the product was a gift? Were they upset because this was a repeated issue? Reflect on how addressing their emotions could have improved the interaction.
  • Instead of making assumptions, always ask questions that allow the customer to express themselves. Train your team to use phrases like “Can you tell me more about…?” or “How did that make you feel?”
  • When communicating, imagine the customer as a reflection of yourself. Talk to the customer like you’d talk to yourself. Address their concerns as if they were your own and offer solutions in a manner that you would appreciate.

    For example, if a customer expresses dissatisfaction, be transparent, provide clear explanations, and avoid making excuses. Acknowledge their feelings and express genuine understanding: “If I were in your position, I’d feel the same way. Let’s figure out a solution together.”

#2 Active Listening

Active listening in customer support refers to the complete focus, understanding, and engagement a representative offers to a customer’s words and underlying messages. It’s not just about the auditory reception of words, but also understanding the emotions and intentions behind them. 

Six Elements of Effective Listening

Here’s how Active Listening in Customer Service Helps:

  • Builds Trust: Customers feel valued and understood when their concerns are genuinely heard, leading to stronger relationships and brand loyalty. For example, a customer voices concerns about a product’s safety. By actively listening and addressing those concerns, the customer feels assured and believes that the company genuinely cares about their well-being.
  • Reduces Misunderstandings: By focusing on the customer’s words and asking clarifying questions, potential areas of confusion can be immediately addressed. A customer is explaining a recurring technical glitch on a website. Through active listening, the representative catches subtle details, asks clarifying questions, and confirms understanding.
  • Encourages Customer Feedback: When customers believe they’re truly being listened to, they’re more likely to provide valuable feedback or suggestions. During a call, a customer suggests a new feature. By actively listening and showing genuine interest, the support agent encourages the customer to elaborate. This makes the customer feel valued and more likely to share feedback in the future. 

Ways to Cultivate Active Listening:

  • Ensure distractions are minimized. This includes background noise, other tasks you might have to finish, or even personal preoccupations.
  • Use non-verbal cues like nodding, maintaining eye contact (if in person),and leaning in slightly to show engagement.
  • After listening, restate what you’ve understood to ensure clarity and demonstrate that you’ve been attentive.
  • Let the customer express themselves fully before responding, even if you think you know where the conversation is headed.
  • If something isn’t clear, gently ask the customer to explain further or provide more details.
  • Intermittent responses like “I understand” or “That makes sense” reassure the customer that you’re actively engaged.

#3 Communication

In customer service, communication refers to the effective exchange of information, concerns, solutions, and feedback between the representative and the customer. It’s not just about speaking or writing clearly, but also ensuring the message aligns with the customer’s needs and is understood as intended. 

Here’s how Communication in Customer Service Helps:

  • Clarity and Understanding: Clear communication ensures that both the customer and the representative understand the problem and its potential solutions. For example, a customer might not know the technical terms for a problem with their device. A skilled communicator can interpret what the customer is describing and respond with simple explanations.
  • Sets Expectations: Proper communication can help set and manage customer expectations, ensuring they know what to expect next. For instance, by informing a customer that a replacement product will arrive in 7-10 business days, they are less likely to become frustrated if it doesn’t arrive within three days.
  • Facilitates Cross-Selling and Upselling: Good communicators can identify opportunities to recommend additional products or services without coming across as overly pushy. For example, a customer buying a laptop might be informed about a special offer on laptop bags, turning a single purchase into a bundle.

Ways to Cultivate Better Communication Skills:

  • Avoid jargon or overly complex language. Use straightforward terms and keep messages to the point.
  • Rather than focusing on what can’t be done, emphasize what can be achieved and offer alternatives if necessary.
  • Recognize the customer’s preferred communication style (formal, informal, detailed, brief) and adjust accordingly.
  • Regularly check for understanding. Ask questions like, “Does that make sense?” or “Do you have any questions about what I’ve mentioned?”
  • Maintain appropriate eye contact, facial expressions, and posture to convey attentiveness and understanding.
  • Ensure written communications (like emails or chat) are well-structured, free from errors, and carry a friendly, professional tone.

The Complete Guide to Customer Communication + Best Practices

# 4 Patience

Patience in customer service refers to the ability of a support staff to calmly handle customer interactions, even when faced with challenges and prolonged issues. It’s the act of giving customers the time they need to express themselves without rushing them or showing signs of frustration.

Here’s how Patience in Customer Service Helps:

  • De-escalation: Patience is key in handling frustrated or angry customers, ensuring situations don’t escalate unnecessarily. For example, a customer calls, irate about a missed delivery. A patient support agent allows them to vent their frustrations without becoming defensive, which can calm the situation.
  • Enhances Problem-Solving: Sometimes, issues are complex and require time to resolve. Patience ensures that the representative doesn’t rush and makes errors in the process. Example: A billing issue might stem from multiple system errors. Instead of offering a quick, inadequate fix, a support agent delves deeper to find a lasting solution.
  • Accommodates Diverse Customers: Every customer is unique, with different needs, backgrounds, and levels of understanding. Patience ensures that every customer, regardless of their differences, is catered to appropriately. For example, a non-native speaker might struggle to convey their concerns. A patient support representative will take the time to understand and assist, rather than rushing the interaction.

Ways to Cultivate Patience:

  • If resolving an issue will take time, set clear expectations upfront. Letting a customer know that you’re working on their issue but that you’ll need a bit more time can help maintain a calm interaction.
  • Encourage support staff to replay past interactions to help recognize triggers or situations where they might have lost patience. This will help them be more aware of such things in the future.
  • If feeling overwhelmed, don’t hesitate to seek assistance from a team leader or colleague. Sometimes a fresh perspective or a short break can make all the difference.
  • Having comprehensive knowledge about products, services, and company policies can reduce the time taken to resolve issues, allowing support agents to remain patient during interactions.

#5 Problem-Solving

Problem-solving refers to the ability of a representative to quickly and effectively identify issues faced by customers and determine the best solutions. This skill encompasses analytical thinking, creativity, and the aptitude to work under pressure, ensuring customer issues are addressed in a timely and satisfactory manner.

Here’s how Problem-Solving Skill in Customer Service Helps:

  • Enhances Customer Satisfaction: Rapid and effective resolution of issues directly correlates with customer satisfaction and loyalty. Quickly and efficiently resolving issues showcases the company’s commitment to its customers, leading to positive testimonials and referrals.
  • Streamlines Operations: Effective problem-solving often leads to the identification and elimination of recurring issues, improving operational efficiency. For instance, a representative spots a recurring complaint about a specific product component. Addressing this at the source prevents similar complaints in the future.

Ways to Cultivate Problem-Solving Skills:

  • Probing questions can help in narrowing down the issue, ensuring that solutions are targeted and effective.
  • Evaluate the situation from all angles. Consider all possible solutions and weigh them against one another to find the most appropriate one.
  • High-stress situations require a clear mind. Maintaining composure ensures logical and efficient problem-solving.
  • Keep a record of common issues and their resolutions. This not only speeds up future problem-solving but also helps in identifying systemic issues that can be addressed at the source.
  • Stay updated with product changes, industry developments, and potential problem areas. Regular training ensures you’re equipped with the knowledge to tackle new challenges.

#6 Emotional Intelligence

Emotional Intelligence (EI) in customer service is the capacity of a representative to recognize, comprehend, manage, and effectively respond to their own and the customer’s emotions. It involves understanding emotional cues, navigating interpersonal relationships judiciously, and handling situations with empathy and grace.

Here’s how Emotional Intelligence in Customer Service Helps:

  • Facilitates Deeper Connections: By understanding and validating customer emotions, representatives can create stronger, more meaningful connections.
  • Enhances Conflict Resolution: Emotionally intelligent representatives can defuse heightened situations by acknowledging emotions and navigating conversations toward constructive outcomes.

    Example: A customer is irate over a billing error. An EI-skilled agent acknowledges the emotional distress and collaboratively works towards a solution, making the customer feel heard and valued.
  • Boosts Team Dynamics: Within a customer service team, high EI can lead to better interpersonal relationships, and fostering a more collaborative and supportive work environment.

Ways to Cultivate Emotional Intelligence:

  • Train yourself and your team to detect and understand the non-verbal cues customers might give during interactions. It might be a hesitation in their voice, a certain choice of words, or their pace of speech. For example, if a customer is speaking very quickly and seems agitated, acknowledge their feelings by saying, “It sounds like this has been really frustrating for you.” This shows you are tuned into their emotional state.
  • Create a feedback loop with customers and colleagues. Post-interaction surveys for customers and regular review meetings with peers can be great tools. For instance, after resolving a customer’s issue, ask them to fill out a quick survey regarding their experience. Similarly, engage in bi-weekly team meetings where you discuss different customer cases and learn from each other’s experiences.
  • Equip your team with strategies and scripts to help steer difficult conversations towards positive outcomes. Develop training modules on conflict resolution and problem-solving. For example, if a customer is upset about a delayed delivery, acknowledge their frustration and immediately propose a solution, such as offering expedited shipping for free on their next order to make up for the inconvenience.

#7 Flexibility

In customer service, flexibility refers to the ability of a representative to adapt to varying situations, needs, or demands without compromising on the quality of service. It involves adopting altering approaches, thinking creatively, and being open to change based on the specific circumstances or preferences of a customer.

Here’s how Flexibility in Customer Service Helps:

  • Adapting to Unique Scenarios: No two customer interactions are the same. Flexibility allows representatives to adjust their approach based on individual circumstances. Example: While Company A typically requires paper forms for refunds, when a customer explains they lack the means to print, the agent offers an online alternative.
  • Cross-functional Collaboration: Flexibility aids in working with different departments, ensuring comprehensive solutions for customers. For example, a customer’s issue falls between the sales and tech departments. A flexible support agent liaises with both to address the problem.
  • Balancing Multiple Tasks: Sometimes, support agents have to multitask. Flexibility allows for smooth switching between tasks without compromising service quality. Example: While processing a return, the agent gets an urgent query. They quickly address the query before finalizing the return, ensuring both tasks are completed efficiently.

Ways to Cultivate Flexibility:

  • Encourage a mindset that’s receptive to new ideas and approaches. Avoid the trap of “this is how we’ve always done it.”
  • Stay updated with new product features, tools, and industry practices. The more knowledge you have, the more adaptable you can be.
  • Actively seek feedback from customers and peers. Often, this feedback can highlight areas where flexibility is needed.
  • Cultivate a positive attitude towards change. View it as an opportunity for growth and improvement, rather than a challenge.

#8 Team Collaboration

Team collaboration refers to the cooperative efforts of support staff working together towards a common goal: delivering exceptional service to customers. It involves sharing knowledge, resources, and insights, ensuring seamless and effective responses to customer needs.

Here’s how Team Collaboration Helps:

  • Enhanced Problem Resolution: Pooling collective expertise and experience leads to faster and more effective solutions. For example, a support staff stumped by a unique customer issue can quickly consult with a colleague who has faced a similar situation before, ensuring the customer doesn’t experience unnecessary delays.
  • Consistent Customer Experience: When a team collaborates efficiently and constantly shares best practices, customers receive a uniform experience, irrespective of whom they interact with.
  • Boosts Team Morale and Efficiency: A collaborative environment fosters a sense of unity and support, reducing work-related stress and increasing overall efficiency. 

Ways to Cultivate Team Collaboration Skill:

  • Engage with team members to share insights, strategies, and solutions. Different perspectives can inspire more flexible approaches.
  • Adopt tools like Slack, Hiver, or Trello, which facilitate real-time communication, task allocation, and efficient collaboration.
  • Train in different roles or departments. This broadens the knowledge, making collaboration more effective.
  • Get access to a centralized knowledge base where support staff can upload and access solutions, FAQs, and other critical information, ensuring everyone is on the same page.
  • Develop the skills to navigate and resolve team conflicts positively. Disagreements can arise in any team setting, but effective conflict resolution ensures they don’t hinder collaboration.

Ensure Hassle-Free Collaboration. Deliver Timely Support

#9 Cultural Sensitivity

Cultural sensitivity in customer service refers to the awareness, understanding, and respect for cultural differences and nuances. As businesses increasingly operate on a global scale, customer service representatives would encounter diverse clientele with varying beliefs, customs, and communication styles. 

Cultural sensitivity ensures interactions are respectful, appropriate, and effective across these diverse backgrounds.

Here’s how Cultural Sensitivity Helps:

  • Reduces Misunderstandings: Awareness of cultural differences can prevent potential miscommunications that could offend or confuse customers. For example, knowing that a thumbs-up gesture is considered rude in some cultures can help you steer clear of using it when interacting with customers from that specific background.
  • Builds Trust and Loyalty: When customers feel that their cultural background is respected and understood, it fosters a deeper connection and trust with the brand. By respecting and acknowledging cultural nuances, businesses show they value and understand their diverse customer base. For instance, celebrating and acknowledging global festivals or sending wishes during various cultural holidays can make customers feel valued and seen.

Ways to Cultivate Cultural Sensitivity Skill:

  • Stay curious, non-judgmental, and open to learning about different cultures.
  • Unless sure about a customer’s preference, encourage the use of neutral, universally understood language to avoid potential pitfalls.
  • If unsure about cultural norms, it’s okay to ask customers politely about their preferences. More often than not, they’ll appreciate the effort to understand.
  • Never make assumptions based on a customer’s name, accent, or appearance. Always approach interactions with an open mind.

#10 Positive Attitude

A positive attitude means approaching interactions with optimism, enthusiasm, and a solution-oriented mindset. It involves focusing on possibilities rather than problems, maintaining an upbeat demeanor even in challenging situations, and showing customers that their concerns are valued and will be addressed proactively.

Here’s how Positive Attitude Helps:

  • Builds Customer Trust: When support staff exude positivity, it instills confidence in customers that they are being heard and their issues will be resolved. For instance, a customer might initially be upset with a product malfunction. However, a support agent’s positive assurance of “We’ll get this sorted out for you” can immediately reduce anxiety and build trust.
  • Facilitates Smoother Interactions: A cheerful demeanor often diffuses tension and can turn potentially confrontational interactions into constructive ones. For example, a frustrated customer might come in with a complaint. Instead of getting defensive, a support rep with a positive attitude listens and replies with, “I understand your concern. Let’s see how we can make this right.”
  • Boosts TeamMorale: A positive attitude is contagious. When one team member maintains positivity, it often lifts the spirits of the entire team, leading to higher engagement and better performance at work.

Ways to Cultivate Positive Attitude:

  • Understand your triggers. By being aware of situations or conversations that tend to lower your mood, you can better prepare or develop coping strategies for them.
  • Regularly ask colleagues or supervisors for feedback on your interactions. By understanding areas of improvement and reinforcing positive behaviors, you can continuously refine your approach.
  • After successfully handling a challenging customer or resolving a complex issue, take a moment to acknowledge your effort. These small celebrations can help you focus on the positive aspects of your job.
  • Imagine challenging customer interactions playing out positively. This mental rehearsal can make you feel more prepared and positive when similar scenarios occur.

#11 Time Management

Time management in customer service refers to the ability of support staff to efficiently allocate and use their time to address customer queries, concerns, and issues. It encompasses prioritizing tasks, tracking time, multitasking efficiently, and ensuring that each customer feels attended to without unnecessary delays.

Here’s how Time Management Helps:

  • Increased Productivity: By effectively managing time, support staff can accommodate more customer interactions and, ultimately, resolve more tickets.
  • Reduced Stress Levels: Proper time management allows for a more structured work approach, reducing feelings of being overwhelmed or caught off-guard.
  • Consistent Service Standards: Time management ensures that every customer receives consistent attention and service quality, regardless of call volume or time of day.

Ways to Cultivate Time Management Skill:

  • Leverage customer service tools and platforms, like Hiver, that allow for better email tracking, scheduling, and reminders.
  • Establish clear daily or hourly goals, such as resolving a certain number of tickets or handling specific types of issues.
  • Allocate specific chunks of time for specific tasks. For example, set aside the first 30 minutes of your shift solely for addressing customer emails.
  • While multitasking can be beneficial, overdoing it can reduce efficiency. Ensure you’re not juggling more tasks than you can handle at once.
  • Minimize unnecessary interruptions. This might mean setting specific ‘do not disturb’ periods or using apps to block distracting sites.

See How Hiver Helps in Saving Time and Boosting Efficiency

Deliver Delightful Customer Service

In addition to the 11 soft skills mentioned in this article, there are many other ways to improve customer retention. One notable approach is to use a powerful and intuitive customer service platform like Hiver that is seamlessly built inside Gmail. 

It is designed to help teams manage shared inboxes like support@ or sales@ more effectively. When used for customer service, Hiver offers a number of benefits that can aid in delivering a delightful experience to customers:

  • Hiver’s shared inbox makes it easy for your team to see all of the customer’s email history, so they can understand the customer’s needs and concerns.
  • Extensive analytics and collaboration features in Hiver help your team deliver personalized and memorable customer experiences.
  • While Hiver primarily focuses on email, it can be integrated with other tools and platforms to provide a unified customer service experience.

Try Hiver today and see how it can help you.

A passionate content marketer, Nidhi writes value-driven, actionable content for various teams such as customer service, finance, IT and HR. Her expertise lies in helping these teams engage, collaborate, and manage their workload better - by shedding insights on best practices and industry trends. When not working, you'll find her tuning in to marketing and support-related podcasts, while also planning her next vacation.

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