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Let’s Stop Calling Customer Service a Soft Skill

Jeff Toister | Jul 14, 2017 135 views 5 Comments

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The term “soft skills” is typically used to refer to a wide range of interpersonal skills.

This includes leadership, emotional intelligence, and customer service. There’s no doubt these skills are important, but calling them soft skills creates a problem.

My friend Jeremy Watkin recently wrote about the debate over this term in this blog post for the International Customer Management Institute (ICMI) blog on the topic. He asked 17 customer service leaders to weigh in. Nine were against using “soft skills.”

Noticeably absent from Watkin’s list were trainers. By my count, there were only two people who weighed in who had a background in adult learning. Both of those people were firmly against using the term.

I asked a few of my own training professional colleagues for their thoughts on the term, “soft skills.” They were unanimously against it.

That’s because calling a skill like customer service a soft skill makes it almost impossible to train and manage. Here’s why.

Skill or Soft Skill?

Skills are definable, observable, and measurable. For example, you can see someone demonstrate certain skills to fix a car, program a computer, or cook a meal. 

Let’s say you wanted to hire a customer service representative for your contact center. If you wanted to gauge a skill such as typing, you could administer a typing test. That would tell you the person’s speed and accuracy.



You could also offer training to develop that person’s typing skills (Mavis Beacon, anyone?). The training would focus on specific drills to improve speed and accuracy.

But what about critical customer service skills such as building rapport?

This is where many customer service leaders struggle. Interpersonal skills like building rapport are typically called soft skills because they’re difficult to define, observe, and measure.

That creates a problem.

  • How do you train a skill you can’t define?
  • How do you screen job candidates for a skill you can’t observe?
  • How do you coach employees to improve a skill you can’t measure?

You’ll find it pretty difficult to answer any of those questions if you don’t have a clear definition of the skill involved. And once you create a clear definition, it’s no longer soft. It simply becomes a skill.

Why Terminology Matters

Keep in mind the term “soft skill” is applied to skills that are difficult to define, observe, and manage. So calling something a “soft skill” is often an unconscious attempt to avoid difficult work.

For example, imagine you wanted to train employees to build rapport with customers. How would you train that?

A typical response might be to do a class discussion, include some self-reflection, and perhaps add some role-playing for good measure.

Notice what’s missing:

  • Definition: What is rapport?
  • Observation: What does building rapport look like?
  • Measurement: How can I tell if someone has learned to build rapport?

That kind of soft skills training is usually not training at all.

Training helps people develop knowledge, skills, and ability. So logically, if you can’t define what exactly you’re trying to train, you can’t train it.

Take the time to define, observe, and measure rapport and its no longer a vague, ambiguous soft skill. It’s simply a skill.

Here’s an example that I often use in training:

  • Definition: Rapport is creating a personal connection with another person.
  • Observation: An example of rapport is learning a customer’s name or other personal details.
  • Measurement: I can measure this through a simple training activity. Participants are given three minutes to meet three new people. At the end of the three minutes, they are asked to recall the following information for each person: Name, a hobby or interest, and a customer service strength.

Most customer service professionals will tell you they’re pretty good at building rapport. But that’s rapport in the ambiguous, unmeasured, soft skill sense.

My activity highlights an unexpected difficulty. In a typical training class, just 10 percent of the group will  successfully complete the exercise.

Now it’s time to train.

I spend time working with the class to determine obstacles to building rapport. We discuss specific techniques that can make them more successful. When I run the activity a second time, typically 80 – 100 percent of participants demonstrate the ability to build rapport with three people in three minutes.

That’s observable and measurable skill development.

Improve Results with this One Adjustment

The Association for Talent Development (ATD) is the premiere professional organization for training professionals.

A few years ago, ATD published a comprehensive handbook which is the definitive reference guide for adult learning. It’s noteworthy that the term “soft skills” isn’t referenced in this guide.

That’s because skills are skills.

It doesn’t matter whether it’s a technical skill like typing or an interpersonal skill like building rapport. If you can define it, observe it, and measure it, it’s a skill.

Make no mistake: defining customer service skills can be a difficult, time-consuming task. That’s why most managers and trainers don’t do it.

But taking the time to get clear about customer service skills opens up a world of opportunities for customer service leaders. Here are just a few:

  • Hiring becomes easier when you clearly define the skills you need.
  • Training is more effective when you know what to train.
  • Coaching is vastly improved when you can be specific.

Chances are, you’re doing some of this already.

Customer service standards are ways of defining expected customer service skills. Quality monitoring and mystery shopping are examples of observing and measuring these skills. You’re probably coaching those behaviors already.

So drop the word “soft” and just call them skills.

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5 Responses to Let’s Stop Calling Customer Service a Soft Skill

  1. Bob Thompson July 16, 2017 at 1:00 pm (226 comments) #

    Jeff, you make a lot of great points. Perhaps it is time to find a precise name for the interpersonal skills that are so important in customer service.

    I’ve said for years that the people dimension in customer relationships is hugely important, but can get overshadowed by the latest shiny (technology) object.

    I read your post a couple of time, and I’m not sure what you propose as an alternative to soft skills. Can you clarify?

    To quibble with a couple of things…

    At the beginning you wrote:
    >>
    The term “soft skills” is typically used to refer to a wide range of interpersonal skills.
    This includes leadership, emotional intelligence, and customer service. There’s no doubt these skills are important, but calling them soft skills creates a problem.
    >>

    I find this confusing. As I understood the context of Jeremy’s post, “soft skills” meant the interpersonal skills used as part of the customer service job. Here you seem to define customer service as a soft skill. Or soft skills as including customer service.

    But don’t customer service skills include technical skills like being able to use systems?

    I thought the Wikipedia entry did a decent job of describing the common understanding of soft skills: (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soft_skills)

    >>
    Soft skills are a combination of interpersonal people skills, social skills, communication skills, character traits, attitudes, career attributes,[1] social intelligence and emotional intelligence quotients among others that enable people to effectively navigate their environment, work well with others, perform well, and achieve their goals with complementing hard skills.
    >>

    The point I made in Jeremy’s round up post was that if the common understanding of “soft skills” is people-related skills, why is it important to create another term? Why not just focus training on improving soft skills?

    Not being a trainer, or working in customer service for that matter, I may not appreciate the nuances here. But I did write an article about this topic last year, and quoted a number of customer service experts, including you. (https://customerthink.com/5-fails-by-angies-list-why-soft-skills-are-key-to-customer-service-success/).

    Over the years I have seen a lot a “terminology debates” that ended up as pointless exercises. Industry terms are surprisingly resilient — once they get established, they are hard to change. Just my $.02.

  2. Jeff Toister July 16, 2017 at 5:22 pm (101 comments) #

    Thanks for your comments & questions, Bob.

    To answer your question:

    1) “Soft skills” should simply be called “skills” for the reasons outlined in my post. I mentioned this several times, though it was a longer post and I can see how this might be missed.

    To address your quibbles:
    1) I think you read a bit too much into what I wrote about customer service as a soft skill. Take it at face value and you’ll see: (1) I wrote that people typically refer to things like customer service as a soft skill (as in, this is a general trend) and (2) I also wrote that causes a problem because “customer service skills” is so ill-defined. (So I don’t think we disagree here.)

    2) My post isn’t a terminology debate per se, which is my criticism of Jeremy’s post. (See, we agree again!) The problem with “soft skills” is the term is often used to avoid clearly defining a discrete skill so it can be observed and measured. That’s the real problem that I’m attempting to address.

    I hope that clears things up a bit, but let me know if not!

  3. John Fambrini September 28, 2017 at 10:05 am (9 comments) #

    Agree with you Bob, 100%. I used to be a CIO and during my interviews I looked for people skills and ability to quickly build rapport over technical skills. If a person was an 8 in “soft” skills and a 5 in technical skills, he could become a 9 or 10 in customer skills and an 8 in technical skills in a year or two but if even if a guy were a 10 in technical skill and an abysmal 3 or 4 in customer skills, it took way too long to bring his customer service acumen up. It is a tangible skill that you can gauge in an interview because generally the interviewee who quickly builds rapport with the interviewers and is confident and the right attitude about importance of customer service will do fine. I only had one or two wrong hires who pretended to say all the right things but never learned the humility and patience required to deal with computer illiterate userbase. Thanks again!

  4. Jeff Toister September 29, 2017 at 9:56 am (101 comments) #

    You got it, John! If you were able to define specific interpersonal skills that made someone good at service and then observe them in an interview, then there was nothing soft about them!

    The challenge many leaders face is they agree, like you and I, that interpersonal skills are important, yet they insist on calling them soft skills because they don’t bother to define what those skills look like. So in an interview situation, searching for “soft skills” in reality is a gut reaction that boils down to “do I like this person?”

    Clearly defining and observing essential interpersonal skills, as it sounds like you have done, means they’re no longer soft.

  5. John Fambrini October 3, 2017 at 6:27 am (9 comments) #

    I think you have nailed it on the head. They are perceived as “soft” not because they are per se soft but because not all of us are able to articulate the perception in words. I have met people who are experts in body language and interpersonal behavior and can tell you everything about a person after a meeting but for most of us, it is just a gut feeling as to how that person made us feel.

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