Consider the following mission statements from external-facing technical support organizations:
- “Our mission is to foster customer loyalty by meeting and exceeding customer expectations and contributing to their success. We will achieve this mission by providing timely, accurate, and professional service at each and every customer contact. We will focus on our customers by delivering high-quality support services, by fostering teamwork, and continuous improvement in everything we do.”
- “Our mission is to increase revenue and build long-term customer relationships by offering and supporting efficient business solutions while maintaining our commitment to exceptional customer care.”
Notice how interaction skills and service standards are incorporated into each mission statement. These statements underscore the importance of executing customer
communication skills brilliantly.
In this article, we’ll explore the customer service and communication skills (also known as soft skills) that enable customer support professionals to deliver consistent, high-quality service and support to customers. We’ll also discuss how these skills fit into three overall groups: foundational skills, finesse skills, and customer loyalty-building skills. And we’ll discover how these skills are vital to achieving the organization’s overall technical support strategy.
Now let’s define these critical skills and look at how they’re employed every day to improve customer satisfaction.
Foundational skills are those that help us achieve fundamental standards (e.g., a professional telephone greeting, an email salutation). These skills require consistency and accuracy, whether or not something has been done. They’re executed with every customer contact, and are considered to be etiquette and procedural skills.
Finesse skills are those that must be well executed if the support organization hopes to create a positive customer experience. They’re subjective in nature and their usage may vary from contact to contact. For example, while all technicians ask questions, those who know which questions to ask, in what order, will be more efficient trouble-shooters, leading to better time management for the technician and the customer. Some important finesse skills involved in telephone (verbal skills) and email/chat (written) support are described below.
Listening is a technician’s most powerful soft skill. When applied effectively, exceptional listening skills can have many benefits, including helping technicians build trust and rapport with their customers. When technicians listen effectively, customers will listen attentively.
Good listening skills involve:
Attending: This is demonstrated when technicians make their customers feel that their psychological and technical needs will be addressed, and that technicians will be their customers’ advocate within the company.
Following: This skill involves asking appropriate, targeted, and clarifying questions that pinpoint the issue and signal comprehension and care. Additionally, when technicians modulate their tones, it indicates that they have the ability to follow the customer’s train of thought and communication.
Authenticity: Using a friendly and professional communication style conveys assurance authenticity. Through words and tone, technicians say, “I’m with you. Help me understand your situation.”
Acknowledging: These are the signals technicians give customers in an attempt to understand the emotional content of what the customer is saying. Typically, empathy statements should be followed by action statements; first acknowledge the emotional content of the conversation, then transition from the emotion to the business or technical issue. Here’s an example: “So you feel that our software isn’t performing. May I ask you a few questions to pinpoint the performance issue?” Since technicians encounter so many emotions in the course of their daily operations, the ability to quickly identify the emotion and respond appropriately is a key finesse skill. This skill helps them control calls by moving customers from emotional thinking to rational thinking, establishing rapport and understanding, and refocusing the customer on the business reason for contacting customer support.
Reframing: This is the ability to summarize the problem and transition to effective troubleshooting and resolution. Summarizing clarifies communication between the technician and the customer and allows for the correction of potential misunderstandings. It also slows angry customers down and prompts them to discuss their technical issues. Paraphrasing and verbatim repetition are useful techniques for summarizing.
Questioning is the second most powerful skill for identifying and resolving issues. There are four common types of questions. We’ll explore three here and the fourth when we discuss customer loyalty-building skills.
Permission questions are used to demonstrate respect and concern for customers and their time. They are phrased to elicit a “yes” response, and they can be used to ask the customer to accept a solution, or to agree to answer questions to help discover a solution (e.g., “Is this solution acceptable?” OR “Did this solution work?” OR “Do you have time now to answer several questions?”).
Closed-ended questions are used to confirm or clarify facts and viewpoints. They’re designed to elicit a brief response, such as a “yes” or “no” or other small piece of information. Prompt them with words/terms like do, does, is, are, and so forth (e.g., “Is the system working now?”). Permission questions are usually closed-ended.
Open-ended questions are used to help customers elaborate on their issues and technicians gather key information in the form of the symptoms of the problem and the effects on customers’ businesses. These questions allow technicians to gauge impact and urgency, as well as establish a rapport by encouraging the customer to talk while the technician listens actively (e.g., “What were you trying to accomplish when the error message occurred?”). Open-ended questions usually begin with what, how, who, where, and when. It’s best to avoid why because it can be interpreted as an accusation or cross-examination.
Both foundational and finesse skills are also employed in written communication. With web, email, and chat submissions on the rise, written communication exceeds verbal communication in many customer support organizations. Written foundational skills are listed in the table above; we’ll address finesse skills next.
Content: To provide accurate responses to customer inquiries, or to follow up on telephone conversations, emails must be clear, concise, and factual. Whether the content is a summary of a conversation, additional instructions or questions, or a solution, it must be written in the language and terminology the customer can understand.
Style: Written communication should be professional and business-oriented. For instance, since email can be easily forwarded, it should always reflect well on the support organization. Use the active voice and Standard English, and avoid humor, which rarely translates well in writing.
Format: When escalating, it’s important to be able to translate a customer’s concerns into the correct format for an escalation engineer and follow escalation procedures. Documentation should be accurate, complete, and up to date. Knowledge articles that are added to the knowledge base should be written according to specific guidelines.
Written communication is more difficult to comprehend; it’s one-way, and it’s difficult to convey the same tone verbal communication would carry. Therefore, technicians need to know when to abandon written communication. For example, after two rounds of email, it’s usually time to pick up the telephone. This ensures more effective progress toward resolution, saves time, and reduces frustration on the part of the customer.
Additional skills include time, case, and project management skills. Time management involves understanding priorities and focusing on them regardless of interruptions and distractions. It’s the ability to realistically assess how long it will take to accomplish a task and then plan to achieve that end. Effectively managing talk time, using the knowledge base, and asking the right questions in the right order will all lead to optimal time management when working with customers. Effective time management also means the ability to easily switch from one customer to another, one communication channel to another, and one technical case to another, often many times throughout the work day (this is known as sequential tasking).
Case management entails knowing how long to work on a case before escalating. With customers in the queue, technicians must be able to work on their current cases and others as assigned. It’s important to update each assigned case during any given day so that cases don’t “fall through the cracks” and become aging cases.
Project management involves researching, developing, and executing project plans. Not all technicians are responsible for projects, but if they are, they need to be able to coordinate the necessary resources and tasks for completing the project. Deliverables need to be clearly defined, milestones and deadlines need to be set and met, and regularly scheduled project meetings need to be held.
Customer loyalty skills are those that expand and enhance relationships with customers. By working on their clients’ behalf as expeditors, advocates, and troubleshooting experts, technicians should be able to orchestrate all required departmental and corporate resources to deliver the best solution (current and future) for each unique customer in the shortest amount of time. To do so, technicians must recognize the value of formal and informal relationships within his/her company and can leverage these internal relationships when needed.
Creating and sustaining a loyal customer base requires a higher level of finesse. For example, using high-gain questions, a form of open-ended questions, engages customers, prompting them to truly think about, evaluate, and analyze the issue and the best solution (e.g., “What would be the best outcome?” OR “How do you envision using our product in the future?”). Questions like these demonstrate a technician’s genuine interest in the customer and the customer’s business. Additionally, the answers to these provide vital information that improves technicians understanding of their customers’ viewpoints and potential needs.
Because they understand the customer’s business and can creatively address issues, skilled technicians also have the ability to craft appropriate options or solutions. They also sprinkle their conversations with benefit statements, using so that to connect a request or action to a benefit (e.g., “Please provide some additional information so that we can quickly pinpoint the issue” OR “I’d like to get our professional services team involved so that you can consider all the options before we move forward.”).
Top-notch technicians are not only good communicators and troubleshooters but also good team players. They stay informed about many aspects of a customer’s account, including pending patches, updates, history, and possible sales opportunities. They communicate with sales and technical managers to keep them informed of customer issues. Finally, they’re always aware of the value of the customer and know when to involve other members of the support and sales team.
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Repeat business is the direct result of customer interactions that are professional, courteous and consistent. Therefore, executing fundamental communication skills brilliantly, call to call, leads to profitability. Brilliant performance requires skills training, reinforcement, and coaching. We’ll discuss these topics in a follow-up article in the September/October issue. Stay tuned!
For the past twenty years, Mia Melanson has provided professional and organizational development programs for customer support centers in entrepreneurial organizations and Fortune 1000 companies. As president of Performance Consulting, Mia gives her clients the tools to reinforce skills development and assess industry standards and metrics, and she’s written articles and books on coaching, communication skills, and stress management. Mia’s also an HDI Faculty member and an adjunct faculty member at Northeastern University’s School of Business.