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Building Your Critical Thinking Skills for Better Customer Service

How do you know if you or your customer service team have mastered critical thinking skills?

Critical thinking refers to the process of analyzing information to get the best answer to a question or problem. Looks like a must-have for customer service representatives, don’t you agree?

With critical thinking being among the must-have soft skills for every specialist today, some of us still lack it. It happens because of little agreement around what critical thinking is and, as a result, a lack of specific instructions on how to become better thinkers.

In this article, you’ll learn why critical thinking is so critical (sorry for tautology!) to have in the workspace, how to know if you’ve already mastered it, and what techniques and habits can help improve your critical thinking skills for better customer service.


What is Critical Thinking?

Let’s start with the basics. The Internet offers tons of definitions for “critical thinking,” which adds more confusion than clarity to this subject. So, we’ll refer to the one from The Foundation for Critical Thinking:

“Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.”

Sounds ingenious, but critical thinking is not that challenging to implement in real life.

Yes, being a critical thinker takes time and patience, but it’s just about processing information systematically and deliberately to understand things and make better decisions in work and life. It also includes learning from past experiences to avoid mistakes and choose alternative options in the future.

But that’s not all:

Critical thinking is among the top durable skills employers demand in the workplace. Speaking of customer service, it becomes even more crucial:

Essential competencies of critical thinking, such as analysis, prioritization, troubleshooting, and complex problem-solving, are the skills every professional customer service agent needs for taking more informed solutions.

Besides, critical thinking at work helps with:

  • Evaluating arguments’ validity and their potential impact on customer decision or overall business success
  • Developing ethics, confidence, and professional opinions on issues
  • Engaging with customers on a deeper, more personal, and intellectual level to form stronger customer relations and brand loyalty
  • Evaluating yourself as a specialist to determine the ways for professional improvement and productivity boost

All the above makes critical thinking worth building at the workplace, especially for those bothering about the quality of customer service in their company.

Critical Thinking Phases Every Employee Goes Through

That’s all very fine, but how do you know if you or your customer service team have mastered critical thinking? How to assess these skills and what to do to build them for better work?

Specialists from Zarvana have developed a framework that breaks critical thinking into four measurable phases. It allows you to monitor and evaluate how you or your employees grow, moving from one step to another:

  • Execution. It’s the phase every newbie employee comes through, simply doing what you ask them to do. Seemingly basic, this stage requires skills like reasoning, decision-making, and problem-solving. You’ll know if your newbie is ready for the next step when they complete instructions on time and make suggestions for work improvement when you ask them about it.
  • Synthesis. It’s the phase when you or your employees start sorting the information and figure out what’s essential. They identify all the insights and can communicate them.
  • Recommendations. It’s the phase when employees move from identifying to determining what to do. They provide recommendations rather than simply relying on managers, consider alternatives, and back their points with solid arguments.
  • Generation. This critical thinking phase is about converting ideas into plans, generating projects, offering decisions on work improvement, etc. In plain English, it’s about creating something out of nothing.

Depending on your phase, you might want to focus on building a particular critical thinking skill that would help you move on.

Your Top 5 Critical Thinking Skills to Master

Critical thinking skills include many competencies, but these five will help you master the process step by step:

Step 1: Observation

It’s your or your customer service agent’s ability to notice and predict opportunities, issues, and solutions. This skill helps you identify problems, be precise, and narrow down issues for faster and better decisions when mastered.

Step 2: Analysis

This skill is about gathering, understanding, and interpreting all the available data and other information. It allows a person to remain unbiased, consider several sources with different points of view, and evaluate the information’s credibility for further usage.

Step 3: Inference

Here’s when you determine the significance of data, decide which information is essential for finding a solution, and draw conclusions based on that. Also, you can use personal knowledge and experience to determine solutions and make informed decisions to help customers.

Step 4: Communication

This one is about your ability to receive, perceive, and share information with others in different forms: verbally (face-to-face, by phone or call us now buttons, during online meetings), nonverbally (mimics and gestures), and in writing (emailing, business correspondence, messengers, live chats with customers, etc.).

Step 5: Problem-solving

This skill allows troubleshooting solutions based on the information you’ve gathered, analyzed, and communicated. Here you identify possible conclusions and decide which of them would be better to implement, considering all the strengths and limitations of available options.

critical thinking skillsTechniques that Help You Improve Critical Thinking Skills

And now, for the practical part:

Are there any techniques customer service agents and everyone working with people could try to build their critical thinking skills?

Here go the top 6 to consider:

1) Active listening

The difference between passive and active listening:

While the former relates to the simple act of hearing without retaining a message, the latter is your ability to focus on a speaker, understanding and comprehending their information to respond thoughtfully.

Active listening is a must for better customer service: It helps avoid missing critical information, identify and solve customer problems, and build connections and trust. To practice active listening in communication with your customers, do your best to:

  • Demonstrate empathy
  • Ask open-ended questions to gather more information
  • Use verbal affirmations such as “I see,” “I agree,” “Yes, I understand,” etc.
  • Recall already shared information
  • Share similar experiences

Not only does it make a speaker understand that you listen carefully, but it also helps you build trust and get all the information needed for solving the problem.

2) Asking questions

This one is not only about asking questions when communicating with customers. It’s a technique allowing you to practice critical thinking by confirming what you already know and approaching issues from different perspectives.

How to practice it?

  • Always ask questions when you aren’t sure.
  • Make it a habit to confirm what you think you already know.
  • Paraphrase the information in your own words to ensure you’ve understood everything right.
  • Ask follow-up questions to get more details and confirm that you haven’t misheard anything.
  • Analyze what you already know, how you know that, and what you try to prove, solve, demonstrate, etc.

3) Evaluating evidence

This technique is also not that challenging to practice: Whenever you need to solve a problem and decide on the most appropriate solution, look at other work in the same area and consider their experience and data.

Evaluate all the information critically: who and how gathered that evidence; why that information is relevant to your case; whether it’s applicable to use in your particular case, etc.

Using your previous experience can help to come up with the most effective solution, too. By critically thinking about what you learned from that case and how it’s possible to apply to your current decision for better results, you’ll train your durable skills to their best.

4) Developing foresight

Walking in one’s shoes is a great trick to try for growing your critical thinking skills. Consider how customers might feel about a problem or decision you make:

Practicing such foresight and determining all the possible outcomes, you become more critical about your solutions and their impact on those around you.

5) Reversing things

Once you get stuck on a complex question, try the technique known as the “chicken and egg problem:” While it may seem evident that X causes Y, but what if we reverse things to appear that Y caused X?

Critical thinking is about trying different approaches to problems. And even if it turns out that your “reverse” version isn’t accurate or doesn’t help, it’s your chance to set the path to the right solution.

6) Considering pros and cons

This technique helps your critical thinking skills a lot: Before making the final choice or deciding on the problem, jot down all its positive and negative sides. The challenge here is to avoid the influence of your confirmation bias on the pros vs. cons correlation.

How does it make you a better critical thinker?

With the list of pros and cons at hand, you’ll know all the opportunities, risks, and consequences your decision could have. It doesn’t mean you need to choose the option with a more extended set of positives; it means that you’ll evaluate the influence of every single advantage or disadvantage on the whole project.

critical thinking skills3 Habits to Develop for Better Critical Thinking

For even more practices to learn critical thinking and get better at it, you can try making these three simple things your habits, pulled together by Helen Lee Bouygues from Reboot Foundation:

  • Question assumptions. While this habit isn’t that helpful for decisions on your long-term company strategy (try basic questions instead), feel free to use it when considering alternatives. “What if” questions serve to gain new perspectives, honing your thinking that way.
  • Reason through logic. Pay close attention to the chain of reasoning behind every argument you use; make sure the evidence supports your idea at every point.
  • Diversify thoughts. Train yourself to escape your usual way of thinking and consider alternative ideas or insights from other industries, social groups, and individuals who don’t share your beliefs. It broadens your horizons and makes you a better thinker.

critical thinking skillsYour Time to Build Critical Thinking Skills is Now

Critical thinking is a set of skills that helps us understand people and the world around us better. For specialists working in customer service, these skills are true must-haves: They craft our observation, analysis, inference, communication, and problem-solving abilities to satisfy customers and make better business decisions for our company’s success.

The good news:

Critical thinking is possible to learn and improve. So, approach it as a process — and you’ll sharpen this skill to its best.


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Lesley Vos Lesley Vos

Lesley Vos is a web writer from Chicago, contributing content to publications on business, content marketing, and self-development. Feel free to see more works of hers and say hi to @LesleyVos on Twitter.

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