Four Customer Service Skills You Need to Have

LinkedIn Learning has just released a new edition of my Customer Service Foundations course. It's a training video designed to help people learn the fundamentals of service.

Creating a course like this requires some tough decisions:

  • Which skills are most important and must be covered?
  • How in-depth should each skill be addressed?
  • Which skills are useful, but best saved for a separate course?

These decisions are critical. Include too much content and learners can get overwhelmed. Include too little, and learners won't get enough value. It has to be just right.

I based my choices on extensive research, interaction with thousands of customer service professionals, and a bit of trial and error.

Here's a list of the top four skills I think every service professional needs.

 On the set filming Customer Service Foundations. From left to right: Jeff (Director), Jeff (me), Sam (Producer), and Rob (Production Lead).

On the set filming Customer Service Foundations. From left to right: Jeff (Director), Jeff (me), Sam (Producer), and Rob (Production Lead).

Vision

If I had to pick just one customer service skill, this one would be it.

Having a vision means understanding and articulating a desired positive outcome for the customers you serve. An IT service desk professional I worked with once described his vision by saying, "I used to say I fixed computers; now I realize what I really do is help people get back to work."

That change of perspective from transactional (fix computers) to a positive vision (help people get back to work) can dramatically alter how you approach service.

I've noticed that people who have a strong customer service vision tend to figure out the other skills they need pretty quickly. Those who don't often find themselves stuck.

It's great if your company already has a customer service vision statement to follow. If not, you can create one by taking the Thank You Letter Challenge.

 

Rapport

Service gets easier when we can build rapport with the people we serve.

It helps us create a connection and develop a sort of shared kinship where we both take responsibility for making the experience a great one. 

In one study, I discovered customers who mentioned an employee by name in a survey were 1.5 to 4 times more likely to give a top score (5 stars, etc.) than a negative one.

Introducing ourselves and sharing our name is a skill you already have. You can add to your rapport toolkit by learning the five question technique. Here's a video explainer:

 

Listening

Most people are pretty good at listening—when they put their mind to it.

The challenge is we often face unseen obstacles that discourage us from using our listening skills. Here are just a few examples:

  • Being in a hurry makes us instinctively want to listen less.
  • Multitasking makes it more difficult to listen.
  • Judging the other person makes harder to truly understand them.

Elite customer service professional prioritize listening to customers. And they don't just listen for the customer's rational needs, they try to uncover the emotions behind it.

One study surveyed airline passengers who experienced a flight delay or cancellation. The single issue that drove the most customer frustration was not the service failure itself, but the way it was handled.

Here's a short video that shows you how to identify emotional needs.

 

Problem Solving

Must of customer service comes down to our ability to solve problems. This gets easier if we've already mastered the first three skills:

  • Vision focuses our desire on a positive outcome for the customer.
  • Rapport makes customers more open to our ideas.
  • Listening helps us better understand what customers really need.

Of course, we've all been frustrated as customers by nagging problems that just can't seem to get solved. Often the missing element is ownership.

Many people confuse ownership for blame. They worry about being responsible for causing the problem, so they try to avoid it.

What ownership really means is taking responsibility for solving the problem. Here's a short video from the course that explains it.

 

Take Action!

Here are a few action items you can implement right now!

  1. Try implementing each of these four skills.
  2. Share which skills are on your Top Four list.
  3. Take the full Customer Service Foundations course.

You can find the course on LinkedIn Learning or Lynda.com. You'll need a subscription, so I've included links to set up a free 30-day trial on either platform:


Beware of Snake Oil and Hiring Assessments

One question I'm often asked is what hiring assessments do I recommend for screening customer service employees. 

I'm always cautious about these, as some assessment vendors seem like the modern-day equivalent of a snake oil salesperson. "It will cure anything," they say, even though it actually won't.

It can be hard to tell the difference between a good and bad assessment. Here's my advice if you're thinking of going down this path.

 Searching for job candidates who all like the same.

My "Ah-Ha" Moment

Years ago, my role included developing leaders for the company I worked for. We used two pre-hire assessments from a well-known vendor. One assessed cognitive ability and the other was a personality assessment.

Like many assessments, this one came with pre-determined "standards" that were supposed to aid our hiring decisions. Candidates whose assessment results fit within a range determined by the vendor were considered to be ideal.

The company was dutifully following those standards when I arrived. While not the only basis for a hiring decision, the assessment results were weighed heavily.

Ever the nerd, I did a study to compare our most successful leaders to the vendor's ideal profiles. The results were a mild surprise.

Many of our best leaders did not fit the ideal profile.

A senior executive did poorly on the cognitive test, though his many years of exemplary performance suggested he was pretty smart, or at least smart enough to do the job.

One of our best leaders appeared to have been hired by mistake. The results of both assessments were well outside the vendor's "ideal" range, and I wondered how she could have been hired with those results. Yet her actual performance indicated she was one of the company's top performers in nearly every category, from financial results to service quality to employee engagement.

 

The Challenge with Assessments

Hiring managers turn to assessments to help them solve two challenges:

  1. Make better hiring decisions
  2. Speed up the hiring process

Don't get me wrong, there's a place for assessments and they can sometimes work. (More on that in a moment.) There's also a major challenge.

A good assessment must be valid and reliable. Validity means it accurately assesses what you want to assess, while reliable means it does that consistently.

Looking back on my own research, the assessments my company was using were neither valid nor reliable. They had failed to correctly identify some top performers, while other top performers did fit the vendor's profile.

The big question is why?

Some assessments just aren't very good. They're based upon junk science and crackpot theories with no real evidence to back up their claims.

Other assessments have potential, but it's the vendors' suggested "ideal profiles" that are the problem. These profiles are often generic and not calibrated to your employees.

Think of it this way. Costco and The Ritz-Carlton are both known for outstanding customer service. However, it seems reasonable that the ideal employee is probably slightly different for both companies. 

 

How to Assess Your Assessments

First thing's first. Before investing in an assessment, decide which characteristics you are really looking for in a customer service employee. This will help you pinpoint what type of assessment, if any, to use.

You can use this hiring guide to help you.

If you do consider an assessment, make sure you calibrate it first. Here's how:

  1. Start by having your existing employees take the assessment.
  2. Evaluate the results for your top performers, middle performers, and bottom performers.
  3. Identify the differences (if any) between the assessment profile of each group.

This exercise will help you construct a more accurate hiring profile than the generic one provided by your vendor. 

You may also find that there's no rhyme or reason to the assessment results when you compare them to your top performers. That happened to me when I did this exercise. The results of top leaders were wildly inconsistent.

That tells you the assessment is not a valid or reliable instrument and shouldn't be used.

There's one last concern to mention here. Pre-hire assessments can sometimes put your company on shaky legal ground if they disproportionately screen out people of a particular gender or ethnicity. Make sure you consult your HR professional or employment attorney before giving any assessment the green light.


How to Train New Hires on Culture

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The first customer I ever served resulted in a service failure.

Some of it was my fault. I said the wrong thing to a customer and he stormed off, grumbling about the sorry state of customer service these days.

Some of it was not my fault. I was sixteen years old and this was my first job. I hadn't yet been trained and didn't yet have the experience to know what to do. The person who was supposed to be training me had gone on break and left me to fend for myself.

It all worked out in the end. I learned from the experience, discovered a passion for customer service, and eventually learned how to train others. 

Things don't always go this way. Many employees develop bad habits as a result of insufficient new hire training. The results is poor customer service, low engagement, and high attrition.

We need to take responsibility for giving new hires the right kind of training if we expect them to deliver our brand of exceptional service. 

You can hear my story in this short video:

The Woeful Lack of Training

A 2018 study by the research firm Ipsos revealed that 31 percent of employees get no formal training.

This statistic is even worse for low-wage jobs (earning <$50,000 per year), where 36 percent of employees report they received no formal training. This group encompasses a majority of frontline customer service employees. 

Even the training that does occur may not be sufficient.

I routinely ask customer service leaders whether their company has a customer service vision, which is a shared definition of outstanding customer service. Typically, 40 percent or more admit there is none.

A vision is critical because it provides a common framework for training that describes your organization's unique brand of customer service. Without one, new hire training must focus on tactical procedures and generic customer service tips.

The best companies know this. 

New hires at In-N-Out burger are trained around a vision of quality, service, and cleanliness; you can see that vision in everything they do. Guests at The Ritz-Carlton naturally expect a different type of service than at In-N-Out, so Ritz-Carlton associates are trained on that company's vision, We are ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen.

 

Key Elements of Culture Training

An entire chapter in The Service Culture Handbook is devoted to training employees to embody the culture in their daily work.

Here are a few highlights.

Element 1: You need a customer service vision. Your training will be generic and unfocused if you skip this step. You can use this guide to create one.

Element 2: Create learning objectives for your training. Think about what you want your new hires to know and be able to do. I recommend setting an objective that employees will be able to answer three questions by the end of the training:

  1. What is our customer service vision?
  2. What does the vision mean?
  3. How does I personally contribute to the vision in my daily work?

Element 3: Develop activities to achieve your learning objectives. This is your chance to get a little creative, but make sure you can verify the learning objectives have been achieved by the end of the training.

 

New Hire Training Examples

Here are two sample training plans that have both been effective. Both training plans share the learning objectives described above (i.e. participants have to answer those three questions).

Sample #1: The Scavenger Hunt. I ran this exercise for new managers at a parking management company. 

The training started in the classroom, where participants were introduced to the customer service vision. We had a group discussion around its meaning and talked about the answers to the three questions.

Next, participants were split into small groups and each was given a list of locations to visit near the company's downtown headquarters. Each group was asked to take pictures of scenes that showed the vision in real-life. This included signage, employees interacting with customers, etc. The entire assignment could easily be completed in less than an hour, with the teams walking from location to location.

Finally, we gathered in the classroom again to look at everyone's pictures. The teams took turns walking us through what they saw and explaining how each image connected to the vision.

 

Sample #2: The Thank You Letter Challenge. I did this exercise with Clio, the winner of the 2017 ICMI Global Contact Center award for best culture

Employees were first asked to identify places where they saw the customer service vision before coming to class. This one was easy, since each person had a small sign hung at their workstation.

Next, employees were asked to describe the answers to the three questions in their own words. 

Finally, each person completed the Thank You Letter challenge. They started by writing a thank you letter to themselves from an imaginary customer. The letter reflected service that aligned with the company's customer service vision. Then participants were asked to read the letter each day for two weeks and try to earn feedback from a real customer that matched the letter.

At the end of the two weeks, we reconvened and participants shared their experiences. It was amazing how they were able to generate so many success stories! (You can try this exercise here.)

 

Take Action!

Start today by asking two questions:

  1. Do we have a customer service vision? (Y/N)
  2. Do we train new employees on the customer service vision (Y/N)

If the answer is "No" to either question, you'll see immediate results by adding that element to your training program.


How to Prevent Customer Tweets from Going Public

There are probably two desires for every company's Twitter strategy:

  1. Get people to love us so they buy more
  2. Avoid public complaints

Unfortunately, many companies inadvertently nudge customers to complain via Twitter. Case in point is a recent experience I had with a consumer products company.

It had been three days since I had emailed the company and it still had not responded. I wanted to send them a direct message (DM) via Twitter to gently nudge the company and request a response. For the uninitiated, a DM is private, meaning the world can't see it.

But wait! The company hadn't configured its Twitter account to accept DMs (i.e. private messages). So I couldn't message the company privately. I opted to send a public tweet instead.

Here's how companies can prevent this.

 Person clicking on the Twitter app on their smartphone.

Why Private Messaging is Important

The key difference between a public tweet and a private DM is who can read it.

Anyone can read a public tweet. A private DM, however, is similar to email, chat, and other written customer service channels. The conversation remains private.

The key is starting the conversation in private.

The social customer care platform Conversocial recently released some interesting data based on two years of tweets from its enterprise clients.

 Table showing tweets that started in public versus tweets that started in private.

Nearly all conversations that start in private (i.e. via DM) remain there. So the key is making it easy for customers to send you a DM.

 

Make It Easy to DM Your Business

Let's go back to the consumer products company. Twitter aside, the first and most obvious move is to respond to customer emails! My own research has uncovered two things:

  • Email response time standards should be 1 hour
  • Most Twitter complaints are escalations

So a fast and effective email response will likely prevent an escalation to Twitter. When you don't handle your business in other channels, customers will complain in public.

OK, so how can the company make it easier for me to DM them?

Right now, the company's Twitter settings are set up so only customers the company follows can send them a DM. One simple change to the privacy and safety settings on the company's Twitter account can fix that:

 Screenshot of Twitter's Direct Message settings.

This setting allows anyone to DM the company, making it far easier for customers to start a conversation in private. Notice the difference between the @Comcast and @ComcastCares Twitter profiles. You'll need @Comcast to follow you if you want to send the company a DM, but you can send @ComcastCares a DM immediately.

 Screenshot of Comcast corporate Twitter profile.
 Screenshot of the Comcast Cares Twitter profile.

Take Action!

The best thing you can do is make it easy for your customers to contact your company, and make it easy for your agents to respond properly.

Twitter offers a slew of more advanced features for businesses. These include:

You can learn the basics of serving customers via Twitter from my training video, Serving Customers via Social Media.


Why Service Leaders Need to Be Role Models

The exact words the restaurant manager used were, "I'm not arguing with you."

Funny, because arguing was exactly what he was doing. My wife and I were celebrating the wrap of filming for my latest training video at a nice steakhouse. Both of our first steaks were overdone and the manager had offered to prepare us new ones.

Sally's steak was prepared correctly the second time, but my replacement was very rare, even though I had ordered medium rare. I sent it back to the kitchen once more, but the steak still came back rare. 

I wasn't going to send it back a third time.

The manager checked on our table. He seemed frustrated with me that I wasn't happy and insinuated that I was being too picky. In our ensuing conversation, he revealed he had asked the kitchen to prepare my second steak rare because he didn't think I understood what medium rare really was.

"I'm not arguing with you," he said, "but your first steak was medium rare."

That statement cost him a customer. Taking my steak off the bill wasn't enough at this point to repair his rudeness.

The worst part was our server was handling the situation just fine until the manager stepped in. The manager was setting a poor example for his staff.

 Two small wooden flags rest on a plate, one says "M.Rare" and the other reads "Rare."

The Impact of a Negative Role Model

Leaders set the tone through their actions. In this case, the manager did several things that sent the wrong message to his staff.

  • He undercut trust by intervening when our server was handling it fine.
  • He displayed rudeness by jumping into our conversation without first introducing himself.
  • He exhibited selfishness by putting my replacement steak in as rare without telling our server.

I asked a community of hospitality professionals on the I'm Your Server, Not Your Servant Facebook group to weigh in on their experience working in similar situations.

People generally shared that these types of experiences made them want to work someplace else. A few also suggested the drama and mistrust created by the manager was likely to continue well past our evening at the restaurant. Several also thought it might create tension between the servers and kitchen staff.

All of this came from the manager's poor reaction that unnecessarily escalated what should have been a minor situation.

We noticed a change in our service level after our interaction with the manager. Our server avoided our table as much as she brought us the check as soon as our meal was finished, as if she could not wait to be done with us. 

There was no final apology or a confirmation of any deductions from the check (my steak was removed). She didn't make an effort to resolve the situation on a high note by asking us to come back again. She simply processed our check and wordlessly dropped it back off at our table.

 

Positive Role Model Actions

There are many things you can do to be a positive role model.

The first thing you should do is model customer service skills when interacting with both customers and employees. Treat people exactly the way you want your employees to treat customers. Your team is looking to you for guidance and your actions will speak louder than words.

Positive role models also take the same training they require employees to take. This move brings three benefits:

  1. You'll have the same skills as your employees, so you can model them.
  2. Your presence sends the message that the training is important.
  3. You'll be better able to coach employees after the training.

Finally, it's critical to support your employees.

One of the worst things the restaurant manager did was undercut his server by stepping into the situation she was already handling and then blind-siding her by deliberately putting in my replacement steak at the wrong temperature.

Here's how I've seen other restaurant managers handle a similar situation.

They start by talking with the server off to the side to get the story and see if there's anything they need to do. Then they come to the table, introduce themselves, and confirm the server is rectifying the situation.

This action supports the server while still sending a positive message to the guests that the manager is monitoring the situation and is there to help. 

Work on these role model actions and you'll likely see higher levels of service from your employees in response.