• Sharon Oatway

Top 10 Customer Service Skills for 2021

Updated: Jun 25



It is estimated that poor customer service is costing businesses more than $75 billion a year. In fact, when asked if they’d rather clean a toilet than speak with customer service, nearly 40% of customers chose the toilet!


It goes without saying that great customer service is important, but it is really difficult to sustain. This is partly due to the challenges of maintaining the right combination of people, skills, processes, and technologies that make it easy to do business with you and remove the effort that is inherent in problem-solving and support. Much has changed in our world since the pandemic of 2020/2021, but the one thing that remains constant is the value of human connection.


When a customer reaches out to customer service, your frontline CSRs have the opportunity to solve problems and provide information ... in addition to turning around negative emotions, retaining business, up-selling/cross-selling new business, and generating free advertising through positive word-of-mouth.


We also know that, with the introduction of alternate channels for support (like self-serve, user forums, online help functions), by the time customers finally pick up the phone to call customer service, their level of frustration is heightened. The traditional customer service skills of the past are not going to cut it in 2021.


With all this as a backdrop, we identified the top 10 customer service skills your agents need to master this year (in no particular order):


1. Empathy

The ability to see things from the customer’s point of view is an essential customer service skill. Letting customers know that you understand their predicament and can appreciate the emotions they have at the moment, can go a long way to managing a customer’s situation. In fact, for most customers, how they relate to the experience is predominantly based on emotions, not facts.


Whether a customer service representative is ‘naturally’ empathetic or not, all CSRs need to learn how to leverage empathy to engage with customers. To make sure that each customer feels heard and valued – regardless of the outcome.


Why this skill is important:

Customers are 9x more likely to be highly engaged when they receive what they consider to be empathetic customer support. ~ Gallup


2. Adaptability

If we have learned anything from the past 10 years, it is the importance of adaptability and a keen willingness to learn and grow. Customer expectations are always changing. New technologies are always emerging. The competitive landscape is always shifting. Every employee – but particularly customer service representatives who engage with a broad range of customers – need to have the desire (and curiosity) to learn new skills, grow and change with the ever-changing environment.


Why this skill is important:

“We live in an age where the rate of change has been colossal. Colossal. Almost every week there's some transformation of some kind, whether technological or political or scientific, whatever. And I think it's bewildering to human beings to live in a time when they can't take anything as fixed - when everything is shifting and changing all the time.” ~ Salman Rushdie


3. Sales

Customer service reps need the ability to 'sell' customers (and perhaps their managers) on ideas and solutions. But perhaps most importantly, they must be able to sell added-value products and services.


The adoption rate of self-serve technology will only grow as these same technologies become more prolific, easier to use, and capable. Whether it is a simple online order form or an AI-supported chatbot, self-serve strategies must also take into consideration the fact that self-serve customers will become more removed from an organization’s reach.


When a customer contacts customer service with a problem, it may be the only contact they have with a real person within your organization. This is a highly valuable interaction that can influence whether or not the customer remains a client and positively recommends you to others – or does not. It also provides a golden opportunity to look for opportunities to improve the value of the relationship – both of your organization to the client and vice versa.


This means that customer service representatives must be able to sell, by looking for opportunities to add value and proactively introducing them to the customers they serve.


Why this skill is important:

The probability of selling to an existing, happy customer is up to 14 times higher than the probability of selling to a new customer, according to Marketing Metrics. Additionally, satisfied customers can be a valuable source of referrals to the sales team. That’s why your customer service team has a direct impact on the effectiveness of your sales. ~ Marketing Metrics


4. Active Listening

Customers reach out to customer service because they need someone to listen to and address their problems or issues. If a customer service representative is not actively listening to the customer – and is fully ‘present’ – then why bother calling? Often, CSRs are so intent on resolving a customer’s issue that they fail to listen at the moment and mentally jump ahead to the solution. As a result, they don’t fully hear and understand what the customer’s real problem is.


Active listening requires the customer service representative to be focused on what the customer is saying, interpreting what it means, and then responding appropriately in a way that demonstrates that they not only understand what the customer is saying but that they also consider it to be important.


Why this skill is important:

The biggest communication problem is that we don't listen to understand.

We listen to reply. ~Stephen R. Covey


5. Problem Solving + Ownership

With the growing acceptance and capability of self-serve options, most customers will attempt to solve their own issues before contacting customer service. That means that the types of requests customer service representatives receive are growing in complexity and emotion.


Great CSRs love problem solving – the tougher the problem, the better! Sometimes it means getting creative and thinking outside of the box to get to arrive at a solution that will satisfy the customer, while other times it requires tenacity and a willingness to stick with a problem until it is resolved. That means doing for the customer what they would do for themselves in the same situation.


No one expects CSRs to be able to resolve every problem, every time -- but customers do expect them to take ownership for finding someone or something that can. Often this comes down to the values of an organization and whether or not they are prepared to accept responsibility for resolving a customer’s issue fully or push responsibility back onto the customer. The need for organizations to remove customer effort from problem-solving is key to customer loyalty.


Why this skill is important:

44% of customers say that they feel they are working harder and investing more in the effort to solve a problem than the customer service representatives they work with. ~ Microsoft


6. Supporting Irate Customers

Conflict is inevitable in every business. Let’s admit it – customer service organizations have collectively trained customers to believe that the louder they complain, the more likely they will have their issue or complaint resolved. That is because in many cases, it works!


Before the proliferation of self-serve options and multi-channel communication, customer service call volume was significantly higher which meant that a CSR might have one irate caller a day. While the call volume is lower, the concentration of irate, frustrated, confused, and upset callers is higher. A CSR may receive several high-emotion calls in a day. And, in addition to the initial problem that needs to be addressed, the customer's emotions now complicate the conversation.


Yes, CSRs need to have a thick skin – but they also need to master several sophisticated skills coming effortlessly together (listening, questioning, empathy, problem-solving, and more). There are proven approaches and language to help support irate customers (and the agents who serve them) arrive at a positive conclusion. Your customer service teams need them. After all, when a customer complains you have an opportunity to turn them around -- when they don’t complain, you do not.


Why this skill is important:

Only 1 out of 26 unhappy customers complain. 91% of unhappy customers who are non-complainers simply leave. ~ Kolsky


7. Communication Skills

The ability to communicate clearly, concisely, and confidently is crucial in customer service. In fact, 33% of customers say that efficiently answering questions is the most important skill that a customer service agent can have. Makes sense. Fortunately, many organizations have moved away from Average Talk Time (ATT) as a key measure of success – which often required CSRs to rush through their response -- in favor of other customer-centric metrics like First Contact Resolution (FCR). This enables CSRs to take the extra time needed to clarify and/or educate the customer, as needed.


Experienced CSRs also understand how to adjust their own communication style to match that of the customer to enable full understanding and to gain the customer’s confidence in their response.


Why this skill is important:

64% of customers do not fully trust the information they receive from customer service representatives, even if it is the right answer. ~ Kolsky



8. Technological Dexterity

Companies that care about delivering the best possible customer experience have typically invested in the technology needed to facilitate that. While business systems have improved in ease of use, there are many more systems/applications that CSRs must master. This constant bombardment of new technology often leaves CSRs feeling more frustrated and stressed. Having the capacity to understand (and even enjoy) technology helps minimize the impact and stress associated with constantly evolving systems and processes.


In addition, the most highly ranked customer service professionals tend to have superior knowledge of how their companies and products/services work. As products and services have grown in numbers and complexity, CSRs cannot be expected to know everything off the top of their head. That is where technology plays a vital role. Having access to tools that enable the seamless delivery of information to the CSR or the customer directly ensures that the information provided is both accurate and consistent.


Why this skill is important:

Although 55% of workers felt more productive than they had the previous year, 51% felt that technology increased their stress levels at work. ~ Kensington


9. Be able to positively say ‘no’

The #1 thing customers want when they reach out to an organization is resolution to their issue with as little effort as possible. That is achievable under most circumstances -- but sometimes it simply is not. That’s where being able to say ‘no’ in a positive manner comes into play. After all, customers want to hear what you CAN DO, not what you cannot.


That means being able to present information in the most positive light, so the customer hears that you are supporting them fully. So, if the customer’s request is not do-able, instead of saying “I’m sorry but there is no way I will have an answer for you by tomorrow” the CSR would position what they CAN DO by saying “I can send in your request now and follow-up tomorrow morning to make sure that you have an answer by Friday at the latest.”


Why this skill is important:

Customers are more demanding than ever. They have more power than they used to. They are smarter and have higher expectations than ever before. After all, we taught them! ~ Hyken


10. Attention to Detail/Accuracy

We ask a lot of our frontline staff. A customer service representative must be able to juggle systems, procedures, product knowledge, communication, and more on the fly. Not an easy task. With the added pressure of growing customer and corporate expectations, it should be no surprise that errors will be made.