Hanife Yeter
Hanife Yeter
Marketing Communications Manager
May 21, 2019

Top ten people skills for effective customer service reps

Man gives advice to woman

Tech tools alone will not keep customers happy. 

A customer is on the phone with a Customer Service Rep, frustrated about a clothing item that was supposed to arrive but hasn’t yet.

The Rep refers to her ROBIN dashboard, and sees it’s not the first time this customer has called in anger. But this is also not the first product he has purchased from the company.

Keeping this person as a repeat customer could depend on how well the Rep handles this call -- under pressure, with an annoyed voice on the end of the other line.

This is not just a matter of being polite. A recent Service Strategies survey concluded that 96% of respondents felt communication and interpersonal skills are more important than technical skills for successful customer support.

Dealing with customers on the phone, through email or via live chat requires a variety of people skills. A good Customer Service Rep needs the delicacy of a diplomat, the verbal agility of a politician, the empathy of a therapist, and the good nature of a casual but helpful friend.

All while the customer/prospect on the other end might be screaming and shouting. Maybe even using profanity. Are you and your team ready to handle such a moment?  

At ROBIN, our mission is to empower eCommerce companies with the tools, data and knowledge they need to achieve the highest level of customer service. But we are also committed to helping Customer Service Reps understand the key interpersonal skills they need to keep loyal customers happy, and to bring new prospects aboard. 

Soft skills can be hard to apply

Sailboat is underway 
The communication abilities needed to handle the above situation are often called “soft skills,” but they can be hard to apply when a repeat customer is upset.

This is why three of the four Shopper KPIs in our professional services ROBIN Program involve these people skills: Speed, Friendliness and Effectiveness. (The fourth, Availability, is more about resources and scheduling). Reps can’t fully realise the power of the ROBIN dashboard unless they fine-tune their people skills.

In many ways you can liken soft skills to learning to sail a small boat.

With a well-made and responsive craft, most people can easily learn the ropes for gliding across calm waters on a sunny day. Yet you can’t control the weather any more than you can control the people who contact your customer service. Even the best-made boat is only wood and fabric if the sailor doesn’t know how to adapt to changing weather and rough seas.

Like sailing, customer service requires a skillset that becomes instinctive, especially when the conditions demand immediate feedback. Similarly, Customer Service Reps must tack and jibe their course through the changing winds of customers’ moods and requests. Eventually, with practice, their navigational skills can become as natural as those of a weathered sailor. 

Key people skills for Customer Service Reps require communication, emotional intelligence and even teamwork, but can be boiled down to these 10 areas of focus: 

10 Crucial People Skills

1. Listening

Nothing frustrates someone faster than having to repeat their problem or question to a Rep. Getting it right the first time is essential.

One helpful technique: tell the person that, to make sure you understand them, you’d like to describe their issue or question back to them. Use that interaction to obtain any additional info.

2. Clear Language

Unfortunately, the language of choice for too many brands is jargon. For instance, if you are explaining to a customer why an order is late, don’t use the term ‘dropshipping’. It’s much better to say that the order ships from an ‘external warehouse’ instead of your own.

Using industry lingo often makes the issue harder to discuss. By grouping issues into a few commonly used descriptors, the use of jargon hides rather than clarifies things for the customer.

It is crucial, therefore, to use the language and terminology with which the customer is most familiar.

3. Subject Matter Confidence

It should go without saying, but we’ll say it: Reps need to know about their brand’s products, deals and offers – inside and out.

Brands should use jargon-free and consistent terminology for their product line and services, and Reps should consistently employ the same wordings. By doing so, it will be evident that an enquiry is describing the same thing on a web site, in a physical store or elsewhere.

Of course, Reps need to remain up to date on the basic technology of products and services offered along with any new information, such as a new product or special promotion.

Just as confidence requires a thorough understanding of the brand’s key product line, it also means making clear when a topic goes into territory beyond the Rep’s knowledge. This is crucial so that additional info can be provided to the customer/prospect by someone who knows more. (See Team Collaboration, below.)

In other words, subject matter confidence means clearly answering the question or finding someone else who can.

4. Diplomacy

Diplomacy, Winston Churchill allegedly once advised, is the art of telling someone to go to hell in such a nice way that they ask for directions.

Of course, Customer Service Reps are not in the business of telling people to go to hell, nicely or not. But they are in the business of maintaining control of their cool, their dignity and their word choice regardless of the circumstances.

5. Pacing

Customer service interactions are prime marketing opportunities that well-trained Reps know how to leverage. But, just as a comedian’s punchline can fall flat if the timing is off, so can an upsell attempt.

It’s difficult to describe exactly when a Rep should move the conversation in this or that direction, except to say that it’s like dancing arm-in-arm with a partner. Take a beat, get in step - and you’ll instinctively know when to pivot.

As a Customer Service Team Lead, do you know which of your team members are best equipped for this part of the service game? 

6. Friendliness

The old trick to convey friendliness still works: talk or write with a smile on your face. Even though they can’t see you, your tone will remain warm and approachable.

Unless already angry, most people respond favourably to a friendly attitude. This facilitates solving the issue and boosts the chances the customer goes away with a positive feeling about the interaction and your brand.

Still, there is a fine line between being friendly and getting too chummy (e.g., asking too many times if you’ve solved their problem). Satisfaction can easily turn into annoyance when the customer is kept in the conversation longer than necessary. The Rep should not be like the back-slapping salesman who won’t let you walk out the door.

7. Empathy

Customer Service Reps are public-facing employees in a profession of helping others.

Customers often want to complain about a problem that is only partially based on their purchase, gush about a newfound love for a product, or share their feelings of mastery or inadequacy.

The trick is to find a way to demonstrate an understanding of the person’s underlying emotional need without going overboard. It’s appreciating customers’ successes without virtually high-fiving them, or demonstrating concern about problems without getting in too deep. 

In other words, it’s the equivalent of sitting next to someone on a bench at the bus stop. You listening sympathetically to the person’s story and take action as needed. And then, when the bus arrives, you go your separate ways with a warm and polite goodbye.

8. Positive Attitude

While it’s always more pleasant to deal with someone who sees the glass as half-full, sometimes the customer only sees the situation as half-empty. 

In that case, keep in mind that any glass can be (re)filled completely. You just need to turn on the tap.

Remember: customers want their issue resolved in a single interaction. When customers see the glass as half-empty, reassure them that you are sticking with it and that you will solve the problem. 

9. Generosity

To continue the metaphor, generosity means filling the glass a little more than you’re obligated to, just to make sure the customer remains happy.

Once the current customer concern is resolved, it’s time to anticipate their next potential issue. For example, if a customer has a question about returning a product, forward resolution means not only answering the question this time, but pre-empting future contact by telling him or her how long it takes to receive their money back.

Obviously, this requires that the brand sets parameters so Reps know how to apply forward resolution. But nothing sets the scene for repeat business more than the feeling that the Rep has gone the extra mile for you.

10. Team Collaboration

As in any team, a good Customer Service Rep knows when to hand off to someone who is better positioned to help. (See Subject Matter Confidence, above.)

Sometimes, this handoff occurs in real-time. On other occasions, someone from the brand will have to get back to the customer/prospect. In either case, enlisting additional help shows that the Rep wants to deliver the correct answer.

At the same time, team collaboration means knowing when you own the responsibility to figure out the answer yourself, or recognise an error.

Keys to Rep Success                                  

Ultimately it is important to treat the person on the other end of the conversation with attention, concern and respect, and do so by combining that with sound technical knowledge. By cultivating these 10 people skills, your Reps will be in for smooth sailing no matter the type of customer/prospect inquiry.

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