Can you put a price on customer service skills? Well, yes, depending on which research or studies you’re looking at, there are estimates that it can cost anywhere between four to seven times more to acquire a new customer than keep an existing one. (Go ahead, give it a quick Google.)
Whatever the price, as a business, it’s valuable to have first-rate customer service skills.
In this post, we’ll look at this key way to attract and retain customers:
What’s “customer service,” really?
The definition of “customer service” is basically the help and advice that you as a business provide to the people who buy or use your products and services (aka. your customers). And this applies to your prospective customers too.
It’s a combination of both service and skill set: to provide the service, you need a team with the right skills.
Here are some examples of good customer service skills:
- Digital awareness
- Customer management
- Product expertise
- Standardised practices
- Analytical understanding
Why is good customer service important?
Well, to put it simply, customer service is crucial to attracting new customers and keeping existing ones.
Yes, yes, sales and marketing have a hand in this too but don’t neglect the fact that new customers are more likely to buy from you in the first place if they know you offer a first-rate customer experience. (Plus existing customers are more inclined to make future purchases if they receive that same great customer experience on an ongoing basis.)
Without good customer service, what’s stopping your customers from buying the same product from your competitor?
Your frontline customer service team is usually the first port of call for customers interacting with your business. So, make sure that team has the training and tools they need to represent your image, mission, and values.
Customer service professionals are literally the face of your brand, after all.
By employing quality customer service reps, you’re not just “building a great team”, you’re also giving customer loyalty a boost. If customers keep coming back to you, then that means the amount of money each customer spends with your business rises. They buy more frequently, which will probably generate positive word-of-mouth for you, which attracts more customers, and the virtuous cycle continues…
5 essential soft customer skills
Let’s start with the soft skills you and your team needs to deliver quality customer service.
These are elements of customer service that most people typically associate with “people skills” and relate more to how a person interacts with others.
They aren’t unique to any one specific job either. Having soft skills can make you a great fit for a wide range of occupations because it’s a transferable skill that’s also really flexible.
Take a look at this survey data:
You’ll notice that other than call quality being out of your individual reps’ control, the top two reasons for customers hanging up can be solved with good customer service skills.
A truly top-notch customer service rep or agent takes care of customers’ problems with empathy — which is key to reducing the chances of customers getting frustrated (and hanging up on you).
In general, excellent soft skills are just plain useful in customer service scenarios because they allow you to bring your own personal touch to the conversation. Even better, they can be learned or improved easily with training and the help of the right tools.
Now, let’s look at five soft skills that are especially useful when problem-solving in the customer service world.
To provide good customer service in traditional situations like on the phone and in person, the first rule is of course that you must speak clearly. But to provide great customer service, you must be a great communicator across all mediums—adaptability is essential.
Because customers no longer rely solely on the phone to talk to businesses. That means customer service reps should be skilled in communicating via other channels too, like email, live-chat, and managing tickets through a customer portal.
Then there’s social media. You may be handling inbound social media messages on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and more.
And if you’re in a business that has “high-touch” (personal, one-on-one) relationships with customers or clients, you might do video conferencing calls with them. With these, body language and eye contact come into play.
Let’s take an example. You may have a customer service pro who’s super experienced with handling social media inquiries. But they may not be used to dealing with angry customers over the phone. This is why it’s helpful to cross-train your team so that literally anyone can pick up a conversation on any channel and deliver exceptional customer service.
And don’t forget, communicating with your customers is important, but so is communicating with your own teammates. Why? Because customer service is rarely a one-person show. Someone may have more context and information about a particularly difficult customer, or you might need to reach out to your sales team to see if you can offer a discount to “save” a customer, or you might need to double check with Marketing to find out more about a certain promo or feature that a customer saw in an email newsletter. Being able to talk to your own team is an often-overlooked, but vital, part of providing good customer service.
The thing is, though, most companies don’t communicate well with each other. People might be in different time zones, or they might be working from home—but the thing that we see most often is that everyone is using different tools. Teams might be using different apps for messaging, managing projects, for video conferencing… and when no one is talking to each other on the same tools, it makes collaboration hard.
So, what’s the fix?
It’s actually pretty straightforward. Try to incorporate every communication channel you use regularly into as few apps as possible. In other words: streamline. For example, your first step could be moving your phone system to the cloud. The benefit of doing this is that you can consolidate your business phone number along with other features like video conferencing software and team messaging—all into one system. Here’s how it looks in RingCentral’s desktop and mobile app, for instance:
Working together as a team with a customer empowers you to do more, with less—and more quickly. (Seriously, we think every company should be doing this more, especially when dealing with tough customer problems.)
Treat the customer as your partner. Interact with your customers on the platforms they use. Let’s say a heavy Twitter user has already explained their issue at length to you on Twitter. Would you ask them to explain themselves in detail again in an email, just because you prefer to email customers about problems?
By responding on your customer’s platform of choice, not only are you being considerate of their preferences, you’re almost increasing the chances that your customer is fully engaged and will give you all the details you need on that channel quickly. (Remember, in the end, your goal is to resolve problems during the customer’s first contact with you.)
But what if your customers all like using different platforms? What if you regularly get messages on Facebook and Twitter and email and live chat and LinkedIn and so on? Does that mean you and your team need to have all of those platforms open in different windows and tabs constantly?
Of course not.
There are tons of digital tools that are designed to help you deal with customers across all these platforms—in one place.
For instance, let’s take RingCentral Engage Digital™, which consolidates all these different channels of communication into one easy dashboard for you:
This lets you stay in your usual workflow and get the full picture of a customer’s relationship with your company, without having to toggle between a number of different windows.
Being able to manage your conversations efficiently like this is especially important for social media. People expect responses faster on social channels, and you don’t want issues being public on Twitter and Facebook for too long without a response from your company.
Patience improves customer service in two main ways:
- Keeping calm and allowing a customer to explain their situation puts them at ease. If you interrupt a customer mid-sentence, you could cause unnecessary friction and set the customer experience off to a bad start.
- The ability to step back from a situation to assess all angles and possibilities will help your own decision-making.
If you find that you need to work on your patience, try to find the source of that impatience.
Maybe you may rush calls because you’re evaluated on your call times or the number of calls answered (which is very common). That measurement is often the source of impatience in a customer service environment.
To change that behaviour, sometimes it’s helpful to just look at your metrics. See if extra time with customers improves customer satisfaction (CSAT) and the customer retention rate. Often, the problem isn’t you; it’s just time management.
Let’s say a contact centre team is under pressure to end calls within a certain amount of time. Or to “hit targets” at the expense of providing a good customer service experience. What happens? The quality of their decision-making suffers.
And it can cost you. Often in ways you don’t even expect. Bad decisions can lead to anything from sending replacement equipment to the wrong address, to sending out the wrong equipment, to hurriedly telling a customer their problem isn’t solvable (or that it can be easily solved when it can’t).
These types of wrong decisions aren’t just harmful in and of themselves either. They can lead to unresolved problems, which means the customer ends up calling back and starting the process all over again.
Bad decisions have several escalating consequences:
- Wasting time on repeat callers
- Low customer satisfaction
- Low customer retention rate
- Poor brand reputation
- Fewer case studies and testimonials
- Lower sales
If a customer’s question isn’t urgent, ask if you can place the call on hold while you confer quickly with a colleague or manager. That gives you a chance to analyse the best solution to the problem and come up with options to offer the customer. Yes, customers don’t like waiting, but which do you think they’d like less: waiting a little longer, or not getting the right answer to their problem?
By taking the time to make a well-informed decision, you can minimise the risk of repeat calls and unhappy customers.
When an urgent issue does come up, make sure you have a documented strategy for dealing with that kind of question. Try developing a flowchart of possible customer scenarios that you can walk through to a resolution.
Information and time management are vital when it comes to great decision-making. Use the flow chart example below to create your own process to come to the best possible decision when dealing with customer wants and needs. Or build your own in tools like LucidChart or Visme:
Another important customer service skill, empathy, is the ability to understand your customer’s feelings. This skill is useful to have because it allows you to tap into your customers’ needs and desires.
Whether you’re on the phone or responding to a customer’s email, it’s important to empathise with them to establish trust. When a customer feels like you’re taking the time to understand their problem and find the best solution for them, it acts as a buffer that smooths over the rough parts of their complaint (and they might be forgiving later on too if you make a small mistake).
Empathy is about more than just listening to someone talk; it hinges on active listening and positive language.
For example, if a not-so-great customer service agent has a repeat caller, they may just follow the usual process for fixing the issue in question. Without active listening and attentiveness, they could miss important details. For example, the problem may have gotten worse or be slightly different this time.
With good listening skills, you’re keeping an ear out for signals of stress or anxiety. At the same time, you’re giving your customer verbal feedback to reassure them that you really are listening. A simple “yes” or “could you explain more about that” reassures the customer and could help you solve the problem more quickly too.
If a customer is having trouble describing their issue, offer help instead of letting them struggle. You spend the majority of your day answering questions about specific goods and services. So you’ll likely have better product knowledge and technical skills. Or, at least, you should!
5 essential hard customer skills
Now let’s look at the hard skills that help teams provide great customer service.
Hard skills are teachable and measurable abilities, like writing, reading, or the ability to use computer programs. Often, they’re tailored to a specific job role or industry.
Strong customer service skills apply to many jobs that need customer interaction. But it’s important to develop the skills most appropriate to your line of business if you want to stand out from not-so-great customer service teams.
Here are five important hard skills to master.
6. Digital awareness
A modern customer service strategy has to include online channels. You can’t get around it, because today, that’s where most people (your customers) are communicating with the companies they’re buying from.
There’s a saying in customer service: “Go where your customers are.”
So, to effectively communicate and work with your customers, get familiar with the tools they use, whether that’s email, phone, web chat, or social media.
Above all, give your customer service team an easy way to see all the customer conversations that everyone’s having. That way, anyone can pick up a thread without making a customer repeat themselves. And they won’t have to ask different people on the team about that customer’s past relationship with your business.
Again, RingCentral’s Engage Digital platform is designed to help you do precisely this. Here’s a look at the platform in action:
7. Customer management
Communicating with your customers is one thing; managing them is another story.
Customer management generally comes in two forms:
- Managing customers to keep them calm and set expectations
- Managing customers that are waiting in a queue for an answer to their call
Let’s explore point two a little bit more. Keeping customers calm and setting expectations is important, and that has more to do with empathy. But you also have the opportunity to make the waiting experience better.
For that, there are a few automation tools that can help. For example, a customer service platform (like RingCentral) that offers call queuing, skills-based routing, and workforce management. Now let’s look at what these are in a little more detail:
Call queuing allows you to route calls to the right agent every time according to your own business rules. That means customers spend less time queuing for the wrong customer service professional.
Skills-based routing means every customer gets the best available resource on every interaction. That frees up other resources to get on with their job rather than dealing with queries better placed elsewhere.
Workforce management optimises schedules to ensure customers are not left in the cold during peak times.
8. Product expertise
Just as customer service reps need to be skilled in customer service, they need to be equally knowledgeable about the product being sold. It’s no good saying you have the “best customer service” if you can’t reliably solve your customers’ problems.
For simple queries, use the customer flow chart we mentioned earlier. If you keep getting the same questions, that’s a sign that you should document these so that new hires can start resolving customer questions from day one (and more importantly, fix the problem with your product or process that’s causing the issue). Plus, if everything is written down, it becomes easier to teach and memorise.
For more complex questions, customer service reps could be trained to specialise in one product or area. That way, you can use skills-based routing so that customers get directed to the person best suited to handle their questions.
For example, customers who need help with maintenance can press 1 to get routed to a rep with maintenance experience. Someone who wants to renew their contract can press 2 to route to sales reps rather than the support team. And so on.
9. Standardised practices
Ah, formal training, certificates, and courses. Not everyone is a fan, and they’re not exactly fun, but customer service qualifications are helpful because they provide a recognised standard of expertise. (And by participating in formal training, you can learn what other businesses do while improving your own practices.)
Courses range from full-time to part-time, with apprenticeship schemes. They’re available online or in person; the choice is yours depending on what your strengths and weaknesses are.
In general, continuous training is always helpful for career progression and keeping up with best practices.
10. Analytical understanding
The best customer service teams are those driven by analytics. Historically, reporting and analytics were powered by spreadsheets and took hours to process.
But today, customer experience analytics are a core component of contact centre software. Every call that enters your business is logged in the cloud.
Once logged, your contact centre software analyses those calls. The bottom line? You receive comprehensive reports that tell you where your customer service reps are doing well. The data also shows you where they need to improve their skills.
This type of reporting gives you a way to keep up with how you’re doing (or if you’re a manager, how your customer service agents are performing). These analytics are especially valuable during critical times for different businesses, like holidays, back-to-school times, or large sporting events.
Customer service skills mastered
With a team that has strong customer service skills, your customers will love your brand even more.
Communication will always be one of the most important skills for customer service teams. The teams that communicate the best will outperform those that communicate poorly.
Of course, other soft skills are important, too, such as empathy, patience, decision-making, and collaboration, as well as hard skills like product expertise and standardised practices.
Shameless plug: Just remember that great customer service skills aren’t always enough on their own. To manage customers well, you need to be powered by quality communications technology. See how RingCentral enables proactive customer service here.
Originally published 30 Mar, 2023