How To Improve Soft Skills in Customer Service Teams

Two office workers at their desks, with a yellow Ultimate connector and a communication icon.

We sat down with author and customer service expert Renée Evenson, to discuss how support agents can develop their soft skills within customer service teams.

What are soft skills?

Soft skills are the personal attributes and non-technical abilities that allow people to work together effectively. In a workplace context, important soft skills include: leadership, communication, problem-solving, adaptability, decision-making, and time management — and there are plenty more you could add to this list.

These skills are tricky to measure, and are sometimes (mistakenly) seen as innate personality traits. But while some people are natural-born leaders, and others find it easy to communicate clearly, everyone can develop their soft skills.

Why are soft skills important in customer service teams?

This skill set is especially important in customer support teams. Customers often reach out to companies when something has gone wrong: a canceled flight, a missing package, or a fraudulent transaction.

When emotions run high (as they have done during the pandemic) an agent’s ability to empathize — and to demonstrate that empathy — can make or break the customer experience. With 32% of consumers likely to switch brands after a single bad experience, exceptional CX is a must.

As customer expectations rise — a growing trend in customer support — more and more companies are seeking smart automation solutions to take care of repetitive support requests. This frees agents to apply their talents to more complex cases. And while this work is more rewarding, you need your team to bring their A-game.

Renée Evenson shares her insights into how customer support leaders can best implement soft skills training for customer service teams.

Listen more, communicate better

Communication, professionalism, trustworthiness, product knowledge, and problem-solving are all key soft skills for support agents to develop. But, Renée explains, focusing on better communication — particularly listening skills — is the most effective way to improve overall soft skills.

Here’s what Renée has to say on the matter:

Soft skills are the ability to communicate well to complete a successful transaction between customers and employees. Communication involves making a good first impression, establishing a rapport, listening attentively, paying attention to nonverbal signals, asking questions to ensure understanding, speaking clearly and correctly, and finding the best solution for each customer.

“Of all the communication skills, listening is the most important component. Without the ability to listen well, communication can never be effective.”

- Renée Evenson, author and CS expert

When you don’t listen attentively and completely or when you listen with a predisposed bias, you may misinterpret the message. You may assume you understand and give an incorrect response. You may have to ask the customer to repeat themselves. When this happens you will not form a good impression with your customer and it will be more difficult to establish a rapport.

Pay attention to your team

When Richard Branson boards a Virgin Airlines flight, he does so with a notebook and pen. He talks to his employees. He asks them about their day, their families, and asks what customer challenges they’re facing. He takes notes, and then he takes action.

Customer support leaders looking to improve their agents’ soft skills should take a leaf out of Branson’s book.

According to Renée, managers can train their employees to listen better by first monitoring employees to discover what training is needed.

“For example, does an employee assume he knows what the customer is requesting without asking questions or recapping?

Managers should also pay attention to outside distractions that may make listening difficult. Is the workplace noisy? Are employees multitasking while interacting with customers? Are employees paying more attention to what is happening around them than to their customers?”

Furthermore, managers can help their employees improve their listening skill by doing the following:

  • Teach empathetic listening. Look at the situation from the customer’s point of view. Instil the importance of unemotional, unbiased listening to help employees understand the message correctly
  • Teach employees to ask good questions. Ask open-ended questions beginning with who, what, when, where, why, and how to gather more information. Ask closed questions that require a yes, no, or short answer to clarify the customer’s request
  • Teach employees to focus. The best way to do this is to shut out outside distractions, not to multitask, and to focus solely on the customer they are assisting

Play to your agents’ strengths

Strengths and weaknesses vary significantly from person to person. By identifying the soft skills your agents are most confident in, and where their skills need developing, you can offer tailored guidance to every member of your team.

“Each employee has different strengths, which require different methods for improvement. When managers take the time to get to know each employee, the strengths and areas of improvement will be discovered.

An employee may shut out distractions, may listen completely, but assumes he knows what the customer wants without recapping. An employee may recap to ensure understanding, but not take the time (or have the job skills) to find the best solution. Through observation, managers will be able to train and coach each employee and turn areas for improvement into strengths.”

Foster a culture of trust

If customer service teams show resistance to the idea of developing their soft skills, it’s often down to trust issues.

When teams are cohesive, resistance is normally not an issue explains Renée. Teams have the communication skills to listen to one another and work together to solve problems and improve their collective skills.

“Resistance usually occurs when team members are not supportive of one another, when they do not feel their manager to be a team player, when they feel they are not treated fairly, and when they do not communicate openly with each other.”

- Renée Evenson

Managers can work to build cohesiveness among their teams by improving communication skills with one another. It all begins with listening. When managers listen openly and unemotionally to employees, they will uncover the root of resistance.

When employees see that their manager listens and works to resolve problems, open and honest communication develops. Trust is established. When managers and their teams have a trusting relationship, it is much easier to work with employees to improve their skills.

Develop daily habits for building soft skills

Developing soft skills requires more than a single training session. Once the practices are known, it’s important to build up habits that nurture soft skill development within customer service teams. Renée offers these suggestions:

“In meetings, managers can acknowledge good practices they observed. Give specific examples: Linda, I really liked the way you asked your customer questions when she was confused about her bill. You were able to uncover the reason why it was higher than usual. Before explaining, you recapped what she said and when you explained that was the reason for the increase, she understood.

Managers can make it a fun learning experience. Have two employees role play. Give one employee a customer script; another team member will play the role of the employee. Together as a group, provide positive feedback on the soft skills, such as listening, asking good questions, speaking clearly, and offering the best solution. Offer helpful suggestions to improve.”

Creating daily habits within your team will ensure that soft skills are never far from mind.

Most importantly…

Finally, Renée offers two tips for managers regarding soft skill training for customer service teams.

“The most important thing managers can do is be hands-on. Pay attention to employees. Get to know their strengths and what skills need improving. Training is the key to improving employees’ behaviors.

Don’t just train, though; follow up to make sure the employee is using the training correctly. When you see an employee doing something right, provide positive feedback. Likewise, when you see an employee falling back to old habits, provide constructive feedback.”

Soft skills are often forgotten or neglected. But as AI-powered virtual agents take on simple, routine tasks — giving human agents more time to dedicate to their customers — soft skills training for customer service teams is more important than ever.

Follow the trends in customer support for 2022