21 Customer Service Skills Your Small Business Can Master

21 Customer Service Skills Your Small Business Can Master

Customer service skills are vital to how your customers see your business. Rather often, your front line of staff often makes or breaks the way your business is viewed. From the parking lot all the way into the store, customers are making decisions about your brand. Before they ever meet a single staff member, guests form opinions.

You can do a lot to bolster your brand through marketing and advertising. Once your customers meet your staff, there’s no better time to prove that your brand is on point.

It’s difficult to choose staff to stand on the front lines for your organization. You want salespeople who can sell. You want maintenance people who can maintain. Finding the people who have both technical and customer service skills is key.

We’re not born with customer service skills, we learn them over time. What if you took some time each week during staff gatherings to go over a point or two on this list? How would it help your business’ bottom line if your guests were happier and your staff more confident in their skills?

 Most Important Customer Service Skill #1 – Being a Great Listener

I have a friend who always looks like he’s working hard whenever we’re in a conversation together. One day I decided to ask him what in the world he was up to. He said, “Listening isn’t a passive activity. I’m actively listening to what you’re saying so I can contribute.”

I’ve never forgotten that little interaction. If there’s one thing that I look for in a great customer service experience, I’m looking for a listener. An employee that will take the time to listen to my problem and engage in a meaningful manner is rare.

How many times have you been talking with an employee that’s typing away at the computer while you talk? Do you feel like they’re hearing you? How about that employee that won’t look away from their mobile phone while you talk with them? Was that a great experience for you?

It takes an intentional decision by each of us to stop what we’re doing and actively listen to our customers.

Most Important Customer Service Skill #2 – Bringing Calm to the Storm

I don’t know about your experience, but many customer service stories I’ve seen often begin with an irate customer. You’ve seen them. The ones who hurriedly walk up to you with a little wisp of steam coming out of their ears…

One of the best ways to diffuse these types of interactions is to bring a sense of calm to a tense situation. Having a front line staff member who can have an angry customer walk up to them and remain calm is one that managers always want to hold on to.

I am the co-owner of a business that has potentially angry people on the other end of every phone call. The business is called Shift Processing, and when we answer the phone it’s usually from a business owner calling us that just learned that their current processor hiked their costs or hid expensive fees in their contract. The business owners who call us are usually angry at their current processor and want out.

We created a company where the entire goal was being honest and straightforward with business owners. We have built a framework where right from the beginning they can feel safe switching their processing over to us. We don’t hide fees, hike rates or make anyone sign a contract. We pick up the phone knowing that when an angry business owner is on the other line, they’re mad at their current situation. We know the way out, and we provide great customer service along the way.

We’re able to bring calm to a storm just about every day, and through that process we gain happy customers who tell their friends about their experience.

Most Important Customer Service Skill #3 – Patience

Active listening and patience go hand in hand when it comes to tense customer service situations. A staff member who has patience will be listening all the way through the customer’s initial burst of conversation rather than thinking about what they will say in reply.

I personally will never forget possibly the most patient staff member I’ve ever encountered during a visit to Target recently. There was a woman who was trying to return a gift that she believed was purchased at Target. The staff member was a veteran employee who had been employed at the store for years, and she clearly had a very deep knowledge of the store’s inventory.

The staff member scanned the tag and informed the customer that the item didn’t come from Target, but from another large retailer. The customer was insistent that the item came from Target, and the employee remained calm, listened and showed the patience of a saint. The staff member ended up offering the customer a discount on any item she wanted in the store to make up for the inconvenience, and the matter was settled.

The entire interaction took about 8 minutes during which time I never saw the cast member rattled or impatient. A great customer service solution to a potentially sticky situation.

Most Important Customer Service Skill #4 – Cool Under Pressure

There’s nothing quite like being under pressure during a customer service issue. The best customer service representatives have training that they can lean on when they land in a tense or pressured situation. What about those who don’t have the training? Can people be trained to be cool under pressure?

I’ve seen some amazing scripts written to help front line employees who are constantly under pressure. The scripts are memorized and drilled into them so that they’re completely second nature when a situation occurs.

Most Important Customer Service Skill #5 – Be Friendly

Customer service is about making sure that your company is doing all that it can to ensure the happiness of its customers. Having front line staff that are friendly should be a given, but it’s something worth noting. Often it is the assumed traits that come up missing when the pressure is on.

When you’re interviewing potential staff for customer interaction positions, are they friendly to the receptionist when they walk in the door? What kind of impression are they making with each person they interact with while they’re there? Friendliness can be checked off the list and should be tested every minute while they’re in the building for their interview.

Most Important Customer Service Skill #6 – Go The Extra Mile

There’s a famous old story about Abraham Lincoln and his extra mile philosophy. Before he was President of the United States, he kept a store in New Salem, Illinois. The story goes that there was an accidental overcharge of 3 cents to a customer at his store. Lincoln walked multiple miles to the home of the customer to return the 3 cent overcharge.

Imagine this story in today’s business setting. Would this story stand out if you heard it happened today? You bet it would. This kind of customer service is exceptional, and there are many ways to go the extra mile for your customers.

Most Important Customer Service Skill #7 – Honesty

Honesty is an essential trait for customer service employees. It’s so tempting to over-promise to get out of a customer service situation, but honesty is truly the best policy to ensure a positive resolution.

Most Important Customer Service Skill #8 – Confidence

When presented with a possibly tumultuous customer service interaction, having a healthy dose of confidence can really help your presentation style. Now, notice here I said a “healthy” dose, not a massive dose and an ego to go along with it. Rarely are customer service issues resolved without incident when egos are brought to the table.

Most Important Customer Service Skill #9 – Surprises don’t phase you

There’s nothing quite like having a surprise customer service debacle pop up on you when you’re completely unprepared. It seems that this is always when it happens though, right? You’re going about your day and things are pleasant and then BOOM! It truly is a skill to work with the mentality that there is no surprise that you can’t handle. My first job straight out of high school, I worked as a security guard at a local assisted living facility. I was barely 18, and I was working to fill the 3 months before I went off to college, and boy was that job full of surprises.

One night in particular comes to mind when I think of surprises on the job. I was patrolling the parking lot as the nursing assistants got off their shift, making sure they were safe as they got to their cars. I got a call over the radio that they needed assistance in a patient’s room. This was a very uncommon request for a security guard to get a call to help a patient.

I made my way to the patient’s room, and I arrived to the surprise of my life. Let’s just keep this safe for work and say that the patient had some bowel constriction issues. Apparently, that evening the dam broke and it. was. everywhere. On the walls, bed, carpet, tile, and everywhere else you can imagine. And lying right there in the middle of it all was our patient needing help up and into the bathroom to clean up. Let’s just say that this was a surprise that I wasn’t ready for at the ripe young age of 18, but I put on some gloves that came all the way up to the shoulder and helped her out.

I got a call the next day from the administrator who had gotten a call from the guardians of the patient from the night before. They were so impressed with our customer service that they called in to say a personal thank you to me and a few other staff who took what was a disaster of a situation and came out of it smelling like a rose. (OK, we didn’t smell like roses immediately… a few hours later most likely.)

Most Important Customer Service Skill #10 – Communication Skills

We all have the skill of communicating down pat, right? Each of us do it every day in some form or another to communicate with those around us. The skill of communication isn’t just saying the words so that the other person understands, it’s the tone and language that you choose that sets you apart from the rest. The ability to know what to say, how to say it and when to communicate it is a rare skill that few of us have mastered. When presented with a communication challenge in a customer service situation, timing is everything. Scroll back up a few and look at the skill of listening, because when applied correctly, you won’t be thinking about what you’re going to say while they’re talking. This is a communication skill that takes years of practice to master.

Most Important Customer Service Skill #11 – Positivity

In our daily lives, we run into optimists and pessimists. Often we don’t even recognize which one we’re talking with until they give us little hints in their choice of language. The words that we choose during a customer service issue are vital to a positive resolution. Here’s a tip to pass on to your employees. When on the front line and interacting with customers, slang is hardly ever the right choice of language for the situation. Speaking clearly and focusing on the positive can completely turn a bad situation into a great one. When tempted to answer a question of a customer with, “nope, sorry.” consider more positive language that is descriptive. Try something that gives more information about the situation at hand that helps them to understand more of where you’re coming from and what you’re trying to communicate. Maybe, “No, I’m sorry but that is not in stock in the store right now. Could I place an order for you and have it shipped to your home instead?” The positive language and word choice of the response can turn an issue on its head.

Most Important Customer Service Skill #12 – Be Compassionate

There’s nothing quite like dealing with a sales representative that has never been on the other side of the conversation they’re having. When a customer service representative fails to bring compassion for the customer into the equation, half of the battle is already lost. Two rules come to mind when I think of compassion in customer service matters.

Rule #1 – “The Customer is always right”


Rule #2 – “If the customer is ever wrong, see rule #1”

Having compassion doesn’t mean that you have to bend over backwards and give up everything to resolve an issue. Compassion as a customer service skill is all about putting yourself in the shoes of the customer and asking yourself how you’d like to be treated. If you were them, what would you like to see happen to resolve this matter? Is that something within your power? If so, let compassion be your guide and do unto them as you would have them do unto you…

Most Important Customer Service Skill #13 – Basic Negotiation Skills

Any client service concern is bound to include the need for negotiation. It’s not every day that our front line staff are able to make every wish happen for people that they encounter. When negotiation skills are available to staff members, situations can be smoothed much more easily and to a rather uneventful conclusion.

The family and I were visiting Disney World in Orlando, Florida, and we encountered many “cast members” as Disney calls them working their front lines. These cast members had obvious negotiation skills and were using them every few minutes to increase the happiness of their guests. While sitting in the lobby waiting on our party to get checked in, I was able to watch the customer service desk for about a half hour as they worked with disgruntled customers. In almost every case, the disgruntled customer left the desk with a smile on their face even when they couldn’t get what they wanted.

I watched requests that ranged from wanting to switch rooms to finding lost items that all ended up with a happy ending. In every case, the cast members weren’t able to do what was asked of them, but they had a healthy pool of options to make their guests feel valued that they pulled from with each interaction. The ability to negotiate in many cases meant having to give less away, and even in those cases the customers left satisfied.

Most Important Customer Service Skill #14 – Analysis

Customer service skills are important, and many situations aren’t always as they seem. This is where the analyzation skill comes in handy. If something doesn’t feel right, it’s probably not right when you’re trying to resolve an issue with a client. The ability to analyze the facts and come to a conclusion even while still giving amazing customer service is a skill that’s difficult to manage. It’s hard work to actively listen and be compassionate while trying to analyze what might not sit right with you about the current interaction. Having the ability to apply analyzation skills even in the heat of the moment can save client interactions and make your company look its best in the end.

Most Important Customer Service Skill #15 – Organizational Knowledge

Every organization has a certain body of knowledge that each staff member needs to know. Whether it’s the price of the jeans that are on sale today or how to check someone in to their room, certain knowledge is vital to organizational effectiveness.

While some knowledge is vital to some staff members, others find themselves untrained in areas they aren’t accustomed to working. Front line salespeople tend to not always know how to work deeply within the computer system. Back office staff aren’t always aware of changes to inventory. This compartmentalization of knowledge can be a detriment.

Consider cross training your staff in multiple disciplines to expand organizational knowledge and increase your customer service ability. Could cross training staff mean that staff on the sales floor wouldn’t have to run to find a manager for the small things? What would it do for the transportation staff in a large hotel to understand how the check-in system worked so they could walk new guests through the appropriate steps during their interaction?

Staff members gaining additional organizational knowledge can be a great help in providing excellent customer service. 

Most Important Customer Service Skill #16 – Basic Psychology

Psychology is at play in every human interaction that we have each day. Whether we know it or not, the way we act, speak, sit and stand are all sending messages to those around us that we don’t even know we’re sending. Having staff that are trained in basic psychology can help them read the warning signs of something that is to come. If a staff member can see something that’s about to happen through the use of psychology, they have an opportunity to calm the fear before it manifests into a customer service debacle.

Understanding the way that we think as human beings can be a huge asset in customer service interactions. The more you understand about psychology, the better you can be at customer service.

Most Important Customer Service Skill #17 – Keep Promises

Out of all the customer service skills on this list, there’s one that usually causes me the most frustration when I’m on the receiving end. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told statements like the following:

“We’ll have that right out for you, sir.” Reality, it took another 45 minutes for my dinner to get to the table.

“I will send someone down with that right away.” Reality, the towels never came after calling down to the front desk and being told this TWICE!

“We have our best people on it, we’ll get it fixed right away.” Reality, the janitor came down to the condo we rented and banged on the air conditioner to try to fix it without success.

When working with guests and customers, it’s important to keep your promises. People may ask for the moon, and if you can give it to them, great! When you really can’t do anything about a particular situation, be honest with people and don’t over-promise. Promising something when you can’t guarantee the end result has landed many a staff member in hot water.

Most Important Customer Service Skill #18 – Body Language

Each of us say so much, even when we aren’t using words. Having customer service skills like basic body language comprehension can add to the toolbox of a front line staffers list of available tools. In a tense moment, the added advantage of being able to understand and process the body language of the person you’re speaking with can be a monumental advantage. Taking the time to familiarize yourself with basic body language poses can help you diffuse a situation before it even begins.

Most Important Customer Service Skill #19 – Computer Skills

I don’t know about you, but I’ve been in many the situation where a lack of computer skills escalated what should have been a routine customer service interaction. Sometimes the interaction has derailed because of the computer itself acting up, but much more often than not, it has been a lack of basic computer skills on behalf of an employee that has caused an issue.

Whether it’s ordering a sandwich at my local Wendy’s or trying to pay with a credit card machine that’s integrated into a computer system, computer skills are a necessity. Have you taken the time to properly train the people on your team to use the computer system? Have you trained them on functions and programs that they only use a portion of the time they’re at work?

The excuse that I hear from time to time when it comes to a computer issue is that it’s the dumb computer’s fault! Let’s be straight here. Computers are dumb, they’re a box of plastic and metal. It’s up to the staff member to use the computer as a tool to accomplish tasks to make customers happy. Training is the catalyst that enables your staff to drive amazing customer service experiences.

Most Important Customer Service Skill #20 – Leadership

I’ve encountered many front line staff member over the years who had an untrained leadership gift. It’s usually found in younger employees who have yet to develop many of their customer service skills, but when it’s there, it’s noticeable. Taking the time to develop a gift in leadership is rarely a waste of time. When a front line employee can lead the way in a customer service encounter, often that situation is resolved in a positive manner. Encouraging your staff members to lead the way and giving them appropriate slack when dealing with customers can be a huge win.

Most Important Customer Service Skill #21 – Tenacity

The “never give up” spirit is one of my favorite customer service skills. There are times when it comes to working with guests when it seems like a resolution won’t ever come. It’s the tenacious that find ways when others give up. It’s those who dive into the skirmish and look for any possible way who prevail. How can you encourage this skill in your employees? Most encouragement comes in the form of never letting them give up and helping them find their way all the way to the end.

The way that an employee was raised can have a lot to do with their ability to be tenacious. If they were allowed to give up at the first sight of trouble for most of their life, it becomes your task to help them develop a “never quit” attitude. At the risk of sounding like a song from a Jock Jams album, “Never give up, never surrender.”

Most Important Customer Service Skill #22 – Time Management

Many of the customer service skills included in this list are incredibly intertwined. It’s difficult to have one without another, and others play to each other naturally and so on. Time management is vital to customer service primarily because it shows the customer that you value their time. If you’re going to promise the customer that you’re going to have something to them in a period of time, to get it there you have to manage your time well. As I described above, I’ve fallen victim many times to employees who mean well, but have no ability to deliver. My guess is that this is because of a lack of organization and poor time management skills.

How could you help your employees develop better time management?


No matter who your employees are, they all have an opportunity to get better at each and any of the customer service skills listed above. We are all lifelong learners searching for ways to be better at what we do, and we need leaders to guide us on how to improve.

Consider using this guide to add a topic each week to your weekly staff meeting. Ask your staff for ideas of how you can put a new skill into action and how they can hold each other accountable. Make it fun by bringing in a prize each week for employees who are caught providing excellent customer service skills. Have a special prize for someone caught displaying that week’s particular skill. Engage your team in the fun by letting them nominate each other for the prize. You never know what kind of improvement can be had unless you pick a strategy and give it a go.

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