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In the recent Zendesk CX Trends 2022 report, over 80% of respondents said that positive customer service experiences make them more likely to make another purchase. On the other hand, slightly over 60% admit they would switch to a company’s competitor after just one bad customer service experience.

Today, customer experience is one of the most important factors shaping your company’s growth. Read on to see how to answer customer needs with the best communication skills in your customer service department. I also have some tips on where (and how) to find worthy candidates. But let’s start at the beginning.

What does good customer service mean, exactly?

Good customer service is usually a result of the methodic, well-thought-out actions of your company and its representatives. Here’s what your customer service reps ought to focus on:

Speed

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Try to limit the time necessary to reach your customer service agents. If you struggle with this, think of introducing some self-service solutions, such as a knowledge base, chatbots or customer portals with extensive functionality. This way, the majority of your customers/users will be able to solve their issues without talking to your agents, thus freeing up the company's resources.

Personalization

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No one wants to feel like a statistic. Introduce personalization and a positive attitude to your communication. Active listening, addressing customers by their first name, and, above all, knowledge about past customer interactions with your company can work miracles. Show that you know your customers and you care about their problems, and they will repay you with the best gift you can receive from them—customer loyalty.

Knowledge

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Your employees won’t be able to help customers make purchasing decisions if they are not knowledgeable about the product and the company’s offer. Make sure your front-line workers know everything there is to know about the product/service, its functionality, your company’s offer (e.g., current promotions), and pricing. Only this way will you be able to encourage anyone to buy something from you.

Proactiveness

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Don’t treat your customer service just as an addition to the sales department. If your customer service agents are proactive, they can close more deals and make every customer feel special, and that’s one of the keys to a successful business. Proactiveness can help you:

  • Sell more products—think upselling and cross-selling.
  • Achieve customer satisfaction. Everyone wants to feel taken care of!
  • Deal with angry customers. It’s hard to stay angry at a proactive, helpful, and positive person.
  • Get better customer feedback. If you conduct customer surveys, proactiveness is the key to getting better results.

Now, without excellent customer service, you won’t be able to achieve any of this, and your company will have a hard time stepping up its game. That’s why it’s so important to work on your representatives’ soft skills and train them to deal with various situations and scenarios.

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Below, you will find a list of 13 of the most important customer service skills that are useful in EVERY company, no matter what you sell and to whom. Let’s get right to it!

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13 essential communication skills for your customer service team

Listening skills, AKA active listening

That’s the undisputed number one in every rep’s, agent’s, and consultant’s skill set. Listening skills require a lot of practice, but almost anyone can master them. Active listening is all about understanding the problem behind each phone call. Sometimes people have a hard time describing their problem or what kind of solution they expect. In these situations, listening skills will help your team member get to the bottom of the issue and find out how to solve it. My opinion is that if you can teach your reps just one skill, it should be active listening.

Attentiveness is also a vital part of active listening. Unfortunately, according to the recent Kincentric study, it is likely that your employees are not fully engaged in their work:

If you want to solve customer issues effectively, you have to give them your full attention. If there are problems with attentiveness or engagement in your company, try and find the reason behind this situation. Maybe your agents don’t feel prepared to do their job. Or maybe they are dissatisfied with the company culture. Or perhaps there are some tensions between your team and management, causing people to feel stressed or demotivated. You need to dig deeper, find the real reason for the lack of attentiveness, and solve it. Otherwise, you will never achieve great customer service.

When hiring a potential call center agent, see how they are listening during the interview. In nine out of ten cases, good listening skills are rather obvious.

Empathy

The second point on my list is closely linked to active listening. Empathy helps you understand the caller’s situation and emotions. In other words, their point of view. Empathy is extremely important, especially when your caller is upset or straight-up angry. Perhaps you’ve heard the saying that emotions are more important than facts, and while that may not apply to every situation, it couldn't be more true in the customer service world. With the skillful use of empathy, it’s easier to reach the root cause of the problem and help the caller in the most effective way while acknowledging their emotions.

Here, it is vital to use some short expressions to showcase empathy:

  • “I understand this must be frustrating”
  • “I’ve experienced this before, and it was such a pain!”
  • “This should never have happened”
  • “I understand your problem and want to help you fix it”

In many situations, they can help your agents find this crucial connection with the caller and win their satisfaction. The tone of voice is also important—the more upset your caller is, the calmer and kinder the response should be.

To check if a given person has enough empathy, ask them what they would say first to an upset caller. Or, better yet, ask them to recount a "difficult encounter" with a customer. The way they talk about upset customers will tell you a lot about whether their empathy is genuine.

Adaptability

Good customer service is a difficult game. Every day, your reps will encounter different people with different problems, needs, and attitudes. It takes a lot of adaptiveness to serve all of them effectively. Even the communication channel matters! Communication can look a bit different when you talk to the customer on the phone, via social media (e.g., Messenger), or even in person. A big part of this point lies in prioritizing the most important questions and issues your support team needs to handle first.

To see if a given person has enough adaptability, you can show them a typical situation in your call center that requires this quality and ask how they would handle it.

Body language

I admit, when communication takes place mostly over the phone and online channels, body language doesn’t play that much of a role in good customer service. However, it is true that you can hear someone smiling on the other end of the phone. Encourage your customer service consultants to smile when talking to a customer, especially at the beginning of the conversation, when this first impression is so important.

Problem-solving skills

Why are these so vital? More often than not, a customer will just call the company saying that something’s wrong and their product/service doesn’t work. Your agent’s responsibility is to find out the problem, primarily by asking follow-up questions. And they have to be well-thought-out! With good problem-solving skills, your reps will be able to diagnose the problem and direct the caller to the solution, but it can take some time.

To verify problem-solving skills, you can ask the candidate to propose how to talk to someone who has difficulty describing their problem. You can even quickly stage a short made-up call.

Attention to detail

This trait is also essential. Call center agents have to carefully listen to everything the customer says and ask just the right questions. Sometimes, they need to show them the less obvious solution or turn their attention to a detail they missed. Train your agents to always seek clarification and not make any assumptions about the given person’s situation. This way, they will be less prone to giving quick or even hasty answers.

You can easily check whether a given candidate has this quality when screening their resume. If you can spot at least several problems with the way the resume is written (e.g., typos or spelling errors), that’s often a clear identification the given candidate doesn’t have sufficient attention to detail.

Time-management skills

In essence, they mean handling customer problems or queries as quickly as possible. You don’t want to keep your customers waiting because, this way, you will soon lose them. If you struggle with time management in your company, perhaps it’s time to think about automation. Thanks to this technology, your employees can focus on the most important issues. All the mundane, repetitive work is done by AI algorithms and various tools and platforms. If you have less on your plate, time management becomes easier.

As a vital part of time management skills, make sure that using the customer service software or CRM programs in your company (as well as work reporting) doesn’t take too much time and is easy and intuitive.

Positive language

Whenever possible, don’t concentrate on the negatives. It’s tempting, especially when you have an angry customer calling with a serious problem, but I can’t stress enough how important it is for your consultants to stay positive regardless. Good customer service skills require directing the conversation in a positive direction. Focus on the solution, not the problem. Talk about possible options and possibilities. Here’s an example:

  • Lack of positive language: Unfortunately, this product is currently out of stock. We don’t expect it to arrive in at least a week.
  • With positive language: I see this product is currently unavailable in our inventory, but I’m happy to order it for you. This way, as soon as it gets here, we can immediately ship it to you.

The second message conveys the same thing (there is no product at the time), but it directs the conversation toward a solution. The negative is quickly turned into something positive, and that’s what you want to leave customers with.

To verify this, listen carefully to the way the candidate talks. Do they use a lot of negative words, such as “unfortunately”, “never”, or “nothing”? If so, it can be a red flag, but you must also remember that positive language can be trained.

Clear communication

Have you ever met someone who can talk for hours and not say much? Or people who are easily distracted, changing topics like in a kaleidoscope? That’s something to avoid at all costs in customer service. If you encounter a candidate with a lack of clear communication skills, perhaps he or she won’t be a good fit for your company.

Every conversation with your customers should be short and to the point. If your reps struggle with this across the board, perhaps they could use better scripts to stay on topic with your callers.

Flexibility

At times, customer questions can be really surprising. Your reps must always be ready to expect the unexpected, especially when it comes to technical customer support. It’s important to give some autonomy to your employees—it’s impossible to fit every scenario in your manual for customer service agents. There has to be some wiggle room to handle unusual problems and queries, especially with new customers who don’t have a lot of experience with your company’s products.

To verify flexibility, ask how a given candidate would handle a situation not mentioned in the manual or communication guidelines.

Self-control and thick skin

Yes, I know; it can be extremely difficult to stay focused and positive when you’re facing an angry caller or a typical Karen demanding something unreasonable or even impossible. This is where self-control becomes indispensable. Thankfully, that’s something you can teach your consultants. Good self-control training is a must-have for every call center or any other company handling dozens of calls every day. Of course, I always emphasize that there are limits that cannot be violated. None of your workers should ever feel threatened or insulted at work. Ensure your team knows this.

It is also very important for your consultants not to take any problems and emotions personally. Again, that’s something that you should teach your reps. Without thick skin, they won’t last long in customer service. You should also provide solutions enabling your consultants to ventilate and get some time to process the most challenging calls

Don’t expect your workers to be heartless machines with no emotions; that’s not how it should work. Treat your employees the same way you want to be treated, and you will win their engagement in what they do.

Patience

Patience is an element of every customer service job description. Explain to your consultants that they will face multiple situations requiring tons of patience, especially when they’ll need to explain a technical issue to a less tech-savvy person. Patience will help them stay in control with the customers who have problems with your product.

Remember, the way the customer feels after talking to the consultant is equally as important as solving the actual problem! Patience is also very high on the list of essential customer service skills, and all customer service professionals should work on it tirelessly.

Willingness to learn

In the introduction to this article, I mentioned that product knowledge is essential when it comes to good customer service. Your team should be composed of people who are willing to learn and improve their skills. Every year, customers are more and more demanding. If your employees stop improving their skills and broadening their product knowledge, they will soon find it difficult to satisfy calling customers. If you don’t move forward, you move backward; that’s the way it is.

At the same time, it’s important to admit you don’t have all the answers in the world. The world is changing quickly, and so are the products and available solutions. Your company has to keep up with the market and customer expectations, but it isn’t always easy. Sometimes, it may turn out that your solution is outdated or that competitors are better than you. In such a situation, implement necessary corrections as quickly as possible and never stop progressing!

How to find worthy consultants

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That list was pretty long, wasn’t it? Of course, finding a person that checks all these boxes is almost impossible. After all, many of these skills require real-life practice and extensive training, but this fact shouldn’t discourage you. Don’t look for a perfect candidate; they just don’t exist. What you should do instead is look for candidates with great potential. In almost every heading, I mentioned how you could discover this potential before and during the interview. And yes, previous experience is important, but there’s more to every candidate. Consider this example:

You’ve just received a resume from a stay-at-home mom. Her work experience doesn’t have a lot to do with customer service and may even be slightly outdated (maybe her last full-time job was three years ago). But if you take a look at the bigger picture, you may decide that it’s worth giving her a shot. Why? You can be pretty sure that such a person is good at multitasking, organizing priorities, and dealing with irrational people. She’s likely also patient and attentive because that’s what she’s been doing for the past three years, almost 24/7.

Are these qualities, which have been painstakingly forged in really challenging conditions, any less important than previous work experience? Absolutely not!

The key to finding the best candidates lies in flexibility. Sometimes the underdog can surprise you with their natural talent when it comes to talking to people and solving their problems. It’s not something they teach at school, but it’s something the right person can master really very quickly. All they need is a chance.

You can also look for the skills outlined in this article in a customer service outsourcing company. Outsourcing can be a cost-effective way to provide high-quality customer service when you don't have the budget or the bandwidth to hire and train an in-house team.

Look for the right skills and traits, but don’t forget to train your agents!

Finding the right candidate is one thing. Training them and improving their skills is another. Even the most beautiful raw diamonds need a skillful gemcutter to reach their true potential—and deliver maximum value.

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By Hannah Clark

Hannah Clark is the Editor of The CX Lead. After serving over 12 years working in front-line customer experience for major brands, Hannah pivoted to a career in digital publishing and media production. Having gained a holistic view of the challenges and intricacies of delivering exceptional experiences, Hannah aims to help CX practitioners 'level up' their skills by amplifying the voices of today's thought leaders in the space.