8 Soft Skills Proven to Improve Customer Service

Steph Lundberg
by Steph Lundberg
Customer service soft skills

There’s a saying in the support world: no one majors in customer service.

Which is to say, that there’s no single educational or career path that will prepare you specifically for this kind of impactful work. Most of us go on a professional journey before arriving at our final destination of a customer support career.

It also means that we pick up the excellent customer service soft skills we need to do our jobs along the way, sometimes formally (through college education) or informally through direct work in different customer-facing fields.

That was definitely true in my case. My college and career journey has spanned everything from journalism to public health to logistics. While my career hasn’t been a direct path, it’s proven over and over how soft skills are in customer service.

It’s also reinforced an important point over and over: it’s never too late to improve your soft skills.

Whether you’re a college student working part-time or a career customer support person, this post will help you understand more about the skills that are so important to customer service — and why you should invest time and effort into mastering them.

What are soft skills?

Soft skills are commonly distinguished from “hard” skills on the grounds that they have to do with things like emotional intelligence and communication ability, while “hard skills” are more technical competencies like coding or accounting. Ostensibly, hard skills are measurable, whereas soft skills are more abstract.

But here’s where I have to break with common wisdom (a bit).

As a longtime customer support professional and as a hiring manager and leader, I don’t think there’s anything “soft” about the support agents need to do their jobs well in customer service. Many software engineers couldn’t handle a phone call with an aggressive customer — there’s nothing “soft” about the skills needed to calm them down and find a path forward.

I also disagree with the idea that soft skills aren’t measurable, particularly in the realm of customer service.

Do you have a best-in-class customer satisfaction (CSAT) rating? That’s a measure of your support team’s empathy and care.

Do you have a high bug fix rate and feature release tempo? That’s a measure of your support team’s problem-solving skills, their ability to build productive and healthy relationships with other teams, and to advocate on your customers’ behalf.

Do you have a high Net Promoter Score and retention rate? That’s a measure of your customer support team's active listening skills and their ability to anticipate and address your customers’ needs (i.e., their emotional intelligence).

Do you get an outpouring of understanding and support from your customers following major outages? That’s a measure of your support team’s positive attitude, helpfulness, conflict resolution, and de-escalation skills.

I could go on. Suffice it to say that while it’s okay to use the term soft skills as a categorization method, it’s important to remember that they’re just as vital and valuable as any other skills.

The benefits of soft skills in customer service

If you’re still not convinced, let’s go over some hard numbers:

  • Customers who have a good customer experience are likely to spend a whopping 140% more than customers who have a bad experience with your company.
  • 96% of customers say the customer service a brand offers plays a role in their loyalty to that brand.
  • On the opposite end of the spectrum, 61% of customers have ended a conversation with a customer service agent mid-call out of frustration, while 71% of customers have dealt with a rude customer service agent (yikes!).
  • When customers leave a company, 68% of the time it’s because of poor service

All of these points are somewhat related to customer service agents’ soft skills. Their ability to remain calm even when a customer is rude, be empathic, and understand your customers’ problems will directly impact their experience with your brand.

In sum, soft skills in customer service will help keep customers happy, loyal and even make them spend more.

8 soft skills proven to improve customer service

1. Empathy, compassion, and patience

Ok, this is kind of three skills in one. But they’re so related and interconnected that separating them is difficult.

Customers are often contacting us in moments of real need and frustration. Sometimes they just won’t be at their best.

Empathy and compassion are required in order for us to truly understand their problems and make them feel heard. Through showing empathy, you also give customers permission to express themselves honestly, so that they can trust you to fix their problems.

Patience is crucial in all customer interactions, regardless of the product or service you’re offering. Customers may not have the technical understanding of why something isn’t working, so your support agents have to be capable of kindly drawing out the information you need or guiding them through a solution, without pressure or judgment.

2. De-escalation and conflict resolution

Customers don’t reach out for customer service because they enjoy it — they reach out because they need help. And while abusive customers can happen at times, most customers aren’t overly aggressive. They’re just regular people working through frustration, stress, fear, pain, and probably other private struggles you’re not privy to.

And if they’ve had poor customer service experiences with other companies, sometimes they’re coming to you conditioned to expect the same poor treatment. That makes it extra important to be able to hear and constructively address a customer’s feelings without taking it personally or making judgments about it.

This reduces stress for both you and the customer. It shows them you see their humanity and helps them trust that you want to help.

By remaining calm and de-escalating conversations, you create positive associations with your company. You help customers get to a place where they can share what’s really going on.

3. Positive attitude and friendliness

Customer perception can form instantly, and when customers are frustrated or when a problem can’t be solved right away, a positive and friendly attitude can work wonders.

Simply reframing the language you use to be positive instead of negative can have a big impact.

For example, instead of saying, “I’m sorry, I can’t offer you a refund,” you could try, “I can get that product replaced for you, would that help?”

The second option offers a solution and asks for the customer’s input, rather than providing a dead-end that the customer has to figure out how to get around.

Similarly, putting a smile and warmth in your voice when you speak to customers over the phone or appropriately using emojis over chat builds a customer’s trust and good feelings about the company’s brand. It’s a bit of a cliché, but people can often tell if you’re smiling when you answer the phone.

4. Effective verbal and written communication

Effective communication fosters understanding and builds emotional connections with your customers. These two things are core to creating an engaging experience that’s catered to each customer’s needs.

Customer service agents must be able to explain information clearly, concisely, and at the customer’s learning level. They need to be able to guide customers through tasks like troubleshooting step-by-step, so customers don’t get confused or frustrated. Reply templates can help, but they’re best used as a starting point.

Clear and effective communication is vital no matter the support channels you’re using — whether you’re talking to customers over the phone, managing your team inbox, or handling live chats.

It really is the core of the job.

5. Active listening and attentiveness

The ability to be present and listen actively to customers is a key skill for any customer service agent.

By actively listening, you can often glean insights from what the customer’s not saying or how they’re conveying information to you, which means you can ask more informed and relevant questions that will get you to a solution faster.

Moreover, customers hate having to repeat themselves. By actively listening, you can show your customer that you value their time as well as their business.

6. Curiosity, adaptability, and resilience

It’s not unusual for support agents to run into situations or issues they’ve never encountered before — in fact, that’s pretty much status quo for customer service professionals.

When a customer brings us a gnarly problem or asks about a part of the product we’ve never even heard of, we have to be able to respond with curiosity and flexibility (not panic). Resilience is just as necessary because sometimes you just have to buckle down and work on an issue until it’s resolved without getting tired or flustered.

When even the most unpredictable issues are handled calmly and confidently, it builds customer confidence in your team and your brand.

7. Problem-solving and resourcefulness

It’s not enough to be curious about a new topic or bug. You have to know how to work the problem and go about finding answers within a reasonable amount of time, so that you’re not leaving customers hanging with no resolution or explanation.

This could mean having god-level Google-fu, or having a tried-and-true troubleshooting methodology. It might also mean knowing what tool or database to query for answers, or knowing who to ask for help (and when).

The greatest customer service agents are super sleuths, tracking down answers with creativity and determination.

8. Ownership and advocacy

Speaking of asking for help, customer service agents should be a customer’s greatest advocate.

While support agents may handle dozens of customer conversations each day, they’re probably only interacting with each customer once. Here’s what that means:

What’s routine for you is rare for your customer.

Your support team does two things when they take ownership of each customer’s problem:

  • They create a satisfied customer
  • They transmit valuable feedback to the rest of your organization

Creating opportunities for advocacy across your customer service team makes them more than just a transactional machine handling routine questions. Instead, they become an invaluable asset to your company. They become your customers’ champions.

How to train your soft customer service skills

Did you read through that list and come across a few skills you’d like to work on or to help your team improve in?

Being a good customer support agent means always being open to growth, and although there’s no degree in customer service (yet!), there are many ways you can beef up your customer service skills.

As the customer service profession has grown and evolved, so have the resources available to us for learning and improving our most important customer service skills.

You can find professional education and courses on all the skills we covered in this article on training platforms like LinkedIn Learning, Coursera, Udemy, Skillshare, and more.

Customer service professionals and leaders have also written many books covering these soft skills and related topics, including some of the tougher competencies to build on like empathy, growth mindset, and adaptability. Some recommendations include:

Finally, your peers and leaders are excellent resources for developing your customer service soft skills.

Take advantage of peer feedback and mentorship your team can offer. Role-playing customer interactions with your team is a great way to practice conflict resolution and active listening in a low-stakes environment.

Balancing soft skills and hard skills

Customer service professionals are the living embodiment of why it’s important to maintain a balance between soft skills and hard skills.

We keep customers happy by understanding their problems, solving them, and listening to their feedback.

We keep our product and engineering teams happy by understanding and valuing their work, translating customer needs into business objectives and technical requirements, and helping those teams fulfill their commitments to the product and customers.

If I can share maybe the most pivotal lesson I’ve learned in my customer service career, it’s that there are no hard skills without soft skills.

It’s a symbiotic, mutually beneficial relationship, and when you find someone who can demonstrate both skill sets, it’s a beautiful thing.

Steph Lundberg

Steph is a writer and fractional Customer Support leader and consultant. When she’s not screaming into the void for catharsis, you can find her crafting, hanging with her kids, or spending entirely too much time on Tumblr.
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