Today's retail market requires A+ customer service, but getting it right comes down to more than help desk software and call scripts.
Your dedicated support staff eventually will champion those areas, but it’s important to emphasize that, for many businesses, the founder is the sole customer-facing employee in the early days, and the one who sets the tone.
If you don’t value customer support and see it as a distinct skill, you can’t expect to provide a great service experience just by hiring a support rep. So, if you personally interact with customers, you have to decide what level and type of support is a fit for your brand and business, which means you have to have some level of care experience before you make your first hire.
That’s why it’s important to understand what’s required to provide great customer service. Once you have a handle on the skills listed below, you can both cultivate them in yourself and look for them in future hires.
The skills great customer service reps need
When it comes to interacting with customers, solving problems, and representing the company, every customer-facing employee in your business needs to exemplify a wide and diverse set of skills:
- A+ communication
- Empathy and emotional intelligence
- Active listening and attentiveness
- A thick skin and the ability to take ownership
- Improvisation and the ability to adapt
- Product knowledgeability
- A growth mindset and a willingness to learn
- Time management and organization
- Sales ability
Top notch communication skills are an absolute must-have for any and every customer-facing employee. Good communication is vital because customer service reps have to communicate clearly, empathetically, and in a timely manner. They’re responsible for communicating more than words—they need to convey solutions, directions, emotions, and more.
Good communicators are able to convey insider information about your products and your company in a way that immediately makes perfect sense to customers—and they need to be able to do it in real-time.
As the saying goes, it’s better to be clear than to be clever. That goes double when a customer comes in frustrated. Too many companies lose business by failing to prioritize clarity and helpfulness first. Being a great communicator in the customer service world means internalizing that mindset and prioritizing being understood over sounding clever, casual, or branded.
Empathy and emotional intelligence
Empathy—being able to put yourself in the customer's shoes and understand the situation from their point of view—is widely considered a necessary skill for customer service reps. But customers need more than empathy. They need support agents to be able to take things a step further by letting emotional intelligence lead interactions.
When customer service reps combine empathy and emotional intelligence, another key skill becomes possible: customer advocacy.
By becoming an advocate for customers, agents seek to solve their problems proactively through the best solution, not just the easiest.
Customers ultimately are looking for a solution to their problem, and the level of care customer service reps provide impacts the customer experience in a big way. That’s why changing up the mindset from one of handling cases to advocating for customers can make a huge difference.
Active listening and attentiveness
Listening and being attentive to a customer’s feelings and problems is one of the most critical skills service reps need. Before you can proactively advocate for a customer, before you can propose the best solution, before you can convey an authentic and sincere apology, you have to listen—and listen to understand.
With all the customer service channels we use today, attentiveness also applies to how you read. Listening and attentiveness can greatly impact how you read and appropriately respond to messages, whether through email, chat, text, or social media.
Understanding context by asking the right questions and reiterating what your customers are saying are also key to active listening.
By using questions to drill down to the applicable topics and summarizing to confirm your interpretation, you can ensure that your listening and attentiveness are leading to the correct result.
For example, it’s easy to read a few lines of a customer’s message and jump right to the most obvious solution. But if you keep reading, you may find they’ve already tried that suggestion or that it doesn’t apply to their situation for one reason or another.
Teamwork is another key tool that can and should be used in more ways than one. Teamwork should happen on the back end, consulting with colleagues and managers to pool knowledge, draw from collective experience, and find the best solution.
Great customer service employees also work together with the customers they serve. The key is to recognize that both the agent and the customer want the same outcome: a solution that works. When you frame customer service in that way, it’s easier to view the customer as a partner and teammate.
Patience is required in each of the following situations:
- When a customer is angry and venting
- When a customer takes forever to explain the problem
- When a customer disappears for minutes at a time in the middle of a chat
At the end of the day, patience underlies many of the other skills needed for customer service.
It enables a customer service rep to stay calm, actively listen, and remain attentive while customers vent, explain their problem, and test out solutions.
Patience is a key part of being a customer advocate. Proactively solving problems before they become the customer’s problem can be a more involved process than deploying patchwork solutions as trouble arises, but it offers a much better experience for customers.
A thick skin and the ability to take ownership
A basic rule and first step of customer service is taking ownership of a problem. At the end of the day, customers are looking for reps to own both the problem and the problem-solving process. The last thing you want in a customer service employee is someone quick to become defensive.
That can seem like a simple thing, but it requires agents to possess a certain combination of skills: humility, integrity, and sincerity chief among them.
While no service rep should have to tolerate or endure abuse, accepting fault when applicable for customer problems and owning responsibility to find a solution are two of the quickest ways to get customers feeling good about your business again.
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Improvisation and the ability to adapt
Good customer service requires a lot of preparation. Reps need to get to know the product, the company, and common customer issues and their solutions. Great support teams are empowered with scripts and other information they need to provide customer service quickly and adeptly.
But it’s impossible to prepare for every situation and eventuality, and making customers wait while reps ask for help from managers, escalate tickets, or search for a new solution lessens the customer experience.
That’s why it’s so important for customer service reps to possess the ability to improvise, adapt, and solve problems on the fly.
Your team should know when to throw scripts out the window and get creative, and they should be empowered to create their own solutions—built from a deep understanding of both the product and the customer.
You could make the argument that just about everyone working for your business needs to understand the product, what it does, and how customers use it—and you’d be right. But that knowledge is even more important for customer service workers.
When agents have a deep familiarity with the product and its use cases, they enter customer conversations equipped with more context than they would otherwise have. They’re more nimble and able to adapt solutions to fit the unique context of each customer’s use case.
They’re also better able to meet customers’ needs. After all, customers contact your service team because they need help—they’re expecting product expertise and that’s what they should find there.
A growth mindset and a willingness to learn
We’ve listed several skills that top notch customer service reps should have on Day 1—but there’s another, harder to quantify skill that will help reps continue to improve and expand the expertise they need: a willingness to learn.
Your product may evolve, your business may pivot, your customers’ preferences and habits may change, and throughout all of this, your customer service team needs to be able to both roll with the punches and grow into the changing reality of their day-to-day jobs.
That’s why hiring customer service reps who possess a growth mindset from the start is one of the best ways to future-proof your team. The willingness and hunger to continuously learn and to do better for customers are invaluable.
Time management and organization
There was a time when customer service was done primarily over the phone. Reps answered calls and worked until that customer’s problem was resolved. Today, customer service reps are pulled in so many directions—from social media to chat to phone—that it can be hard to focus on one-to-one customer conversations.
That’s why proper time management and organizational skills are essential. Customer service reps need to be able to handle multiple conversations at once. They need to prioritize channels and tickets and use their time in the most efficient way.
Reps who know how to manage and organize their time are also better able to slow down and give each customer the care and support they need—because they aren’t rushing to get through ticket after ticket.
Customer service often can be the last line of defense before a customer defects to the competition. By solving customer problems effectively, service reps can mitigate churn and help inspire customer loyalty.
In addition, with chat support, customer service reps can easily end up fielding pre-purchase questions and helping prospects better understand and choose the right product for them. When that happens, those same reps can become your best salespeople, helping to up- and cross-sell to customers. That said, selling to customers who’ve just had to contact customer service can be dicey, and it takes a savvy, emotionally intelligent rep to understand when and how to do it best.
All of the skills we’ve listed here are less effective when customer service reps don’t have confidence in their own abilities—whether that’s confidence in their improvised or creative solutions, in their people skills and emotional intelligence, or in their ability to manage and organize their time and workload.
When reps lack confidence, they:
- Escalate more tickets to management
- Stick too close to the script (to the detriment of customers)
- Spend too much time on less-involved cases and solutions
All of those things can bring a product and competent customer service operation to a screeching halt. That’s why customer service managers need to both look for and continuously build up confidence in their team members.
The first solution you propose may not fix the customer’s problem. The company may experience broad issues wherein customer service reps have to wade through dozens of identical complaints. Some customers won’t be satisfied by any solution or reparation.
That’s the reality of customer service, and reps needs to be resilient in the face of that reality. They need to remain undeterred when solutions don’t work and apologies fail to appease customers.
When you hire and train for resilient customer service reps, you get professionals who are able to bring their best selves to each and every customer conversation—regardless of what happened during the last one.
The right stuff for customer service
The best customer service reps (and founders who serve as de facto customer service) possess a curated set of skills. Some are innate, some can be cultivated, and others require proper training and support from the company and management as a whole.
At the end of the day, investing in hiring and training for the right customer service skills means you can build a better, more effective and efficient customer service team and keep customers happy and loyal—an end well worth the means and investment.
Illustration by Lynn Scurfield.