A step-by-step guide to improving customer service skills

A step-by-step guide to improving customer service skills
By Pedals | On Apr 19, 2022
15 min read

No matter what industry you're in, a big part of your success ultimately boils down to your customer service. Without excellent customer service, you'll have a hard time retaining customers regardless of how incredible your product or solution may be. In fact, according to a Forbes article, up to 96% of customers will leave a company if they experience poor customer service. Yikes.

With this in mind, it's important for both managers and customer service representatives to focus on providing the best possible service and customer support throughout all stages of the buying journey. Fortunately, we've compiled a list of 20 specific skills you and your team can focus on to deliver great customer service within your organization.

In this article:

Who is this guide for?

This guide is intended not just for customer service teams and customer support reps (CSRs), but CSR managers as well. Really, anybody who interacts with customers even on an occasional basis (or is responsible for training customer service reps) could benefit from the information in this guide.

CSRs should refine and improve their customer service skills to drive customer loyalty

Customer service professionals should be working to improve their skills at all stages of their careers. No matter how many years of experience a CSR may have, there is always some room for improvement. By taking the time to refine and improve upon their skills as needed, customer service agents can continue to provide an excellent customer experience that keeps people coming back time and time again. In this sense, making an effort to improve customer interactions can drive customer loyalty.

Managers should share and coach their teams on customer service best practices

It's no secret that CSRs should be proactively working on their own customer service skills. However, this responsibility should not fall entirely on the customer service team itself. This is where guidance from leadership, such as customer service managers, can make all the difference.

Specifically, customer service managers should be the ones carefully tracking and analyzing customer service feedback to determine where improvement may be needed. From there, managers should create the proper training briefs for the company's customer support team and make sure that each CSR follows through.

And of course, CSR managers need to practice what they preach. By adopting the customer service best practices that they expect their CSRs to follow, they can lead by example.

The value of A+ customer service skills

In many ways, customer service skills are a key differentiator among companies. No matter what industry your business operates in, you probably have a fair amount of competition. So what sets you apart from other companies? Perhaps your products and/or services are of higher quality. That's great — but the reality is that without good customer service, it doesn't mean much.

The time, effort, and funding that your company puts into customer service training can pay off many times over, especially when you look at customer retention. In fact, one study found that 87% of customers who have a great experience with a company will make a repeat purchase. On the other hand, just 18% of customers who have a poor experience will purchase from the same company twice.

Consider also that a customer who has a positive experience with a company will tell an average of nine other people about that experience. If that same customer has a poor experience with a business, however, they'll tell an average of 16 people about it.

All of this should underscore the importance of putting your best foot forward from a customer service perspective every single time.

20 key customer service skills to develop and improve

Now that you have a better understanding of the sheer importance of delivering exceptional customer service every time, it's time to dive in. Here are 20 practical ways your customer care team can improve their skills and better serve each customer's needs.

1. Practice active listening

Being a good listener goes a long way in the world of customer service. Specifically, becoming an active listener means being fully attentive not only to what another person is saying but the other cues (such as body language) that they're expressing. From there, active listening also means carefully reflecting on all of these cues before giving a thoughtful response.

Active listening is a great skill not just for CSRs to develop but for managers as well. It can help build stronger customer relationships, identify customer problems, and resolve conflicts early on.

You can improve your active listening skills by:

  • Listening to customer/employee concerns without judgment
  • Waiting until a person is done speaking to provide a response
  • Paying more attention to non-verbal cues, whenever applicable

2. Understand your products and services on a deep level

Being in the customer service field certainly means knowing how to communicate and interact with other people. However, having "people skills" isn't a replacement for having an in-depth knowledge of your company's products and/or services.

Customers calling for support on a product or service will quickly become frustrated if a CSR isn't able to answer questions or address concerns with confidence. With this in mind, we highly recommend making product/service training part of your customer service training. 

Consider, for example:

  • Holding regular product demonstrations for customer service teams
  • Providing CSRs with a list of the most commonly asked questions (and responses) about products and/or services

3. Communicate clearly

Ideally, customer service agents should be proficient communicators across all mediums. This includes not just over the phone or on social media but in-person and in all other contexts. Being able to communicate clearly, regardless of the environment, is a skill that will pay off for customer service teams many times over. Specifically, clear communication can help CSRs avoid misunderstandings with customers that could otherwise lead to more issues or conflict.

Likewise, being able to communicate clearly across different mediums will improve the customer experience. When a customer is able to reach out and get the clear answers/solutions he or she needs, this boosts your brand's reputation for having excellent customer service. And this, in turn, can improve retention.

Frontline employees (those working at brick-and-mortar stores), for example, may benefit from working on their speaking, listening, and body-language interpretation because they're working face-to-face with customers daily. Meanwhile, CSRs working in contact centers may benefit from honing in on other communication skills, such as:

  • Reading
  • Writing
  • Visual media
  • Social media

4. Use positive customer service phrases

A little positivity can go a long way when it comes to improving customer satisfaction. Specifically, the use of positive language in interactions with customers can keep things upbeat, which leads to happy customers.

For example, while it's true that a representative may not have all the answers to all customer questions or problems, the language that he or she uses can make all the difference. Rather than answering a customer's question with a negative phrase like "I don't know," using positive phrasing like "That's a great question; let me find out for you!" can improve the experience.

Some other examples of positive phrases to keep in your back pocket include:

  • "I'm happy to help!"
  • "It's so nice to meet you."
  • "I understand how you feel."
  • "Thank you for letting me know about this."

5. Be gracious and admit when your team made a mistake

At the end of the day, customer service agents are human — which means they're going to make mistakes from time to time. The good news? Making a mistake doesn't have to result in unhappy customers. The key is how a CSR handles the situation.

Agents should be trained to acknowledge when they've made a mistake and extend genuine apologies to the customer. CSRs should also be reminded that they represent their companies, so sometimes they may need to apologize for a discrepancy that may not have been their fault directly.

When addressing a mistake with a customer, agents should:

  • Express genuine regret for the problem
  • Explain what happened (whenever possible)
  • Validate the customer's feelings and offer a solution

6. Understand the tools at your disposal

These days, there are so many solutions and tools designed to improve speed and productivity in the workplace. Businesses should be utilizing these tools to deliver the best possible customer service. Of course, with so many options to choose from, choosing the right solution may be easier said than done.

Some tips to keep in mind when selecting enterprise software:

  • Explore industry-specific solutions
  • Calculate returns on investment
  • Share top contenders with your CSRs and invite feedback

Test and compare customer support software before you buy

7. Be solutions-oriented

Working in customer service is full of challenges and problems. Much of an agent's day, then, should be spent coming up with solutions to problems that will result in happy customers. Specifically, customer service agents should be trained to look objectively at any problem and brainstorm strategic solutions that best serve not just the customer but the company as a whole.

Some tips for managers to consider when training solutions-oriented agents:

  • Encourage collaboration and problem-solving among CSRs
  • Teach agents to proactively consider possible outcomes

8. Focus on training

Speaking of training, setting aside dedicated time and funding to regularly train customer service teams is a must. While it's true that a lot of customer service skills are learned (and refined) on the job, managers should not overlook the value of dedicated training.

Customer service training sessions provide an excellent opportunity to address ongoing issues, frequently asked questions, or other topics that could improve the overall customer experience. Likewise, these sessions give CSRs a chance to bring up their own questions and concerns in front of the group.

In addition to more "formal" training exercises and meetings, CSRs should be able to reach out to managers with questions or concerns at any time. Some managers may find it useful to publish an online wiki or other sort of "quick reference" tool for customer support teams to refer to as needed. Likewise, setting up newer CSRs with more experienced "mentor" CSRs can go a long way in making sure these employees feel supported and confident.

Some unique ideas for managers to consider in a customer service training session:

  • Reviewing/addressing recent customer complaints
  • Using role-play to put CSRs in your customers' shoes
  • Sharing stress-relief exercises for agents to use on the job

9. Be empathetic with customer concerns

Empathy is among the most useful skills for customer service agents to have. Unfortunately, it's also one of the hardest to "learn." Specifically, empathy refers to a person's ability to put themselves in another person's shoes and see things from his or her perspective. Being empathetic as a CSR means being able to understand a customer's pain points and come up with the right solutions.

Agents can work on demonstrating empathy with customers by:

  • Letting the customer express themselves and their issue 
  • Practicing active listening by repeating and confirming their questions/concerns
  • Staying positive, upbeat, and respectful

10. Set high standards for yourself and your team

Setting (and sticking to) high standards is important not just for customer service managers but for individual team members as well. Specifically, agents should remind themselves regularly of the importance of their roles when it comes to the "big picture" of the company. Likewise, CSR managers should make sure that the expectations for each interaction are clear so there is no confusion as to what is expected of each employee.

Here are some specific metrics and standards to consider holding your CS team (or yourself) accountable to:

  • Answering phone calls within X number of rings/seconds
  • Resolving every client's issue within X amount of time
  • Always addressing customers by their names

11. Establish sensible escalation protocols

One of the most frustrating things for a customer is not to encounter an agent who cannot resolve their issue immediately. The most frustrating thing is speaking to an agent who can't resolve the problem and doesn't know where to turn for answers.

Even the most experienced CSRs will run into issues they need help resolving. The key then is for managers to set up sensible and clear escalation protocols. This way, when a CSR doesn't know the answer to something, they know exactly what steps to take to resolve the problem for the customer.

An effective escalation protocol should:

  • Route a customer to the correct agent/employee directly
  • Resolve the issue in a timely manner
  • Give customers a choice between waiting on-hold or receiving a call back

12. Build your strategy around the customer journey

Every one of your customers has followed a unique journey with your brand, and no two customer journeys are exactly alike. One of your customers may have stumbled across your brand or product on social media, whereas another may have been referred by a family member.

From a customer service standpoint, it's important to understand that each customer you interact with took a different path to get where they are. Likewise, your strategy in dealing with customers (and their concerns/questions/problems) should be built around a customer journey map.

Some specific tips to keep in mind when aligning your service with a customer's unique journey include:

  • Considering each customer's specific goals
  • Factoring in a customer's past interactions with your brand
  • Creating tailored solutions to suit your customer's needs at every stage of the journey

13. Embrace team culture

What does embracing team culture have to do with customer service? For starters, the culture within your organization sets the tone in many ways for how team members will work together and how cohesively they'll function. When your business embraces a team culture where everybody feels valued and is working toward the same goals, better customer service will naturally be the result.

So what are some ways managers can encourage CSRs and other employees to embrace team culture in the workplace? Consider:

  • Setting up employee recognition programs
  • Maintaining transparent communication
  • Creating opportunities for positive interaction between employees and teams

14. Expand your customer service toolkit

Having the right tools and resources on-hand to handle your customer service inquiries can boost efficiency and improve the overall service experience for your customers. CSR managers, then, may want to consider expanding upon their brand's existing customer service toolkits to make the most of their teams.

Some possible additions to consider for your company's own toolkit include:

  • Help desk ticketing systems
  • Live chat platforms
  • Mobile apps
  • Email automation platforms

Test and compare customer support software before you buy

15. Automate (but don't lose the human element)

These days, automation tools (such as customer service chatbots) can improve the productivity of your business while freeing up teams and resources. If your business isn't already utilizing automation tools, now is the time to explore your options.

At the same time, it's important to hang on to that all-important human element. After all, a recent survey found that nearly 90% of customers prefer speaking to a live customer service agent. With this in mind, make sure to do the following as you embrace automation:

  • Provide customers with clear instructions on how to speak to a live human
  • Use automation (including chatbots) on a selective basis

16. Measure, analyze, and internalize customer feedback

One of the best tools for improving your customer experience? Real feedback from actual customers. It might sound a little obvious, but the reality is that many companies are not measuring and analyzing this data to their advantage.

By carefully measuring your customers' experiences and analyzing their feedback on a regular basis, you can figure out what your CSR team is doing right and what areas they may need to work on. From there, you can use that support data to build more successful customer service teams.

Some possible ways to collect customer feedback include:

  • Sending out surveys after each CSR interaction
  • Offering customers rewards in exchange for feedback
  • Posting survey/feedback invitation links on social media

17. Reinforce time management skills

Perhaps more than ever, customer service agents need to be well-versed in time management. Today, businesses tend to have more open channels of communication than ever before — ranging from actual call centers to social media inboxes. As customer service agents are bombarded with more questions and inquiries, they're also expected to provide answers more rapidly than ever.

With all this in mind, being able to make the best use of time (both the agent's and the customer's) is a must when delivering excellent service. Some specific time management tips CSRs can keep in mind, especially when things get busy, include:

  • Prioritizing tasks and creating to-do lists
  • Using time-tracking tools to maximize productivity
  • Avoiding the "trap" of multitasking

18. Listen, understand, and respond

Some of this goes back to being an active listener and having empathy. However, beyond listening to a customer's concerns and understanding where a customer is coming from, how you take action or respond is a vital component of the overall experience.

The same applies to CSR managers looking to lead great CSR teams. Taking time to invite feedback from employees and being intentional about processing that feedback is important. Likewise, letting CSRs know that their voices are heard through your response to their feedback can improve loyalty and satisfaction.

Some options for managers to acknowledge and respond to feedback include:

  • Scheduling regular meetings with CSR teams
  • Creating "action plans" in response to feedback and sharing them with teams
  • Following up on feedback from employees regularly

19. Be patient

Patience is one of the most valuable skills that both customer service reps and CSR managers can develop on the job. Of course, it's also one of the most difficult to hone. Working in customer service is, by its very nature, quite chaotic and demanding. Unhappy customers can quickly test a CSR's patience just as a new CSR can challenge a manager's patience.

Fortunately, there are plenty of practices that can help both CSRs and managers maintain their patience on the job, such as:

  • Engaging in breathing exercises during times of stress
  • Practicing empathy when dealing with challenging customers/employees
  • Taking regular breaks to reset and refocus

20. Never stop learning

This one may seem a little obvious, but it's still worth mentioning for both customer service agents and their managers. No matter how much customer service experience you may have, it's important to always be in the mindset to continue learning. Not only is the "typical" customer base (and its expectations around customer service) constantly changing, but there's always room for improvement.

To cultivate a greater willingness to learn, CSRs and managers should regularly:

  • Seek out feedback from others
  • Make time for specialized training/learning
  • Revisit their personal and professional goals

TestBox helps you choose the tools you need to improve your team’s CS skills

These days, it's not enough to offer mediocre customer service; more than ever, consumers are realizing the power they have over a company's bottom line. They're demanding the best customer service skills, ranging from clear communication and active listening to extensive product knowledge and proactive follow-up.

If you want to stay competitive within your industry, focusing on these 20 key customer service skills will help you keep a leg up. And if you're looking for help choosing the right tools and solutions to improve your team's customer service, TestBox has you covered. Our easy-to-use platform makes it easier than ever to test and compare enterprise software before you commit. Reach out today to learn more or to get started!

Sam's Face

Pedals is a beloved member of the TestBox team whose entire goal in life is to author amazingly helpful blog posts and to cameo on every piece of TestBox swag.

TestBox empowers you to have a self-serve, customer-led experience so you can buy new software and feel confident that you made the right choice. Currently focused on Customer Support, TestBox allows you to test out Zendesk, Freshdesk, HubSpot, Dixa, and other products side-by-side. It takes a matter of minutes to sign up and take these products for a test drive. Find out more at TestBox.com or follow on LinkedIn.