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From the field: Customer service skills you need today

If you’ve spent any time job searching in the last couple years, you may have noticed an increase in customer support and success-focused positions. As companies awaken to the importance of ‘the people component’ in a business relationship, it seems more are starting to change their perspective—and hiring practices—around customer support.

We’ve all seen movies or heard (or maybe even lived) horror stories of the stereotypical, micro-managed call center job: a windowless cubicle where agents read from generic scripts and work toward quota goals centered around getting off the phone and closing as many tickets as possible.

Thankfully, that’s changing. Many companies are seeing the value of spending more time with customers. LINE MOBILE, a Telco company based in Thailand, for example, reports that agents have no time limits around how long they can spend on chat conversations, and financial services company LendUp even reaches out proactively to customers visiting its website to ask if they have a question. So the stigma around customer support and the way agents experience the job, is changing. And honestly, it’s about time.

Today, customer service is a career with room for growth and development, offering a chance to genuinely help customers, reach milestones tied to company-wide goals, and play a crucial part in upholding a company’s reputation. Just one negative brand experience is enough for 51 percent of customers to never return.

Today, customer service is a career with room for growth and development, offering a chance to genuinely help customers, reach milestones tied to company-wide goals, and play a crucial part in upholding a company's reputation.

I took to the streets (okay, fine, to the wide world of the internet) to talk to people who’ve been in the game long enough to experience the changing landscape and to learn what it takes to succeed in customer support today.

Career paths in customer support aren’t linear

As support roles expand, there are countless opportunities to seize for anyone wanting a fulfilling career. Many people I talked to started in the industry by accident and in front-line support positions, but their paths have been anything but linear or boring.

No two had the same background, story or education, but a common theme emerged: By having a vision and knowing what your strengths and interests are, you’re more likely to land in, or create, a fulfilling role.

For example, Kristen Zuck, a happiness engineer at Automattic, was set on finding a remote position that allowed her to help others. She also knew she enjoyed building websites and had dabbled in HTML and CSS in college. So when she discovered the “Happiness Engineer” position at Automattic, a company most known for creating WordPress.com, it was a real light bulb moment. Or as she put it: “I can get paid to empower and teach customers to build websites and blogs? Sign me up!”

Zuck had previously worked in marketing and this was her first support role. Now she definitely sees a long career in support.

"I can get paid to empower and teach customers to build websites and blogs? Sign me up!” - Kristen Zuck

Others, like Kaye Chapman, entered the world of customer support absolutely unplanned. Fresh out of college, unsure what to do (been there, done that!), Chapman got a job in a call center to pay the bills while she figured out her next move. She never left.

After some time, she could see that there was room for improvement. Quality assurance was patchy, there was no internal knowledge base or help center, and training was subpar at best. Her overworked manager was all too happy for Kaye to step in and provide some help, so she took the bull by the horns and made improving those things her focus.

Chapman built an extensive knowledge base, strengthened quality processes, and provided training for her team, all while holding down the role of senior customer service rep. From there she realized she had a real knack for training and expressed the desire to become a full-time trainer.

The company she worked for at the time agreed to sponsor her to go back to school and she spent her evenings learning how to build effective training programs, work with adult learners, and other skills like coaching, change management, and talent development. She’s since gained plenty of experience in roles at Fortune 500 companies, startups, and nonprofits, even earning a Masters degree based off her professional qualifications, despite not having a Bachelor degree.

All of this led her to her current role as Learning & Development Manager for Comm100. In our chat, she told me, “In that very first customer support role, if I had shrugged off all of the things I saw that could have been improved and wrote them off as none of my business, I’d never be where I am today. I definitely see my career growth as fueled by having a real desire to drive improvement and change, even in areas that aren’t within my job description.”

Must-haves: empathy, emotional intelligence, and great communication skills

Empathy was mentioned by almost everyone as a must for success in any customer-facing job. Emotional intelligence and superb communication skills followed closely after.

Adam Teresek, national service leader at Verlo Mattress told me, “If you are not able to empathetically relate to the frustration your customer is experiencing, you will not be equipped to effectively help them. Until you are sincerely invested in the needs of your customer, it is easier to regard their issue as an obstacle, as opposed to an opportunity to help someone whose happiness and contentment are important to you.”

Let’s face it, we all know when someone is or isn’t being genuine in their attempts to help and clearly want to get off the phone.

Teresek also emphasized the importance of honing an ability to clearly and quickly communicate, especially in sticky situations. He accredits his communication expertise to 16 years in the industry, but also to an active desire to improve and learn on his own. He recommends the classic The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. for anyone who feels they need guidance in this area.

Emotional intelligence is like the beautiful ribbon that ties communication and empathy together. In fact, Cristian Rennella, vice president of customer support at oMelhorTrato.com, credits emotional intelligence as the reason his company has a customer retention rate of 97 percent. He insists that investing time to study emotional intelligence will set you apart from the status quo and ultimately grow your career.

“If your job is to attend and support human beings efficiently you must be emotionally intelligent. Being able to interpret the doubts, anger, suggestions, complaints, etc. of all your clients requires this important capacity,” he said. He recommends reading Working with Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman for an introduction to the topic.

"If your job is to attend and support human beings efficiently you must be emotionally intelligent." - Cristian Rennella

Other important skills and traits needed to succeed include:

  • The ability to manage emotions, even when shit hits the fan
  • A solution-oriented mindset
  • Strong time-management skills
  • Patience. So much patience.
  • The desire to take an initiative
  • The ability to accept criticism
  • Curiosity and a passion for learning
  • Being able to understand, acknowledge, and clearly communicate the needs of others allows you to be much better at negotiating, decision-making, and

    The future of customer support

    We’ve come a long way from viewing great service and support as a novelty. Positions that were once largely viewed as a cost drain are gaining recognition as a profit opportunity and a career choice with options. And it’s clear a great customer experience doesn’t only improve customer happiness and loyalty, but can also directly impact revenue.

    The development of bots and AI are revolutionizing the industry and strengthening human operation roles. And while there’s still plenty of questions around automation, most people within the industry can agree that technology advancements are eliminating repetitive tasks that eat up time and take the focus off the bigger picture. It’s an exciting time and there’s plenty of room to carve out a long-lasting career. A little proactivity goes a long way when it comes to creating a loyal customer base, and the same can be said for building a career in customer support. So if there’s one clear take-away, it’s this: Work hard, create your own opportunities, ask for constructive criticism, and never stop seeking knowledge.

    And it's clear a great customer experience doesn't only improve customer happiness and loyalty, but can also directly impact revenue.

    Have sage wisdom you’d like to add for those looking to build a career in customer support? Want to share your thoughts on the shifts within the industry? Let us know in the comments below.

    Mariana Ruiz is a freelance copywriter & content marketer using stories to connect with people. She writes for small businesses and entrepreneurs on customer success, marketing, lifestyle and travel topics. Her hobbies include traveling to tropical beaches as often as possible and contemplating what it means to be human in this wild world. Connect with her on LinkedIn or say hello on Instagram!