Call it emotional intelligence, EQ, or soft skills; you can’t overstate the importance of knowing how to deal with people, especially in the customer service industry. Customer service soft skills can make the difference between a happy customer and an angry customer who is taking their grievances to social media.
Difficulties in interpersonal communication will show up between staff members too. Good customer service soft skills don’t just apply to customers – you also need them to deal with other team members, and in your daily life.
The good news is that people skills can be learned. The bad news is that it can be a difficult process that takes dedication and a willingness to be vulnerable. People with low emotional intelligence (the ones who need the most help) are more likely to take feedback personally instead of using it to grow.
Even a fairly well-adjusted person might feel a little defensive when told they need to improve their soft skills. However, if they succeed, research shows that better emotional intelligence leads to greater happiness across the board in all areas of life.
1. Provide the right environment for customer service soft skills to grow
It’s much easier to train your staff to be nicer people if you provide a warm, welcoming environment. When they feel relaxed and comfortable being themselves they’ll be less guarded and more willing to embrace change. You’ll have an easier time getting them to listen to feedback and make improvements.
2. Take the lead
It’s easier to foster change if you’re all in it together. Don’t just tell your staff that they need to improve, pick something about yourself to work on too. Empathy starts at home. You’ll understand what your staff is going through, and will be better able to guide and support them through the process. They’ll see that you’re serious and as a result, feel more motivated to change themselves.
3. Have an honest initial evaluation
Few people have an accurate idea of their real strengths and weaknesses. It’s essential to start a customer service soft skills training program with a clear view of each participant’s starting point. You can have each person do a self-assessment, such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator personality test. Then do a good 360-degree feedback assessment.
Be clear and truthful, but concentrate on being helpful and supportive. The point of the evaluation is to provide an objective view of areas that need improvement. Don’t dwell on mistakes that were made in the past, and try not to be cynical, sarcastic, or judgmental.
4. Set clear goals
Once you’ve had a good look at your assessments and taken some time to reflect on what it all means, work together to set clear goals. Since, by definition, we can’t see into our own blind spots, we need other people’s input. They can help us see the areas that most need improvement.
Create a clear idea of what the desired behavior looks like. As much as possible, it should be specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-based.
For instance, “Be more social” is too vague of a goal. A better goal would be, “Give one compliment every day for a year.”
Don’t try to do too much at once – one to three items to start with is plenty. It takes a humble mindset to acknowledge that you’re not perfect and work towards improving yourself. Developing good people skills is a continuous process. There will be more than enough time to tackle everything.
5. Provide a good teaching program
It’s easy enough to give agents a list of words and phrases to say to customers. Saying something like, “I’m sorry you’ve had such a frustrating time. I’m happy you called so we can look into this and find out what happened,” can certainly do a lot to diffuse a difficult situation.
Good customer service soft skills go beyond repeating stock phrases, though. You must know when and how to deploy them, and act with sincerity.
If you sound mechanical the customer might get even more upset than they were before.
Many books have been written on the subject, and you can find plenty of good resources online. For instance, the book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is a very popular work on the subject.
6. Practice practice practice
Improving your people skills is a lot like learning a foreign language. The more often you practice the better. Doing it for one hour one day a week is not as effective as practicing for five minutes every single day. It’s also helpful to interact as much as you can with people who already speak the language.
If someone on your staff has excellent people skills, ask them to help out. They can help design games and role-playing exercises to strengthen those soft skill muscles. Try setting aside some time every day – perhaps at a morning meeting – to do a few of those exercises.
7. Provide good feedback during the process
One of the reasons soft skills can be so difficult to learn is that you don’t get clear feedback. Objective feedback on hard skills (toaster repair, for instance) is easy to get. If the toaster was broken, and is now fixed, you know you did well.
Soft skills can be difficult to measure, and sometimes people don’t give feedback at all. For instance, when is the last time you told a staffer, “I’m glad to see that you asked for help when you needed it instead of just denying there was a problem. Thanks to your hard work we were able to resolve the customer’s issue in a timely manner and they walked away happy. Good job!”
That’s the kind of feedback you’ll need to give when working on soft-skill development. Have your staff ask for feedback, too. They can ask someone to observe and weigh in as they handle a difficult situation.
Strengthening your customer service teams soft skills can be a difficult goal requiring long-term dedication, but it’s worth it.