The 8 Customer Service Skills And Traits You Should Look For

Despite technological developments, customer service remains largely a matter of human interactions. This means that employee skills and traits make a big difference.

Whether you're hiring, training, or looking for a service job yourself, knowing the most important customer skills and traits makes you more likely to succeed.

Many times skills can be taught, but people must come to the table with certain traits, or no matter how skillful they are, they may still not be effective at delivering an amazing customer service experience.

Shep Hyken

We've asked some thought leaders and seasoned professionals from the customer service industry what qualities service professionals need to succeed.

1
Enthusiasm

Userlike's Customer Success Manager Jörn argues that enthusiasm is the number one factor to predict your success in customer service, sales, or management.

Enthusiasm is infectious. In a neutral mood, encountering enthusiasm lights you up. When already happy, enthusiasm makes you happier. When angry, enthusiasm reassures you that someone will make things right.

An employee who conveys authentic enthusiasm does so in a way that is unique, perhaps even singular, and matches his style and personality. And while this may be animated or may be reserved, it will be real.

Steve Curtin, author of Delight Your Customers.

A lack of enthusiasm brings you down just as much. I always have to shield my mood from the cashiers at my local supermarket — apathetically mumbling "Have a nice day" while already looking away in the distance.

Enthusiasm is a trait that depends largely on your personality. But while it's difficult to turn someone enthusiastic against her nature, it's rather easy to rob a natural enthusiast of her gift.

It's hard to stay enthusiastic when you're in a bad working environment, surrounded by negative colleagues, when you're forced to follow bureaucratic rules, or when you lack challenges (probably the case in my grocery store).

2
Communication skills

When hiring for a customer service/success position at Userlike, communication skills are one of the first things we test for. These come in written and verbal forms.

Writing is one of the crucial soft skills, enabling you to clearly and concisely get your message across in written form. It's especially important if most of your support happens via live chat or email tickets.

If you are trying to decide between a few people to fill a position, always hire the better writer. It doesn't matter if that person is a designer, programmer, marketer, salesperson, or whatever, the writing skills will pay off. Effective, concise writing and editing leads to effective, concise code, design, emails, instant messages, and more. — Getting Real, 37 Signals

We test writing skills by sending the applicants a Google Doc with sample service questions related to our product — questions which they have one hour to answer. This used to be the step after a personal meeting, but we recently switched these steps around.

Piece of paper representing the customer service skill of writing.

We've had applicants making a great impression in the conversation, but floundering on the test with writing that was bloated, incohesive, and littered with spelling errors. So now we let applicants fill in the written test first, before investing in a face to face talk.

Some great books to improve your written skills are Everybody Writes, 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing, and How to Write Short.

Verbal skills are of course important as well, especially when most of your support is done over the phone or in person. Verbal and written skills are often correlated — they both require a certain empathy for the listener — but they don't have to be.

Mircrophone representing verbal skills.

Y Combinator's Paul Graham wrote an strong essay about the difference between writing and speaking skills. Being a good speaker is less about the substance of what you're conveying and more about your people skills.

While Graham sounds a bit negative towards the verbal skills, they are of course crucial for phone or direct support. At Userlike we test this part through our face to face interview questions.

In my post on customer service techniques I discussed methods like What - So What - Now What, Problem - Solution - Benefits/, andELI5 (explain it like I'm 5 years old).

3
Customer Empathy / Compassion

Book cover Against Empathy

Empathy is often hailed as a crucial trait in customer service. It's easy to see why: it's the ability to put yourself in the other person's shoes.

But as I argued in "Forget Customer Empathy — Do This Instead", I would replace empathy by compassion. This is based on Paul Bloom's book "Against Empathy".

He argues that empathy has a few flaws that make it unsuited for producing benevolent behavior — something you're definitely looking for in customer service. Summarized, empathy...

  • Drains fast. We have limited empathy stamina.
  • Works only for individuals, not for groups.
  • Suffers from the in-group effect, making it vulnerable to discrimination.
  • Can cloud your judgment to favor people expressing their emotions.

Compassion, on the other hand, is the wish for everyone to do well — without being affected by their misery. Dr. Bloom explains that is a skill that can be developed, among others through the Metta meditation method.

While empathic people only last for a few rounds, compassionate people are able to do good over and over again.

4
Patience

A brain with a clock.

Patience is the capacity to accept or tolerate delay, problems, or suffering without becoming annoyed or anxious. Without patience, the service experience turns unpleasant for both the customer and the service rep.

The impatient customer service rep will be in an emotion of constant annoyance, which will shine through in her tone of voice. This, again, frustrates the customer.

Although some are more predisposed to it than others, patience is a practicable skill. Psychology Today suggests the following steps to practice patience:

  1. Recognize that impatience has arisen
  2. Investigate how impatience feels in your mind and body
  3. Begin to transform impatience into patience

Can you be too patient with customers?

From my experience doing chat support, I know the tendency of some customers to keep on talking beyond the point of productivity. If something is broken, you don't need to hear the 15 ways in which that's an inconvenience; it should simply be fixed.

But that doesn't make impatience a virtue. Impatience will only cause a vicious circle of annoyance. To keep the service interaction both friendly and productive, you need to combine patience with the verbal communication skill to guide the conversation.

5
Stress Management

Stress is inherent to customer service due to the degree of variance in the field.

Stress is everywhere, of course. Take developers, who need to deliver projects before a certain deadline. But given a reasonable deadline and the proper planning, it is at least theoretically possible to get to the deadline without stress.

In service, stress will always be a part of your daily business. Customers may drop in all at once; some might be angry about something; others will be hard to understand.

Besides long term negative health effects, stress can be a problem because it temporarily decreases your intelligence (IQ) and emotional (EQ) quotients. As a bodily response to danger, stress pushes you into fight or flight mode. IQ and EQ are of secondary importance when a crocodile is chasing you.

But no wild animal is chasing you. A customer yells at you through the phone; or you're receiving yet another chat while you already have four running. In such moments your mental quotients come in handy.

Psychologist Kelly McGonigal researched the effects of stress. She found that stress only had negative effects for those who perceived it negatively. People who perceived stressed as something that helped them get the job done were actually healthier than those who didn't perceive stress at all.

In another TEDx video, Alan Watkins showcases with heart rate measurements how breathing techniques can help you to manage stress. The point about positivity and negativity comes back as well.

6
Flexibility

In chat support you often get to handle three or more concurrent chats. In phone support you often have to look up information while the customer is talking to you. Many people would say this requires 'multitasking skills'.

But repeated research shows that multitasking in the ordinary sense of the word doesn't exist. Multitasking can only take place when:

  1. At least one of the tasks is so learned that it can be done on auto-pilot.
  2. The tasks involve different types of brain processing.

Making notes while listening to a customer is possible, because you're only transferring language to a different format (voice to written). What you cannot do, however, is writing an email to customer A while talking on the phone with customer B.

That's because these activities both target the language processing section of your brains. When you do attempt to combine them, you might find yourself typing what you're trying to say — and the other way around.

A more accurate term would be serial-tasking — rapidly switching from one task to another.

In chat support it's quite normal to be chatting with multiple customers at the same time. But you're not actually multi-tasking. You're rapidly switching between the different chats, giving your customers the impression that all your attention is aimed at them.

Serial-tasking takes flexibility. This cognitive ability decreases with age, which is why support centers often look for young people. But it's also an ability that can be trained. Lumosity offers a couple of free games to train your flexibility.

7
Charisma

Charismatic people are attractive. People want to interact with them, which is why it's desirable to have them in your support team. If your support rep is likable, this will shine off to the company as well.

In The Charisma Myth, Olivia Fox Cabane dissects charisma and offers tips for its development. She identifies three parts:

  1. Presence — being present in the conversation.
  2. Power — being able to change something.
  3. Warmth — having the best intentions with people.
Book cover of The Charisma Myth

Presence. The ability to focus exclusively on the person you're interacting with. It makes people feel heard and important. A service rep that conveys presence assures your customers that they're listened to.

Power. Conveying the ability to change something. Presence will make you friendly, but without power it can make you look submissive. Power in service reps gives customers the feeling that their issues will be taken care of. It's easy to rob your service reps of this crucial ingredient by depriving them of the ability to make decisions. Few sentences are as emasculating as "I'll have to check that with my boss".

Warmth. Conveying that you wish the best for the person you're interacting with. It's similar to compassion, although it is possible to be compassionate without it appearing as such through your vocal or body language.

Customers come to me with a sense of urgency and an honest desire to understand how to execute a program correctly and to see results. This only works if customers trust my expertise.

Sarang Bhatt, Wootric

8
Company knowledge

Customers call for support because they experience a knowledge gap. They have a question and go to support for an answer. It's logical that deep knowledge about the company and its products will raise service quality by providing better and faster answers.

A common mistake in customer service training is to stick to the what-level. What are the features? What is the delivery time? A truly helpful employee is one whose knowledge reaches the why-level. Why did we build the features like they are? Why is the delivery time longer than others in the market?

The Why is a powerful weapon in support due to the power of the because justification.

In a Harvard University study, researchers asked people waiting in line to print whether they could cut in line. They used three variations of the same question:

  1. "Hello. I have 5 pages. May I use the machine?"
  2. "Hello. I have 5 pages. May I use the machine, because I'm in a rush?"
  3. "Hello. I have 5 pages. May I use the machine, because I need to print?"

Option 2 (94% success rate) naturally beats option 1 (60%); you can empathize with someone in a rush. What was surprising was the minimal difference between options 2 (94%) and 3 (93%).

Results of copy question.

People are accepting in general, but we do want to know the why. Imagine the following customer question: "Why did you shorten your return period?" A 'what-level' response would be: "Management decided for that." Although probably true, that won't win over any customers.

Now imagine a service rep who could provide you with a why answer: "We had a longer period, but too many customers were abusing the policy. We could not maintain it without raising our prices, so we decided to shorten to period."

Such an explanation brings about understanding from the customer's side, while also showing that she's taken seriously.

The right customer service skills and traits don't only make for happier customers, they also make the job more fun. May this customer service skills list guide you in training, highlighting, or selecting for the right qualities.