Learn the hard and soft skills customer service professionals need to be successful: active listening, technical knowledge, and positive language.
Customer service professionals (and the customer service skills they possess) are at the frontline of creating great brand experiences.
All too often, customer service workers aren’t valued as truly skilled or strategic members of the business. It’s a shame (and a missed opportunity), given how big a role customer service agents play in the success of a business.
According to 2022 McKinsey research, three out of five customer service leaders view attracting, training, and retaining skilled customer service workers as a top business priority.
My name is Deja Jefferson, and I’m the CX and Consumer Insights Manager at Topicals. We’ve upskilled our customer service reps with both soft and hard skills to help shoppers feel happier in their skin and enjoy the best products for them.
Here are 16 of the most important hard and soft skills for customer support that we train for at Topicals, and that you should build your support team to possess.
Top customer service soft skills to manage any situation
Customer service soft skills are the non-technical, interpersonal traits agents use while supporting shoppers. Ultimately, soft skills help to problem solve through good communication and clear thinking.
These aren’t technical skills, nor are they easily quantifiable, but they are vitally important to improve customer communications.
1) Positive language
Your support agents need to have a firm understanding of how their tone of voice and word choice affect customer satisfaction.
Using positive language steers conversations toward positive emotions, which generate positive outcomes for customers and your business.
Examples of positive language used in customer service
Here are some examples of how your team can use positive language in customer service situations.
- “Absolutely! We will definitely get this sorted out for you.“
- “Good idea! I will do everything I can to make it right.”
- “Oh, that certainly sounds like something I can help you with.”
- “I’m confident it will work out and we’ll get your product to you as soon as possible.”
- “Thanks! I hope you have a fantastic day. Please reach out again if I can assist you with anything else.”
For further clarification, here are a few examples of what these same interactions might look like using negative language instead:
- “Oh no! I’ll see if I can fix your problem.”
- “That sounds awful; I wish that didn’t happen.”
- “Ah, I’m not sure if I can fix it, but I’ll try.”
- “Don’t be upset; this is why I’m here.”
- “There you go. Let me know if anything else goes wrong.”
Tips to use positive language in your customer service communications
You can get a sense of a person’s positive language skills early on, even during an interview when hiring for customer service roles.
If your support agents need help using positive language for any scenario, write customer service scripts or Macros that incorporate positive language. This helps all your agents stay positive, whether they're brand-new employees or established team members.
2) Showing empathy
It's a key customer service skill to show empathy for a shopper, especially when a difficult situation comes up.
When customers open up about their struggles and frustrations, they want to know that their complaints are falling on empathetic ears.
Examples of empathy in customer service
Take a look at this hypothetical customer issue with an angry customer:
- Hypothetical issue: “When my order arrived, it was three days late and broken. This was supposed to be a birthday gift for my daughter, and now I’m not going to have this in time to give it to her on that day. I’m angry, and I demand a refund.”
- Empathetic Response: “Wow. That does sound frustrating, and it’s not the experience you were hoping for when you chose to shop with us. I totally see why you’re angry. Let me find out what I can do for you.”
Tips to foster empathy among your customer service team
Empathy is hard to teach. At Topicals, I train my team to get inside the customer’s mind.
Our customers are real people facing challenging (and highly personal) skin issues, from fine lines to discoloration and acne.
Sure, some customers are Karens — that’s unavoidable. But most of them are feeling frustrated and hopeless. And my team has an opportunity to give them hope that we can work together to help fix the customer’s issue.
3) Active listening skills
Whether in a physical retail setting or digital, active listening is a key step to adapting to nuanced questions or navigating tense situations with customers.
Active listening is listening with the intent to obtain information and understand it, rather than simply listening with the intent to reply.
Examples of active listening in customer service
Active listening requires the agent to acknowledge that they understand our customers during a conversation, and provide feedback or ask follow-up questions when appropriate.
First, let’s look at a hypothetical customer issue:
- “Hey, I ordered the Post-Acne Kit several weeks ago and still haven’t received my package. I haven’t gotten an email with tracking updates. Can you tell me whether or not my order was shipped?”
Here’s what a generic, canned response looks like:
- “Thank you for contacting us. Did you receive a confirmation email with your order number?”
But when you use active listening skills, the reply becomes more like this:
- “Hi there. I apologize that you haven’t received a tracking email. I’m here to help. I would like to make sure your order is en route. Do you happen to have your order confirmation number? If not, we can try looking it up another way.”
The second example response showcases that the support agent has heard the problem and is actively looking for a solution.
Tips to incorporate active listening in your customer service strategy
Gorgias displays customer information like past conversations and orders, current orders, and data from your other apps (like loyalty points or product review scores).
Your agents can use this information to avoid asking for information the customer already gave, and automatically pull it into their responses with variables like [Last Order #] or [Shipping Address].
Related reading: Our full guide on personalized customer service
4) Time management
Time management is the ability to get the most important things done, with a limited number of hours in a day.
As a customer service skill, it's make-or-break: The better an agent's time management, the quicker their response times and the more tickets they can resolve.
Customer service response times tremendously impact your store’s bottom line. If a response to a query takes too long, customer satisfaction plummets.
Examples of time management in customer service
In a customer support environment, managing time effectively allows an agent to handle a larger volume of tickets (without breaking their back).
Effective time management is a team sport. You need to make sure:
- Your automations (like Rules) are saving your team from repetitive tasks
- Your team is using resources (like Macros) to avoid typing messages from scratch
- Your team is prioritizing customer service requests to handle the most important tickets first
Tips to improve time management with your customer service team
Your agents have better things to do than copy/paste order statuses all day. We use Gorgias’s Automation Add-on at Topicals to handle repetitive questions (like “Where is my order?” or “Where do you ship?”) so that my team can spend their time on issues that need human attention.
Plus, the Automation Add-on helps customers, even when my team isn’t online.
5) Patience and awareness of tense situations
Support services is an industry that is stressful by nature, largely because most shoppers’ problems are a little tense.
Your agents need to understand when a situation is tense and what to do to defuse the emotional heat:
- Recognize the situation as emotionally tense
- Detach from taking anything said personally
- Maintain control over internal negative emotions
- Employ empathetic responses to the customer
Examples of patience and awareness of tense situations in customer service
We know we can’t make everyone happy, but we can always make sure people feel heard. In this example, a shopper shared on Instagram that the product we were featuring didn’t work for them.
Instagram comments are public-facing and we always want to be sure we address feedback from disappointed customers in this kind of arena.
So, we apologized and recognized what the commentator said. Then, we suggested carrying the conversation to a private DM so we could find a solution.
Tips to boost patience and handle awareness of tense situations
In addition, support agents need to care for themselves, drink plenty of water, and get enough rest.
“People underestimate the emotional and mental resilience that working in CX requires. It’s hard not to take things personally sometimes.” —Grace Choi, Customer Experience Team Lead at TUSHY
When an agent takes time for self-care, they are prepared to be resilient to the job's stresses and approach customer problems with understanding. It’ll improve both a customer's patience with your rep as well as their ultimate satisfaction.
Reflecting is the act of repeating a concern to the person speaking — and it’s a crucial customer service skill your agents must master.
It will make your shoppers feel heard, which is the foundation of a great experience.
Reflecting accomplishes three things:
- Enables the speaker to hear their own thoughts spoken back to them so that they can focus on what they have to say and what they feel.
- Displays empathy to the speaker, letting them know that you are trying to understand the concern at hand.
- Encourages the speaker to continue expressing themselves.
Example of reflecting in customer service
Let’s see what reflecting looks like in action in a customer support context.
- Hypothetical issue: “I’ve been having trouble getting my Scar Primer to work properly. I’ve written in three times for help with the same problem, and it keeps happening. Does this product even work?”
- Reflective response: “Hi, I’m happy to help. Sounds like the Scar Primer is giving you trouble. Are you not seeing results, or is it causing a breakout? I’ve got some solutions to try for either.”
Tips to improve reflection in your customer service strategy
Sometimes, the most challenging part of solving a problem is understanding what the problem actually is.
Here are a couple of clarifying phrases to keep in your back pocket.
- “It sounds like …, is this correct?”
- “Did I miss anything?”
- “Is there anything else you want to make sure I understand?”
7) Maintaining brand voice
A strong brand voice is crucial for any brand, but keeping the brand tone consistent in customer comms is a challenge — especially for technical tickets.
Example of maintaining brand voice in customer service
Skilled customer service reps know that maintaining brand voice in customer communications goes a long way toward improving customer experiences.
Personalized Macros help brands plug in automated responses for commonly asked questions. You can build pre-made responses that are infused with your brand voice, so you can maintain fast and effective response times without sacrificing your core messaging.
At Topicals, we use Macros to help maintain brand voice while handling a high volume of customer service tickets. We’ve built a library of templated responses based on our audience persona of skincare-obsessed Gen Z-ers and millennials.
As a result, 69% of tickets at Topicals are now dealt with using automations.
Tips to encourage customer service reps to maintain brand voice
In addition to Macros, consider following up with customers using SMS messaging.
At Topicals, we tested out SMS so customer service reps could follow up with customers. The less formal format made it easy to keep up with our brand persona of Gen-Z and millennials who prefer quick messaging over emails or phone support.
We were blown away by the positive response. Customers were willing to open up about their experiences and were happy to chat about how much they loved our products.
Important hard skills for any customer service rep
Beyond the soft skills we’ve discussed above, there are hard skills every customer service representative needs to master.
Customer service hard skills are defined as the hands-on, technical requirements of the job. This entails understanding the company's products and the tools and technology that your customer service team uses.
8) Product knowledge
The most obvious customer service skill your agents (and your virtual assistants) must possess is the ability to answer questions and communicate information about the products you sell.
An essential part of customer service training is making sure your agents really understand the product, so they can answer in-depth questions and questions about how to use the product: :
- “Is this compatible with…?”
- “What materials is this made with?”
- “Will I be able to use this to do…?
If hiring, you may occasionally come across an applicant who has existing knowledge of your products, which is a bonus. Still, you should maintain a knowledge base that gives your support team (and your customers, if you chose to make your knowledge base public) easy access to the information they need.
Product knowledge includes product ingredients, uses, compatibility, troubleshooting, and more. Your training should also include process and policy information, like shipping times, packaging, returns and exchanges, and other common questions in ecommerce.
Tips to expand your product knowledge
- Create a comprehensive knowledge base so support agents can easily access the product information they need.
- Have your product development team brief support agents on new products and product updates.
- Identify frequently asked product questions and ensure that your agents have canned responses to these questions.
9) Language and grammar
Your support staff doesn’t need to illustrate beautiful images with their wordplay — actually, that risks confusing the customer. However, they do need a sharp understanding of the language they’re using and know how to use proper grammar and spelling.
Test your prospective agents on the following:
- Word use
Tips for improving your language and grammar
If your agents are having trouble with spelling or grammar, consider giving them access to tools they can incorporate into their day-to-day work.
A few great language and grammar tools to consider include:
10) Typing speed
Typing speed may not sound like the most crucial skill on this list, but when you break it down faster typing speed = faster response times.
90% of customers rate an immediate response as “important” or “very important” when they have a support request. So, the faster you can move through tickets, the more satisfied your customers are likely to be.
Tips to optimize typing speed
Take a typing speed test to know exactly how your typing ability stacks up.
Generally speaking, here’s a ranking of words per minute (WPM):
- Below average: 20 WPM or less
- Average: Between 20 – 40 WPM
- Above average: 40 – 60 WPM
If you’re a professional typist, you’re likely typing at a whopping 60 – 90 WPM (or more!)
A bulk of communication with your customers will take place via email.
Make sure your support staff has excellent email communication skills in place and that they understand how to leverage your email platform’s features.
One great way to make email customer support more streamlined and convenient for your team is to utilize a single platform for all of your customer support channels.
With Gorgias, agents can respond to emails, SMS messages, and social media messages from a single, easy-to-use dashboard rather than having to master each channel individually.
Tips for better emails
- Include the recipient’s name in the body of the email, and use a professional signature at the end of the message.
- Speed up your email response time with automated responses to common customer questions.
- Create an efficient system for responding to email inquiries so that nothing slips through the cracks.
- Limit back-and-forth responses and reduce your resolution times by requesting all necessary information in your initial email to the customer.
12) Indirect channels (like social media)
Considering 59% of the world's population uses some form of social media, it makes sense to arm your support staff to field questions and concerns that come through your social media comments.
Build a clear protocol to handle public tickets. Will you move the conversation to another communication platform or handle it where it starts? Your support agent should know what you expect as well as how to use the social media platforms you promote your brand on.
If you don’t have a helpdesk, you’re missing out on opportunities to provide great experiences and turn more casual browsers into loyal buyers:
“Gorgias has so much integration between Shopify, Instagram, and Facebook. The Facebook ad comment has been very interesting. People have been converting right there, thanks to simple social interaction.” —Cody Szymanski, Customer Experience Manager, Shinesty
Tips for social media customer service teams
- Move public negative customer interactions to a private channel (like DMs) so that they don't damage your brand image.
- Don’t worry about being on every social media channel, only use the ones where your customers are the most active.
- Monitor social conversations that are relevant to your brand with social listening tools.
13) Omnichannel customer service
Most customer relationships span multiple channels. As your brand grows, make sure your customer service agents are comfortable switching from one channel to the next.
If you don’t have a helpdesk, this will require a bit of tab-shuffling throughout the day to respond to comments and messages from all these different platforms.
That said, a helpdesk will save your agents hours every week by unifying your omnichannel approach to one platform, where agents can see every past interaction — be it an hour-long phone call or a 5-star review — and respond to customers without leaving the platform.
Tips for omnichannel customer support
Offering customer support via multiple channels such as live chat, email, call centers, and social media provides customers with more touchpoints for contacting your company.
A helpdesk that can unify customer support interactions across channels in one view is helpful for agents because it reduces the amount of app swapping they have to do. It also gives every customer's entire interaction history with your brand across all channels.
Here are a few effective tips to optimize your omnichannel support approach:
- Use a centralized customer support dashboard so support reps can access messages from multiple channels in a single location.
- Offer mobile-friendly customer support options.
- Create a system for efficiently transferring customer interactions between support channels.
Ecommerce-specific customer service skills
The skills we’ve covered so far can apply to agents that work to manage customer issues for in-person or online experiences.
For those agents who solely work in ecommerce, there are four more valuable skills to help improve customer satisfaction with your brand.
14) Live chat
Nearly 80% of customers told PwC that a speedy, helpful answer is the most important aspect of good customer service. So, brands are turning to messaging-based customer support channels (like live chat, WhatsApp, and SMS texting) to meet these customer expectations.
If your support team isn’t trained on these fast-moving channels, your customers miss out on opportunities for sales.
Answering live chat is more involved than you may think: Agents must incorporate previous customer context, pull up the right information, and be proactive to think about a forward resolution (like being able to answer customer follow-up questions) — all at a fast pace, and potentially handling other interactions at the same time.
Example to incorporate live chat in your customer service communications
Here’s what answering a live chat in Gorgias looks like:
In addition to the technical skill required to maneuver these channels within your helpdesk, your staff should refine their skillset to drive sales with live chat. Live chat can boost your conversion rate by 12%, and it’s made a huge difference in raising our purchase rate and lowering our return rate here at Topicals:
Tips for enhancing live chat skills
- Use templated Macros to help your live chat agents address customer questions more efficiently.
- Use automated responses to filter out repetitive questions for your agents.
- Ensure clear communication by prioritizing proper spelling and grammar.
15) Decision making
When talking directly with customers you need to be able to solve their issues quickly — and that involves fast decision-making.
It’s the responsibility of the customer service rep to take care of the customer by providing the best possible solution to their problem right away.
Example of decision-making in customer service
Sometimes what the customer wants isn’t beneficial to your business’s bottom line. If that happens, your agents need to be able to weigh this one issue with the customers’ entire lifetime value.
Let’s look at a hypothetical example.
- “Hey, I ordered the Faded serum in the mail. When it was delivered, the box was damaged. The serum works just fine, but considering the way it was delivered, I’d like my money back.
While the delivery person didn't take great care to keep the packaging intact, the customer was clear that the serum works as advertised. It might not be realistic for your brand’s bottom line to offer a replacement in this case.
Instead of giving the customer something that could hurt your bottom line, a strong customer service agent might make a quick decision:
- “Wow, I’m so sorry to hear the package was damaged — our packaging is really cute and we’re proud of the design work. Luckily, it sounds like our Faded serum is living up to its expectations, which we are so happy to hear. We are happy to offer you 30% off your next order with this special discount code.”
Sometimes, bending your rules to keep a customer happy (even if it’s not the most cost-effective) can pay you back with repeat purchases, positive reviews, recommendations, and more.
Tips to empower your customer service team to make informed decisions
In your customer service policies and training, be extremely clear about what kinds of situations are black-and-white, where the agent must follow company policy.
But also be very clear where there's some gray area, where the agent can deviate from the stated policy to delight a customer or make sure an interaction ends positively.
Make sure your customer service reps know what they are allowed to do on their own, and when they need a manager's review.
16) Pre-sales support
In a physical retail setting, employees can welcome customers, ask if they need any help, and give customers the information (and encouragement) they need to make a purchase.
Pre-sale support means you are able to communicate with a shopper during their browsing experience — helping the shopper make a confident purchasing decision before they click “checkout.”
It's tricky to pull this off in an ecommerce setting, but it can have a huge impact on the ROI of your support team. That’s why it's important to think critically about how your brand offers pre-sale support and give agents the skills to pull it off.
Examples of pre-sales support in ecommerce customer service
Empower your customer service reps to speak with shoppers during their browsing experience.
At Topicals, we offer a lot of education about our products, so we can arm agents with the knowledge they need to talk about Topicals with customers.
Here are a few examples of common pre-sale questions your agents might see:
- Product questions: How does this product work?
- Inventory questions: When will this product be back in stock?
- Shipping questions: Do you ship to my location?
- Technical questions: How do I use this product?
- Sourcing or ethical questions: Do you use sustainably sourced materials?
- Pricing questions: When will this item go on sale?
Tips to establish pre-sale support in your customer service communications
For brands that use Gorgias, chat campaigns let you proactively reach out to customers based on their browsing behavior.
This way, you can ask if the customer has questions, remind them of a timely promotion or free shipping offer, point them to a product recommendation quiz, or even offer a discount to nudge them toward a purchase.
Level up your customer service skills with training
When you’re looking for a new agent, it’s a great idea to hire for the skills in this list right out the gate. Then, continue to offer training opportunities for your customer service reps to master their craft.
Training for the skills listed in this article has a great impact on your company’s reputation and revenue.
- If you’re trying to level up your agents, take a look at our Support Leader's Guide to Better Customer Service Training.
- If you’re trying to level up your own skills, we’ve compiled a list of excellent resources to gain customer service certifications.
Once you’re ready to put those skills to use, sign up for Gorgias to turn your customer support team into a revenue-generating machine.