Great customer service skills aren’t just for people who work in the customer service department. Instead, customer service is a mindset that’s baked into a company’s DNA and culture.
You don’t need to look further than a couple of U.S. airlines – Southwest and United – to see the difference between great and awful customer service. United’s customer service is terrible. Every few months, there’s another news story about how they killed a poor passenger’s dog, lost a child or dragged someone kicking and screaming off a full plane.
That’s systemic from an organization that doesn’t value customer experience and service.
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Whereas airlines, like Southwest, focus their policies on empathy and teaching every single employee – not just frontline call center folks – how to delight customers day in and day out. Southwest grew their company by focusing on exceptional customer service and doing right by their customers.
While Southwest does get some bad press every once in awhile, you are much more likely to see positive stories about them in the news, like when their flight attendants turn the boring safety announcements into a rap or a stand up comedy routine.
But, it is not just airlines that can benefit from exceptional customer service. Some of the best customer service and support people that I know don’t have a title with “customer service” or “tech support” in it. They are founders, Directors of Marketing, Community Managers, etc.
What are these skills and traits that make someone amazing at customer service? We’ve compiled a comprehensive list along with some resources to help you improve all of these customer service skills.
1. Technical Skills
We’ll start with the technical or tangible skills. These are the ones that most people think of first, and are usually the easiest to learn. You can often learn the basics in a few hours of training, reading a book or taking a course. As a result, I think we have a tendency to overemphasize them.
This one is pretty self explanatory. If you work in customer service or tech support, you need to understand the product before you can troubleshoot an issue or answer a question.
Your company’s SOPs and internal Wiki. Spend time experiencing your product as a customer. Set up a full account and click around. The more hands-on you can get, the better!
Time Management Skills
There’s a good chance you are going to be juggling multiple tasks at once. You need to be good at responding quickly to customers, handling internal tasks and not getting distracted for long periods of time.
While there’s a million productivity and time management books, blogs and software apps out there, the reality is there’s no one size fits all approach. You need to figure out what routines, habits and systems work best for you. This requires constant experimentation.
The One Thing – Gary Keller
While there is no easy button for productivity or time management, this book is a great primer to learn about prioritization, which is at the heart of time management skills.
Basic HTML knowledge
This one is more relevant for those in a tech support role. When I say basic HTML knowledge, I mean basic. You don’t need to know how to code websites, although it could be very helpful. There is a need to know to how to post a blog post using WordPress or how to find bugs using a debugger tool like Firebug or Google Developer Tools.
Free Resources To Learn:
w3schools.com – a great reference tool for quickly checking tags and syntax.
Treehouse – excellent code school supported by Google, IBM and Watson. Try a 7-day trial to see if it’s right for you.
Codecademy – many free lessons with a built-in code editor so you can practice what you learn.
Creating simple spreadsheets and tasks in Excel can be daunting for newbies. While it may be a tough program to learn, that’s not an excuse to not learn it. Trust me, you will use it a lot more than you think.
Free Resources To Learn:
Youtube Tutorials (There’s 1000s of excellent tutorial videos online)
Great Verbal and Written Communication
Whether it’s talking to a customer on the phone, writing an email, communicating on live chat or crafting 140 character tweets, being a solid communicator is a must. You don’t have to be the next Pulitzer Prize-winning author or TED talk speaker. However, having good grammar and spelling skills is definitely a must.
How To Win Friends and Influence People – Dale Carnegie
This book is a classic for a reason. Read this book as it will help you both in your career and personal life.
This may be the most underrated skill on the planet. Knowing how to write well is a staple skill in just about any career. Good grammar and spelling is at the very root of that. Channel the advice of your middle school English teacher whenever you construct a sentence, paragraph, support ticket, presentation or blog post. Good grammar matters.
Free Resource to Learn More:
2. Soft Skills
These are the “people skills” that focus on how you interact and build relationships with your coworkers and customers.
This clip from one of my all-time favorite movies, Office Space, sums up what people skills are not in the funniest way possible.
What are these all-important customer service skills that every single person needs to be great at customer support?
Great Listening Skills
The old saying goes – you have two ears and one mouth for a reason.
Listen first, talk second.
Listening may be the most important skill that any support pro needs to master. You need to be fully present in the conversation, understand what the person is actually saying and identify their body language or other social cues before you start to craft your response.
Most people think they are listening when they are basically formulating their next response in their head as the other person is talking or worse waiting for the other person to stop speaking so they can talk again.
The best listeners are fully present and interested in the conversation. They aren’t just waiting for their turn to talk next.
Vanessa is a social scientist. I was pleasantly surprised by how much science and actionable takeaways were in here about how to be a better listener. There’s also a ton of tips to improve your Emotional Intelligence.
One of the hardest aspects of the job is to deal with an irate customer, who is cursing you out for something out of your control. It’s really easy to take that stuff as a personal attack. In reality, the best thing to do is put yourself in that person’s shoes before you respond. It helps to remember they are mad at the situation and not at you personally. This becomes a critical part of de-escalating a tense situation online.
The truth is you can read any of Brene’s books and learn a lot about empathy and vulnerability. However, her newest book – Braving the Wilderness – is a good starting point if you haven’t read any of her work before.
Part of being a great listener and empathetic is letting the customer feel heard and understood. That requires being patient. You need to know when to shut up and listen BEFORE you go into problem solving or fix-it mode.
The vast majority of customers who have to contact customer service don’t want to contact you. They are contacting you because something isn’t working and they don’t know how to fix it. They might be frustrated and want to vent first. Acknowledging that first so that they feel heard is a fantastic way to build trust before you start helping them resolve the issue.
In most customer service departments, there’s usually a small number of customers, who are “frequent contacts.” They call support often – sometimes a couple of times a day – because they are going through a rough patch, lonely or just want to talk someone. They treat their customer service agent as a “free personal therapist.” In these scenarios, you should absolutely be patient, but also be mindful of the queue. You need to know how to graciously end the call, so that you can help the next customer.
Truth be told – this book could fall under any of these skills. Tony is the founder of Zappos, which became famous for their world class support. This book has essentially become required reading for anyone who does customer service.
This book doesn’t get the same amount of praise and attention as Gary’s other books, but in my opinion it is the most strategic and well-written. It is a must-read for anyone in a customer-facing role.
Great problem solving is not following a script or telling someone the equivalent of to turn their computer on and off again.
There are always going to be issues that you have never seen before. This is your opportunity to shine as an effective communicator and problem solver.
The dirty secret is that problem solving is just knowing how to find the answer faster than the customer, and making them feel good about the resolution.
Sometimes, the only thing left to do is apologize to the customer and try to make things right. But a good, genuine apology isn’t easy. It requires listening skills, and a way with words. Learning how to say sorry is one of the most important customer service skills for new customer support reps to acquire.
The older I get, the more I realize once you reach a certain level of competence, your reputation and relationships matter way more than talent or technical prowess. There’s a lot of talented people who get in their own way, because they aren’t self aware.
Self awareness is having the humility to evaluate yourself honestly, and identify what you are strengths are, what your weaknesses are and understand how others perceive you. This might sound like “woo-woo” self-help stuff, but it is not. Learning how to be self aware is the biggest career superpower.
There’s such a fine line between humility, confidence and ego. This book is heavily based on Stoic philosophy and does a great job exploring that balance.
This book is a great intro for anyone who is curious about EQ and honing their self awareness.
I bet you are confused why this made the list. Most people equate negotiation with sales and deal-making. I know I did until recently. The turning point for me was when I realized that every single person in a customer-facing role is negotiating all the time. They just might not realize it.
For example, say a customer needs their new sofa delivered before the weekend. However, their selected style is out of stock. A new customer service agent might just say no. An experience rep would give them the option for a different style, and throw in a free slip cover to match the necessary color. Negotiations can help save a customer when “no” seems like the only answer.
The absolute best book I’ve ever read on this topic is Chris Voss’ book, “Never Split The Difference.” Chris is a former FBI hostage negotiator. Not only are the tips incredibly tactical, but the stories that he shares from his experience in the FBI are fascinating.
Even when it seems like there is nothing you can do, there is always a way to improve the customer’s experience. In the book Effortless Experience, Matt Dixon, breaks down how customer service reps can position alternatives in order to provide the best possible perception to customers. It’s a skill that takes work to master!
The Effortless Experience – Matt Dixon
I had a former boss who used to say all the time – “You cannot manage what you cannot measure.” You can be the greatest people-person and listener in the world. However, if you don’t know how to report your results to your superiors, you aren’t going to get very far in your career.
This is a must-read for anyone who works in a startup or SaaS business.
Always be Learning
In conclusion, there are many traits that make someone exceptional at customer service. I realize there’s a lot of resources and customer service skills in this post. If you are unsure of where to start, pick one soft skill to focus on for the next quarter.Master the soft skills and the technical prowess won’t matter nearly as much as you think.
Here’s the summary list of customer service skills that can make you excellent at your work:
- Technical Skills
- Product Knowledge
- Time Management Skills
- Basic HTML Knowledge
- Using Excel
- Great Verbal and Written Communication
- Proper Grammar
- Soft Skills
- Listening Skills
- Problem Solving
- Self Awareness
- Experience Engineering