As a customer service manager, you’ve likely asked yourself what the essential skills for customer service are and whether they truly can be taught. The answer to the latter question is an unequivocal “yes.”
Of course, it’s important to hire the right people. But what happens after the hire is just as important.
There’s a lot you can do as a manager to get the best performance out of your agents. To maximize performance, it’s imperative that you treat your employees well so they don’t burn out, provide powerful, user-friendly help desk software, and offer the training necessary to avoid common customer service mistakes.
Beyond that, it’s important to teach your agents the skills they need to succeed in the customer service world. The three critical skills for good customer service are communication, time management, and product knowledge.
All three of these skills can be taught—and learned—on the job.
But where enterprise organizations have big budgets and long timelines to teach agents these skills, small and midsize business owners and managers have to get it done quickly and cheaply.
Never fear. I’m here to help!
3 critical customer service skills to teach your team today
Let’s take a look at why these three skills are important to cultivate on your customer service team and some actionable tips to help you get there.
1. Active listening
Good communication reduces misunderstandings, builds trust, and saves time—all of which are essential for great customer service.
Everyone communicates, but some of us are better at it than others. If your agents aren’t natural communicators, take heart. Encourage your agents to start their journey toward better communication by honing their listening skills.
This is where a lot of customer-facing professionals fail. We’ve all heard stories of lost sales and alienated customers due to employees who won’t listen and keep steering customers toward the wrong products.
To get a sense of whether this is an issue with your reps, listen to or read some interactions. When customers are talking, how often do your reps seem distracted and miss information that the customer is giving them? It’s easy to get lost by simultaneously thinking about how to solve the customer’s problem, what to say next, how to get off the phone or chat, or what to have for lunch.
One way to help your reps get better at listening in general is to teach them a specific kind of listening. Active listening is about more than just being quiet when someone else is speaking.
Here are some active listening tips to give to your reps:
- Be mentally present in the conversation.
- Smile and frown appropriately, even on the phone (it’ll come through in your voice).
- Paraphrase what the customer is saying with statements that begin “What I’m hearing is,” and “It sounds like you’re saying.”
- Ask clarifying questions such as “What do you mean when you say X?”
Chris Stainthorpe, co-founder of CustomerSure, practices active listening by always asking for feedback. Asking customers to share their views on your company is a better way to identify personality conflicts and broken processes than losing sales or dropping CSAT scores.
Since CustomerSure made asking for feedback a core part of its customer service process, they’ve yet to have a key account walk away because they were unsatisfied.
Also, be sure you’re demonstrating active listening yourself. People tend to mirror the behavior they see. If you’re thinking about lunch when your reps are speaking to you, it’s going to be that much harder for them to catch on to active listening themselves.
2. Time management and prioritization
Nearly every customer wants their issue solved in the least time and with the least effort (on their part) possible. Yet it’s rare that a customer knows how to help you make that happen.
As a manager, one of the best things you can do to improve your team’s time management is to better manage their attention, according to management consultant Maura Thomas, writing for HBR.
For example: When agents have to respond to every incoming request immediately, they’re not able to fully focus on any one customer service problem they’re currently working on.
Shifting their focus for every incoming message notification is incredibly costly in terms of productivity. Forcing your agents to respond to incoming messages and answer emails at the same time could be decreasing their effectiveness by as much as 40%.
Luckily, it’s fairly simple to address this problem.
First, automate the “we’ve got your ticket and will address it shortly” response to incoming tickets. There’s no reason to distract your reps from their tasks to send this message.
Many help desk software products will send an auto response to incoming service requests acknowledging their request, intent to address the issue, and offering an estimate of how long the customer will have to wait for an agent.
Next, make it clear in your policies and procedures which tasks take precedence over others. If there’s no pressing need for agents to be interrupted by incoming requests and chats, you’ll get better performance by allowing them to focus on the task at hand and then check for new correspondence when they need to take a break or finish a task.
3. Product and customer knowledge
For every hour that department store Dillard’s spends on product training, their associates increase their sales by 5%.
All the communication skills in the world won’t help if your agents don’t have information prepared to communicate. Ensuring your agents develop a deep understanding of how your product works is essential for customer service success. Though it requires some investment, in the end it saves time and builds trust between agents and customers.
To make this deep knowledge a reality, make product training a major part of the onboarding process for your customer service agents. Begin the training not just with how to fix common problems but an overview of how to use the product, who uses the product, what they use it for, etc.
And train them not only on the product, but on your customers as well. What are their needs? How do they use the product, and when? Why is it essential for them?
If there are meetups or happy hours that your target buyers attend, consider giving your agents some time off to attend them to learn about your customers firsthand.
And give agents the time and resources they need to use the product or service themselves. Train your agents on every new feature and update, so they’re never caught unaware.
For help onboarding and training employees on your product, check out “19 Free and Open Source LMSs for Corporate Training.”
Great customer service can be learned
Getting the best performance out of your agents doesn’t just help your company, it also helps your employees. Whether they stay with your business for the entirety of their careers or move on, they’ll carry these skills with them and will build on them for years to come.
Remember: No matter how well you hire, everyone can improve their communication, time management, and increase the depth of their professional knowledge.