Top 10 Customer Service Skills for 2021


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Top 10 Customer Service Skills for 2021

To those of us on the frontline of customer service, it will come as no surprise that poor customer service is estimated to cost businesses more than $75 billion a year. We also understand that customer service can offer valuable differentiation in the marketplace. And that great customer service is SO VERY difficult to sustain over time! The challenges of maintaining the right combination of people, skills, processes, and technologies that make it easy to do business with seem never-ending. Although much has changed in our world since COVID-19, one thing that remains constant is the value of human connection.

When a customer reaches out to customer service, our frontline customer service representatives have the opportunity to not only solve problems and provide information but also to forge a human connection. With the introduction of alternate channels for support (like self-serve, user forums, online help functions), these human interactions may be few and far between. Often, by the time a customer finally picks up the phone to call customer service after attempting to self-serve, their level of frustration is often at a peak. The traditional customer service skills of the past are not going to cut it in 2021.

With all this as a backdrop, we identified the top 10 customer service skills your agents need to master this year (in no particular order):

1. Empathy

The ability to see things from the customer’s point of view is an essential customer service skill. Letting customers know that you understand their predicament and appreciate their emotions in the moment can go a long way to managing a customer’s situation. In fact, for most customers, how they relate to the experience is predominantly based on emotions, not facts.

Whether a customer service representative is ‘naturally’ empathetic or not, all CSRs must learn how to leverage empathy to engage with customers. To make sure that each customer feels heard and valued – regardless of the outcome.

Why this skill is essential:
Customers are 9x more likely to be highly engaged when they receive what they consider to be empathetic customer support. ~ Gallup

2. Adaptability

If we have learned anything from the past ten years, it is how vital adaptability and a keen willingness to learn and grow are. Customer expectations are constantly changing. New technologies are always emerging. The competitive landscape is shifting. Every employee – but particularly customer service representatives who engage with a broad range of customers – need to have the desire (and curiosity) to learn new skills, grow and change with the ever-changing environment.

Why this skill is essential:
We live in an age where the rate of change has been colossal. Colossal. Almost every week, there’s some transformation of some kind, whether technological or political or scientific, whatever. And I think it’s bewildering to human beings to live in a time when they can’t take anything as fixed – when everything is shifting and changing all the time. ~ Salman Rushdie


3. Sales

Customer service reps need to ‘sell’ customers (and perhaps their managers) on ideas and solutions. But perhaps most importantly, they must be able to sell added-value products and services. The adoption rate of self-serve technology will only grow as these same technologies become more prolific, easier to use, and capable. Whether it is a simple online order form or an AI-supported chatbot, self-serve strategies must also consider that self-serve customers will become more removed from an organization’s reach.

When a customer contacts customer service with a problem, it may be the only contact they have with a real person within your organization. This is a valuable interaction that can influence whether or not the customer remains a client and positively recommends you to others – or does not. It also provides a golden opportunity to improve the value of the relationship – both your organization’s importance to the client and vice versa. Given that there will be fewer human-to-human interactions, customer service representatives must be able to look for opportunities to add value and proactively introduce them to the customers they serve.

Why this skill is essential:
The probability of selling to an existing, happy customer is up to 14 times higher than the probability of selling to a new customer. Additionally, satisfied customers can be a valuable source of referrals to the sales team. That’s why your customer service team has a direct impact on the effectiveness of your sales. ~ Marketing Metrics

4. Active Listening

Customers reach out to customer service because they need someone to listen to and address their problems or issues. If a customer service representative is not actively listening to the customer – and is fully ‘present’ –why bother calling? Often, CSRs are so intent on resolving a customer’s issue that they fail to listen and instead mentally jump ahead to the solution. As a result, they don’t fully hear and understand what the customer’s real problem is.

Active listening requires the customer service representative to be focused on what the customer is saying, interpreting what it means and then responding appropriately to demonstrate that they understand what the customer is saying and consider it to be necessary.

Why this skill is essential:
The biggest communication problem is that we don’t listen to understand. We listen to reply. ~Stephen R. Covey

5. Problem Solving + Ownership

With the growing acceptance and capability of self-serve options, most customers will attempt to solve their issues before contacting customer service. That means that the types of requests customer service representatives receive are growing in complexity and emotion.

Great CSRs love problem solving – the more challenging the problem, the better! Sometimes it means getting creative and thinking outside of the box to arrive at a solution that will satisfy the customer. While other times it requires tenacity and a willingness to stick with a problem until it is resolved. That means doing for the customer what they would do for themselves in the same situation.

No one expects CSRs to resolve every problem, every time — but customers do expect them to take ownership for finding someone or something that can. Often, this comes down to the values of an organization and whether or not they are prepared to accept responsibility for resolving a customer’s issue fully or push responsibility back onto the customer. The need for organizations to remove customer effort from problem-solving is key to customer loyalty.

Why this skill is essential:
44% of customers say that they feel they are working harder and investing more in the effort to solve a problem than the customer service representatives they work with. ~ Microsoft


6. Supporting Irate Customers

Conflict is inevitable in every business. Let’s admit it – customer service organizations have collectively trained customers to believe that the louder they complain, the more likely they will have their issue or complaint resolved. That is because, in many cases, it works!

Before the proliferation of self-serve options and multi-channel communication, customer service call volume was significantly higher, meaning that a CSR might have one irate caller a day. While the call volume is lower, the concentration of irate, frustrated, confused, and upset callers is higher. A CSR may receive several high-emotion calls in a day. In addition to the initial problem that needs addressing, the customer’s emotions now complicate the conversation.

Yes, CSRs need to have a thick skin – but they also need to master several sophisticated skills coming effortlessly together (listening, questioning, empathy, problem-solving, and more). There are proven approaches and language to help support angry customers (and the agents who serve them) arrive at a positive conclusion. Your customer service teams need them. After all, when a customer complains, you have an opportunity to turn them around — when they don’t complain, you do not.

Why this skill is essential:
Only 1 out of 26 unhappy customers complain. 91% of unhappy customers who are non-complainers simply leave. ~ Kolsky

7. Communication Skills

The ability to communicate clearly, concisely, and confidently is crucial in customer service. In fact, 33% of customers say that efficiently answering questions is the most essential skill a customer service agent can have. Makes sense. Fortunately, many organizations have moved away from Average Talk Time (ATT) as a key measure of success – which often required CSRs to rush through their response — in favor of other customer-centric metrics like First Contact Resolution (FCR). The move away from ‘speed’ enables CSRs to take the extra time needed to clarify and educate the customer, as required.

Experienced CSRs also understand how to adjust their communication style to match that of the customer to enable full understanding and gain the customer’s confidence in their response.

Why this skill is essential:
64% of customers do not fully trust the information they receive from customer service representatives, even if it is the right answer. ~ Kolsky

8. Technological Dexterity

Companies who care about delivering the best possible customer experience have typically invested in the technology needed to facilitate that. While business systems have improved in ease of use, there are many more systems/applications that CSRs must master. This constant bombardment of new technology often leaves CSRs feeling more frustrated and stressed. Having the capacity to understand (and even enjoy) technology helps minimize the impact and stress associated with constantly evolving systems and processes.

In addition, the most highly ranked customer service professionals tend to have superior knowledge of how their companies and products/services work. As products and services have grown in numbers and complexity, CSRs cannot be expected to know everything off the top of their head. That is where technology plays a vital role. Having access to tools that enable the seamless delivery of information to the CSR or the customer directly ensures that the information provided is accurate and consistent.

Why this skill is essential:
Although 55% of workers felt more productive than they had the previous year, 51% felt that technology increased their stress levels at work. ~ Kensington

9. Be able to say ‘no’ positively

The #1 thing customers want when they reach out to an organization is to resolve their issue with as little effort as possible. That is achievable under most circumstances — but sometimes it simply is not. That’s where being able to say ‘no’ in a positive manner comes into play. After all, customers want to hear what you CAN DO, not what you cannot.

That means presenting information in the most favorable light, so the customer hears that you are supporting them fully. If the customer’s request is not doable, we often hear the CSR say, “I’m sorry, but there is no way I will have an answer for you by tomorrow.” A more positive way to deliver this message would be to highlight what they CAN DO by saying, “I can send in your request now and follow-up tomorrow morning to make sure that you have an answer by Friday at the latest.”

Why this skill is essential:
Customers are more demanding than ever. They have more power than they used to. They are smarter and have higher expectations than ever before. After all, we taught them! ~ Hyken


10. Attention to Detail/Accuracy

We ask a lot of our frontline staff. A customer service representative must juggle systems, procedures, product knowledge, communication, and more on the fly. Not an easy task. With added the pressure of growing customer and corporate expectations, it should be no surprise that errors will be made.

The end result of a single error can vary: from an inconvenient callback to more serious financial and/or emotional consequences to both the customer and the organization. It makes sense to work hard to minimize errors at the point of origin. Technology, quality assurance, and other safeguards can only take you so far. That’s why it is best practice to ensure that CSRs have an aptitude for detail. That means being able to methodically hear, interpret, and capture details while accessing systems and communicating with the client.

Why this skill is essential:
It’s all about the math:
Loss Due to Error and Time Spent Fixing It / Profit Margin = New Business Required to Recover Costs


Excellent customer service plays a vital role in retaining and growing a customer’s relationship with your organization. The way you deliver this service has a direct impact on how customers will feel about it. Ensure your customer service representatives have the necessary skills to provide an experience that reflects your brand at its best.

Sharon Oatway
Sharon Oatway is a Customer Service, Sales and Marketing professional with more than three decades of hands-on experience elevating the overall customer experience along with multi-channel contact center performance.As President & Chief Experience Officer of VereQuest, Sharon and her team have listened to/read and analyzed several million customer interactions for some of North America’s leading brands.As a result, Sharon is a recognized thought-leader in what it takes to build and sustain great customer experiences.


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