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7 Essential Customer Service Skills (And How To Master Them)

Kat Ambrose | February 18th, 2020

Great customer service involves much more than just answering emails and closing tickets. Lousy customer service skills can be frustrating for the customer—and they're also terrible for business.

Picture this, for example:

You’re in the market for that thing. You know, that item you’ve had your eye on for a while but haven’t entirely made up your mind. You have a few questions before you can confidently click “place order.”

Your expectations are high—and based on your research, you feel confident that this company will meet them. So, you contact the company’s customer service team to ask your question. The customer service rep directs to an email form. 

Then to a phone line. 

And then to an FAQ page. 

It’s now been a few days, and not only has your question not been answered, but you feel irritated and confused. 

If you’ve had a poor customer service experience, you can relate to this story, no doubt. Lousy customer service is frustrating for the customer, and it’s also terrible for business.

A report from American Express found that 33% of Americans would consider switching companies after just one instance of poor customer service. What’s more, the same report found that customers will tell more people about a negative experience with a brand than they would about a positive experience. 

The pressure is on. Businesses must have (and implement) excellent skills for customer service to give customers a remarkable experience.

A team that goes above and beyond to make customers happy will learn these skills and use them in every interaction. These skills are not isolated; they all, collectively, play a role in creating the best customer service experience possible. For several of these skills, you can’t have one without the other!

In this article, we’re taking a closer look at how you can learn these advanced customer service skills, and put them into practice in your company, along with a few delightful (and less than stellar) customer service skills examples.

But before we get to the good stuff, let’s talk a bit more about why your customer service strategy is critical to growing your business.

The real reason customer service matters

You know that having excellent customer service is essential, but do you know how it impacts your business as a whole? A study from Bain & Company found that businesses that prioritize customer service see 4-8% higher revenues than those who do not.

The study also found that customers are 58% more likely to tell others about a negative experience with a brand than they were just five years ago.

The study also found that customers are 58% more likely to tell others about a negative experience with a brand than they were just five years ago.

Beyond trust, outstanding customer service is also essential for building customer loyalty. Microsoft's 2017 State of Global Customer Service Report found that 96% of those polled say that customer service is vital in their choice of loyalty to a brand.

In other words, fantastic customer service has a massive influence on business growth, customer loyalty, and how customers view your brand in general. 

With that in mind, let’s take a look at the top customer service representative skills that will make your team stand out from the rest.

Empathy

You know that awesome, air-high-five feeling you get when the person you’re talking to really understands what you’re saying? That’s the power of empathy. 

Empathy is the ability to understand the feelings and emotions of others. In a customer service setting, it’s crucial to put yourself in your customer’s shoes to fully understand the pain they’re experiencing. 

Your customers are spending money on your product or service, and they expect a particular outcome. As you can imagine, if that specific outcome isn’t met, they’ll be pretty frustrated or unhappy. They may choose to communicate that in various ways. Therefore, it’s all the more important to practice empathy with every customer you encounter. 

Women’s clothing boutique, Roolee, does an excellent job of displaying empathy in their customer service communications. Here's one recent exchange I had with Roolee over email:

The Roolee customer service representative showed empathy to the problem throughout the entire conversation. She was polite and professional, yet her tone was casual and came off genuine. 

Put it into practice

Being empathetic starts with putting yourself in your customers’ shoes. 

A few ways you can do this:

  • Try to understand why they are feeling the way they are. Before you reply, check your reaction and tone of voice. Stay calm, and make sure you’re focusing on the customer and making them feel validated, rather than focusing on being right. For example, when listening to them explain the issue, this could mean saying something like, “I understand how frustrating [customer issue] would be” or “I can see why you’re upset about this.”

  • Match your tone with your customer’s tone. Matching the tone of your voice—whether via phone, live chat, or email—to theirs. Sounding too formal can come across as cold and robotic. Empaths are warm and understanding.

Once they’ve explained their issue, be sure to respond with statements like:

  • “I apologize that this happened. I would be frustrated too. Here’s how we’re going to fix this.” 
  • “I understand why you’re upset. To help me figure out the right solution, I need to ask a few more questions.”

If you aren’t sure what they’re asking or if the solution isn’t clear, make sure you ask them to clarify. The important thing is to make customers feel heard and understood.

Putting yourself in your customer’s position can make all the difference. How? Customers want to feel understood by brands, and it helps fuse a connection between you and your customers.

Respect

Respect goes hand-in-hand with empathy. Respect is the notion of treating others the way you'd like them to treat you in return. Nothing will burn your reputation quicker than an absence of respect for your customer—no matter how wrong or out of line they may be.

If you’re a frustrated customer who’s trying to get to the bottom of an issue, wouldn’t you hope that the person on the other end of the line is respectful? 

But being respectful of your customers goes far beyond using their name and saying “please” and “thank you.” It’s about treating customers with kindness and patience, too. 

Take Patagonia, for example.

Patagonia’s customer service team always puts their best foot forward in every interaction with customers—even when something isn’t their fault. By treating every person that comes across their brand with respect, Patagonia has built a reputation of always going the extra mile.

In the customer service world, there are several components to consider:

  • Timeliness of your response
  • Presenting a few choices for the customer to decide
  • Not tossing the customer back and forth between customer service agents
  • Delivering a solution that satisfies your customers

What does each of these components have in common? They all play a role in creating a respectful customer experience.

Put it into practice

Similar to how you thought about empathy, imagine you were in your customer’s position. 

A few ways to do this:

  • Consider how you’d feel if you were the customer. Think about how you would want to be treated in that situation and mirror that to every customer you encounter.

  • Take a breather. Being polite, kind, and open is a great place to start. If you find yourself getting frustrated with a customer due to their tone or for another reason, think about how you would want to be treated in this situation if you were the customer. However, taking a short break to get yourself back on track is always a good idea.

Strong communication skills

Bulletproof communication skills are a crucial part of providing outstanding customer service. You want to set both you and your customer up for success, and clear communication is the secret ingredient to any successful interaction.

Asking questions that warrant a clear answer like, “You have the latest version of X software installed, correct?” instead of questions that leave room for interpretation like, “You don’t have the latest version of X software installed?” can mean the difference between solving a problem quickly and adding to the issue.

In addition to asking the right questions, making sure you’re typing in complete, error-free sentences when chatting with customers online and that you’re speaking clearly when on the phone, is fundamental for strong communication.

Put it into practice

The root of transparent communication is simplicity. Your customers don’t want to spend time decoding your response or solution. They’re looking for the easiest way to get the issue resolved so they can get back to their lives.

A few ways to practice strong communication skills:

  • Take note of the most common customer question. Take some of the most common customer service questions your team is asked and simplify those responses as much as possible. Keeping lets users set up shared templates that let customer service reps share scripted answers to common questions in just a few clicks. Just be careful not to simplify  so much so that information is lost or that your customer ends up being insulted (we’re aiming for being clear, not patronizing!)

  • Keep it simple. Being able to take a complicated or technical answer and relay it back to the customer in a way they understand takes practice and patience. As a general rule of thumb, keep your answers as concise as possible. Avoiding jargon or unnecessary technical terms is always a smart idea.

Active listening

The difference between a conversation ending in a successful outcome or ending in more frustration is active listening. It’s a foundational element of every customer interaction. Active listening involves taking in what your customer is saying, including their tone of voice, word choice, and more.

Truly hearing your customers is the first step in figuring out the right solution for them, so knowing how to listen actively is essential. Plus, failing to listen fully could lead to them becoming increasingly frustrated and feeling disrespected.

An example of what not to do would be this customer service exchange between a customer (unfortunately, in this example, the customer was me) and fitness app Aaptiv:

The customer service representative did not pay close enough attention to the customer’s initial request, and as a result, gave an answer that did not solve the problem. Always be sure to listen carefully to your customers—whether you’re on the phone with them or engaging in a text-based conversation like email or live chat.

Letting your customer explain their problem completely uninterrupted is vital. By giving them your full, undivided attention allows you to keep the focus on them and make sure you don’t miss anything.

Put it into practice

So how can active listening be applied in a customer service setting? 

The RASA framework (receive, appreciation, summarize, ask) is a great place to start when refining your active listening skills. 

The RASA framework can be broken down as such:

  • You receive information from your customers without interruption. 
  • Then, you reinforce that the customer has your full attention through positive body language like smiling when you talk, positive statements like, “I understand,” etc. When body language isn’t an option—like if you’re communicating over email or live chat—be sure to create a rapport with customers, use emojis when appropriate, and personalize your messages.
  • You summarize the customer’s points to verify you heard them correctly and that you understand the core issue.
  • Lastly, you ask clarifying questions to make sure you’re 100% clear with what the issue is and can figure out a way to solve your customers' problems.

Depending on the medium you’re communicating with your customer through (e.g., live chat, phone, or email) will determine the best practices for listening. Active listening can take some practice, but giving your customer your complete attention is a great place to start.

Time management

As the customer service tickets start to roll in, it can feel pretty overwhelming.

Karen in Atlanta needs help with a credit card payment.

Ryan in Los Angeles has a question about a feature.

Jade in Minneapolis would like an update on their order status.

It’s a lot to keep track of, that’s for sure. That’s where the ability to prioritize tickets comes into play. 

Depending on your organization, a triage system—or a way your team can quickly spot the tickets that should be addressed first based on urgency or importance—may be the best route. Putting a triage system in place can help your team focus on those high importance tickets as they come in. That way, there’s no scrambling to address tickets that are more emergent than others, which saves you tons of time (and stress).

Assigning the right tickets to the right team members can help you stay organized and on top of customer requests. Keeping lets users mark tickets as Open or Closed, so there’s no confusion over the status of a ticket. You never need worry about your team forgetting tickets again. 

Put it into practice

Managing your time is a critical part of successful customer service. Without having a solid grasp on how long tickets may take to solve or failing to be prepared with a solution can quickly lead to overwhelm. 

Keeping users can assign other team members to customer conversations with just a few clicks. That way, you can make sure you’re working through tickets but not overwhelming your team.

Triaging customer service requests can make a world of difference in your inbox when you’re trying to sort through tickets. Being able to see which CS team members are more bogged down than others can also help you delegate tickets.

For the tickets that take longer to work through or involve more than just you and your customer, offer to follow up with them once you have a solution. This frees you up to work on other tickets while keeping customers in the loop on your progress.

Positive attitude

Working with customers who only contact you when experiencing an issue can be taxing. You’re human! It’s only natural to feel bogged down at some point, especially when dealing with customers who might be upset or unhappy.

A positive attitude is just that—choosing to be positive despite the circumstances. Sometimes maintaining a positive attitude, especially when faced with frustrated or demanding customers, can be pretty tricky. 

But remaining positive, even when you’re feeling quite the opposite, is essential. Not only can your customers immediately tell, but it will impact how you handle other tickets. Not to mention, who wants to spend their day being a Debbie Downer?

Put it into practice

You don’t have to shoot rainbows out of your eyes to be positive. It can be as simple as saying, “Hi there!” to your customers when you start to work on a new ticket or asking, “Is there anything else I can help you with?” after you’ve found a solution for your customer. 

A few ways you can do this:

  • Take breaks throughout the day. Walking away from your computer can be a cure for a bad mood. Going for a walk or having lunch with a coworker can also be a great way to turn your mood around, or keep a positive atmosphere going strong.
  • Be positive even when customers are not. You know the saying, “kill them with kindness”? Well, that certainly applies to the customer service world. People are more likely to be talked down if they’re met with kindness or positivity instead of the same negative attitude they’re putting out there.

Better question-asking

Customers may not be sure how to convey their problem, or what solution they’re looking for. It’s your job as a customer service team member to unfurl your customer's issue and figure out the right answer. Therefore, asking questions can help you better understand the problem at hand or to help the customer figure out what’s wrong.

Also, don’t be afraid to confirm with a customer if you’re confused by their answer. Ask them questions to gain further clarity or to confirm that you understand what they’re saying.

Put it into practice

There are many ways to employ better question-asking into your customer service process. It can take a bit of trial and error to figure out what type of questioning will be the most effective. It may depend on the issue or the customer what method is best.

Two of the best question-asking methods are:

  • Funnel Effect Question method. The Funnel Effect Question method involves asking probing questions like, “What happens when X occurs?” or “Have you tried X to solve the issue?” These questions help you get the most information from your customers and narrow down some potential solutions. It’s important to frame your question in a way that leaves no room for misinterpretation or open-endedness.
  • Tell, Explain, Describe (TED) method. The TED method helps when you're trying to gather detail from customers. The style of question naturally prompts the customer to give you all the relevant information you need. If you have all the facts upfront, you’ll be able to present a solution much faster than if you’re still trying to decode the ticket.

Skills that (together) build brand loyalty and trust

The best customer service teams are those that work well together—both with customers and with each other. We’re all human at the end of the day (and all day, in fact), so doing what you can to make your customers’ lives easier goes a long way. 

These essential customer service skills collectively can help you do just that. When used together, you set yourself and your company up for a successful customer interaction every time. 

Every company will have a different way of doing things from a customer support perspective. But continuously working to improve your customer service skills will make all the difference. 

Ready to practice your new customer service skills? Sign up today and see how Keeping can bring inbox nirvana to your team.

 

 

Kat Ambrose loves to string words together, especially in a content marketing setting. After a few years of cutting her teeth in the agency world, she left to pursue her writing career and hasn’t looked back since. You can find Kat at https://www.katambrose.com.