Almost all businesses have a customer-facing aspect to them. Restaurants have waiters and cashiers. Boutiques have shop assistants. Software companies have project managers, sales people, and sometimes whole customer service departments. Even B2B companies need a point-of-contact to provide solutions.

Often, these employees will mean the difference between a company that is perceived in a positive light, and a company that appears not to care.

For this reason, every business—small or large—should understand what skills their customer-facing employees need, and should know how to speak to customers in order to foster a positive and long-standing relationship.

What do customers want?

What customers want

Your customers need you to listen to their problems. What is it they’re really asking for? Perhaps it’s not obvious until you set your own needs aside and put yourself in their shoes.

In 2011, I was working as a Web Project Manager for the Yellow Pages (now hibu). I was the intermediary between the customer that had paid to have a business website built, and hibu’s web development team.

This meant that every time one of my customers had a problem or wanted to change something on their site, they would call me.

That was part of the package they had paid for—something that would allow them to circumvent the customer service team in order to have their problem dealt with immediately by someone with digital marketing expertise, and by the same person that helped put their site together. Even though I was responsible for copywriting, SEO, and design direction, customer service was a huge part of my job.

This experience taught me 8 things about what my customers wanted:

  1. Customers want their problems solved fast. The “premium” package was supposed to guarantee this. After all, I would make immediate changes to copy. I would schedule design tweaks in with the development team, or I would help to solve a misunderstanding with the customer’s sales representative.
  2. Customers want direct access to the person that can help solve their problems. My happiest customers were those who could speak with me directly. Of course, this makes perfect sense given that I was the one executing the request. In the initial stage of the website building, we even had a designer get on the phone to speak with the customer. We were a big company acting like a small one, selling a product at an affordable price. Sadly, designers were later removed from calls in favor of quantity of output over customer satisfaction and quality.
  3. Customers want your opinion, not the one you’ve been told to read off a piece of paper. The number of times I had customers asking me what I thought was the best option, I can’t tell you. Almost everyone asked this. They don’t want to hear what the company thinks is best, they want to hear what the human being working for the company thinks is best, especially given you’re the one with all of the experience.
  4. Customers want someone who will try to help them, even when that person isn’t necessarily the one with the answers. They don’t care about your honest apology for not knowing the answer, they want you to be proactive, to go and find the solution to the problem. If I didn’t know how to explain to a customer how they might transfer their web hosting over to us, I passed the call on to my manager, or promised to send them an email, explaining the process.
  5. Customers want your sympathy. They want you to listen to their problems and understand that these problems matter to them, whether or not they matter to you. They want you to listen to them. They want you to understand where they are coming from and then to provide them with a solution.
  6. Customers want reliability. Another of the things that initially worked so well on the Premium team was the fact that the customer knew who to call, how their query would be dealt with, and what to expect in general. Later, when the company created a team dedicated to taking calls for websites that had already gone live, further removing us from the process, I recall the number of complaints increasing. A few times I had my customers emailing me, asking if I could deal with the problem, rather than the new person. After all, they had established a relationship with me and knew how I worked. They were comfortable.
  7. Customers want someone to take charge. I can’t tell you how many people I spoke to that didn’t quite know what they wanted. They knew what they didn’t want—perhaps their Limited information on the contact page, or a purple design scheme, but they couldn’t always tell me what they wanted. They wanted my guidance and direction. They wanted professional expertise.
  8. Customers want to know their opinions matter and that their feedback is taken into account. This makes them feel important. It makes them feel like they matter. And, it makes the company feel very “human.” If something a customer said positively affected the way I did something, I would tell them.

While there were other things that stuck out to me, the underlying message: “be human,” “listen,” and “solve problems” is really the core of it.

While my brief period speaking with customers have given me a good basis from which to solve others’ problems, I also wanted to turn toward those on an actual customer service team to hear what they think matters.

Here’s what Palo Alto Software’s customer service team has to say about the skills you need.

Essential skills for great customer service

positive customer service approach

A positive, can-do attitude can help you establish a relationship with your customer—one that is based upon their confidence in your ability to get the job done.

1. Clarity and brevity

“Realize that the customer does not know all the technical terms and jargon you take for granted, so think of yourself as a jargon to English interpreter.” – Anton Fraga

Furthermore, listen before jumping right in. Sometimes less is more. The worst thing you can do is confuse the customer. Try to understand first what they need, and then to explain—in the simplest terms possible—only what they need to hear. It’s not necessary to explain the entire product or process to them if they didn’t ask about it.

2. Lack of selfishness

Good customer service has nothing to do with reading from a script or getting frustrated because your customer won’t let you say what you want to say. You are not important. They are. If they want to talk, let them talk. Let them get it out and then, only once you have listened (and you really have to listen and try to understand, not just pretend to listen), then you can talk.

3. Patience

There’s no doubt that from time to time you’ll be called up and yelled at, or someone will pick faults with your approach, simply because they are unhappy with their experience with the product, company, or perhaps even because they’ve had a bad day. It’s important not to take the customer’s frustration personally. Patience is key.

4. The ability to listen

“Wait a beat before jumping into your explanation, even if you know right off the bat what the answer is. Sometimes frustrated customers just want to vent and be heard. This can be a slippery slope of course, so your mileage may vary. If it’s getting out of hand or out of line, have strategies for regaining control of the situation. Listening carefully to the issue will also make it so you can give them the best possible solution or information. Customer service isn’t one size fits all.” – Emily Hart

5. A desire to help

“Don’t act like you care; actually care.  Even if you are not able to help them, customers appreciate when you want to help them.”  – Matt Guingrich

Along these lines, it’s worth remembering that if you’re on customer service, you should not be thinking about making sales. Think of yourself instead as a consultant, or as someone who is there to help. If you provide helpful feedback for free, if you give advice generously, it’s more than likely that these people will use your product—if not now, in the future—or will speak about you positively. At the end of the day, how the world sees you will make the difference between a business that succeeds and one that tanks.

6. The ability to empathize

“Think of yourself as not just a representative of your company but also as an advocate for the customer.” – Anton Fraga

Consider how they might be feeling. Try to put yourself in their shoes. How would you like the problem to be dealt with if you were them? What can you do to help?

7. The ability to make personal connections

“I try to be as conversational and personable as possible both on the phone and online. I use smiley faces sometimes, I make jokes, I try to make a connection with the customer. There’s nothing I hate more customer service wise than that robot voice on the other end of the phone line asking you to clearly speak a keyword. We try our best to be the opposite of that. Even when we get the same questions a dozen times in a day and feel like our voices and typing fingers are on auto pilot, I always try my best to remember that I’m speaking to a human being, so I should respond like a human being!” – Emily Hart

8. A proactive approach

“Be easily accessible and respond promptly.” – Matt Guingrich

If you’ve promised to solve a problem, do it and do it within a reasonable amount of time.

9. A positive attitude

Your customer does not want to hear about how bad your day has been, and they do not want to hear that you don’t like the person sitting next to you, or what you have for lunch, or even if you don’t like the company you work for. Regardless of how your day has been, you need to set this aside when dealing with someone else’s problems. Focus on them and on helping them solve their problems in the most positive way possible. They will remember you for this. And don’t forget, you can hear a smile on the phone. It doesn’t hurt to actually look happy.

Share your thoughts

Brand-defining customer service is all about knowing what your customers want and what skills you need in order to provide them with those things.

Can you think of anything we’ve missed?

What other skills do you need in order to provide excellent customer service?

How do you keep your customers happy?

AvatarCandice Landau

Candice is a freelance writer, jeweler, and digital marketing hybrid.