The Customer Service Skills You Need to Succeed (And How to Develop Them)

The Essential Customer Service Skills You Need to Succeed
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These customer service skills will increase customer loyalty and grow your business.

How many times have you walked away from a support experience and thought “Damn, that rep really had some serious customer service skills.”?

Probably not too many.

We all know that customer service is hard work, especially if you want to make it truly good, but many of us probably forget that like any other job, great support stems from simply developing a certain set of core competences.

Behind the scenes of every customer service interaction, there are a handful of main customer service skills that make the difference between an average support rep, and one who makes customers feel like they’ve experienced truly exceptional customer service.

Today, we’re going to talk about five essential customer service skills that will cultivate loyalty and happiness, along with tips and examples for how to develop them across your whole team.

Customer Service Skill #1: Empathy

Have you ever found yourself thinking that the support you just got felt… “human”? Like you were doing business with an actual person, and not just a company?

That “warm and fluffy” attribute—humanness—is actually tied to something very real: empathy.

Great support feels human because it feels like the support agent genuinely understands you and what you want, rather than giving you robotic, generic service.

And that, in a nutshell, is what the best support is.

Empathy is discussed a lot in support training, and for good reason: it might be the single most important customer service skill to develop—with “skill” being the key word here.

Empathy isn’t just something you’re either born with or without. It can be learned and improved, just like any other skill, and with enough determination, mindfulness and attention, you can make empathy your customer support team’s secret weapon in no time.

How to Develop Empathy

Mastering empathy goes far, far deeper than simply superficially thinking about what the other person is feeling.

One of the quotes about empathy that all customer service pros should internalize comes from Daniel Pink, author of A Whole New Mind: Why Right Brainers Will Rule The Future.

Empathy is about standing in someone else’s shoes, feeling with his or her heart, seeing with his or her eyes. Not only is empathy hard to outsource and automate, but it makes the world a better place.

As to developing this essential customer service skill, Pink offers three main tips:

  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.

Empathy is so incredibly important to us that we’ve written a whole separate post about developing empathy to win at customer service, so check that out if you’re interested in the topic in depth.

Also, as a fun bonus, The Greater Good Science Center at U.C. Berkeley has developed a game to test how well you read other people’s emotions. It’s harder than you probably think it is.

While mastering empathy might feel overwhelming at first, it becomes easier and easier as you work on it, just as with any skill.

As you practice, you’ll get better, and soon, you’ll be well on your way to building customer loyalty with every interaction.

Customer Service Skill #2: Using Positive Language

We all want our customer service interactions to sound positive, right? Sure.

But when we’re talking about actual customer service skills, positivity doesn’t necessarily refer to your general outlook on life, but to the language that you use.

To understand how powerful positive language is, let’s take a look at some negative language.

Think of the things nobody likes hearing, especially in customer support, and what kind of reactions these might actually cause in people:

  • “I don’t know…”
  • “We can’t…”
  • “You can’t…”
  • “No.”
  • “Please calm down.”

…and a few other phrases you should never use in customer service.

There are things that, in customer service, you should simply never say. Phrases that can only make an interaction worse.

We all hate it when people are rude to us, but what we rarely think about is that sometimes, the way that we say things might come off as rude, even if we don’t mean it that way.

That’s why using the right language as well as tone in customer service is so, so important.

How to Choose The Right Language?

The easiest way to detect negative language in your support communication is to look for words like “can’t,” “don’t,” etc, and see if there’s a way to replace them.

For example:

  • “I don’t know.” – “I’ll talk to the corresponding team member and get back to you ASAP.”
  • “Please calm down.” – “I’m sorry. I understand. I’d be frustrated, too.”
  • “No, you can’t do that.” – “Although that option isn’t available right now, there’s a similar option.”

The difference can be noticed in even smaller changes than that. Carolyn Kopprasch, Chief Happiness Officer at Buffer, also 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:

  • Sentence 1: I really appreciate you writing in, but unfortunately we don’t have this feature available.
  • Sentence 2: I really appreciate you writing in! Unfortunately we don’t have this feature available.

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.

No matter the actual issue, the worst thing you can do in any of these situations is lose your cool.

Patience not only helps you deliver better service, but a 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).

A number of studies have also shown that people who are patient tend to be more healthy, happy and successful.

How to Develop Patience

Boy, wouldn’t it be nice if it was easy?

Alex has actually published a whole separate post on developing patience.

Jane Bolton at Psychology Today has 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.

Patience is one of the toughest skills to develop, yet one of the most valuable assets you’ll have as a customer service representative.

Customer Service Skill #4: Clarity in Communication

Clarity isn’t just important for making your customer feel good and accomplished—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

There are a couple of workflow basics to keep in mind at all times that make communication a lot clearer:

  1. The most important information first: if there’s something the user absolutely needs to know before they get into the process of taking action, make it the first thing they see, before any actionable steps.
  2. Chronological order: make sure the order of steps in the support process makes sense and doesn’t interfere chronologically with any other steps.
  3. Avoid distractions: structure the instructions in a way that keeps them focused on the tasks on hand and won’t interrupt their workflow.

We’ve covered this topic a little more extensively in our post about developing your customer support style, so check that out for more details.

Pro tip: when walking someone through something especially technical, think about how you would explain the instructions to a five-year old (while remaining respectful and not actually treating your customer like a child, obviously).

For examples, 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, this is how a 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—just what you want in your customer service.

Customer Service Skill #5: Continuous Improvement

All the skills we’ve covered in this post will undoubtedly 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. Yup, we’re talking numbers.

Quantifying your customer service efforts is the best way to maximize your potential when it comes to customer support as well as business and product development.

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

Getting your numbers in order when you’ve never done it before can be intimidating, but start out small and be patient. 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 for your business: average reply time, average handle time, replies per ticket and most importantly, customer satisfaction feedback.

We’ve written a whole post about customer service metrics, which ones you should be measuring and what to do with them—and we even added a base spreadsheet with the essential formulas and calculations added for an easy start, so check it out!

If you do this regularly, you’ll begin to see—very clearly—what works and what doesn’t work for your customers.

Develop These Customer Service Skills to Win With Every Support Interaction

Use the tips above to develop these core customer service 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? Which ones do you develop consciously in your customer support?

Let us know in the comments!

Len Markidan
Len Markidan Len used to head up marketing at Groove. Though he has now moved on to other adventures, he still likes popping in and saying hi every now and then.