Business Workshop
13 min read

20 Key Customer Service Skills For Your Support Team

Written by Ollie Burt 

Or "How to cram all your favourite gifs into a monster blog post about customer service skills"

If you think about the customer service interactions that stick in your mind, you'll probably find they were either terrible or exceptional. Every time we seek help from a customer service rep it's an emotionally charged experience.

Perhaps you're frustrated or panicking - if you're a business owner seeking support, perhaps it's from a business-critical service provider which is having a direct impact on your own customers or staff.

The point is, the interactions that we remember and the stories we tell other people about are the ones where the service was either a train-wreck or the ones where a customer service rep genuinely went above and beyond to provide us with a solution.

So, as a business, you want more of the latter stories doing the rounds with your potential customers than the former - but how do we go about ensuring that our support team look after our customers in the right way?

Part of it is down to personality, I've worked with some people over the years who were clearly born to look after customers and have earned the praises of all my clients ... and others who, well, we took their phone off them in the end.

But, a huge part of it is also teachable - and even the most naturally gifted service rep can up their game by focussing on their key customer service skills.

In this post, we're going to highlight some of those essential customer service skills and why they're important when looking to deliver a memorable support experience - for the right reasons.

20 Essential Customer Service Skills

Here are the top customer service skills needed by your support team.

  1. Emotional Intelligence
  2. Show Empathy
  3. Have Patience
  4. Demonstrate Active Listening
  5. Develop a Thick Skin
  6. Have Self-Control
  7. Take Responsibility
  8. Be Attentive
  9. Adapt
  10. Time Management
  11. Use Positive Language
  12. Be Persuasive
  13. Focus on Clear, Informative Communication
  14. Show a Willingness to Improve
  15. Develop Product Knowledge
  16. Have Confidence
  17. Admit When You Don’t Have the Answer
  18. Be Tenacious
  19. Have a Proactive Approach
  20. Be Consistently Awesome 

Excellent customer service skills

1. Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence is your ability to understand and react to another person's emotional state. As you're aware, customer service reps interact with customers that are often in a heightened emotional state - making this a critical customer service skill.

Some customers will be fairly laid back and willing to follow the process, others will be frustrated from the first contact - and it all depends on the type and severity of the problem, which you won't know until you follow the discovery process. Emotions can change in an instant and are unpredictable.

The best customer service reps know how customers will react to what they're saying and anticipate questions or concerns, providing thoughtful responses that take the customers needs into consideration.

When an interaction starts off on the wrong foot, an emotionally intelligent rep can salvage the situation and turn it into a positive where the customer feels understood, well-serviced and genuinely satisfied.

2. Show Empathy

If emotional intelligence is what they are feeling, empathy is the why they feel that way.

Empathy enables us to put ourselves in someone else's shoes and understand why they feel the way they do. We're finely tuned to others through our experience of emotions and very easily pick it up when someone doesn't empathise with us.

empathy

Demonstrating genuine empathy with someone who is in an emotional state is the quickest way to establish a strong connection with that individual. When you're able to make that emotional connection with a customer you'll find your job suddenly gets a lot easier - you gain the trust you need to follow your process and guide the customer to a solution.

Customer service reps who are able to empathise with their customers have an easier time dealing with difficult support situations and customers leave feeling understood and happy.

3. Have Patience

You know the cliché, "Patience is a virtue". In terms of customer service skills, patience is a requirement.

Whether you're dealing with a rude, angry customer (yep, they exist) or just one that's having a hard time getting to grips with your product it can be easy to lose your cool and get frustrated with them in return.

Obviously, this doesn't help the situation. The best customer service reps will realise that an angry customer isn't angry at you, just being angry near you - and that a customer who is a bit slow on the uptake it just an opportunity to become their support hero.

When patience is one of your customer service skills you'll start to see every difficult support ticket as a chance to turn their day around and create a positive experience.

4. Demonstrate Active Listening

When looking to add useful customer service skills to your locker, few are more teachable than active listening. Being an effective listener is about more than turning up the volume on your headset - it's about taking the time to hear your customers out.

By thinking less about what your responses will be and focussing more on what your customers are actually saying you'll let them know you're paying attention.

active listening

Active listening is a technique whereby you wait for your customer to finish explaining their situation, and then, when they're finished you repeat it back to them to ensure you understand what the problem is. Often, simply rephrasing the issue in your own words and then asking if that sounds right goes a long way to making your customer feel understood.

5. Develop a Thick Skin

If you've ever worked in customer service, you've probably been on the end of a tirade of abuse at some point. There's a reason working in customer service is often referred to as being on the 'front line' of a business - sometimes it can feel like a warzone.

That's why having thick skin makes it onto our list of customer service skills. This is more of a personality trait in truth, but people who take everything to heart don't tend to last long in customer service.

That said, the best customer service reps I've worked with haven't always been the ones who demonstrate resilience, not the ones who take a pounding and keep turning up every day. The best customer service reps are the ones that have the ability to deconstruct a situation, understand it isn't personal and let it roll off them - like water off a ducks back.

6. Have Self-Control

Leading on from having a thick skin - it's one thing to be able to absorb or deflect the negativity from a customer, it's another not to react.

Now, this is a fine line. Don't react to a customer's plight at all and you won't be practising empathy - but get dragged down into the mud and you've lost the battle.

I've worked with several companies who've required help with reputation management. In a world where every bad review or social media post can outweigh five good ones - it's easy to get embroiled in a public spat when someone starts threatening your brand's reputation.

Even if you're the business owner or in the marketing department - you can learn a lot from customer service skills in these situations and practise some self-control. While there is a trend nowadays for outing difficult customers online - in my opinion, you'll be going viral for the wrong reasons. While people get a kick out of these stories it doesn't turn them into customers or brand advocates. Better to focus on building positive stories and downplaying the negative ones, even if you're not completely at fault.

7. Take Responsibility

As an effective customer service rep, it's up to you to take responsibility for the care of your customers. You're on the front line when it comes to problems, but how often are you the cause of the issue being faced? Not often.

Chances are, as a customer service rep, you didn't have a hand in the product development or personally package an item for delivery - but still, when something goes wrong you can take responsibility for delivering a solution.

Whether it's avoiding escalations or simply not trying to blame someone else for an issue - taking responsibility for your customer's care and happiness is one of the most important customer service skills.

8. Be Attentive

It's very easy to systemise customer support these days, which is awesome by the way. Unless you only deal with customers face to face you probably have CRMs, ticketing systems, call scripts, chat bots, email templates, canned responses - the works.

The pitfall here is that customer service teams can become too reliant on using them in processes that they become automatons treating every situation the same.

Instead, those demonstrating ninja level customer service skills - or more accurately, their managers, will use these templates, processes and systems to prompt more natural, attentive interactions tailored to each customer and their situation.

For example, instead of issuing a script or a template for a customer service rep to use verbatim, use it as a framework to follow through encouraging a more genuine conversation.

9. Adapt

Customer support cases are as individual as the people involved in them - everybody is different, meaning each new case has the potential to be different from the last.

Even if it's a common problem (you should really get that fixed) with a well-documented solution, how the interaction plays out can vary dramatically based on the knowledge level of the customer, the urgency of the situation and even the channel the case came in on - whether it's over the phone, email or social (and in the public eye) all impacts how you need to handle the situation.

If your handling of a support case isn't going as planned, being able to adapt to an ever-changing situation can be one of the most valuable customer service skills a rep can have.

10. Time Management

What's the most common pain for customers, time perhaps? They rarely have enough of it and it's the biggest thing they demand from your customer service team.

Even if you document everything about your product in a soul-destroying user manual (small insight into one of my first copywriting jobs) you'll still find that most people won't read it - not even the first section.

Your customers want to use your product, now - and they just expect it to work. They don't have the time to read through your documentation so they'll just ask customer service - it's what they're there for, right?

If something doesn't work, customers don't want to waste their time helping you figure it out and if you need to go away to find a fix, they don't want to wait around for you to get back to them.

time

As you probably know, there's a lot of time-pressure on a rep, so good time management is an important customer service skill. Not just for bashing through tasks and tickets - but also in making sure you communicate with your customers in a timely fashion.

This means being aware of how quickly time is passing. When you first interact with a customer, establish a timeline for when they can expect a resolution. If you can't follow through with your promise due to an unforeseen roadblock, make sure you go back to them with an update within the time they were expecting an answer.

You'll find you get a lot more grace from a customer with a problem when you keep them in the loop and manage their expectations correctly.

11. Use Positive Language

If you work in customer service, you might feel like you're in the problems business - you'd be wrong, you're actually in the solutions business! And it's that kind of thinking that's important when it comes to developing our next customer service skill - the ability to use positive language.

When a customer contacts you, chances are it isn't to sing your praises (if only) - it's because they have a problem. Despite the negativity that is about to be sent your way, a good customer service rep will empathise with the customer - but also keep it as upbeat as they can.

Always steer the conversation towards the inevitable positive outcome, reassure them of a solution and how it will be achieved with positive language. Make sure you thank your customers, maybe for bringing something to your attention (some people actually feel bad about complaining), but also for their patience, understanding and loyalty.

12. Be Persuasive

When you think of the most persuasive speakers in your business you probably think of the sales team, right? The ability to persuade has long been thought of as an invaluable sales skill - but it should also hold a place with your other customer service skills.

persuasion

Every day, your customer service reps are focussing on customer retention in a way that the average salesperson can't. After all, if you do know sales, you know it's far more important to retain customers than get new ones.

Each time your customer service reps interact with your customers they are re-selling them on why they use your product or service - or at least they should be. Now that doesn't always mean reminding them of the great benefits or features but reinforcing that you are a company that they want to do business with.

Each time you talk an unhappy customer down off the proverbial ledge (i.e. moving to a competitor) you are persuading them to stay and do business with you once more. So make sure your customer service reps have the ability to offer the kind of compelling arguments that lead to conversions.

13. Focus on Clear, Informative Communication

You may take this as a given, but many customers struggle to understand the instructions they receive when speaking with a support team. The ability to communicate the correct information clearly is one of the most important customer service skills your team can possess.

It's one thing to solve a problem, but to teach a solution or explain why something happened in the first place (and why it won't happen again) is a necessary step up in many situations. If you can explain how something happened, and why it won't happen in the future you'll build more trust and leave your customers with a much more positive experience.

There are other benefits too, if you teach your customers how not to create the same problem again (if indeed it was their doing) or provide them with logical troubleshooting steps, you'll have more empowered customers and a reduced number of incoming support requests.

14. Show a Willingness to Improve

This is a trait you should seek in all your employees, true. But as customer service is often seen as an entry-level position, it can be overlooked. The best businesses recognise that customer service is a specialist role in itself and place great importance on an individual's willingness to improve, up-skill and upgrade their way of working.

upgrade

Customer expectations are always changing, not long ago - the idea of answering customer questions on social media would have seemed ludicrous, now it's commonplace. The same goes for the technology that enables good customer service - CRM, live chat, bots - who knows what is around the corner. And that's the point, it doesn't matter what direction customer service goes in as long as your team is ready to adapt and change with the times.

If you have a customer service rep who is motivated to stay up to date with the latest thinking on standards and processes for customer service they're a keeper - and you should probably send them this to read.

15. Develop Product Knowledge

You can have all the empathy in the world, but it's worth nothing if you don't know what you're talking about. Being an expert on your products and services is imperative to looking after your customer effectively.

If customers have a question about a product or service they're going to expect you to know it. This doesn't mean you always need to have a fix for a problem (more on that later) but it does mean you need to know how it should work.

The best customer service reps go beyond this and can propose outside of the box solutions to problems, preferably that lead on to another one of your products or services, even if that's not their primary focus. I've pretty much always had more than one brand on the go (don't ask me how I have the time to write this) and the best customer service reps I've worked with are the ones that understand the synergy between and benefits of other products and even cross-sell between the two without thinking about it - an extreme example, but one that works for anyone with multiple products or lines of business.

16. Have Confidence

When you have the skills and the knowledge you'll have the benefit of the confidence that comes from knowing you can handle any situation. I've worked on some pretty techie brands over the years - like streaming platform Zidivo.com. Luckily, I've always had someone in that customer service role that seriously knows their stuff - and when they don't have an answer, they have the confidence to go away and find it.

confidence

The lesson is, that there will be times when a customer stumps your customer service reps. In these situations, they must remain calm and display a confident demeanour. Do this, and your customers will feel you've got it covered and capable of solving their issue. Never leave your customers feeling like they've hit a dead end.

17. Admit When You Don’t Have the Answer

Admittedly, this may seem to go against some of these other key customer service skills. While it's true, customers will expect you to have all the answers to hand - that isn't always the case.

As with portraying the confidence that you will find an answer - sometimes you have to admit that answer doesn't lie with you. Chances are if you have a dedicated customer service role that you're part of a larger team - one that is full of knowledge and experience. Make sure you take advantage of that when you need to - you can still take responsibility for solving your customer's issue, but make sure you use the resources available to you.

Sometimes this might mean waiting for a team member or a supplier to get back to you - admit that - and never try and bluff your way through a situation. If you provide the wrong solution to a customer's problem then you'll most likely get found out.

18. Be Tenacious

While you may be a master of your products and services - not every problem is straightforward. This is especially true when your product is complex or technical - like in the web design industry.

As I've touched on before, it's important you take responsibility for finding a solution to your customer's problem, wherever it leads you. For this reason, customer service reps need to be determined in their approach and demonstrate a level of tenacity Nicholas Angel (or is it Angle?) would be proud of.

tenacity

Often, when dealing with customers the devil is in the detail - you may find you have to dig into how the problem was created and reproduce it yourself before you can offer a solution. The best customer service reps are committed to the customer's goals and find a way to accomplish a task no matter how tedious or difficult.

19. Have a Proactive Approach

There will be times when a customer contacts you with one problem and during the course of troubleshooting you may encounter others. Sometimes these additional problems aren't yet apparent to the customer - it would be tempting to leave these underlying issues and focus on the problem at hand.

Top customer service reps take a proactive approach. When they spot a support ticket waiting to happen, or a potential issue with the way customers are doing things they highlight it straight away. They don't leave it for the next rep down the line - they identify these potential issues and provide solutions before they're needed.

20. Be Consistently Awesome

Unfortunately, when we talk about the businesses with the best customer service, we're not basing it on their averages. You're only as good as your last encounter. If you usually provide great customer service and have an off day you'll open yourself up to the usual "it used to be great but has gone downhill recently" comments.

Harsh? Yes. But that's the reality of customer service. The only answer then is to make sure each encounter is dealt with to the same high standards as the last. Be awesome, consistently.

consistent customer service skills

Provide a high-quality service on a consistent basis and you'll build trust with your customers that makes them feel like they can rely on your business.

In short, keep these customer service skills in mind during every customer interaction - build them into your processes and highlight them during training sessions and you'll be well on your way to providing an excellent service.

If you're looking for more ways to improve customer service in your business, whether through technology, systems or processes - we can help. Just get in touch for an informal chat.

Originally published 28th January 2021
Last edited 28th January 2021

Written by Ollie Burt

Ollie Burt is a Director at Nova. A specialist in helping small businesses and startups succeed online, he enjoys running (and beer) - he does not enjoy discussing himself in the third person. You can find him on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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