When I was hired by HubSpot's customer support team, I had zero technical experience. I had an undergraduate degree in marketing communications and was landscaping in Boston when I submitted my application. To my knowledge, the only tech experience I had was playing Xbox online with my friends.
So, it was a bit of a surprise when I was told I was ideal for HubSpot's technical support role. I figured I must have fooled somebody during my interview and that my future manager would be in for a rough surprise after seeing me struggle through setting up a computer.
But, when I met my new colleagues, we all pretty much had one thing in common: nobody was a technical engineer. In fact, most were English majors whose strongest skills were writing and communication, not coding or data analytics.
So, why did HubSpot want us to help its customers?
The answer was soft skills. HubSpot believed that eventually, reps would master its product after enough exposure to it. But, while you can teach yourself how to use a CRM, learning how to become an empathetic communicator is much harder. And, it's less forgiving, too, since you can't reboot a customer relationship like can restart a CRM.
In this post, let's review what soft skills are in customer service and how they differ from technical ones. Then, we'll provide a list of skills to work on according to HubSpot's customer support team leads.
What Are Soft Skills?
Soft skills refer to the abilities used to delight a customer that don't relate to your product, service, or company. These are nontechnical skills like interpersonal communication, personality traits, and social awareness, which all play an important role in customer experience.
Soft skills are usually harder to train than technical ones because they can't be studied from a book or training manual. For example, if you don't know how to troubleshoot a product, you can always read knowledge base resources, watch walkthrough videos, or ask a colleague for help to find the solution you're searching for.
But, if a customer is upset and you need to de-escalate immediately, it's solely up to your ability to communicate if you want to avoid potential churn. In these cases, you can't turn to a manual for help and it doesn't really matter how much you know about your product or service. What's most important is your ability to react and use soft skills to solve for the customer, even when a solution isn't exactly clear.
There are plenty of soft skills that customer service reps can work on throughout their careers. But, below is a list of some of the most important ones, according to HubSpot customer support.
Soft Skills to Brush Up On As a Customer Service Rep
- Managing Ambiguity
- Creative Problem Solving
- Active Listening
- Conversation Starting
- Empathy and Understanding
- Positive Vocabulary
- Time Management
- Body Language
- Follow-Up Questioning
1. Managing Ambiguity
Product knowledge can act as one of the biggest points of friction between a customer and a support rep. As a support rep, you're a product expert and you know all of the technical lingo and slang associated with your product or brand. The customer, however, might not be as well-versed in the same environment and might not provide the level of detail you're looking for when they're explaining a problem.
Managing ambiguity is all about obtaining the information you need to troubleshoot while still working seamlessly with the customer. This means asking the right questions, using examples to illustrate an idea, and trusting your troubleshooting skills to arrive at the right solution. Ideally, the customer should leave the experience feeling like they collaborated with you on the effort and contributed to their own success.
2. Creative Problem Solving
When the customer is ambiguous or has a complicated problem, sometimes you need to be creative to find a solution. Great customer support reps are excellent problem solvers and can come up with clever and effective solutions to overcome roadblocks on the fly.
To become a better problem solver, try to challenge yourself to think differently. Don't immediately jump on the first solution. Instead, make a list of potential options and weigh their pros and cons. If possible, tell a colleague about your ideas and ask them for feedback on what they think is best. Listening to a new perspective can help you identify the best solution available or come up with new ideas to solve the problem altogether.
3. Active Listening
There's nothing more frustrating than telling someone a long story, only to have them reply, "Wait, what happened?"
That same applies to customer service. Customers don't just want to be heard, they want to be understood the first time they explain an issue. This means customer service reps need to be actively listening whenever a customer is telling them a problem.
Active listening involves a deep focus on the other person's point of view. Rather than thinking about what you're going to say next, center your attention on what the customer is telling you and be prepared to repat those same details back to them when you're providing a solution. This shows that you not only heard what the customer told you, but you understand their goals and how you can help them navigate the problem at hand.
While it's sometimes overlooked, conversation-starting is actually a very useful customer support skill. Even small, back-and-forth banter helps establish common ground with the customer and creates a more human interaction with them. This is particularly important if you're communicating over the phone or through live chat, as these interactions are less personal than a face-to-face conversation.
Whenever you're working with a customer, it helps to have some go-to conversation-starters at the ready. My favorite was asking about the weather, since HubSpot works with businesses all over the world. But, feel free to get more creative as long as you keep topics professional. Ask about work experiences, hobbies, or anything else that will keep the customer engaged with the conversation.
5. Empathy and Understanding
Empathy and understanding are fundamental to customer service. However, they're difficult to master if you don't understand customer needs or the roadblocks that are preventing customers from achieving their goals. This makes it hard to display genuine empathy for the customer since you don't realize or comprehend the repercussions of the problem they're facing.
Most customer service representatives are empathetic to their customers. After all, we've all called customer support at some point to get help with an issue. But, some customer service reps struggle with displaying empathy to customers. And, when they receive a detractor NPS, they're confused as to why they got a low score.
One way you can overtly show empathy is by explaining what you know about the customer's problem. Talk about what the situation is, how the problem occurred, and, most importantly, why it's significant for the customer. Showing that you completely understand the issue will make the customer feel like you're more invested in their case and more likely to help them find a solution.
6. Positive Vocabulary
When explaining case details, it's important to use positive vocabulary. While you can't control how significant a problem is, you can control how you make it sound to the customer. If you use pessimistic language or overexaggerate the issue, the customer will feel like you can't solve their problem — which is the exact opposite effect that your support team should have.
Instead, support reps should always feel confident that they can solve a case. While you should be transparent and straightforward about the severity of the issue, you should couple that honesty with an assurance that you'll overcome whatever roadblock is put in front of you.
Here's an example. Let's say a customer calls you to report a "glitch" in their software. You run some tests and can confirm that their software is working abnormally. But, rather than calling it a "glitch," or product flaw, you should try calling it, "unusual activity that you'll want to look further into."
While this statement admits that the product is functioning incorrectly, it doesn't jump to the conclusion that the software is completely broken. Since we don't know the exact issue with the software, we don't want to make it sound more severe or permanent than it actually is. So, labeling it "unusual activity" gives us the flexibility to look deeper into the product behavior without making the customer feel as worried or anxious about the case.
7. Time Management
There's one common denominator that's present in almost every customer support case: time.
Customers will always have a deadline for when they expect you to respond to their case. This is where it helps to set response time SLA's that outline when customers should expect a reply from your team. Meeting these expectations consistently is the key to developing trust with your customer base.
8. Body Language
Body language can make or break customer service interactions. In fact, a stunning 55% of all in-person communication is dictated by body language.
But, even when you're not communicating with a customer face-to-face, your body language still plays a crucial role in how you deliver a message. Your breathing patterns affect the way words are spoken and facial expressions influence your tone of voice. So, even when you're on the phone with a customer, it's important to keep your body language in check to ensure you sound optimistic and empathetic.
9. Follow-Up Questioning
As a customer service rep, you should be asking customers almost as many questions as you're answering. This shows that you have a genuine interest in your support cases and that you're searching for the best solutions possible.
If you just answer the customer's questions and don't ask any of your own, you'll only leverage the customer's product knowledge during your troubleshooting. Instead, by asking follow-up questions and diving a bit deeper based on your own intuition, you can uncover solutions that the customer might not have considered before. This can really help you become a creative problem solver especially when a customer has been dealing with a complicated or reoccurring issue.
Looking for more tips for your support team? Check out these free customer service training materials.