If your business has customers, you and your team needs customer service skills. Even people who only interact with internal departments still need skills for working with colleagues who rely on them for help. Everyone has a different opinion about the essential skillset for handling clients, but the 8 capabilities discussed here cover the basics.
And while some people have naturally developed these skills, everyone can improve in them. You just have to spend some time working on it. Accordingly, I’ve included some ideas for practicing these at work so your entire team can get better at attracting and delighting your customers.
In the midst of a busy day with others waiting, it can take a lot of will power to listen patiently to one customer’s problem. You want to jump in with a solution as fast as possible. But good customer service means waiting for a client to fully explain the problem, especially if he or she is confused and frustrated.
Patience can take work to develop, but this recent article in Time Magazine suggests you can become more patient by focusing away from the negatives (other people waiting, a frustrated customer) and toward the positives (your ability to help). To practice this skill, you can set a learning goal of waiting for each customer to finish before deciding how to respond. If possible, you can record a few conversations and listen back to see how well you did.
Or you can take a few minutes at the end of the day to reflect on how patient you were. That few minutes of review will help you remember to practice more patience tomorrow.
As long as you’re patiently listening to your customer, you should be “hearing” them. You need to absorb the details they’re trying to communicate and pick up on non-verbal cues about their emotional states. This means you can’t be reading your computer screen or checking your phone. People can tell if you’re distracted.
To practice staying focused, TED speaker and author Julian Treasure recommends taking time to listen closely to what’s around you, hearing the little sounds you usually ignore, listening for just the base in a song, or finding a silent place and listening to the activity in your own brain. (There’s lots more than you might think.) All this prepares you for paying better attention to the next human you meet.
Here’s another practice technique. Henrik Edberg of the Positivity Blog suggests writing summary of your customer conversations right afterwards. It will incent you to listen closely and give you immediate feedback if you’re letting the mind wander.
Most customers don’t know your company procedures. They don’t know that it’ll take three days for accounting to issue a refund or that the repair team is a subcontractor. As the “face” of your company, you need to explain these things. It’s always better to over-communicate than under-communicate, and whether you write to or speak with a client, you need to be clear and positive. Wherever possible, stay focused on what you can do, not what you cannot do.
It takes a little practice to get good at communications. Len Markidan at Groove Blog suggests practicing with colleagues. Take turns giving 5 to 10-minute practice presentations to each other on any interesting topic. You’ll learn how to speak clearly and fluently.
You can also practice as a team by getting together, reviewing a recent customer situation, and having everyone write a letter to that customer focusing on how you’ll help meet their goals. The team can share and discuss the letters to identify good communication strategies.
You need to know your product or service cold, not just the features, but also the value to users. Most companies provide some initial product training or resources you can look up, but it helps to have the details at your fingertips.
Benedict Carey, author of How We Learn, describes how pop quizzes help us learn detailed information. Once you’ve taken initial product training, give yourself or your team a couple of pop quizzes over the following week and subsequent quizzes once or twice a month. It doesn’t really matter what score you make on the quizzes; just taking the tests embeds product data into long-term memory.
If pop quizzes aren’t practical, you can test yourself by describing the product from memory either in writing or to a colleague. You can also ask team members to teach each other about different products, which helps both the teacher and the learner expand their knowledge.
Everyone in customer service will come across a situation they don’t know how to handle. When that happens, your team needs a very specific process for involving management or subject matter experts who can help.
The process should explicitly state:
- Whom to contact for product questions.
- Whom to contact for small customer service problems, e.g. “Can I refund this fee?”
- Whom to call in for sticky customer service problems, e.g. A good regular customer needs to make a change to her order, which is not usually allowed.
- A preferred channel for reaching these people, such as text, phone, email, etc.
- A back-up plan if someone on the list is out of the office.
It’s important to train on this process, but it’s also a good idea to write it down so you and your team can easily follow it when necessary. The real skill comes in knowing when to escalate a problem. The team can periodically review escalations to determine if they were handled in the best way. You can also give new employees different scenarios, ask them to choose the proper action, and provide feedback on their decision.
It’s incredibly important that employees are friendly to customers. It not only improves the customer’s experience, but it also puts people in a more cooperative frame of mind. The problem is that, as a human, you might not always feel friendly. In that case, you need to be able to fake it.
This is a hard skill to achieve, but it can be practiced. And it’s part of being a professional in general.
Plain old smiling can actually help. Cognitive science writer Eric Barker describes research showing that smiling can actually nudge the brain into a happier state and make it easier to be friendly.
You can also find an accountability partner, someone who checks in with you through the day to remind you to let go of upsetting thoughts for a while and focus on helping customers. Often just refocusing on helping others can make us feel friendlier.
Dealing with people isn’t easy. Even if you love people, they will frustrate you at some point. And if you’re trying to help someone solve a problem, you may be fighting work processes, politics, or other challenges outside your control. So you need grit – the tenacity to stick with a problem until it’s solved.
Angela Duckworth wrote a book about it (called Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance). And she suggests that we can all develop grit by accepting frustrations as normal, rather than a signal to quit, and staying focused on the larger meaning in your work, such as helping others.
It’s also useful to see challenging situations as a “stretch assignments” which help you grow as a professional. And where appropriate, a good sense of humor helps a lot.
If you’re having trouble working through difficult projects, find a coach who can offer different perspectives and help you explore solutions. If you’d like to help your team get grittier, set up a coaching program to help people work through problems and stick with long-term goals.
According to a recent survey, companies are looking primarily for learning agility in their new hires. There are few jobs anymore in which you can learn the basics and rest on your laurels for the next forty years. You have to pick up new products, technologies, and processes constantly and quickly. Companies know this and are starting to look for people who can do it.
If you’d like to become more agile or help your team do so, try making learning as important as performance. Sharlyn Lauby, the HR Bartender, points out that even though customer service teams often have performance goals, performance gets better through learning and development, so you need learning goals as well.
Ask your team to spend a set amount of time working on their skills for each evaluation period. You can use some of the techniques described above to work on customer service competencies. Or focus on other capabilities such as learning new computer programs, developing upselling techniques, or improving leadership skills for team leaders.
No one is a “people person” all day every day. And good customer services take more than a smile. But any team can get better at it with a little work and focus. Your customers and your balance sheet will thank you for it.
At Pract.us, we’re dedicated to helping your team learn and practice key skills every day. Learn more.