Customer Service Skills
Customer service skills are exactly what the phrase suggests: the skills required to provide a service to your customers. Customer service is an essential part—some would say the most important part—of delivering customer satisfaction.
There is a world of difference between good and bad customer service. Good customer service—whether before, during or after a sale—results in happy customers, or even, if you have done particularly well, delighted ones. This often translates into good reviews, word-of-mouth recommendations to other people, and repeat custom.
Bad customer service, on the other hand, results in unhappy customers, poor reviews, and lack of repeat custom. It is not hard to see why organisations strive for good customer service. This page provides an introduction to customer service, and the skills required to ensure that your organisation delivers good or excellent service to your customers.
Understanding Customer Service
Customer service is all about delivering a service to customers.
Customer service is not about ‘after sales’ service, or sales, or marketing: it is all of them put together. It relates to every single ‘touch-point’ with your customers, that is, every time they make contact with the organisation in one form or another: website, phone, email, in person.
Who is Responsible for Customer Service?
Your starter for ten: who in your organisation is responsible for customer service?
If you answered ‘nobody’ or ‘I don’t know’, score zero. If you answered ‘the customer service team’, score one out of ten. At least you know that you have a customer service team, and hopefully how to find them!
The real answer, however, is ‘everyone’.
Customer service starts when your customers first make contact with your organisation, whether face to face, or by looking at your website. It continues through any purchase and then beyond, as they use your product or service on an ongoing basis.
When you think about it like this, it is clear that everything that anyone in the organisation does may affect your customers’ experience of your organisation, and is therefore part of the customer service.
An Evolving Situation – Understanding How Customer Service is Changing
Ten or twenty years ago, most organisations had a defined ‘customer service’ department. Once customers had completed a purchase, responsibility for them was handed over from the ‘sales’ team—whether in store for retail, online, or sales reps for business-to-business sales—to the ‘customer service’ team. If they had a problem with the product, they picked up the phone and called the number for customer services.
This made delivering good customer service relatively straightforward: you trained your customer service team, and you made sure they knew how to respond to customers. Job done.
In the last twenty years or so, however, the number of ways in which customers can communicate with organisations has expanded hugely from letters and telephone calls to include email, instant messaging, social media, websites and discussion forums. These resources have also massively expanded the ways in which disgruntled customers can spread the word about poor treatment, and the speed with which they can do so.
This has therefore both made customer service more difficult, and made it more important to get it right.
This expansion in the number of ways in which customers can contact organisations has very much increased the potential workload for customer service teams. They have to keep track of far more options, including monitoring a range of social media sites. At the same time, however, many employees are also (and entirely independently of their job) on social media themselves as individuals.
The number of people available to interact with customers and advocate for the organisation has therefore also increased.
Organisations have not been slow to recognise the potential for this, encouraging employees to get onto social media and respond to customers directly when they have the necessary knowledge to help. This has, however, also meant that more people need to be trained in how to deal with customers.
Of course, organisations also need to be sure that employees will act as advocates, not simply agree with disgruntled customers about the awfulness of the organisation!
In other words, organisations now need to ensure that all staff—and not just the customer service team—are engaged and happy with the organisation, and understand how to interact with customers.
This is a potentially difficult situation for many organisations—but many have also got it right and are showing the benefits of engaged employees and improved customer satisfaction.
The Key to Delivering Good Customer Service
It is actually not particularly hard to deliver good customer service.
The key is to focus on the customer, and what they need and want from you, at all stages before, during and after purchase.
To achieve this, it is important to try to build a relationship with your customers.
Increasingly few of us are looking for a transactional relationship with any organisation. We no longer want to buy a single product and move on without further contact with a brand. Instead, we want to build a longer-lasting relationship with an organisation or brand that genuinely sees us as individuals and understands our needs. This goes as much for retail as for service providers like banks and insurance companies.
This is good news for organisations as well as customers, because it is much cheaper to retain a customer than to go and find a new one—and delighted customers may even go out and find new customers for you!
There are a number of things that you can do to ensure that customers are satisfied with your service. These include:
- Responding rapidly to customers, whether online, on social media or by phone. Especially electronically, and particularly by social media, customers expect a more-or-less instantaneous response, just as they expect an answer to a phone call within normal business hours. It is as well to respect this and respond quickly. If you don’t have a full response, at least reply to show that you have seen their message and are dealing with it. If the customer is complaining, a reply should probably steer them towards a private message, rather than continued interaction in public.
- Getting to know your customers by keeping records of your interactions. Nobody wants to repeat their story again when they call back, or have to provide more information if they call after emailing for a while. Having accurate records of conversations, email exchanges and so on, and, crucially, keeping them so that you can track by customer rather than separately by channel, means you will be able to respond to your customers as individuals, and in the full knowledge of their history.
- Acknowledging and fixing mistakes as quickly as possible. As often as not, all a disgruntled customer wants is an apology and a way to fix the issue when they make a complaint. Make sure that staff are empowered to provide both of those as quickly as possible.
An apology does not mean an admission of liability
It is perfectly possible to apologise without admitting liability. Useful phrases include:
“I am so sorry that you have had this experience. It sounds really horrible.”
It is, however, important to acknowledge and validate your customer’s bad experience, and an apology for the experience is a good way to do this.
There is more about this in our page on Crisis Communications.
- Going the extra mile. Going that little bit further can be the difference between ‘satisfied’ and ‘delighted’ customers, and it often takes very little additional effort. It is especially worthwhile for good and long-term customers. However, make sure that what you do will actually solve the customer’s issue: it is no good going above and beyond if what you do doesn’t actually help.
Skills for Good Customer Service
With this focus on customer needs and building relationships, it is relatively easy to identify the skills that are most important for delivering great customer experiences and customer service.
Being able to listen to a customer and understand their issue or problem is perhaps the most important skill for good customer service.
In this context, ‘listening’ includes ‘being able to read and understand what a customer means in an email or online message’. This, of course, is harder, because you have no body language or tone of voice to help you.
Effective listening requires hearing what the customer is saying—and also what they are not saying, but what may be frustrating them. For example, customers may phone to ask where something is on the website, or keep stopping staff in store to ask about particular items. You can point them in the right direction, but there may be a wider issue about the navigability of your website, or your store signage. Good customer service means identifying—and resolving—these wider issues.
For more about this, you may find it helpful to read our pages on Listening Skills.
You may also need to demonstrate to customers that you are listening, for example, by reflecting or paraphrasing what they have just said. This is part of listening, but it is worth considering separately, because of its importance.
As well as listening skills, general communication skills are an important part of good customer service.
It is essential to communicate clearly so that customers know what to expect, and what they are getting.
Miscommunications can be expensive, particularly in terms of customer goodwill, but also if you have to do something that costs additional money as a result.
Using positive language can help to ensure that you keep customers focused on the positive aspects of the situation. For example, there is a huge difference between:
“I’m sorry, that product isn’t in stock, and won’t be in for another week.” and
“That product should be available next week, but if you like, I can order it for you now and arrange to have it sent as soon as it’s back in stock.”
The meaning is the same, but in the second, there is a sense that you are doing a little bit more for the customer—and you are also closing a sale at the same time! The key, as before, is to focus on how you are going to meet customer needs, which is much more positive than explaining why you cannot help them at the moment.
There is more about communicating clearly in our pages on Communication Skills. You may find our page on Effective Speaking particularly useful. It is also helpful to build rapport with customers, as this can help you to calm them down.
Further Reading from Skills You Need
Learn more about the key communication skills you need to be an effective communicator.
Our eBooks are ideal for anyone who wants to learn about or develop their communication skills, and are full of easy-to-follow practical information and exercises.
Patience is sometimes seen as an old-fashioned concept, a virtue that has little place in our fast-moving world. It is, however, important in customer service, because many customers only contact organisations when they are already frustrated and cross. This may well make them communicate less clearly than usual.
It will not help if you, too, become frustrated and cross.
Cultivating patience can enable you to listen carefully to what they are saying and pick out the important issues to address. It will also help you to ensure that you have genuinely resolved the entire issue, and not be tempted to rush off at a tangent, or when only part of the problem has been addressed.
That said, it is also important to know when to close a conversation: that is, when you have done everything that you can to help the customer, and they are ready to move on.
Being able to stay calm
If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you…
Rudyard Kipling, If.
The ability to stay calm in a crisis has been valued for many years, if not centuries. We talk about ‘Keeping Calm and Carrying On’, and ‘having a stiff upper lip’, and look on these as virtues. It is certainly true that being able to stay calm even when those around you are stressed and angry is a vital skill for anyone in a customer-facing role, because many customers who make contact will be in this state.
This does not mean that you should ignore the reasons why your customer is angry, or not acknowledge their anger. Instead, it simply means that you are not ‘infected’ by their emotion, but can also see past the anger to what needs to be done to put the situation right.
Empathy, or the ability to put yourself into someone else’s shoes and be aware of their feelings and emotions, is an important skill for anyone dealing with other people, but particularly if you are providing a service for customers.
Customers who contact organisations with a problem may well be feeling extremely emotional: angry, frustrated, or even helpless. Being able to recognise these emotions, even via the phone or online messaging, is a vital skill.
At its simplest, it means that you will be able to understand customers’ issues and problems, and appreciate how to resolve them in a way that will work for them. In particular, it will mean that you can appreciate and respond to their emotions as well as the logic of their problem. This ability to ‘feel’ as well as ‘hear’ is an important part of providing great customer service, because it ensures that customers genuinely feel understood.
Resilience—and the ability not to take things personally
Resilience—or the ability to bounce back after a setback—is helpful in customer service.
It is a sad fact that very few customers phone up to tell you how great your organisation is. The majority will be getting in touch with a complaint or a problem, and those in customer-facing roles therefore need plenty of resilience.
Part of this is developing an understanding that your customers do not mean it personally. They are not angry with you—well, probably not, anyway, unless you have done something to provoke them—but they may well need to vent, and you are representing the organisation at the right moment. Being able to see that means that you will not become defensive, but will be able to apologise and appreciate the customer’s point.
Persuasion skills may be a surprising inclusion in a list about how to meet customer needs. However, customers will sometimes need to be steered and persuaded that what they want may not actually meet their needs.
Having good persuasion skills can go a long way to helping to address problems.
A Non-Exhaustive List—But a Good Start
There are, of course, many other possible skills that could help with providing good customer service.
These are, however, probably the most essential, and together with the actions listed will go a long way to ensuring that your customers feel heard and validated and that their needs have been satisfied: the key to good long-term customer relationships.