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The 5 Essential Customer Service Skills (Plus, How to Develop Them)

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Work on these skills to increase customer loyalty and grow your business.

How many times have you walked away from a great customer service interaction and thought:

“Damn, that support rep’s got skills.”

Nobody?

OK, just me then.

The reality is, your customers probably won’t notice individual skills in your customer service. What they’ll remember is how they felt about your interaction.

But behind the scenes, there are only a handful of support skills that make the difference between an average customer support professional, and one who makes customers feel fantastic about the help they got.

Below, you’ll find a list of five absolutely essential skills for customer loyalty and happiness, along with research-backed tips and examples for how to develop those skills across your whole team.

Customer Service Skill #1: Empathy

Empathy gets thrown around a lot in support training, and for good reason: it might be the single most important customer service skill to develop.

To help your customers be happy and successful, it’s important to understand what happiness and success mean to them. And to do that, you have to step into their shoes.

I love the way that Derek Sivers leaned on empathy when building relationships with his customers at CD Baby, which he grew into the premier music website of its day.

If someone would call, saying, “I’d like to talk with someone about selling my music through you,” we’d say, “Sure. I can help. What’s your name? Cool. Got a website? Can I see it? Is that you on the home page there? Very cool. Is that a real Les Paul? Awesome. Here, let me listen to a bit of the music. Nice, I like what you’re doing. Very syncopated. Great groove. Anyway… so… what would you like to know?”

I can tell you from my own experience of being a self-promoting musician for 15 years that it’s SO hard to get anyone to listen to your music. So when someone takes even a couple minutes to listen to you, it’s so touching that you remember it for life.

Every customer service professional — and every entrepreneur — needs to read, re-read and internalize that perspective.

How to Develop Empathy

Daniel Pink, author of A Whole New Mind: Why Right Brainers Will Rule The Future, offers three tips for developing empathy in adults:

  1. Spend time with people who are different than you. You have many opportunities to do this each day, from striking up a conversation with the barista at your coffee shop to getting to know people on different teams at work.

  2. Get a set of IDEO Method Cards. These cards are designed to help you better understand the way your customers think and feel. While originally built for designers, they’re a fantastic tool for anyone looking to work on their empathy.

  3. Take an acting class. There’s literally no job in the world that calls on you to step into someone else’s shoes more than acting, and taking a class is a great way to learn how to do that. Plus, if the support gig doesn’t work out, you can always go to Hollywood.

Bonus: The Greater Good Science Center at U.C. Berkeley has developed a fun game to test how well you read other people’s emotions. It’s harder than you probably think.

Customer Service Skill #2: Positivity

This is not the kind of positivity you’ll find on inspirational posters of a sunset on the beach.

Unless…

Eh, okay, probably not.

This kind of positivity doesn’t necessarily refer to your outlook, but to the language that you use.

To understand how powerful positive language is, let’s take a look at some negative language. What do these words really mean?

How to Develop Positivity

This one is simple: just replace your negative words with positive ones.

Carolyn Kopprasch, Chief Happiness Officer at Buffer, gives some great examples in her post about how she stopped using “actually” and “but” in her customer service emails.

Note how different the tone feels in these two sentences:

Tiny changes in phrasing can lead to dramatic results in the way your emails feel to your customers.

Customer Service Skill #3: Patience

Customer service is not an easy job.

Sometimes, your customers will be angry with you.

Sometimes, your customers will need extra attention to understand things.

Sometimes, things will simply be difficult.

The worst thing you can do in these situations is lose your cool.

Patience not only helps you deliver better service, but one study from the University of Toronto found that being impatient not only impedes our ability to enjoy life, but it makes us worse at doing hard things (like delivering great customer service).

How to Develop Patience

Alex published a post a few weeks ago on the Groove Journey to $100K Blog with four ways he’s developed more patience; I encourage you to give it a read.

Jane Bolton at Psychology Today also shared four great tips:

  1. Understand the addictive nature of anger, irritation and outrage. The more you feel these emotions, the more like you are to keep feeling them. Understanding that makes it clear why it’s so important to be more patient.

  2. Upgrade your attitude towards discomfort and pain. In uncomfortable situations with customers where you feel your patience wearing thin, remind yourself that “this is merely uncomfortable, not intolerable.”

  3. Pay attention to when the irritation/pain starts. Find the cues that cause you to lose your cool. That way, you can correct course before it’s too late.

  4. Control your self-talk. The things we say to ourselves have an uncanny ability of coming true, whether they’re positive or negative. So when you say “this customer is really starting to piss me off,” instead of, for example, “this is a tough situation, but I’m going to stay calm and do what it takes to solve the problem,” it can have a big impact on what the reality becomes.

Customer Service Skill #4: Clarity in Communication

Clarity isn’t just important for making your customer feel good.

It can also make a big impact on your bottom line.

What if you could send one less email per support interaction because you didn’t have to clarify anything that your customer didn’t understand the first time?

If you field 300 requests a week (on the low side of an average Groove customer), that’s 15,600 fewer emails sent in a year.

While that example might be a bit extreme, even if you could send 0.25 less emails, on average — a very reasonable expectation — you’d still send 3,900 fewer emails in a year.

That’s not insignificant, and it’s a great argument for practicing crystal-clear communication.

How to Develop Clarity in Communication

One tip that I find super helpful, especially when walking someone through something technical, is to think about how I would explain the instructions to a five-year old.

Note: there’s an obvious caveat with this tip. Be respectful and don’t actually treat your customers like children. This is about using simple, easy-to-understand language.

I encourage you to check out the Explain Like I’m Five subreddit. In it, experts distill complex topics and explain them as if the reader were five.

As an example, see how one user explains the difference between email, Google, AOL, a website, and web browsers:

If someone didn’t understand what those things were, this would be a perfect, clear rundown that would instantly and easily make sense.

I regularly give this subreddit a read to learn new things and for helpful takeaways on communicating better.

Customer Service Skill #5: Continuous Improvement

I can prove to you that these skills will help you deliver better support to your customers.

But in order to see the proof for yourself in your own business, you need to measure your performance.

Getting metrics-driven is not only an invaluable customer service skill, but it’s the only way to know for certain what kind of impact your efforts to develop better skills are having on your service.

How to Develop Continuous Improvement

We track our metrics with Groove, but you can measure progress with whatever tool you’re using for support. Even a simple spreadsheet or pen and paper will work.

Each week, take note of the stats that matter most: average reply time, average handle time, replies per ticket and most importantly, customer satisfaction feedback.

You’ll begin to see — very clearly — what works and what doesn’t work for your customers.

Those Are the Five Essential Customer Service Skills

Use the tips above to develop these skills, and look for the same capabilities in anyone you hire to do customers service for your business.

Have any of these skills made a marked impact on your own customer service experiences? Did I miss any that you’ve found invaluable?

Leave a comment below and let me know.

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About the Author

Len Markidan heads up marketing at Groove. He’s focused on helping startups and small businesses build better relationships with their customers.

Read his latest posts or follow him on Twitter

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