Imagine a world in which people love speaking to support reps. Families sit by the phone, hoping for a call before dinner. Young professionals answer their smartphones after a single ring when you're calling. Everyone is in a great mood, joking around with you and ready to lay down a payment immediately.

That would be nice.

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In reality, every support rep knows their reputation: a telemarketer who is apathetic, unyielding, completely scripted, and interrupting you in your daily life at least once a day. Consumers dread those anonymous numbers and automated bots. However, by grasping the following skills, you can help change these stereotypes and bring a more human approach to customer support.

1. Patience

When it comes to customer support, you're often going to be speaking with people who aren't too happy. It's important to not let any of their comments get to you. None of what they are saying is a personal attack or meant to hurt you. In this sense, it is important to have thick skin as a support rep.

It can be exhausting to suffer through a long conversation with an angry customer. In fact, according to a study done by American Express, 35% of customers have lost their temper when speaking with a customer support rep. It is unpleasant and can seem unfair. You know that it's not your fault that they had a bad experience — you're just the one who got stuck listening to them complain about it.

I like to think that, when the phone call ends or the customer walks away, I start over with a fresh slate. I don't dwell on negative interactions. Rather, I focus on highlighting the three best things I accomplished that day and the three things I would improve in the future.

Being able to handle criticism is not just a skill to exhibit when speaking with customers. This can benefit you enormously when having conversations about your performance with your superiors. It's important to remember that criticism, whether constructive from managers or outright rude from customers, is never something that is attributed to you as a person. That, of course, doesn't mean you shouldn't care about your upset customers. That brings me to my next point …

2. Empathy

Caring about customers and their experiences should always be a number one goal of support reps. Customers may be initially attracted to a company because of its products or services. However, what will turn them into long-term, loyal customers is continued support throughout their lifetime. According to an infographic by NewVoiceMedia, 53% of customers switch to a different business because they feel under-appreciated, and 42% switch due to rude or unhelpful staff.

Try to imagine how you feel when you're forced to contact a support rep due to an issue with your product or service … probably not the happiest. Responding to their frustrations by jumping to defend yourself and the company will only further rile them up. Take a step back and think about how you'd respond if a friend expressed the same annoyances to you about a different company.

Before you get into solving anything, first apologize for the troubles they've faced. Assure them that you'll do everything you can to improve their experience. They will appreciate your empathy and feel more comfortable moving forward with you. Empathy is a two-way street. If you are a thoughtful, active listener, chances are that they will reciprocate. You're a human, not a bot — you should act in such a way and not speak as though scripted.

3. Improvisation

Speaking of not being scripted, there is nothing worse than a support rep who sounds like an automated message. One of my worst experiences with a support rep occurred over an online chat. I expressed my concerns, and the rep continued to speak from a script, rather than directly responding to my concerns. You have an advantage over a bot because you have the opportunity to form a real bond with customers — instead of being confused for a bot.

It's always good to have a script on hand in case you lose your train of thought. However, it should merely function as that and nothing more. It's important to make each conversation unique to that customer because every customer and experience is unique.

Some of the best conversations I've ever had occurred when I worked as an Annual Gift Caller for Emerson College and took the time to learn a bit about people's lives outside of their role as a customer. I heard incredible stories about alumni growing up, traveling the world, and even being involved in some of the same organizations as myself. The customer opens up and feels more comfortable with the business. This results in a higher customer lifetime value, as well as a more positive experience for both you and the customer.

4. Positivity

Positivity is a key skill for every customer support rep to master. We all have things going on in our personal lives. Nevertheless, I like to leave my baggage at the door and enter the workspace with a fresh, positive attitude. This isn't just a skill that benefits the customer — it benefits you, too. Having an optimistic look at the day ahead will help you survive and thrive through long-winded conversations and unhappy customers.

You know how well the work day goes when you walk in with a soggy cup of coffee and a mood to match. Make sure to get up in the morning with enough time to eat a filling breakfast and mentally prepare for the day. We all understand what it's like to speak on the phone with a support rep who sounds like they'd rather be deep cleaning their bathroom than be on the phone with you. It's not exactly a recipe for success.

Don't let the stresses in your personal life taint your professional life. Instead, take it as an opportunity to escape those issues for a little while and, instead, help others solve their product-related issues. If you are kind and optimistic on the phone, chances are the customer's spirits will also be lifted.

5. Persuasiveness

While customers will appreciate your positivity, that's not always enough to get the job done. I believe that being both kind and persuasive are essential to closing a deal with a customer. Any support rep knows that you have to exercise some of your finest persuasion skills to get a skeptical customer to let down their guard.

This can often be associated with understanding how to "read" a customer simply from your single interaction with them. An effective way to achieve this is by listening more than you talk. Part of being a persuasive rep is not just exhibiting that skill, but knowing how to tailor it to each specific person. In a Harvard Business Review article, the author discusses a company that teaches its support reps to quickly assess the general personality type of each customer and accordingly provide them the necessary balance of information and speed.

In addition, being persuasive doesn't equate to being dishonest just to convince a customer to close a deal. You should never relay false information or take advantage of a customer. Instead, be confident in knowing that you are persuading the customer to make a positive decision that will benefit their life. If you truly believe that your company is providing products and services that will profit your customer, then it will be just as clear to your customer.

6. Competency 

As much as I can stress the importance of being empathetic towards customers and their lives outside of your business, let's be honest: They don't really care about you or want to speak with you. Time is more valuable than money these days. A customer doesn't want to waste too much of it on the phone with a support rep. That being said, every rep should find a solid balance between providing detailed, accurate service and getting the customer back to their life as quickly as possible. This means you need to be extremely competent in your role. Show how much you care by providing unbeatable service in answering their questions and solving their problems.

Some definite no's for customers include having to endure multiple platforms (such as switching from web to phone), wait on hold for several minutes, and explain the same problem to multiple people. According to a Zendesk study, 72% of customers blamed their negative customer service experience on having to explain the same problem to multiple reps. Make this process easy for them by answering messages and phone calls immediately and, when possible, avoiding having to transfer customers to someone else.

Being competent also means solving customers' problems — forever. There is nothing worse for a customer than having to repeatedly call the same company about the same issue ... talk about poor service. Your goal should be for customers to never have to speak to you more than once, at least about a single concern. Therefore, you should be well-educated on the matter and ready to fully tackle it.

7. Product Knowledge

If you want to be able to fully tackle a customer's problems, you have to know what on earth they are talking about. Proper knowledge of the products or services your company is providing is essential to your role as a support rep.

Have you ever asked a retail worker or support rep a question to which they responded by staring at you like you're crazy? As a support rep, you should be prepared to solve any concern a customer may have. It's discouraging for your customers if they feel like the rep helping them is clueless, and it can make your company look inadequate.

Make sure you have completed extensive training and feel confident in what the company is all about. I like to have a cheat sheet of important facts or statistics with me during calls to ensure I'm not misquoting information.

That doesn't mean you shouldn't ask for help when needed. It's much better to put a customer on hold while you ask for help or transfer them to another rep than to give them inaccurate information. It all comes down to taking the time to learn about the company you are representing and relaying that knowledge to the outside world.

8. Understanding

However, even if you practice all these skills, there are going to be customers who simply refuse to give in. After a certain point, you can sense when your pitch is going nowhere.

Sometimes, a customer is so upset that they are being incredibly disrespectful to you. Other times, a customer is so adamant in their low budget that they refuse to agree to the price you're offering. Whatever the case may be, every support rep has to learn when to stop pushing and admit an honorable defeat.

It can feel like the end of the world when you can't get through to a customer, but it is not your fault. As they say, you can't win ‘em all. What's important is that you tried your best, remained kind, and gave the customer all the necessary information you could. Rather, focus on thanking them for their time and expressing that you hope they consider your company's business in the future. Then, move on to the next customer. It's not a failure; it's a lesson learned for the future.

These ten customer support skills should help your company improve your customers' support experience. However, if your work in a SaaS or other tech industry, your support team is most likely providing technical support as well. Technical support requires an additional set of skills that differ from support teams in other industries. In the next section, we list a few of those skills as well as why they're important to your customer support team. 

9. Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence refers to one's ability to read other people's emotions and respond to them in an appropriate and constructive way. This is incredibly important for support teams because many customer problems don't stem from the product. Instead, these issues are caused by external factors preventing customers from achieving their goals. Emotionally intelligent reps can identify these factors and reduce their impact on the customer's experience.

For example, let's say your rep gets on the phone with a frustrated customer. In the background, the rep can hear children screaming while the customer tries to focus on explaining their issue. An emotionally intelligent rep would recognize this pain point, express empathy towards the customer, and try to make light of the situation. They could joke about the kids participating in the call, or just make their best effort to provide above-and-beyond customer service.

In cases like these, emotional intelligence becomes a timely customer service skill. Emotionally intelligent reps know what to say to customers and when to say it to them. Even if your rep knows exactly what to tell a customer, saying it at the wrong time can yield an unproductive outcome.

10. Adaptability

Like snowflakes, no two customer support issues are exactly the same. Even if the problems are identical, the customer's needs for each issue will still be different. This means your reps' responses should be different, too; they should adapt to best fit the needs of your customers.

One place where adaptability is particularly important is during case follow-up. Some customers will want detailed and frequent updates on their cases, whereas other customers will be more patient and relaxed with your team's responses. It's your reps' job to recognize the customer's expectations and do their best to fulfill each customers' specific needs.

Adaptability also plays a major role for businesses who provide omni-channel support. These companies have phone, email, and chat support channels customers can use simultaneously to get support or updates on their issues. On these teams, reps must be proficient with working on each support channel the company provides. If a customer prefers a certain channel or if a case is best suited for a specific medium, it's the rep's responsibility to transfer the case to the most optimal troubleshooting environment.

These ten customer support skills should help your company improve your customers' support experience. However, if you work in a SaaS or other tech industry, your support team is most likely providing technical support as well. Technical support requires an additional set of skills that differ from support teams in other industries. In the next section, we list a few of those skills as well as why they're important to your customer support team.

Tech Support Skills

If your company offers its customers an app or other types of software, your support team should be prepared to provide them with technical support. Technical support is a type of customer support that tasks your reps with troubleshooting a technical issue with a product or feature. Since these cases are centered around technology, they require your reps to demonstrate different skills in addition to the ones we mentioned above. Below are a few of the skills your team will need to provide customers with excellent technical support.

1. Tenacity

When it comes to solving a technical support issue, it's surprisingly easy for a rep to get frustrated at the task at hand. Think about it. If your customers are frustrated they can't solve a problem, imagine how infuriating it is for your reps to experience the same roadblock. Your customer support reps are your product experts, and if they begin struggling, the problem can quickly feel insurmountable.

To avoid this feeling of desperation, technical support reps need to be tenacious. They should expect that the problem isn't routine and diligently execute each step of their troubleshooting process. When one solution doesn't work, the rep should immediately return to the drawing board with the same positive outlook they had before. Technical support reps need to be relentless with their problem-solving and demonstrate their confidence in finding a solution.

This attitude will not only prevent your rep from losing interest in a case, but it will also reassure your customers that your team is invested in their issues. Customers understand that mistakes will happen from time to time and sometimes the solution isn't always simple, but in the end, they still expect you to resolve their problem. Even if it takes extra time, your support team needs to stay committed to finding solutions to these issues no matter how difficult the problem may be.

2. Thoroughness

It's important that technical support reps never underestimate a customer's problem. Even issues that seem simple to resolve on the surface can quickly turn into complicated and time-consuming ordeals. That deceptiveness is part of the reason why technical support is notoriously difficult.

When approaching a new technical support case, reps should take their time to fully troubleshoot the issue before executing any problem-solving steps. Depending on the product or software they're working on, making mistakes in technical support can be extremely costly for the user and the company. For example, customers will churn if reps rush through troubleshooting steps and accidentally make permanent changes to their accounts.

In fact, studies show 67% of customer churn is avoidable if the customer's issue is resolved during the first support interaction. This is because customers are less focused on speed and more concerned with solving the issue during the first support call. They don't want to have to call in repeatedly to get a quick fix, rather they want your team to take the time to fully address their issue in the first place.

3. Creativity

Earlier in this post, I mentioned that all customers have their own needs and your team is responsible for crafting personalized solutions for each of them. However, sometimes your team doesn't have the authority or resources to properly fulfill a customer's request. In these cases, your reps must be creative with their problem solving to balance the customer's needs and your company's resources and policies.

For example, one common case HubSpot's support reps encounter is customers who request a new product or feature. HubSpot support reps don't have the ability to create a new feature, nor can they make an internal request to add one. Instead, HubSpot support reps try to find an alternative solution for the customer or refer them to the Ideas Forum where they can submit a new product or feature request. While the forum doesn't guarantee the feature will be added, this response provides customers with an workaround to the problem they were having.

Even if there isn't a direct answer to the customer's problem, your reps should always seek out a creative fix. This is where the rep's creativity can play a major role in salvaging the customer's experience. Your customers want their problems solved, and if you can find an unanticipated solution, they'll remember that positive experience with your business.

4. Humility

One common occurrence in technical support cases is having a problem with a product or feature that can't be resolved and needs to be escalated. In these cases, there may be a glitch or malfunction with the product that can only be fixed with the help of your internal development team. While this is something that's usually out of your reps' control, customers will still look to your support team for a resolution to their issue.

For these cases, your support team needs to understand that they are your business's frontline defense for customer inquiries. Even though they didn't cause the problem, they need to shoulder the responsibility and prevent escalations from unhappy customers. This requires them to express humility and potentially accept blame for issues they had no part in creating. However, it's still their job to appease your customers and act as the messenger between them and your internal development team.  

5. Clarity

When you work in technical support, it can be easy to forget that your customers don't. Many times, technical support reps will become frustrated with customers who don't understand their explanation or solution to their problem. That's because the customer doesn't spend nearly as much time working with your product as your support rep does. So, when your rep explains a complicated concept to them, they can quickly get confused about what your team is trying to say.

Successful technical support reps can explain complex technical concepts to customers who have a basic understanding of their products and services. This is a difficult skill to master because it requires in-depth product knowledge and strong communication skills. Your reps must master both if they want to provide customers with simple, yet effective, explanations to their problems. This will also save your support reps time because they'll have to answer fewer questions from customers during their support interactions.

 

To learn more about customer support, read about different call center headsets next.

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Originally published May 24, 2019 5:25:00 AM, updated May 24 2019

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Customer Support