Unfortunately, some customer service teams have developed a less-than-desirable reputation. This is because bad 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 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.
If you want to hire a stellar customer service employee, they should have a certain set of skills that truly connects them with customers and creates a satisfying experience with your organization. We‘ve curated the following list of essential customer service job skills and what interview questions you can ask to gauge them, but before we dive in, let’s define what it means to work in customer service.
What is customer service?
Customer service is the act of providing assistance, support, and solutions to customers before, during, and after their interaction with a company. It encompasses many skills like effective communication, empathy, and more to deliver a positive and satisfactory customer experience.
Customer service encompasses both business-to-customer and business-to-business operations. No matter the industry or role, how you take care of your customers determines whether you grow and maintain your business.
Managers should look for these universal service skills during the next round of interviews.
Skills Needed for a Customer Service Job
- Effective Communication
- Empathy and Emotional Intelligence
- Time Management
- Product Knowledge
- Active Listening
- Situational Awareness
- Technical Skills
- Conflict Resolution
- Positive Attitude
- Cultural Sensitivity
1. Effective Communication
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.
Oftentimes, 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: Can you provide an example of a time when you had to effectively communicate with a difficult customer? How did you handle the situation?
Give candidates the freedom to explain any situation or concept inside and out. You can get a good sense of their communication skills here and whether they're able to sum up a clear explanation.
Problem-solving skills allow employees to come up with innovative solutions to quickly diffuse any issue that arises for the customer. Managers want a candidate who can think critically and proactively address any problems that may arise to drive success for the team.
Interview Question: Tell me about a time when you had to think on your feet to resolve a customer's issue. What steps did you take?
This questioning tests the candidate's ability to think on their feet and come up with creative solutions to resolve customer issues.
3. Empathy and Emotional Intelligence
Emotional intelligence is necessary for any customer service role because it enables employees to build strong relationships with clients and understand their needs on a deeper level. This allows them to tailor their approach and communication style, leading to increased trust and rapport. Additionally, empathy and emotional intelligence help the candidate navigate difficult conversations and handle objections more effectively.
Interview Question: How do you handle interacting with upset or angry customers? Can you share a specific example?
Helps evaluate if the candidate can understand and relate to the emotions and concerns of customers, ensuring a positive interaction.
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. In these cases, customers can quickly become frustrated because there‘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: Describe a situation when you had to deal with a customer who had a lot of questions or was unsure of what they needed. How did you handle it?
Assesses the candidate's ability to handle challenging situations and difficult customers without losing their cool or rushing the resolution process.
5. Time Management
Any manager can agree that they want service reps that are good at balancing tasks and priorities. Effective time management allows the candidate to respond to customer inquiries promptly, reducing wait times and enhancing customer satisfaction.
It also enables them to balance multiple tasks and priorities, ensuring that all customer needs are addressed in a timely manner.
Interview Question: How do you prioritize and manage your tasks when dealing with multiple customer inquiries simultaneously?
Managers should assess candidates' time management abilities to ensure they can handle multiple customer inquiries efficiently without compromising response time or service quality.
6. Product Knowledge
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 time navigating the products and 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 in solving those problems.
Interview Question: What do you already know about [insert company product], 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 of 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.
7. Active Listening
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 on what they’ve said by rephrasing it using their own words to ensure 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 candidate may not have properly understood the problem. 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.
A manager would want a customer service candidate with professionalism because it establishes a positive and trustworthy image for the company. Professionalism ensures that the candidate represents the company with integrity and respect, maintaining high customer service standards.
It also fosters excellent communication skills, handling any customer interactions with politeness, courtesy, and professionalism, ultimately enhancing customer satisfaction and loyalty.
Interview Question: How do you handle difficult or challenging customers while maintaining a professional demeanor?
This question helps managers determine a candidate's ability to handle challenging situations with grace, demonstrating professionalism and ensuring a positive representation of the company.
9. Situational awareness
Quick thinking comes from understanding 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.
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 understanding 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.
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: How do you handle unexpected changes in customer demands or priorities?
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.
12. Technical Skills
Technical skills allow customer service reps to effectively troubleshoot and resolve customer issues related to products or services. This proficiency enables the candidate to provide accurate information, guide customers through technical processes, and offer solutions that accommodate their specific needs.
Additionally, having technical skills empowers the candidate to handle a wider range of customer inquiries, enhancing their ability to provide more comprehensive support.
Interview Question: Describe your experience using customer service software or other tools to assist customers.
Managers should ask this question to assess candidates' proficiency in using essential tools, ensuring they can navigate systems effectively to provide efficient customer support.
13. Conflict Resolution
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: Have you ever faced a situation where you had to mediate a conflict between customers? How did you handle it?
This is a great question to ask candidates who have some experience working with customers. The candidate will likely 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.
Strong attention to detail is a skill that managers want their teams to demonstrate on a day-to-day basis. How your service rep presents themselves, completes tasks, and answers customer inquiries reflects the quality of the brand as a whole.
Interview Question: How do you ensure that you enter accurate and detailed information when documenting customer interactions?
This question helps managers assess a candidate's meticulousness in recording accurate information, ensuring smooth handoffs and comprehensive issue resolution.
Managers want a customer service candidate with multitasking skills because it enables them to handle multiple customer inquiries simultaneously, improving productivity and efficiency. Multitasking skills allow the candidate to effectively prioritize and manage competing tasks, ensuring that customer needs are met in a timely manner. And, being able to multitask helps the candidate adapt to a fast-paced environment, reducing customer wait time.
Interview Question: Provide an example of a time when you had to handle multiple customer inquiries simultaneously. How did you manage?
Managers should evaluate candidates' ability to handle high volumes of customer inquiries by multitasking effectively without compromising service quality or response time.
16. Positive Attitude
While you might not think of this as a skill, in a customer service job, maintaining one certainly is.
Service reps oftentimes are the first people that customers speak to in a business, and it's their responsibility to create a welcoming and friendly environment for customers. A positive attitude allows the candidate to approach each customer interaction with enthusiasm and genuine care, enhancing the overall customer experience.
It also enables the candidate to handle customer complaints constructively and empathetically, turning potentially negative experiences into positive ones.
Interview Question: How do you maintain a positive attitude when dealing with challenging or demanding customers?
This question enables managers to assess candidates' ability to maintain a positive, empathetic, and helpful attitude when dealing with difficult customers, ensuring customer satisfaction.
17. Cultural Sensitivity
Cultural sensitivity ensures that the candidate respects and values differences, avoiding any potential misunderstanding or offense. By being culturally sensitive, the candidate can navigate cross-cultural communication challenges, tailor their approach to individual cultural preferences, and ultimately provide a more inclusive and customer-centric experience.
Interview Question: How do you ensure that you provide outstanding service to customers from diverse backgrounds?
You want to bring a candidate onto your team that will provide excellent service to every paying customer. The last thing you want is to hire an employee that lands your business in hot water from unacceptable language or behavior.
A positive team dynamic within the customer service department is crucial to any business. Effective teamwork allows the candidate to support and assist colleagues, creating a seamless experience for customers. It also ensures that the candidate can effectively communicate and coordinate with other team members, facilitating efficient problem-solving and enhancing the overall customer journey.
Interview Question: Describe a situation when you had to collaborate with colleagues from other departments to resolve a customer issue or inquiry. How did you approach it?
Managers should evaluate candidates' ability to collaborate with cross-functional teams, ensuring collective efforts to resolve complex customer issues efficiently.
Any manager would want a customer service candidate with productivity skills because it ensures efficient handling of customer inquiries and requests, maximizing the team's output. Productivity skills enable candidates to manage their time effectively, prioritize tasks, and work on multiple customer cases simultaneously without compromising quality.
Interview Question: How do you maintain productivity while still ensuring excellent customer service?
This question enables managers to assess a candidate's ability to balance productivity without compromising service quality, ensuring efficient resolution of customer inquiries.
A customer service candidate that can follow through demonstrates reliability and commitment to solving for the customer. When the candidate follows through on customer inquiries or concerns, it builds trust and confidence in the company, enhancing customer loyalty. Additionally, following through on customer service interactions ensures that no customer is left unresolved, leading to higher customer satisfaction and a positive reputation for the company.
Interview Question: Can you give an example of a time when you had to follow up with a customer to ensure their issue was completely resolved?
Managers should ask this question to evaluate candidates' commitment to resolving customer issues fully, ensuring proactive follow-up and exceptional service.
Understand the Key Aspects of Customer Service
Customer service jobs require reps that are multifaceted and prepared to meet each customer's unique needs. By asking intentional interview questions and gauging each candidate for the qualities listed above, your business will have a star-studded team that your customers will appreciate.
Editor's note: This article was published in April 2019 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.