Unfortunately, some customer service teams have developed a bad reputation. This is because traumatic experiences haunt customers — like being left on hold for thirty minutes, or having to repeat the same problem three different times, or speaking with a rep who sounds more like a scripted robot than a human.

Of course, not all customer service teams fit into this stereotype. In fact, many are genuinely thoughtful and receptive to customers. However, it can be hard to shake those tricky preconceived notions which may leave you feeling a bit discouraged.

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If you want to hire a stellar customer service employee, they need to have a certain set of skills that truly connects them with customers and creates a satisfying experience with your organization. However, it's often hard for recruiters to gauge these types of soft skills when conducting an interview. Thus, we've curated the following list of essential customer service job skills and what interview questions you can ask to gauge them.

10 Essential Customer Service Job Skills

1. Strong Communicator

For customer service employees, the majority of the job revolves around communication. Whether it be on the phone or in-person, or indirectly via email, live chat, or social media, it's important that they feel comfortable communicating with customers.

Often times, being a strong communicator means knowing how to get to the point and giving concise explanations. Many customers won't understand industry jargon; reps have to know how to rephrase sentences to be digestible by customers of all backgrounds. Of course, you want them to be pleasant and personable in their communication, but it's essential that they master the art of speaking slowly, clearly, and briefly.

Interview Question: Explain something to me.

Yes, this is a very broad, open-ended question that may seriously trip up some candidates. However, reassure them that it's not a trick question. This gives them the freedom to explain any concept, person, place, product, etc. that they know inside and out — the same way they will come to know your products. You can get a good sense of their communication skills here and whether they're able to sum up a clear explanation.

2. Active Listener

Listening is just as important as communication. A major aspect of customer service is listening to what customers have to say, especially when they're explaining what went wrong. Reps might feel the urge to interrupt, especially if they've heard about this problem before and know exactly how to fix it. However, interjecting will just irritate the customer and make the rep seem arrogant.

Instead, reps should practice active listening. This is when one silently listens to everything the speaker has to say. Once they're done speaking, the listener reflects back on what they've said by rephrasing it using their own words to ensure that they've completely understood their message. This proves that the rep has, in fact, been paying attention to what the customer has said and confirms that they're on the same page about what the problem is.

Interview Question: When a customer explains a complicated problem or situation to you, what's the first thing you would do?

The key word here is "complicated." That's a sign that the problem may not have been properly understood by the candidate. You should look for their response to be something along the lines of, "I would restate the problem in my own words to make sure I understand them properly." If a candidate says, "I'd ask the customer to repeat the problem," that could be a warning. Customers don't enjoy being asked to repeat themselves.

3. Empathetic

Active listening feels so comforting to customers because it ties back to a larger skill that every customer service employee should exercise: empathy. Empathy is the act of recognizing what emotions another person is feeling and sharing those emotions with them.

Empathy is so important in customer service because it's what makes reps come off as a genuinely caring individual and not an apathetic robot. When they listen to a problem, they don't just hear it and jump into solving it.

Instead, effective service reps take the time to recognize how this problem has affected the customer's life, genuinely apologize for the inconvenience, and reassure customers that they will do everything they can to solve the problem. This difference can totally transform the conversation from stressful to delightful.

Interview Question: What would you say to a customer who complains about a known problem with our product?

The fact that this problem is known by your company is important. Some employees might roll their eyes and rush to solve it. However, empathetic employees will understand that, for this specific customer, this is the first time they're facing and hearing about this problem. How a candidate responds to this question will tell you if they're able to exercise empathy when explaining that a common problem is being handled.

4. Positive Outlook

While reps should surely acknowledge the severity of a problem, they don't ever want to make the situation sound bleak. After all, they want to give off the impression that you're company is equipped to handle any obstacle that comes their way. Reps need to pay attention to subtle changes in their language and behavior that can provide more positive energy to your customers.

For instance, rather than saying "I don't know," say "That's a great question. Let me find out the answer for you ASAP and get right back you." Or, instead of "That product is out of stock," they could say, "If you'd like, I can help you pre-order this product so you can receive it as soon as it's available again." A positive twist on otherwise bad news will create happier, more satisfied customers.

Interview Question: How would you respond if a customer asks you a question and you don't know the answer?

This is a great question to see if the candidate can practice some of the positive language examples mentioned above. If they seem stressed or answer with negative phrases, such as "No" or "We can't…" that may raise some red flags.

5. Patience

No matter how positive the language might be, there is some bad news that just can't be delivered lightly. For instance, if a customer's favorite product is no longer being sold, there's not much a rep can do to sugarcoat this explanation. It's these cases where customers can quickly become frustrated because they're no alternatives available. This is why it's key for customer service reps to exercise patience.

There will always be situations where they'll have to deal with a rude customer. They might feel the urge to defend themselves or your company, but stooping to the customer's level will only make matters worse. So, it's best for reps to remain calm and collected and patiently wait for the customer to defuse before moving forward.

Interview Question: How would you respond to a rude customer?

This question can give you major insights into a candidate. Of course, you want to hear that they can be relaxed when engaging with a rude customer. However, the exact words that they use will also be telling of how patient they can be on the job.

6. Conflict Resolution Skills

Customer service is all about solving problems. Usually, those problems are related to your company's products or services. Service reps troubleshoot and get customers moving on with their day. However, some conflicts, as mentioned above, can be related to a customer's negative attitude. These are the ones that tend to be the most challenging for new service reps.

Diffusing an angry customer is no easy task, but the best customer service reps will know the right words to use to calm down the customer. And, if they're unable to calm them down, they should know when it's time to pass the case on to a manager.

Interview Question: Describe a time when you turned an unhappy customer into a happy one.

This is a great question to ask candidates who have some experience working with customers. It's likely the candidate will be in a situation where they're faced with an angry customer, so you'll want to know they can be trusted to turn the situation around.

7. Quick Thinking

Customer service employees constantly face surprises, like when a customer suddenly blows up over a minor inconvenience. Perhaps, a rep is faced with a technical problem and has no idea how to go about solving it. Or, a customer wants help with a brand new product that your team hasn't quite gotten the hang of, yet. Rather than panicking, customer service reps should be able to think quickly on their feet.

Customer service employees aren't expected to be endless encyclopedias who have all the answers to life questions. But, they are expected to think quickly about how to get customers the answers they need. Whether that be improvising on the spot, passing them on to a more qualified coworker, or asking to get back to them once they've properly researched the answer, customers will appreciate your team's ability to have an immediate response.

Interview Question: Describe a time when you had to think quickly on your feet.

While the intentions of this question might be a bit obvious, they'll still force the candidate to think on the spot. The candidate will have to think back on a time when they exercised this skill and how they handled this type of situation will be telling of their future as an employee. If they aren't able to think of a distinct memory, that may be a warning sign.

8. Situational awareness

Quick thinking comes from an understanding of situational awareness — mindfulness towards events occurring in an environment and understanding what they mean for you. However, in respect to customer service, situational awareness is the ability to "read" customers at any given moment and understand what they're thinking and feeling.

This skill is highly valuable as it can determine words or actions, moving forward. If a customer seems to be wary, reps can work hard to make them feel more comfortable. If they seem to be starting to get angry, your team can start doing damage control before the situation gets out of hand. Being mindful of the customer's state will help reps fine-tune conversations to best fit customer needs.

Interview Question: How do you personally tailor each customer interaction to the individual customer?

Situational awareness is based on the idea of being mindful of the differences between individual customers, rather than treating every single customer the same way. So, this question will help you understand how the candidate would plan to do just that. Strong candidates will likely bring up tailoring interactions by reading the situation before acting.

9. Persuasion

While reps should always be kind to customers and mindful of their emotions, your service team is often there for the purpose of persuading customers to use some product or service. This isn't manipulation but an understanding of how that product or service can improve your customers' lives. Customers don't always know what product would be best for them but often will trust a service rep who confidently recommends one.

Customer service reps should be strong persuaders. This doesn't mean aggressively trying to get customers to purchase something they don't want or need. It means actively listening to what issues they're facing in their life or with their current product or service and coming up with options to resolve these issues — whether that be through purchasing or upselling and cross-selling.

Interview Question: Convince me to buy your favorite product.

This statement might stump candidates for a moment. That's okay; give them time to think. However, their response will show you how well they can persuade you to buy something. Since they should develop a deep understanding of and love for your company's products as an employee, they should be able to persuade customers to buy your products as easily as they could their favorite product.

10. Product Knowledge

Last, but not least, you can't hire a strong, persuasive customer service rep if they don't know what you're selling. Customers will be able to see through their words and recognize that they're clueless about your company's products or services..

More than just knowing what does what, potential candidates should spend some time navigating the products and actually trying to perform common tasks. That way, when customers ask them specific questions about actions not performing to par, they'll have prior, hands-on experience for solving those problems.

Interview Question: What do you already know about [ONE OF YOUR COMPANY'S PRODUCTS], and how do you plan on learning more?

This question will help you gauge how much research the candidate has already done on your organization. A solid candidate will come in having basic knowledge on what your company does and what your products are. It's okay if they don't know anything; however, it's essential they show a willingness and desire to learn more about the products.

For more skills that are essential for good customer service, read about conflict resolution skills.

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 Customer Service Templates

Originally published Apr 2, 2019 8:00:00 AM, updated March 21 2019

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Customer Service Skills