20 Customer Service Techniques to Step Up Your Game

The right service techniques can have a huge impact on customer happiness. That's one reason why companies pay thousands of dollars to have their employees trained by the Disney Institute.

Here are some of the most important techniques every service rep should master.

1
Explanation techniques

Explaining is a crucial part of any service delivery. In the below video, Matt Abrahams explains why structure is the key to effective communication.

Structure increases processing fluency. This means that people retain structured information 40% more reliably and accurately than unstructured information.

Think about how you would go about remembering phone numbers. It’s easier to remember the number “0633489291” if you restructure it into “063-348-9291”.

You can use the following explanation techniques for customer service. They’re supposed to be simple, but they take some practice to master. Once you have their structures up your sleeve, however, you'll never find yourself struggling through a story again.

Problem — solution — benefit. A straightforward explanation structure, often used in sales. You talk about the problem, e.g.: “There are mosquitos flying in your bedroom and they're biting you.” Then the solution: “A mosquito net is a net you can hang around your bed.” Then the benefit: “That way, you’ll wake up fresh with unscathed skin after a calm night.” Very simple, very powerful. It can also be adapted to “opportunity — solution — benefit.”

What? So what? Now what? Another straightforward structure that can be used in practically any situation. Start talking about what it is. Then about why it's important. Then what the next steps should be. You can use it to answer questions, but also to introduce people: “That’s John. He’s a huge Game of Thrones fan just like you. He even met George R.R. Martin. Let me introduce you to him.”

FAB. The Features, Advantages, Benefits technique is mostly used in sales. A feature is what a product is or does. For example, a car has windscreen wipers. The advantage is the direct positive effect of this feature, in this case that it wipes the water of your front window quickly and thoroughly. The benefit is where you tie it to the customer, namely that she will have a clear view while driving.

ELI5 Technique. Stands for “Explain it like I’m five years old”. This explanation technique is about simplicity and is especially powerful for explaining technical concepts to non-techies. Tech-savvy people often presume a certain level of technical knowledge of the customer. ELI5 doesn't mean you should address your customers in baby talk. But instead of asking your customer to ZIP a file, for example, you can give the exact directions: “Please right click the file, choose ‘compress’, and send the new ZIP file that is created.”

2
Empathy techniques

Empathy is the ability to understand or feel what another person is experiencing. Showing empathy in customer service is essential, because it shows the customer that you care. Jumping straight to the fixing part can make you appear unsympathetic.

Nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.

Theodore Roosevelt

Feel, Felt, Found Technique. This technique is used by Apple’s Geniuses — those knowledgeable service reps you'll find in the Apple stores — and was revealed by a leak on Gizmodo as one of the cornerstones of Apple's service approach. When a customer comes with a doubt or complaint, Apple Geniuses are supposed to “empathize their way into a sale”.

  • Feel: Empathize with how the customer feels in that moment, and let them know that you understand.
  • Felt: Explain that you, too, once felt that way in the past.
  • Found: Tell the customer how you found that your concern was actually incorrect.
one of Apple's offices
Apple has one of the world's strongest customer service cultures.

HEARD Technique. This service failure recovery technique comes from another household name in customer service: Disney. When a customer comes with a complaint, Disney employees follow the “Hear”, “Empathize”, “Apologize”, “Resolve”, and “Diagnose” process.

  • Hear. Listen. Give the customer the freedom to share their full, uninterrupted story.
  • Empathize. This creates an emotional connection and trust, and shows the intrinsic willingness to offer support.
  • Apologize. This can be more important than the solution itself, and is the extension of empathy. Apologizing means that you care and assume ownership of the problem at hand.
  • Resolve. Disney advocates speed in resolving the issue, and backs this up by thoroughly training and empowering its employees. Frontend Disney personal almost never has to “ask their boss” to solve an issue, making their machine much more efficient.
  • Diagnose. Prevention beats cure, which is why the last step is to analyze what led to the service failure. Employees are told to “seek perfection, and settle for excellence”, leaving any feelings of guilt at the doorstep and hunting down imperfections in the process.
mickey on a piano
Disney is the source behind many accepted customer service techniques.

3
Name memorization techniques

Don’t you just hate it when someone forgets your name? We often forget names ourselves, of course. But how much do we appreciate it when people remember us.

A person’s name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language.

Dale Carnegie

If you want to make a good impression on people, remembering their name is a great start. Too bad, then, that most of us forget the names of the people we meet — even during the introduction.

image of a handshake, probably the oldest customer service technique
Are you a victim of the "next in line effect"?

One reason for that is that names are rather random bits of information and thus hard for your mind to store. If you'd meet a Hodor-type of guy going by the name of “Mr Big”, you'd probably remember him. Too bad most names aren't so descriptive.

The other reason is the “next in line effect”. When we meet a person, we tend to focus on making a good impression ourselves. “Come on, you've got this… just say your name clearly and confidently… give a firm handshake…” In the meantime, you've missed the other person's name.

Luckily, there are some techniques that can help.

Meet & repeat. Repeat the name of the person. Not only echoing after they mentioned it, but try to use it throughout the rest of your conversation. “So, John, did you see our tutorial section?”

Connect with another person. Most names you've heard before. When someone tells you his name is “Bruce”, picture him in a scene with your close friend Bruce — or in a scene with Bruce Wayne, knocking down bad guys in the streets of Gotham. In Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, Joshua Foer shares the tip of associating things you want to remember with crazy and freakish images that won't easily leave your mind.

cartoon of happy man on the phone
Wait with showing warmth and enthusiasm until you've heard the name.

The happy-to-see-you technique. This one isn’t so much about memorization, but it's described in The Charisma Myth as a powerful name technique to make people feel good.

Most phone reps are taught to always pick up the phone with a warm and enthusiastic voice. Author Olivia Fox Cabane instead suggests to pick up the phone in a rather neutral manner. Then when you hear and recognize the name, you respond with warmth and enthusiasm — making the other person feel special.

4
Listening techniques

One of the main points in Dale Carnegie’s How to Make Friends and Influence People is to make other people feel important. Careful listening is one of the fastest tools to do this. But it's easier said than done.

Here are a few active listening techniques that are especially useful for customer service. You can find a full list of active listening techniques here.

Body language. Your posture strongly influences your ability to listen — even when you're not meeting face to face. In Body Language, Barbara and Allan Pease explain how body posture influences the mind. So look like an active listener at all times. Lean forward, make eye contact (in person), nod. And avoid any ‘tells’ that could show that you're doing something else than listening — such as yawning, typing, eating, or drinking.

Calling blind. It’s easy to daydream when someone’s telling a story — especially when you're on the phone while your computer screen is inviting you to a world of distractions. In The Charisma Myth, Cabane shares the tip of closing the eyes while on the phone. This will increase your presence, and make it easier to focus solely on what's being said.

Listening indicators. These are small inferences the listener utters while the other side is speaking. “Okay”, “Yes”, “I see”. It shows the speaker that you're still with him, and it's especially important in a real-time conversation in which you don't see each other — like phone and live chat. In The Charisma Myth, Cabane warns against overdoing it in face to face meetings, since this can make you look weak. In a phone or live chat conversation, however, there’s no visual feedback about whether you're listening or not — making it more important.

Echoing. When you echo, you repeat the last word(s) of your conversation partner. It serves the same purpose as the listening indicators, but is placed at spots that deserve highlighting. “We raised our conversion rate by 30%” — “oh wow, 30%!”

Paraphrasing. This is basically explaining back to the speaker what you've just heard, in slightly different words. It can have a strong clarifying effect, and shows the speaker you’ve understood her points: “I see. So just by adding live chat in the checkout process, you've raised conversion by 30%.”

Summarizing. With this, you offer a core summary of what the speaker just said: “So live chat has been a great investment for you.” You chunk the information down to a digestible piece, making the speaker feel sure that you've got his main point.

5
Questioning techniques

Everyone regularly uses a combination of the following questioning techniques without thought. But being aware of the effect and influence of these types of questions will allow you to deploy them more purposefully. With questions you guide the conversation — a crucial service skill.

Again, these are the most useful question types for customer service. Find a full list of question types here.

cartoon of man with a cloud
Knowing the effect of the different types of question techniques can greatly improve your communication game.

Open ended questions. These are questions to get the other person to talk and open up. They cannot be answered with a mere yes or no. “How did this happen…?”, “What’s the story behind…?”, etc. When you don't have the background info yet, you'll want to start out with open questions to get a complete picture of the issue at hand.

Closed questions. These can be replied to with a focused answer, like “yes”, “no”, or “puppies!”. They’re useful to confirm or clarify something — whether you're still on the same line, for example. You can throw them in while the customer is telling a story if you need some clarification.

Leading/loaded questions. These subtly guide the customers to a certain direction. When a customer is complaining about some missing features, for example, you could guide her mindset towards something more positive by asking about a feature that you know she likes: “OK, and how’s the new analytics dashboard working out for you?”

Probing questions. These are questions to gain more detail about a situation, and they're essential for troubleshooting. When a customer comes with a problem, your mind automatically comes up with possible causes and explanations. Probing questions basically test those on-the-spot hypotheses with the customer. For example: “Did your phone get in contact with any water recently?”

Clarifying questions. It’s often worthwhile to switch a discussion towards a question about definitions. We often think we're talking about the same thing while we're not. For example: “When you say ‘Chat Widget’, do you mean the chat window on your website or the Widget Editor in your dashboard?”

One of the great benefits of being a service rep is that you learn skills and techniques that work in your private life as well. So you can practice them not only behind your desk, but throughout the day, with whomever you meet.