Let's Stop Calling Customer Service a Soft Skill

The term "soft skills" is typically used to refer to a wide range of interpersonal skills.

This includes leadership, emotional intelligence, and customer service. There's no doubt these skills are important, but calling them soft skills creates a problem.

My friend Jeremy Watkin recently wrote about the debate over this term in this blog post for the International Customer Management Institute (ICMI) blog on the topic. He asked 17 customer service leaders to weigh in. Nine were against using "soft skills."

Noticeably absent from Watkin's list were trainers. By my count, there were only two people who weighed in who had a background in adult learning. Both of those people were firmly against using the term.

I asked a few of my own training professional colleagues for their thoughts on the term, "soft skills." They were unanimously against it.

That's because calling a skill like customer service a soft skill makes it almost impossible to train and manage. Here's why.

Skill or Soft Skill?

Skills are definable, observable, and measurable. For example, you can see someone demonstrate certain skills to fix a car, program a computer, or cook a meal. 

Let's say you wanted to hire a customer service representative for your contact center. If you wanted to gauge a skill such as typing, you could administer a typing test. That would tell you the person's speed and accuracy.

You could also offer training to develop that person's typing skills (Mavis Beacon, anyone?). The training would focus on specific drills to improve speed and accuracy.

But what about critical customer service skills such as building rapport?

This is where many customer service leaders struggle. Interpersonal skills like building rapport are typically called soft skills because they're difficult to define, observe, and measure.

That creates a problem.

  • How do you train a skill you can't define?
  • How do you screen job candidates for a skill you can't observe?
  • How do you coach employees to improve a skill you can't measure?

You'll find it pretty difficult to answer any of those questions if you don't have a clear definition of the skill involved. And once you create a clear definition, it's no longer soft. It simply becomes a skill.


Why Terminology Matters

Keep in mind the term "soft skill" is applied to skills that are difficult to define, observe, and manage. So calling something a "soft skill" is often an unconscious attempt to avoid difficult work.

For example, imagine you wanted to train employees to build rapport with customers. How would you train that?

A typical response might be to do a class discussion, include some self-reflection, and perhaps add some role-playing for good measure.

Notice what's missing:

  • Definition: What is rapport?
  • Observation: What does building rapport look like?
  • Measurement: How can I tell if someone has learned to build rapport?

That kind of soft skills training is usually not training at all.

Training helps people develop knowledge, skills, and ability. So logically, if you can't define what exactly you're trying to train, you can't train it.

    Take the time to define, observe, and measure rapport and its no longer a vague, ambiguous soft skill. It's simply a skill.

    Here's an example that I often use in training:

    • Definition: Rapport is creating a personal connection with another person.
    • Observation: An example of rapport is learning a customer's name or other personal details.
    • Measurement: I can measure this through a simple training activity. Participants are given three minutes to meet three new people. At the end of the three minutes, they are asked to recall the following information for each person: Name, a hobby or interest, and a customer service strength.

    Most customer service professionals will tell you they're pretty good at building rapport. But that's rapport in the ambiguous, unmeasured, soft skill sense.

    My activity highlights an unexpected difficulty. In a typical training class, just 10 percent of the group will  successfully complete the exercise.

    Now it's time to train.

    I spend time working with the class to determine obstacles to building rapport. We discuss specific techniques that can make them more successful. When I run the activity a second time, typically 80 - 100 percent of participants demonstrate the ability to build rapport with three people in three minutes.

    That's observable and measurable skill development.


    Improve Results with this One Adjustment

    The Association for Talent Development (ATD) is the premiere professional organization for training professionals.

    A few years ago, ATD published a comprehensive handbook which is the definitive reference guide for adult learning. It's noteworthy that the term "soft skills" isn't referenced in this guide.

    That's because skills are skills.

    It doesn't matter whether it's a technical skill like typing or an interpersonal skill like building rapport. If you can define it, observe it, and measure it, it's a skill.

    Make no mistake: defining customer service skills can be a difficult, time-consuming task. That's why most managers and trainers don't do it.

    But taking the time to get clear about customer service skills opens up a world of opportunities for customer service leaders. Here are just a few:

    • Hiring becomes easier when you clearly define the skills you need.
    • Training is more effective when you know what to train.
    • Coaching is vastly improved when you can be specific.

    Chances are, you're doing some of this already.

    Customer service standards are ways of defining expected customer service skills. Quality monitoring and mystery shopping are examples of observing and measuring these skills. You're probably coaching those behaviors already.

    So drop the word "soft" and just call them skills.