15 Customer Service Skills Agents Need

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Jul 4, 2016
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Customer Service Skills Agents Need

Customer service agents need a very special set of customer service skills to professionally deal with customers. They have to be able to get to the bottom of things and find a solution quickly if they don't want to risk bad customer service experience.

We often hear that empathy is the skill to have in customer service situations. Well, it's definitely a good start but the agents' customer service skills set should go well beyond that.

Some of these skills will come naturally to agents. Others will have to be taught from scratch or simply reinforced. And there’s also the group of skills that can’t be taught and you will simply have to be hired for.

Customer service skills for agents

I've come up with a list of the most crucial customer service skills using the combined knowledge of three customer service experts: Eric Shure, Customer Support Operations Manager at Media Temple, Jonny Everett, Director of Customer Development at The Chat Shop and Robert Finnegan, Analytics and Scheduling specialist at ModCloth.

The choice of these skills is a result of a ton of testing, real-life customer service experience and good practices the three companies implement each day.

1. Dedication to customers

Let's start with the essentials. Agents need to fight for the customers. Total dedication to customers helps customer service agents to adapt a mindset where they will do everything in their power to help, even if it's not always profitable in the short run.

According to Jonny Everett from The Chat Shop, this is one the most important customer service skills or traits an agent should have:

"Above all, the number one skill we look for in good customer service team members is a total commitment to the customer. It sounds simple, but you have to have people that really care about the outcome of a situation for the customer they're serving."

The Chat Shop’s agents need to provide a service that works without a hitch because they are not only representing their own company, but also their customers’ business.

Dedication to customers is going one step further than empathy. Instead of just understanding the position of the customer, customer service agents need to take the customers' side and help in any way they can.

For Eric Shure from Media Temple, a true customer advocate should go beyond empathy and be "personally invested in partnering with every customer to provide them with the full spectrum of solutions.” Customer advocates need to live and breathe the golden rule, which is "Always treat people the way you would want them to treat you."

2. Responsibility

Agents should feel responsible for what they do when helping customers. As Eric mentioned, they should be able to "grab the bull by the horns in order to come up with the best and most creative solutions to best serve customers."

In most cases, they will be able to come up with a great solution that works both for the company and the customers. However, everyone makes mistakes from time to time. It doesn't matter if it was the agents or the customer's fault. The bottom line is that agents should feel responsible for the success of the customers. If something's not going according to plan, they should reflect on that and change their approach.

This can result in some extra time or even some extra costs on the company's part. However, I can promise you that the best customer service you will be able to provide will definitely pay off in the long run. Customers will appreciate the responsibility and reward your company with loyalty.

3. Honesty

Transparency is a sign of not only good customer service but also a sign of a good business. And there can be no transparency without honesty. Customers that know how a business works will have an easier time trusting that business with their money.

As customer advocates, agents shouldn't try to deceive the customers or intentionally try to paint picture that isn't true.

Eric points out that it is also useful for dealing with the nasty habit of not telling everything to the customer:

"Honesty can also be looked at as combatting the human tendency to tell fractional truth, or commit the lie of omission."

Sometimes omitting the fact that the customer forgot to use a discount code or that they are eligible for free shipping can save your business a couple of bucks. But is the betrayal your customers will feel when they find out is really worth it?

4. Imagination

When it comes to imagination, it’s really hard to do much without it in a customer service environment. How can you expect to put yourself in customers’ shoes and to understand their problem completely without imagination? "I would imagine it is difficult,” Eric points out.

Agents need the ability to not only understand the current situation of the customer and what they are trying to do but also why they want to do it. For example, when explaining how to set something up in an app, they should have the end-goal in mind.

In other words, agents should not only resolve an problem but also get into their customers' heads and think of additional ways of helping them.

One additional important part of this skill is deciphering names your customers will give your products. You should never doubt in your customers' ability to mistype product names or come up with completely new ways to call them. You can expect all kinds of product nicknames and you should get used to them because customers will expect you to use them too!

5. Problem solving skills

An agent should have the ability to quickly find a solution to any problem. Since customer service agents often deal with limited information, they need to work closely with the customers to fill in the gaps and find a way out.

Problem solvers, as Eric calls them, love getting into the bottom of things. They need to be “tinkerers with greasy hands” that like to figure things out.

Agents need to be able to look at the scenario and not only find a solution but they also need to do it in an efficient way. It's one thing to eventually solve a problem. It's something completely different to do it while juggling four other cases. Agents should also expect that there will be 10 other problems that will suddenly come up. The ability to adapt quickly is an important part of the problem solving skills.

For The Chat Shop, these difficult situations are an opportunity to deliver the best customer service:

"Often the best customer service happens when there's either been a big problem for the customer, which we need to solve, or when the customer is totally lost and we can help them find the way. Both instances mean that being able to problem solve with the customer delivers a much better result."

6. Creativity

Most customers will see customer service as something unpleasant. Aftear all, they are facing some kind of a problem, possibly a broken product, and they want it handled. How about changing that approach by injecting some character into the conversation?

Instead of sounding like yet another customer service automaton, you should show some personality, crack a joke and generally try to deescalate the whole situation. Just make sure the setting is appropriate and you don't end up angering the customer even more.

At the end of the day, you can be either forgotten as yet another customer service rep or remembered as that one agent that not only helped a customer but also made the whole experience a little bit more pleasant.

7. Anticipation

You can think of anticipation as preventing future problems from happening in the first place. When customers come to you with a problem, the solution they get should take into consideration any hurdles they may face. Here’s Eric’s take on the skill of anticipation:

"The ability to solve tomorrow’s problems today. The goal is usually to solve the issue the customer contacted you about. Why not go the extra mile, warm up the crystal ball, and advise your customers how to solve tomorrow’s problems, before they are here."

For example, if a customer asks an agent about an ongoing promotion that is about to end, the agent should mention that it is about to finish and that customer should take it if they don't want to miss out. This will save the customer a nasty surprise when, after a couple of days, they have to pay extra for the same product.

8. Resourcefulness

No matter how prepared an agent is, how many different customer service situations they faced in the past, there will always be these 'gotcha' moments where agents simply need to improvise.

You need to become a MacGyver type of guy or gal that has the skills to turn a rubber band, a box of matches and a Twinkie into a solution. And, according to Eric, it doesn’t have to be elaborate. All that matters is "figuring out how to fit that square peg into that round hole and if you don’t know how, you know where to find out how."

In such situations, you should adapt the duct tape approach. Work with what you have and try to come up with something that will pass as a temporary solution. For example, you can use a particular tool unconventionally or offer a part of a solution but solving a part of a problem is always better than leaving a customer with nothing.

Just like in the case of duct tape, you shouldn't rely on it for too long. These temporary fixes should be revisited once you have a more reliable solution. And it's on you to remember about it. Customers shouldn't have to remind agents that there is a partially-fixed problem. Agents should take note and issue a real fix as soon as possible.

Being resourceful is one of the most important customer service skills

9. Using the right voice

No matter what business you represent, you need to be able to communicate well with your customers. And this doesn’t just mean that you have to use the same language but also you should do it in the same tone as the customer.

Finding the right voice in conversations with customers is not a must, but it can be very helpful to start off the conversation in a way tailored to the customer.

According to Jonny, The Chat Shop’s agents are encouraged to "find their own voice, suited to the brand” they are currently servicing. This way, the customers’ of the brand can feel that they are "engaging with a real person, with their own distinct personality,” says Jonny.

To encourage that kind of approach, Jonny proposes that agents should match the customers' tone. For example, when a customer is really cheerful, the agent servicing that customer should mirror the same attitude. As a result, you can get conversations that are really fun both for the customer and the agent.

Here’s an example chat from The Chat Shop that shows perfectly how to nail the mirroring skill:

The skill of matching the tone

If you'd also like to give LiveChat a try, you can do it by signing up for a free, 30-day trial.

10. Drive

No matter the resources or customer service training you get as a customer service agent, you need to feel motivated. It is something that can’t really be thought. According to Eric, you can be encouraged with that to a degree, but you should feel a natural attraction to helping customers:

"We have a deep pool of resources, training, coaching and leadership, however, one must decide to dive in. The drive to solve problems, and advocate for the customer, comes from within. We can help harness/focus on these traits, but motivation is something the agent must simply have."

11. Time management skills

Time constraints are a big part of good customer service. The faster a customer sees your reply, the better they will feel abou the whole experience. This is why agents should be masters of organizing and managing their work time.

You want to maximize the number of interactions you can make. This means that you should aim for the quickest resolution and move to the next case if the customer doesn't have any other questions. By no means you should rush customers. A good practice here is to ask if they have any other questions before wishing them a good day and disconnecting a call/finishing a chat or email.

Additionally, all downtime that happens during slower days should default to preparing additional resources for customers like knowledge base articles and canned responses.

You can use various tools to optimize your time management methods even more. For example, you can track how much time you spend on different tasks to see if any improvements can be made.

12. Knowledge skills

Customers will always see agents as the go-to source of knowledge on a product. If you don't want to disappoint them you should always be up to date with your product/service.

If you're running a knowledge base in your company, make sure that you know it inside and out. Providing relevant knowledge base link is one of the more reliable ways of answering a customer service questions so why not use it?

As I've mentioned in description of the previous skill, agents can work on preparing knowledge base resources in their free time. This way they will get an even deeper understanding of the product while providing some additional value to the customers.

13. Clear communication skills

Talking is the biggest part of a customer service agent's job. Having the right mix of communication sklls helps you make sure that customers understand what they need to do to fix a problem.

When talking to customers, your language should be as simple and short as possible. Not everyone will be able to easily understand tougher concepts, especially customers that don't use English as a first language. Making everything simple by default will allow you reach those crowds more easily.

Using jargon or any other in-house talk is a big no-no. It may make sense for you and your teammates, but keep in mind that your customers don't have anywhere near the level of familiarity with your product as you do. Don't bomb the conversation from the get-go by using words that only select few understand.

14. Typing skills

And where there is communication, there's also typing. Modern customer service revolves around chatting and writing emails. Whether it is a live chat with a customer or a reply on your Facebook wall, the speed of typing will determine how many cases you can handle.

The biggest part of improving your typing speed is practice. You will get plenty of it but make sure you're reinforcing the right methods and finger placements.

If you'd like to see how well you're doing in terms of typing, make sure to check out our Typing Speed Test. It is a project that's been prepared with customer service agents in mind. Take the test and see how fast you can type. The page also includes a lot of typing-related tips so that you can get even faster.

15. Teamwork skills

And finally, the skill that will allow you to overcome any unexpected difficulties: teamwork. When working in customer service, you're never alone (unless you're the sole agent). Every time you're unsure about something, ask your teammates. Use their knowledge and experience to your advantage.

More experienced agents can make the introduction of new representatives a lot smoother by checking on the newbies and suggesting tips for improvement.

Hiring for customer service skills vs. hiring for character

A skill is something you acquire through training. Sometimes it has to be more rigorous and difficult, but, in general, everybody should be able to get it. A trait, on the other hand, is something you can’t really train for.

When interviewing a candidate for a customer service job, you should first check if she or he has the necessary traits or knows customer service best practices. Sometimes people with just average customer service skills will fit in perfectly because of their traits. This is why Robert Finnegan from ModCloth suggests considering a person as a whole when hiring:

"Within the past few years, we have had Customer Care Advocates with varying levels of customer service experience, technical skills, and education, but at the heart of it all, we have made sure to consider the person as a whole, and understand that certain traits, like empathy, are innate."

Media Temple sees these traits as a foundation to build upon other customer service skills. According to Eric, “you can’t train these traits, you have to hire them.” The company hires for those specific traits and then uses them to grow or develop the important customer service skills. When that’s done, agents can start providing exemplary customer service:

“We find a greater benefit for the agent, and especially for the customer experience, by hiring and building on these traits that are part of our agents’ nature."

Why training is still important

Even though some things cannot be trained, you shouldn’t completely rule out training. In fact, it should be a very important component of improving your support – just as important as hiring the right people. At LiveChat we're using our Customer Service Training course to train and hone our skills.

For example, every Media Temple agent undergoes a three-week classroom training. Once the training is complete, they start servicing customers while being supervised by more experienced agents.

New agents hands-on training in Media Temple

New agents hands-on training in Media Temple.

Another way of helping your agents grow is to give them a steady stream of feedback. Showing your agents what they are doing right and what wrong will reinforce the positive aspects of their support style and weed out the unnecessary bits.

The Chat Shop uses a set of criteria that check the qualitative and quantitative aspects of agents’ work. According to Jonny, this allows them to "monitor the team on metrics (response time, positive vs negative ratings) whilst also monitoring the style of delivery of the interaction.” By gathering detailed data like this, agents can receive "a custom development plan per agent per account,” which helps them to develop the customer service skills in which they are lacking.

Another great piece of advice from Jonny is to encourage learning from other members of the team. This gives agents a much broader outlook on the cases they may face and possible solutions:

"We actively encourage them to read and share examples of their own chats with the group so that we all learn together."

Customer service skills as a part of your strategy

Hiring agents with these customer service skills and traits should be just a portion of a company's customer service efforts. Getting the right people for the job and training them will be a good start. However, you need to make sure that other parts of your customer service machine work well too. According to Eric, maintaining those skills requires a much deeper investment from the customer service department:

"It is imperative that the policy, procedure, and especially the culture of the department harbor and promote the common skills that shape great customer experiences."

When hand-picking your customer service agents, you should definitely look for people who are quick thinkers, problem solvers and quick adapters. But finding agents with the right set of traits, one that reflects your company’s culture, is as important. After that it's time to check their skills and train them. To test them, feel free to use our Customer Service Skills Quiz

What customer service skills you think should appear on the list? From your experience, what matters most when working in customer service? Feel free to share your opinion in the comments section!

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