The most important customer service skills for 2021
We reviewed data from 90,000 businesses across 175 countries to identify the top customer service skills for 2021.
Published April 26, 2021
Last updated May 5, 2021
The impacts of COVID-19 changed customer service for good. What started as a global health crisis became the accelerant in our transition to a truly digital-first world.
Customers are online more than ever, with customer service taking center stage. Half of customers say customer experience is more important to them now compared to a year ago, according to our research, and 77 percent report being more loyal to a company that offers a positive customer experience if they have an issue. What’s more, if you can’t provide great customer service, they’ll vote you off the island—80 percent of customers will go to a competitor after more than just one bad experience.
While the importance of good customer service isn’t under question, the skills support teams need to make it happen often is. To help guide the way, we reviewed data from 90,000 businesses using Zendesk across 175 countries and identified the top customer service muscles successful support teams can flex.
Customer service skills
- Product knowledge
- Messaging skills
- Working across channels
- Giving and receiving feedback
- Data centricity
- Relationship building
- Understanding customer needs
- Using AI as a partner
- Communication skills
- Remote work skills
- Customer service software skills
While agents interact with customers directly, the company has to provide tools to equip its customer support team to do their job well. Good customer service requires a mix of the right skills and customer service software that meets customers needs and sets support teams up for success.
If there’s one thing the pandemic taught us, it’s that empathy is an essential skill for support professionals— it's even more valuable than customer service experience. In fact, nearly half of customers want to interact with an empathetic customer service representative.
"In 2021, we will see customers expecting companies to continue to be more empathic and flexible than they’ve been in the past."Ben Motteram, Principal and CX Expert
Support leaders can provide empathy training, but it’s also a good idea to hire support reps who can already put themselves in an angry customer’s shoes and communicate that understanding to the customer. Businesses might also consider allowing agents to make exceptions to certain policies in situations that require empathy. Bank of America allowed its agents to offer payment deferral options to customers struggling to pay loans at the onset of COVID-19. Zappos empowered agents to stay on the phones with customers beyond average handle times to provide emotional support during the pandemic, even if it meant talking about how sad they are that Regé-Jean Page won’t be returning to "Bridgerton."
2. Collaboration skills
Agents often need to collaborate with each other and other departments to get the job done. But in a remote-first world, they don’t always have the option to walk over to a teammate’s desk. That’s one of the reasons why the ability to collaborate across teams internally is the most important feature agents say they need in 2021. With tools like Slack and Zoom within their workspace, agents can seamlessly collaborate inside and outside the CX organization, whether they’re in the office or working from a beach in Hawaii.
3. Product knowledge
Customers expect agents to know the business’s product, service offerings, and policies well. Luckily, an ever-growing knowledge base means agents don’t have to memorize every detail. While customers who self-serve can save agents a lot of time, good knowledge management enables agents to find the information they need, like updates to products or your return policy.
And with knowledge management tools, agents can search and send articles within tickets, create new articles while answering tickets, and automate knowledge management hygiene. Take it from the pros: Leading mid-to-large size support teams are 37 percent more likely to enable features allowing agents to contribute knowledge.
In a pivot-quickly world, agents must be efficient. Multitasking, prioritizing, and managing your energy are important skills for working efficiently. But the onus is also on the business to arm agents with the right tools to work smarter. This can include routing tickets to the agent with the expertise for the task, so reps are only served customer issues they can solve. Or, by using predefined responses, agents don’t have to type out your reimbursement policy.
5. Messaging skills
Customers shouldn’t have to climb a ladder to reach support. Support teams need to meet customers where they are, and where they are is on messaging channels.
Messaging has seen the biggest jump in popularity of any channel over the past year. Nearly a third of customers messaged a company for the first time in 2020, and 74 percent say they will continue to do so. Customers love messaging for the same reasons as businesses: it’s fast, convenient, personal, and secure. It also gives customers and businesses more flexibility because it’s asynchronous. That means customers can get support while they do other things, like leading a Zoom meeting, and agents can help more customers at once.
- Clear written communication
- Speed: Support teams that have the fastest resolution times are 42 percent more likely to be messaging with their customers
- The ability to adopt a brand’s voice and tone: Some brands use emojis and GIFs in their messaging conversations
- Multitasking: messaging enables agents to help more customers at once
- Experience interacting with customers over social media channels
6. Being comfortable working across channels
40 percent of customers say they use multiple channels to resolve a single issue. And companies are listening. More businesses are staffing agents across those channels so reps can easily shift between them to meet changes in demand from customers.
To provide that kind of unified experience across channels, support teams need a single workspace that brings channels and customer context together. That way, if Sally reaches out over WhatsApp to return nail polish and requests an email receipt, the customer service rep helping her can instantly email the details without Sally having to repeat her contact information, billing details, or order history.
Speed is a top component of good customer service. When asked what’s most important when resolving an issue with a company, 73 percent of customers said quick resolutions, and 59 percent said quick answers. Time management is a good skill to look for when hiring a support rep. But the business also needs to provide agents with customer service software that makes fast answers possible.
Tips for delivering speedy responses:
- Pre-written responses ensure agents don’t have to write common answers repeatedly
- Messaging channels enable agents to help more customers at once
- Bots can intercept would-be tickets when agents are off the clock
- Bots can gather details upfront, such as city or account type, before an agent takes over
8. Giving and receiving feedback
High-performing customer service teams aren’t afraid of customer complaints. Instead, they use customer feedback to get better.
“Take whatever feedback is there: own it, and own how your team can get better.” Jonathan Brummel, Senior Manager, Premier Support, Zendesk
Support teams can gather feedback using tools like customer satisfaction scores, the business’s community forum, and survey integrations like SurveyMonkey. They should also document feedback that comes up directly in conversations with customers. This allows them to share customers’ needs with other teams and departments to help improve the business overall. For instance, Postmates’ CX team partners with the product and analytics teams to ensure customer feedback informs product decisions.
9. Data centricity
Leading support teams constantly look for ways to improve, using data to uncover opportunities. But without the right tools it can be tricky. In fact, 40 percent of support managers say they don’t have the right analytics tools to measure success for remote teams.
The right tools make support data easy to understand and leverage, without a statistics degree. For example, with access to real-time and historical insights across channels, support leaders can make changes on the fly based on customers’ needs and understand trends in how customers engage over time.
10. Relationship building
One of the most important jobs of an agent is to build and nurture customer relationships. Part of that requires interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence. But the business also needs to arm agents with the right context to personalize conversations.
While 75 percent of customers expect personalized experiences, less than half of agents can access context to help them better assist customers. When businesses equip agents with a single customer view, one complete with context like a customer’s account type, contact information, and support history, agents can deliver the personalized experiences customers expect.
11. Understanding customers’ needs
Understanding customers’ needs is another essential skill for customer service reps. Customers don’t like repeating themselves, and they expect agents to have insight into what they need before they even reach out.
“Making the customer feel heard is a huge part of customer focus. And when they don’t feel heard, that’s when the experience can quickly go south.”Jonathan Brummel, Senior Manager, Premier Support, Zendesk
Reflective listening and customer focus are key. But agents also need to quickly pull and reference relevant information, whether that’s the marketing discounts a customer has received or their billing details to process a refund.
When businesses connect the data dots across the organization, they enable agents to understand customers’ needs fully. In fact, apps that bring together department information saw a 108 percent increase in investment this year. When agents can access all the details they need from one tool, rather than having to toggle between many, they can anticipate customers’ needs and work more efficiently.
CX leaders cited the ability to quickly adapt to the evolving needs of customers as their biggest pain point in 2020 and the highest priority going forward.
Agile support reps embrace change. And their business makes change seamless by investing in technology that can be easily adjusted based on customers’ needs. One example is software that enables a team to turn support channels on and off and integrates with existing technology throughout the business.
13. Using AI as a partner
Interactions with automated bots jumped 81 percent in 2020. But that doesn’t mean chatbots will steal customer service representatives’ jobs, nor are they meant to. Bots make instant, round-the-clock responses possible when agents are busy helping other customers or doing human things, like watching reruns of "Friends." And when bots take simple, repetitive questions off a support team’s plate, agents can focus on more engaging parts of their jobs. Bots can also capture customer details upfront, like order number or city, which saves agents time.
14. Communication skills
Agents need to be clear communicators. This includes everything from being upfront with a customer if there isn’t a solution to their issue to using the right tone of voice with difficult customers.
"It’s okay to say, ‘that’s not possible today, but here’s what we can do in the meantime.'"Jonathan Brummel, Senior Manager, Premier Support, Zendesk
Global companies are also tasked with the challenge of serving customers who speak many different languages. Luckily, agents don’t have to be multilingual to do so. With AI-powered translation tools like Unbabel, teams can serve customers in any language.
15. Remote work skills
50 percent of support teams went fully remote in 2020. With remote-first expected to remain the predominant work model, agents need skills that will help them succeed while working from home or a winery in Napa. Adaptability, digital literacy, and time management are all important on an agent level.
But businesses will want to invest in cloud-based customer service software that comes with tools that make work from home easier, such as collaboration features and workforce management integrations.
16. Customer service software skills
Support reps need a balance of technical and soft skills. Having experience with customer service software like Zendesk can make an agent’s resume stand out. But customer service software should take hours, not months to understand. Support software that’s easy to set up and learn is key to good customer service and supporting the teams that make it happen.
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