How To Manage Soft Skills for Customer Service Teams
We sat down with Customer Service author and expert Renée Evenson, to talk about how to instill and improve soft skills amongst your customer service support team.
What you’ll learn from this article:
- Communication -- particularly listening -- is the most important soft skill for customer service teams.
- Managers should spend more time observing their teams to identify which soft skills need improvement amongst their individual agents.
- Any team resistance to soft skill development can be met by improving trust.
- Managers should be extra hands on with their team, and follow up on soft skill development.
Bob works for a telecommunications company managing sales reps.
He was recently reassigned to a different location, with a team that wasn’t meeting its sales quota. When he met the manager he was replacing, the manager said “Good luck. You’re taking over a bunch of disgruntled employees with bad attitudes.”
The first thing Bob did upon meeting his new team was to tell them he planned to start fresh, explained his expectations, and stressed that he would be sitting with each employee to get to know them and get a feel for each person’s strengths and areas of improvement so they could all do their best.
It didn’t take Bob long to realise that the reason the employees were disgruntled was because they did not feel they were supported by the previous manager. When Bob observed each employee, he asked questions to gauge their level of expertise and also their attitudes. He listened carefully and offered both positive and constructive feedback as needed.
The team members quickly realised that Bob truly cared for them and wanted each of them to succeed. Once open communication was established, the team members began to trust that Bob was a team player who listened, who responded, who set high expectations, and they began to work together to support and challenge each other to do their best. It did not take long for their results to improve and exceed their goals.
A manager’s keen attention to their individual support agents’ strengths and weaknesses is imperative for improving soft skills. And, as the example indicates, agents’ soft skills can make or break the customer experience. Yet, a surprising number of managers are unfamiliar with not only the term, but how to execute soft skill improvement amongst their team.
Let’s take a look at what Customer Service author and expert Renée Evenson has to teach us about improving soft skills amongst your customer service support team.
Listen more. Communicate better.
Most articles on soft skills include lists of the most important soft skills managers should work on improving amongst their customer service teams for happier customers. These typically include communication skills, professionalism, ability to gain the trust of customers, product knowledge, and problem-solving.
But Renée explains that, actually, just focussing on improving communication skills -- particularly listening skills -- is the key to improving overall soft skills.
"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. 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."
Of course, it’s not just your agents who need to improve their listening skills. As their leader, customer service managers are best to lead by example. For this, you’ll need to hone not only your listening skills but also your skills of observation in general.
Managers need to pay more attention
When Richard Branson boards a Virgin Airlines jet, he does so with a notepad and pen, with eyes and ears wide open. 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 service managers looking to improve their agents’ soft skills should take a leaf out of Branson’s book.
"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. Instill 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."
Not all agents are created equal
Upon spending more time observing your employees, you’ll quickly notice -- if you hadn’t already -- that strengths and weaknesses vary significantly from person to person.
"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 of improvement into strengths."
But sometimes, observing isn’t enough. There are times when teams need to learn to work better as...well, a team.
When you meet resistance amongst your team
Some customer service teams are broken. In these situations, managers should step in and work on establishing trusting relationships. These will ease any resistance that could crop up with regards to soft skills development -- not to mention the other obvious benefits that increased trust brings to a team.
"When teams are cohesive, resistance is normally not an issue. 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.
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."
Daily habits for building soft skills
Of course, building soft skills requires more than a single intervention. Once the habits are taught, it’s important to build up habits that nurture soft skill development amongst your customer service team.
"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."
Instilling daily habits amongst your team will ensure that the importance of soft skills is constantly highlighted, saving you from having to call meetings for re-training.
Finally, Renée offers two key tips for managers with regards to 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’ behaviours.
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."
The fact is, soft skills are often forgotten or neglected, due to the fact that they’re less quantifiable than other skills like speedy typing. But they shouldn’t be. As Renée explains in this article, focussing on communication -- particularly listening -- is key to improving your customer support team’s soft skills. Beyond listening, managers can improve their ability to pinpoint individual team members’ soft skill development areas, which will inevitably vary from person to person. Daily habits will help with upkeep for the newly acquired skills, as will managers being hands on with their teams and following up with positive and constructive feedback.
Renée Evenson is a business consultant and writer specializing in organisational psychology in the workplace—the roles and behaviors between customers, employees, and management. Please visit Renée’s website www.Renéeevenson.com, where you can read excerpts of her books.
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