Best practice

Essential customer service skills

At Huthwaite we work with one clear aim in mind – improving your business performance – so we'll always tailor our approach to help you achieve the best way for you and your team. But regardless of your specific business issues, our research shows there are some common factors that are essential for success:

1. Getting the balance right

Organisations and customers often have different expectations – the challenge for customer service advisers is getting the balance right between the two, so that both organisational needs and customer needs are satisfied.

  • Doing what seems right for the organisation in the short-term doesn’t always bring customer satisfaction and loyalty in the long-term. As well as meeting short-term needs, outcomes and objectives need to be set with a long-term view in mind.
  • Focusing on saving time and money, and using traditional call centre targets such as call handling time often results in customer issues not being explored in enough depth, issues not being resolved at first contact, or follow up not happening, which are all major sources of customer complaints.
  • Outcomes and objectives for customer service interactions should have a win-win focus, so both the customer and the organisation have their expectations met or even exceeded.

2. Clear communication

Customers need to understand what’s happening and why. Customer service advisers can achieve this by structuring conversations effectively and providing clear and concise information.

  • On the phone, customers can’t see what’s happening, so it’s important to keep them informed about what advisers are doing, especially if they’re entering data or reading information from a screen and not actively talking to the customer.
  • Asking permission to ask questions, put customers on hold or transfer them encourages a more positive response from customers and helps to create a favourable climate for the call.
  • Using words that the customer doesn’t understand, or not being able to explain in ‘plain English’ hinders communication and leads to repetition, increased call time and confused customers.

3. Taking responsibility

Customers appreciate advisers who take ownership and promise action. There’s nothing that annoys customers more than broken promises and things not being done.

  • Most customer complaints relate to non-action by the organisation, so advisers who take personal responsibility for what will be done and provide reassurance have more satisfied customers at the end of the call.
  • Conversely, avoiding taking responsibility for anything or saying they don't have the knowledge or authority to do something is likely to lead to increased customer dissatisfaction.
  • Apologising is important when mistakes have been made. But too much becomes wearing and if the apology is not followed up with a promise of action it won’t impress the customer.

4. Listening skills

Listening is as important in customer service as it is in sales, and effective customer service advisers are the ones who demonstrate active listening skills.

  • Our sales research has identified the importance of being able to link solutions back to customer needs, and the same is true in customer service.
  • Clarification is key – checking that the customer has understood what’s been agreed in the conversation avoids the chances of misunderstandings further down the line.
  • Showing that you’re listening helps to create a conducive climate for the call – trying to interrupt a customer in full flow, especially when they are complaining, does not help resolve problems.

5. Rapport building

Handling customer emotion is often a key part of any customer service experience. Successful advisers are those who know which behaviours to use and when, in order to create a positive climate for the call.

  • A little bit of social chat helps when customers are well known to the advisers, but has to be used appropriately.
  • Empathy demonstrates understanding of customers’ feelings, but avoids advisers making negative comments about their own organisation.
  • Sympathy and reassurance can also help, but sympathy needs to be used with care. If not it can sound like advisers are being negative about their own organisation and fellow team

6. Working with others

Internal relationships are often as important to effective customer service as the relationships established with external customers. Often the end service provided relies on more than one department within an organisation. Effective customer service teams are the ones who communicate well with other parts of the organisation.

  • Ineffective communication between departments and failure of others to return call-backs is a major cause of complaints.
  • When advisers see problems they generally lay the blame at the door of others. It’s only by encouraging them to consider what action they can take to resolve issues that they begin to accept ownership of issues for themselves, which then leads to constructive action planning.
  • The same behaviours that ensure effective communication with external customers also improve communication internally.