Have you ever had a terrible customer service experience? I bet you can recall it in vivid detail. While we don’t forget negative customer service experiences, we do tell other people about them. Did you know that customers will tell nine people about a positive customer service experience, but sixteen people about a negative one?

Your customer service skills directly impact whether customers:

  • Have a positive view of the company.
  • Spend money with the company.
  • Recommend it to friends.
  • Remain loyal or go elsewhere (customers who have a positive experience remain customers for five years longer).

Try these fourteen tips to take your customer service from decent to unforgettable:

1. Enhance Your Empathy

Empathy means stepping into the customer’s shoes and seeing from their perspective. Empathy is the most vital skill you can build in a customer facing role.

The impact of empathy is huge. Research shows 42% of customers won’t buy from a company they don’t believe is empathetic.

The customer reached out because they need you to solve a problem. If they feel like you don’t care, they won’t trust your company. And they most definitely won’t recommend it!

42% customers refuse to buy from a company that they don't believe is empathetic.

Empathy starts with understanding

Imagine you’ve bought a fantastic new doodad. But when you switch it on, it emits a horrendous buzzing noise. It works, but it’s not right. So you call customer services. There are two ways this call might go:

  1. At least it’s working. I’m not sure what else you can try. This is lack of empathy at its best (or worst.) They won’t take responsibility, because the thing is technically working, even if it is buzzing.
  2. That must be so frustrating! Let me get some more details from you, and we’ll get that fixed in no time. Now we’re talking. You feel seen, understood, and confident of a solution.

Be like customer rep number two. Show your customers that you understand their pain and the impact this is having on their day. Validate them, and reassure them that you can solve their problem.

How to be more empathetic

Empathy is a teachable skill. Here are some easy ways to build your empathy:

  • Use your imagination. When a customer describes a frustrating situation, imagine how you’d feel in their place. Keep that in mind while you talk.
  • Keep your ears open and mouth closed. Check out section 5 for active listening tips.
  • Remember you have the curse of knowledge. Something might be obvious to you, but not to your customer, who doesn’t know everything you know.
  • Talk to people who live vastly different lives than you, and really listen. Dig deep into their perspective until you understand it. Check out books or documentaries by people who have different experiences than yours, and get used to considering different opinions. This will teach you to see through another’s eyes.
  • Get to grips with your biases. We all have biases – I do, you do, everyone does. Our experiences shape our perspective on the world, and color everything we think or say. Become aware of your biases so you notice when they seep into your customer interactions.
  • Read immersive stories. Yes, I am giving you permission to read great books as part of your professional development! Reading emotional stories with complex characters improves empathy.

2. Communicate Clearly

Customers want clear answers. Ensure your answers are clear enough that your customers don’t need to ask follow up questions. The longer you spend with each customer, the more it costs your company.

There is something even worse than unclear communication – miscommunication. Miscommunication means the customer doesn’t get your meaning and is left frustrated or disappointed. Clear communication means your customer gets their answer with the least amount of effort on their part.

How to communicate more clearly

  • Tailor your answers to your customer’s level of understanding. Not sure what their level of understanding is? Ask them.
  • Only use technical words if you have to. Sometimes in a customer facing role, a little technical jargon is unavoidable. But if you can put something in plainer words, do.
  • If you need to use a technical term, define it. Make sure your customer understands every term you use.
  • Use simple words and sentences. We edit our emails or even our text messages, but how often do we edit what we say? Think before you speak, and keep your words straightforward.
  • Don’t assume your customer has read the error message on their screen, or the help manual. Start at the beginning and find out what they know.
  • Organize information before sharing it with the customer. Tell them the most important thing first and make sure they understand it. Then you can dig into the less important things.

3. Know Your Products

The customer is talking to you because you’re the expert. They expect you to have the answers – so make sure you have them. If you can’t answer their questions, the customer will think your company is incompetent. In fact, 62% of customers say dealing with a knowledgeable agent is a key part of a positive customer service interaction.

When you know the product inside out, it’s easier to understand how your customers are using it, and why they’re running into issues. Deep product knowledge gives you the tools to handle complex queries.

62% customers feel that dealing with a knowledgeable agent strongly links to a positive interaction.

How to develop deeper product knowledge

  • Use the product! Nothing gives you insight like getting the product in your hands and using it. You’ll pick up all sorts of valuable insights that you cannot get any other way.
  • Be curious about the product. Talk to the sales team. Talk to the development team. Learn why they built it that way.
  • Understand how customers actually use the product. For example, maybe you sell a time tracking software. You assume customers use it to track work time (a fair assumption!) But perhaps some of them are using the notes feature to communicate with their team. Maybe they’re tracking break time rather than work time. Who in your company is in charge of talking to customers about product use? Track that person down for a chat.
  • Get to know your company’s internal knowledge base.
  • Take every training opportunity that comes your way. Training broadens your knowledge and hones your skills.
  • Learn about your competitors’ products. Sometimes you’ll have a customer who’s considering their options. The more clearly you can demonstrate how your product stacks up, the better you can help them make a decision. This cements in their minds that you cared more about helping them, than about pushing your product.

4. Enhance Your Customer Support Skills With A Positive Attitude

Cultivate an optimistic state of mind and you’ll set yourself up for more positive customer facing experiences. If you’re in a negative state of mind, you’ll start each interaction from a place of "oh no, I have to answer this call / email, it’s going to be a long day." The customer will pick up on that.

But if you cultivate an optimistic outlook, you’ll begin each interaction with a can-do attitude, ready to solve any problem. A good attitude boosts your customer’s confidence in you.

Say you call your local coffee shop, because you’re craving your favorite coffee blend. It’s out of stock until next week. Which response would be more satisfying:

“It’s out of stock till next week. I’m sorry we don’t have anything similar.”

or

“We’ll have more next week. I’ll take your details and let you know as soon as it’s in stock. Would you like me to recommend something else in the meantime?”

The first example uses negative language. It feels dismissive. The second example focuses on what the agent can do for you right now. They can’t magic up the coffee, but they can let you know when it’s available, and they can help you look for something else. This is backed by research – strong, positive, action words have a measurable effect on customer satisfaction.

How to express yourself more positively

  • Understand the differences between positive and negative language. In our example above, “it’s out of stock” is negative, but “it will be in stock next week” is positive. If you don’t know the answer to a question, replace “I don’t know” with “I’ll find out.” Switch “I can’t fix that” for “Here’s what I can do to get this started for you.”
  • Realize that keeping a positive attitude in your work is a choice you make. Feel that in your bones. Keep choosing to be positive until it becomes a habit.
  • Practice random acts of kindness. Studies show that bringing a little bit of joy to others improves your attitude.
  • Live a healthy life. The way you live affects the way you work. Good diet and regular exercise have a positive effect on your mood, and that changes how you show up to work.

5. Practice Active Listening

Active listening is one of the most valuable customer support skills you can learn. Active listening means giving the customer your full focus and attention, so they don’t have to repeat themselves. Research shows that when we actively listen, the person speaking feels more heard than if we simply gave them further information, or a general acknowledgement.

A big part of active listening is learning to read between the lines and understand the real problem.

The most important thing in communication is to hear what isn’t being said.
Peter F. Drucker, Father of People-Centered Management

How to be an active listener

  • When the customer finishes talking, summarize their concern in your own words. “So what I’m hearing is that your phone freezes every time you use our app?” Doing this pushes your brain to process what you just heard, so you understand it more deeply. Research shows that summarizing can increase understanding of the written word by up to 19%. You can harness that power when listening too - try it.
  • Ensure you’ve grasped the problem and impact before moving on to suggest solutions. This will make your solutions better tailored to the situation.
  • If you don’t understand, ask. Customers don’t mind answering extra questions, if it means getting the right solution.
  • Always take notes. Unless you’ve got a superhuman memory, you won’t remember everything, so write it all down. The act of writing helps you focus on what the customer is saying, too.

6. Take Responsibility

Taking responsibility means making it your personal mission to solve your customer’s problem. Research shows 33% of customers say having to explain their problem to multiple people is a major source of frustration. You can avoid this by taking responsibility and searching for answers on their behalf, thus creating more positive interactions.

How to take responsibility

  • Treat your customer’s problem as if it was your own and keep going until you have a solution. Do whatever is in your power to help before passing it on to someone else.
  • If you cannot personally help them, don’t say “that’s not my department.” Instead, tell them “let me see if I can find someone to help you” - and then find someone who can help.
  • Keep things actionable. Tell the customer what you’re going to do next, and provide clear steps for them to follow too (even if the step is simply “wait for us to call you back.”)
  • Always follow up with your customers and check their issues are fully resolved.

7. Be Confident

The customer sees you as the expert. If you’re anxious, they’ll be anxious too. But if you sound confident, your customer will feel reassured that you are in control of the situation. One in three customers says talking to a knowledgeable agent is key to good customer support.

How to be more confident

  • Brush up on your product knowledge (see point 3 above). Customers can tell when you’re clueless!
  • Participate in scenario-based customer service training with your colleagues. The more practice you have of working with customers, the more confident you’ll be.
  • Make sure you’re empowered to do the right thing, whether that’s spending longer on a call or doing extra research to resolve an issue. Customer satisfaction is way more important than reducing the time spent with each person.
  • Practice relaxation techniques such as breathing exercises. When you feel and sound relaxed, your customers will feel more confident, and so will you.

8. Be Adaptable

You know that feeling when you call customer support, but they’re clearly reading from a script instead of answering your actual question? Your customers hate that too. You can avoid it by being responsive to each person’s needs and emotional state. Some of your customers will need a lot of hand holding and some will need less.

How to be adaptable

  • Learn how people use your product (see point 3 above).
  • Recognize that some customers won’t use the right terminology, and that’s ok. Ask for clarification if you need it. If you can, use their terminology instead of yours.
  • Remember that everyone thinks differently, and has different feelings and desires. Be curious about each customer’s thoughts and feelings, and try to adapt to them.
  • Foster empathy (see point 1 above).

9. Develop A Thick Skin

Anyone who works in a customer facing role knows that not every client is easy to deal with. You’re going to meet rude, harsh, or mean people. It’s not easy to bear it all and not snap back at them. But you’re the face of your company when taking a customer service call, so you’ve got to keep your cool.

How to develop a thick skin

  • Don’t take anything personally. The customer might be having a bad day. Or maybe they’re just a snappish person. Whatever the reason, it’s not personal. It can help to say to yourself “it’s not about me” - just don’t say it out loud!
  • Remember the customer is not upset at you personally. They’re frustrated and want things fixed. Keeping this in mind will help you keep your cool.
  • Keep a stress ball at your desk. It seems like a little thing, but when things get rough it can provide instant relief. Take your feelings out on the ball instead of snapping back at the awkward customer.
  • Take a breather after dealing with a difficult customer. Get up, stretch, have some water, and shake it off.

10. Make Patience One Of Your Customer Support Skills

Let’s be real, it’s not always easy to be patient with customers. Some are sharp and angry. Others want to tell you about their issue in excruciating detail. And others will need you to explain the same thing multiple times before they understand. You need to cultivate the skill of keeping calm in each of these situations.

How to be more patient

  • Notice when you’re getting impatient and practice snapping yourself out of it. Develop your own “pattern interrupter” for when your patience wanes. Say “no” to yourself, pick up your stress ball, or write the word “Patience” on a sticky note and put it where you can see it.
  • Let your customer explain their problem in whatever level of detail they need. Start the conversation with the mindset that you are going to let them explain in their own way, and not hurry them along.
  • If you’ve got a confused or irate customer on your hands, remind yourself that this too shall pass. Tell yourself “this is difficult, but I can do it.”

11. Prioritize Wisely

When you’ve got 100 customer requests waiting, you need a plan. Not all requests are equally urgent. Jumping from thing to thing, or tackling it all in order of arrival, is not the most productive approach. Some things can wait, and some things definitely can’t.

Managing your time without setting priorities is like shooting randomly and calling whatever you hit the target.
Peter Turla, The Time Management Guru

How to prioritize better

  • Create a triage system. Decide how you’re going to prioritize requests:

    Most urgent issues first?
    First in first out?
    Importance of customer (e.g. VIP customers first)?

  • Learn the art of ending a conversation politely. When you’ve done all you can, and put the next steps in place, you need to move on.
  • If you spot a request that’s going to take a long time, let the customer know you’ve got their request and are dealing with it. Don’t leave them waiting for an answer.

12. Know How To Diffuse Tough Situations

No matter how patient and polite you are, sometimes a customer will veer out of control. When a customer starts raging, you need the customer support skills to diffuse the situation.

How to diffuse difficult situations

  • Resist the urge to tell the customer they’re wrong. This will only anger them and make the situation worse.
  • Be polite and respectful, and show sympathy for their situation.
  • Apologize even if it’s not personally your fault – remember you are representing your whole company.
  • Choose your words carefully. It’s harder to express tone in writing, without body language or verbal cues. Even a phone call puts up some barriers – you can’t see the other person’s expression. Be careful not to turn the responsibility back on the customer. For example, don’t say “I can’t help you unless you can remember your password.” Instead try “I understand how frustrating this must be. Here’s what we can try.”
  • Ask your company to provide a list of pre-approved discounts, giveaways, or other arrangements that you can offer as compensation. Being able to give something immediately rather than waiting for manager approval can help diffuse a situation.

13. Be Humble

We’re all human. Sometimes you’ll make a misjudgement. Sometimes you won’t have the answer. And sometimes you’ll find yourself apologizing for other people’s mistakes.

Instead of getting defensive because something wasn’t your mistake, tell your customer "I'm extremely sorry that you were sent the wrong size dress”, or "I apologize for the inconvenience this has caused. I’ve added a note to your account to waive the late fees until next week."

Remember to give your customer clear next steps: “I don't see a note about your subscription cancellation on the account. Please allow me to investigate this on our end and get back to you by tomorrow morning."

How to build humility

  • Accept that you can’t be an expert in everything, and that’s ok.
  • Practice respecting others, even when they have different opinions.
  • Cultivate an attitude of gratitude – be grateful for the good in your life (and job) but don’t brag about it.
  • Drop your ego and don’t be afraid to ask for help. If you need to ask another team member for help, let the customer know and tell them when they can expect to hear back.

14. Learn From Feedback

Mistakes are part of running a business, especially when your business is growing. Even if your product is fantastic, bad customer service can damage your reputation. Increasing numbers of requests can leave your support staff overwhelmed, and your customers dissatisfied. Don’t despair. Use feedback mechanisms such as customer satisfaction surveys, customer feedback, and performance reviews, to learn from your mistakes.

True intuitive expertise is learned from prolonged experience with good feedback on mistakes.
Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Prize, Economic Sciences

How to learn from your feedback

  • Don’t get defensive. Keep an open mind.
  • Invest time (and money if necessary) to improve your skills.
  • Learn to see mistakes as a chance to do better, not as a failure.
  • Get in the habit of identifying where you went wrong. Have a weekly team meeting so you can share issues, and work on solutions.
  • Add common mistakes to training materials so your team, and any new hires, can benefit.

In Conclusion

Improving your customer service skills is best for everyone. Your customers feel valued, and are more likely to be loyal to your company. The company benefits from better customer relationships. And you feel calmer, more in control, and more confident in your customer interactions.