It may feel like you’re drinking from a fire hose of metrics or drowning in talk about soft skills. Remember, this is only temporary. Thirty days from now you’ll have this stuff mastered.
In late 2008 Malcom Gladwell published his book Outliers: The Story of Success. Within it, he popularized a concept that has come to be known as the “10,000 hour rule”. In short, the idea behind this “rule” is that to become an elite performer in any area – chess, playing violin, a sport – you’ll first need to spend about ten thousand hours in hard practice.
This concept took the world by storm. Finally, we had an explanation for why Tiger Woods dominated the world golf scene or why Bobby Fischer was virtually unbeatable at chess in the 1970s. It wasn’t just chance or genetics, it was a lot of practice. The code had been cracked.
Interestingly, just a few years after Outliers was published, Josh Kaufman wrote and published The First 20 Hours. In his book, Kaufman laid out something he called “rapid skill acquisition” – a systematic method for learning virtually any skill in a short period of time. Kaufman argues that, with the right approach, it’s completely possible to go from knowing virtually nothing about a subject to performing noticeably well in about twenty hours of practice.
Now, to be fair, there is a difference between performing noticeably well and being an elite, world-class performer. Even so, the implications of these two different approaches are massive. Ten thousand hours? That feels overwhelming. Twenty hours? That’s a little more doable.
With these two incredibly different approaches in mind, here’s the challenge this article will answer: How can you become an expert in customer service in just thirty days?
If you’re new to a customer service role or the customer service world, how can you maximize the time you spend in your first thirty days? What are the actions and activities that will result in the highest possible level of expertise a month from now?
Let’s answer those questions. Ready?
Engage Learning Mode
To help bring a little structure to your learning plan, we’ll be borrowing from the rapid skill acquisition steps suggested in Kaufman’s book.
Here at the outset, brace yourself. To become an expert in customer service in thirty days, you’re going to have to take a lot of information in. It may feel like you’re drinking from a fire hose of metrics or drowning in talk about soft skills. Remember, this is only temporary. Thirty days from now you’ll have this stuff mastered.
Ready for the first step? If you’re not already part of it, join the Support Driven Slack community. It’s a free community with over six thousand people passionate about customer service, and engaging in the ongoing conversations there is a great way to supercharge your learning.
Break it into its components
Customer service is a broad term. While everyone may define it slightly differently, it probably conjures up similar ideas in most peoples’ minds. In other words, there are common features that differentiate great service from horrible service.
The first step to mastering customer service in thirty days is to define the skills that enable great service. What are the core components of delivering great customer service? What are the building blocks upon which the hallowed temple of customer satisfaction is constructed?
For our purposes, we’ll break customer service down into the components below. Notice that these things are not personality traits, but skills – things you can develop and learn over time.
- Willingness to learn – Every customer is unique and most businesses change constantly. A great customer service agent needs to have an appetite for learning and improving on an ongoing basis. If you’re reading this article, you’ve probably already got this one down!
- Patience – When a customer reaches out to support, it’s generally because something has gone wrong. They’re confused, stuck, or maybe something is just plain broken. Demonstrating patience and actively listening to each customer helps build the customer’s confidence that you’re going to help solve their problem.
- Empathetic – Being empathetic is often closely related to being patient. Defined as the ability to sense and share the feelings of another person, empathy is an important piece of connecting with customers who are feeling frustrated, concerned or upset. Fortunately, studies show that almost everyone can grow in their ability to be empathetic.
- Flexible/Adaptable – Plans often go awry when you work in customer service. You can’t predict the days where your product’s biggest feature will break or your queue will get hammered with requests. Exceptional customer service agents have a plan and a system of staying organized, but they hold these things loosely and are able to adapt to changing circumstances with ease.
- Composure – No one loves getting yelled at, but if you work in support long enough you’re sure to encounter upset customers. In these situations, it’s critical that you’re able to maintain your composure and not let customers rile you up.
- Creative Problem Solving – Every support team has standard procedures or processes for getting things done. However, the reality is that these processes can’t accommodate every scenario you’ll ever encounter. Great customer service agents are able to understand when these unusual situations arise and are quick to come up with workarounds or other creative ways to still provide a great customer experience.
- Time management – Customer service agents face constant pressure: Do you give the customer you’re with more time or do you wrap things up to help other customers? In addition, you’ll be responsible for handling inbound support tickets while also managing any past tickets which haven’t yet been resolved. Time management skills enable you to make good decisions around when to invest more time into something and when to change your approach.
- Product knowledge – As a customer service agent, your customers rightly expect you to be an expert on your company’s product offering. While you’ll probably never know everything, you do need to have a firm grasp on the ins and outs of your product. Without this knowledge, how will you assist customers when they need help?
- Ability to communicate effectively – Communication is at the heart of all great customer service. To be an expert in customer service, you’ll need to be able to effectively communicate in written and oral forms. This means you’ll need to be able to use positive language, be persuasive and to clearly explain complicated topics.
Is this list exhaustive? No. You can probably come up with dozens of additional customer service skills. But remember, what we’re after are the core customer service skills that will enable you to quickly become a customer service expert. If you can master the skills above, you’ll be well on your way to providing excellent customer service.
Learn enough to know when you’re doing it wrong
When a quick web search for terms like “customer service books” or “customer service podcast” returns hundreds of millions of results, where do you even start? Kaufman’s suggestion is to learn just enough to know when you’re doing it wrong.
There’s a simple reason for this recommendation: when you’re practicing, you want to make sure you’re practicing the right behaviors. We’ve all heard that “practice makes perfect,” but if you’re practicing bad habits, you’re not doing yourself any favors. Quite the opposite; you’re actually further entrenching negative behaviors.
However, with only thirty days, you don’t have time to learn everything under the sun about customer service. What you need is a base level of knowledge that will enable you to create a feedback loop. When you begin to err, you need enough knowledge that you’ll be aware of the mistake and able to self-correct.
We’re talking about customer service, so the reality is that you’re not starting with a blank slate. You already have some idea of what good customer service looks like. The resources below will build upon your experience – whatever it may have been – to build a solid base of customer service knowhow.
The customer service world has changed a lot over the past twenty years. Technology, support channels, and customer expectations are constantly evolving. This recommended reading will allow you to quickly understand these changes and the implications on your customer service work:
- The Effortless Experience – In a nutshell, The Effortless Experience uses a boatload of data to argue that aiming for customer delight is overrated. Instead, you should aim for reducing customer effort, as that is the greatest driver of customer loyalty. This read will introduce you to some fundamental metrics, trends, and topics that are currently at the core of the customer service world.
- How to Write Short – Effective communication is the engine that drives excellent customer. In this book, Roy Peter Clark will educate you on how to communicate powerfully with as few words as possible.
- The Amazement Revolution – Customer service isn’t just a skill, it’s a philosophy. In The Amazement Revolution, Hyken shares seven strategies that you can use to create a customer-centric culture that consistently exceeds your customers’ expectations.
These three books will set a strong foundation for you. If you’re looking for more, check out our previous write-up of an even fuller list of books recommended by the Support Driven community and consider following these customer service experts on Twitter.
Maybe you’re not a huge reader. While we’d still recommend checking out the resources above, the below may be a bit more your flavor. Of the hundreds of customer service and support podcasts, these three are the best of the best. Listen closely and you’ll level up your customer service expertise in no time.
- Support Ops Hangout – Though new episodes are no longer being created, Support Ops Hangout was based on the idea that great support should be considered part of your product offering. Fail at support and you can say goodbye to your customers. It covers both high-level strategic topics and day-to-day tactical issues of customer support professionals.
- Support Driven Podcast – Support Driven’s podcast brings the conversation in the Support Driven Slack community into podcast form. It’s a great way to get up to speed on some of the hottest topics being discussed by support teams around the world.
- Support Breakfast – Originally starting out as an actual breakfast meeting of support practitioners, this podcast holds nothing back. Listen in for a candid view of the real-life joys and challenges of working in customer support.
We’ve published an even larger list of customer service podcasts in the past, so once you’ve exhausted the above be sure to check out the rest for more great content.
Remove barriers to practice
If you’re a brand new support agent, this next step may seem a bit unnecessary. You’ll get plenty of practice simply doing your day job. However, removing barriers to practice is a critical step for people in other situations – a leader moving into their first customer service role, for example – and so it’s worth calling out.
If you’re a new support leader, you need to be intentional about finding avenues to practice providing customer service. During these first thirty days, the more practice you can get, the better.
If you’d like a long-term strategy to keep your entire company engaged with providing great customer service, consider implementing whole company customer support.
Practice, practice, practice
Confucius supposedly said that, “Knowledge without practice is useless.” That’s an important reminder in our age of information overload. Think back to the last time you tried to learn a new skill. Playing the guitar? Learning to beatbox? Picking up golf?
Whatever skill you may have set your eye on, simply learning theory isn’t enough. If you want to become an expert, you need to actually pick up the guitar and play those challenging new chords. You need to grab your clubs and hit the driving range.
Whatever your specific role, if you want to become an expert in customer service in the next thirty days, you need to get out there and serve customers.
Will it all go well at first?
Will you make mistakes?
Will things get better over time?
Practice doesn’t make perfect, but deliberate practice does make you better.
Does the thought of serving customers make your palms sweaty? Can you feel your heart rate rising at the very idea?
Even if you’re woefully incompetent at providing customer service today, following the recommended framework above will bring you to a completely different place thirty days from now. While you may never get ten thousand hours of experience or consider yourself a world-class support agent, the concept and framework of rapid skill acquisition can enable you to quickly move from a nervous novice to a genuine customer service expert in the field.