It’s no secret that customer service is a critical ingredient in any business’s success. But customer service is about more than just issuing returns and answering FAQs. If you want your customer service strategy to be effective, you’ll need to ensure you (or your customer service team members) have the right customer service skills.
The Elements of Customer Service
Customer service is all about building long-term relationships with your customers, and managing customer relationships. For new customers, it’s about making a good first impression. For repeat customers, it’s about keeping them satisfied. For prospective customers, it’s about having such a good reputation that people are willing to give you a try.
Before we dig into the specific customer service skills that can achieve these types of results for your business, let’s talk about the core elements of customer service:
- Empathy. Whatever your goals are, empathy should be embedded in your customer service strategy. Understanding your customers’ emotions will help you better serve them, whether you’re answering basic questions or addressing an issue. It will also give customers a better impression of your brand, since you’ll have the opportunity to emotionally connect with them.
- Information. Customer service is also about providing customers with information. Adequate service means keeping customers informed and up-to-date as accurately and consistently as possible, and addressing their inquiries proactively. Clear, concise, direct, and transparent communication is vital.
- Resolution. Customer service is also about resolving problems. Customers will come to you when an order is wrong, late, or otherwise unsatisfactory, and your job will be making it up to them.
What Does Customer Service Mean to You?
Customer service looks a little different to businesses from different industries (and businesses of different sizes). Before you can start utilizing the skills I’m about to list, you need to define and internalize what customer service means to you.
For example, do you want your customer service to be something your brand is known for? If so, you’ll need to go above and beyond the norm, providing exceptional experiences (and positive surprises) for your clientele. Is customer service supposed to optimize for retention? If so, resolving (or preventing) issues should be your top priority. Is word-of-mouth, along with customer acquisition, your main goal? Try using customer service to cultivate brand evangelists who are both loyal to and passionate about your brand. And if you conduct customer service by email, then don’t miss these customer service email best practices as well as these customer service email templates.
The Most Important Customer Service Skills
These are the customer service skills that should be on your resume (or your employees’) if you want to offer the best possible customer service experience:
Above all else, patience will improve your customer service strategy. Some customers will be irate. Others will have problems that are difficult to solve. Some will be perfectly pleasant, but after a long day, even small issues can be annoying to your employees. But if an employee responds with frustration or annoyance, the exchange will always end negatively—even if a customer gets what they want. Remaining calm in stressful situations is your top priority; everything else becomes secondary.
2. Emotional intelligence.
Emotional intelligence is an underrated business skill, and something you can integrate into nearly every department (including sales). But in customer service, it can instantly improve your technique. Emotional intelligence is being able to read and understand a person’s emotions, and being able to respond appropriately; for example, if a customer is beginning to grow impatient, someone with high emotional intelligence should be able to detect it, and take action before it gets worse. Emotional intelligence also means remaining in control and observant of your own emotions, including understanding how you might be coming across in conversation. Emotional intelligence is one of the most important customer service qualities you can have.
3. Active listening.
Even if you can’t resolve a problem right away, you can make customers feel better by actively listening to them. Active listening means showing customers that you’re paying attention to them, and that you care about what they have to say. In person, attentive body language, eye contact, and nodding can help. In conversation, acknowledgments like “uh-huh,” and “I understand” are ideal. Repeat a customer’s words back to them to show that you’re listening, and even if they’re upset, they’ll likely feel better. Active listening is one of the fortunately easy customer service skills to master.
4. Technical knowledge.
Here, “technical knowledge” is necessarily vague, because its exact nature depends on your industry. Customer service reps are always better at their job when they understand your industry, and can speak with a customer like an expert. For example, the receptionist at an auto repair shop should have at least some fleeting familiarity with common car problems, and know the technical lingo necessary to inspire customer confidence. Better employee training can help you in this regard.
There are many customer service skills that are generally important to have, but at the same time, it’s important to realize that every customer is different. The approach that works for one person may not work for another. Accordingly, one of the greatest skills to master is adaptability—being able to adjust your tactics on the fly. Get an understanding for the different types of people in your customer base, and learn to serve each of them differently.
There are three great hallmarks of effective communication: conciseness, clarity, and thoroughness. In the customer service world, conciseness means helping a customer with as few words as necessary to address the problem. If you’re overlong, you run the risk of wasting the customer’s time, confusing them, or failing to address their core issue. Try to be as precise as possible in your writing and speaking.
Clarity is also vital. In spoken conversations, it’s important to clearly enunciate every word, so there’s minimal chance for misunderstanding. In written communication, clarity is all about minimizing ambiguities. The more specific you can be, the better; instead of saying the customer will receive a replacement in “4 to 8 weeks,” try to get an estimate for the date they’ll receive it. If you don’t know something, don’t dodge the question; state that you’ll need to talk to someone to discover the answer.
Thoroughness may seem like the opposite of conciseness, but in the customer service world, it means covering all of the customer’s needs. Small touches, like including links to further reading on a given problem, or finishing the email with “does that answer all your questions?” shows the customer that you’re genuinely interested in giving them everything they want. It also minimizes your chances of missing something important to the interaction.
9. Creative problem solving.
Not all customer issues can be resolved easily. If a customer is angry that their order was late, but doesn’t want a refund, what would you offer them? What happens if the order is still in transit, but is going to be late—and there’s no easy way to expedite delivery. What do you do then? Customer service requires you to be a creative problem solver, brainstorming unique solutions to the dilemmas in front of you. As if this weren’t enough, you also have to think quickly—sometimes in mid-conversation.
For the most part, any meaningful action is better than inaction, and decisiveness is better for customer service than indecisiveness. Delaying a response to an email or phone call will generally work against you, leading a customer to believe that your brand is apathetic. If you reiterate phrases like “I’ll have to ask a manager…” they’re going to get annoyed. Your messages will be much more engaging if you act quickly, and promise to take some kind of action.
Similarly, timing matters. Today’s customers expect a near-immediate response, even if their issue can’t be solved immediately. If you get an email from a customer, aim to respond within an hour, and certainly within 24 hours. If you’re in the middle of a conversation, don’t simply abandon it. If you set expectations for when you’re going to respond (i.e., “I’ll call you tomorrow to follow up”), make good on those promises. The faster and more consistent you are, the better. To find out how quickly you and your team respond to customers, see our article on how to find your average email response time.
Whatever your customer service approach is, try to keep it consistent. If you have multiple customer service reps, make sure they’re all trained the same way, so they’re capable of providing the same level of service. Monitor performance over time to make sure quality remains stable. This is important for two main reasons; first, customers will come to expect a certain level of service every time they work with your company, helping you build your reputation. Second, it will allow you to measure your performance and easily identify areas that need improvement.
Oftentimes, the tone for a customer service interaction will be set immediately, based on the friendliness or approachability of your representative. Starting with a warm greeting, using polite, congenial language, and (if in person) using open body language can all help you. Make sure your customers feel welcomed, no matter how they contact your customer service team. Friendliness is one of the most beneficial customer service traits you can have.
14. Stress management/coping skills.
Even people who genuinely enjoy customer service can feel overwhelmed at times. High volumes of calls and emails, combined with testy customers, can be incredibly stressful. That’s why learning coping skills, and carefully managing your stress are vital skills for your customer service team. There are many techniques that can work here, and everyone responds somewhat differently; for some people, short frequent breaks are all it takes. For others, lifestyle changes like more vacations and more physical exercise can help.
15. Time management.
Time management is a critical skill for customer service reps. This is especially true if you’re working during busy periods, dealing with dozens (or even hundreds) of incoming messages simultaneously. Better time management means avoiding distractions, maximizing productivity, and delegating or abandoning tasks when necessary. For help improving your team’s time management, check out our post on the top time management skills every professional needs to master.
Knowing how to respond to a customer can turn even a delicate interaction into a positive one. Ideally, you’ll respond to each point a customer makes in turn, ensuring that no portion of their message or complaint is lost in translation. It’s also important to ensure that no customer complaint or question goes unaddressed.
Yes, positivity is a skill. Staying positive is invaluable in your customer interactions, and it can simultaneously reduce the stress you feel. It grows in importance throughout the day, and with the intensity of your interactions. It’s not just about whether you’re an optimist or pessimist, either; anyone can be more positive simply by committing more positive thoughts. Try to see the silver lining of every situation, and use compliments and statements of gratitude to boost your positivity further.
It doesn’t hurt for a customer service rep to be persuasive. Sometimes, a stubborn customer will refuse to take your advice, even if you know it’s the right approach for the situation. If you understand the customer’s points of hesitation, and you know how to address them, you should be able to steer them in the right direction.
Similarly, it helps for customer service agents to be able to negotiate. In an ideal world, you won’t have to negotiate at all; you’ll have a plan to compensate for customer complaints or issues, and all your customers will be happy with it. But occasionally, you’ll run into customers who make demands that are beyond your capacity. For example, a customer may request both a full refund and a replacement item. In these scenarios, your agents may need to think like a salesperson, and employ negotiating tactics.
Good customer service reps are persistent. If they can tell the customer isn’t happy, they’ll work harder to try and make things right. If they recommend a solution that takes a few days to work, they’ll follow up later to make sure everything went as planned. Obviously, there’s a limit here, but generally speaking, persistent customer service reps are more successful in getting results.
21. Open mindedness.
Customer service agents also benefit from being open minded, both in terms of listening to customer concerns and in terms of experimenting with new techniques. Every customer service rep, regardless of skill or experience, has new things they can learn and new angles they can try. The more willing you are to experiment, and the more open you are to learning about your weaknesses, the more you’re inclined to grow and develop.
If you rely on email to handle customer service, you’ll need a tool to help you analyze your effectiveness. And if you use Gmail or G Suite, that tool is EmailAnalytics. With EmailAnalytics, you can integrate any Gmail account and get detailed visuals on several metrics vital to your customer service strategy, including average response time, number of emails sent, and average thread length. Customer service skills can take you so far, but visualizing and measuring your actual email activity enables you to improve upon it. Sign up for a free trial today, and learn how you can improve your customer service skills.
Jayson is a long-time columnist for Forbes, Entrepreneur, BusinessInsider, Inc.com, and various other major media publications, where he has authored over 1,000 articles since 2012, covering technology, marketing, and entrepreneurship. He keynoted the 2013 MarketingProfs University, and won the “Entrepreneur Blogger of the Year” award in 2015 from the Oxford Center for Entrepreneurs. In 2010, he founded a marketing agency that appeared on the Inc. 5000 before exiting it in January of 2019, and he is now the CEO of EmailAnalytics.