Upgrading the Skills for Customer Service

“Service standards keep rising. As competitors render better and better service, customers become more demanding. Their expectations grow. When every company’s service is shoddy, doing a few things well can earn you a reputation as the customer’s savior. But when a competitor emerges from the pack as a service leader, you have to do a lot of things right. Suddenly achieving service leadership costs more and takes longer. It may even be impossible if the competition has too much of a head start. The longer you wait, the harder it is to produce outstanding service”. – William Davidow

When customer service centres came into being, the only mode of connecting with the company was through the phone. As the market developed and customers became more demanding, companies opened up channels such as online chats, emails, web ‘discussions’, and the latest addition, social media. These multi-channels too seem to now be managed by the same service centres, which effectively meant that it would have required upgrading the skills of customer service staff. Without updating and upgrading their skills, it would be impossible for the telephone call habituated staff to manage communication through any of the other channels. Even speaking to customers over the phone meant that the service agents would require strong oral communication skills, the ability to ‘smile’ through the phone, remain calm and empathetic, and have highly evolved active listening skills. It would mean that they would be able to respond to customers after listening intently for the tone, pitch, and words used, such that they would be able offer a customized response. Pleasant manner and phone etiquette would be the top characteristics of these service agents.

With the growth of multi-channel communication, the manner in which customers expect companies to communicate with them has changed significantly. Customers expect to see top-level skills of customer service in the representatives and judge a company by the quality of responses it sends via the various channels. Service staff must be able to respond to customer queries in writing and without being able to seek clarification or having the leeway of building a connection with them through a direct conversation. This requires a high and upgraded level of skills of customer service, without which customers could very easily become frustrated and seek other companies for business. The most challenging channel of communication is most definitely social media. The visibility and immediacy of these platforms make it extremely critical for companies to not only respond swiftly, but also be able to match the tone and pace of the customer’s expectations, while ensuring that they come across as professional and highly consistent. One imperfect or misplaced ‘conversation’ or discussion, could potentially mess things up for a company and skew the reputation of the brand, sometimes beyond repair.

Upgrading the skills of customer service is critical – the fine balance between verbal and written communication, management of email and social media messages, and other such intricacies need a high level of skills. Companies must focus on upgrading the skills of their service staff on an on-going basis such that they always deliver the highest quality of service – matched perfectly with the increasing expectations of customers, while utilizing the various technologies available to do so. Investing in customer service requires companies to change their outlook – treating this realm of business as a profit area rather than a cost centre. Does your company understand this approach and what steps have you taken to upgrade the skills of customer service and its representatives?

We believe that the most important and primary step towards enhancing service levels and skills is by breaking down silos that exist within the company. With so many channels, an ever-increasing customer base, and the accelerated pace of the market, it is vital that all messages and communiqués that go out from the company, ‘speak the same language’ and are consistent in terms of quality and speed. Companies need to invest in a centralized CRM system that would ensure accessibility to all those within the companies who require the information to serve customers. The centralized base of knowledge would ensure that all the customer information were up to date, and the service staff could use it to respond swiftly and intelligently to customer queries and problems, and that the information remained consistent across all channels. To understand and use such a database efficiently requires an upgrade in not just the skills of customer service representatives but all employees within the company.

Every employee working in the company would have a certain skill set and knowledge base. This is true for the service staff as well. Companies must learn how to utilize and upgrade the skills of customer service staff based on their strengths, and use technology to route queries and problems that would be answered most easily and efficiently by a particular representative. This would save time and effort for the customer and the company since resolutions would be timely and highly relevant to the needs of the customer. Companies that do this well are the ones that find favour with customers and who would be happy to recommend the company to others.

Along with several technical knowledge and skills such as database usage, multi-channel management, product knowledge, troubleshooting skills, use of spread-sheets and presentations, and other such hard-core skills, it is important to upgrade the soft skills of customer service staff too. Companies must build and sustain a culture that encourages cohesive behaviour, problem solving, learning to accept and use feedback (even criticism), and other such skills. Each employee must be provided jobs that allow them to play to their strengths, and opportunities provided to learn new skills and grow professionally and personally too. For service staff, soft skills play an equally vital role as the technical and ‘hard’ skills.

In the endeavour to upgrade the skills of customer service, representatives must be taught the importance of smiling when speaking with customers. It is very easy to perceive a smile (or frown) over the phone, since the tone changes to a warm and caring one, when a person smiles. Of course, smiling must be used judiciously – an angry customer could get more vexed if spoken to by a smiling representative – it would be better to remain calm, use a soothing tone, and listen attentively. It is important for a company to build the capability of understanding their customers and their feelings, irrespective of the channel they use to communicate with it. Dealing with angry and frustrated customers is perhaps the most challenging part of a customer service role – it requires special skills of customer service staff in order to soothe the nerves of the harried customers. Staying calm when being shouted at requires a lot of effort and since this does not come naturally to anyone, it is a skill, which needs developing and constant enhancement. The sooner the service staff is able to calm the customer, the easier it would be for them to offer responses and solutions that would make sense to the customer.

There are several soft skills that customer service staff need and while we can list out things such as an –

  • eye for detail
  • problem solving and negotiating ability
  • being calm and motivated
  • being able to put the needs of the customer first
  • management of time, highly developed interpersonal skills, and may be proficiency in several languages – this list is not exhaustive.

Upgrading the skills of customer service and its representatives has taken on an urgency that was not there earlier – and this is irrespective of which channel the customer chooses to connect with a company. The underlying idea is to keep customers happy, profitable, loyal, and become willing ambassadors of the company’s brand and service.

Learn about a new approach to better customer service!

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