The future of customer service

sins of customer service

The psychological and social impacts of COVID-19 have been making headlines since 2020 – “We’re all socially awkward now” and “Why we may have to re-learn to socialise” being still-relevant examples. In March of this year, the World Health Organization announced that the pandemic had triggered a 25 per cent increase in the prevalence of anxiety and depression worldwide, and UK education watchdog Ofsted reported that the pandemic delayed social skills in children.

More than two years into the pandemic, in much of Australia, in-person social interactions still often have an element of awkwardness – with in-person customer-service interactions no exception. We’re re-learning how to socialise; we also need to re-train in service skills.

Soft skills have always been fundamental to customer service, but with the impacts of the pandemic, all businesses in all industries need to significantly upgrade their definition of soft skills and upskill their people to be future-fit. According to Deloitte, by 2030 two-thirds of jobs will be soft-skill intensive, yet “The average worker is missing around two of the 18 critical skills that are advertised for a job… with far-and-away the bulk of those ‘missing skills’, those of the heart” – the interpersonal and creative skills.

Where customer service used to be largely business-directed and focused on systems, procedures and standards, now – and even more so into the future – it’s about mindsets, behaviours and sense-making. It’s customer-directed, too, which means we need service staff who can deal with other humans in an adaptive, agile and creative way.

So, it’s no longer a luxury to have service teams that are deeply self-aware as well as customer-focused – it’s essential. Staff have to be able to manage both sides of the coin: not only the emotions and curve balls that customers throw at them but also their own emotions and the curve balls life throws at them.

In other words, the post-pandemic worker needs to be highly emotionally and socially intelligent – or they’ll be left behind.

As Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence, said, “If your emotional abilities aren’t in hand, if you don’t have self-awareness, if you are not able to manage your distressing emotions, if you can’t have empathy and have effective relationships, then no matter how smart you are, you are not going to get very far”.

So, what do we do?

We need to train our way out of the pandemic hangover and into the future, and we need to do it fast.

Soft skills training isn’t a “nice to have” anymore. Soft skills can be as important as hard skills (technical capability) for performing a job successfully and excelling, especially when the job involves dealing with unpredictable, emotional humans. 

Hiring people who already have great soft skills and training them in necessary technical skills can be the easier route, of course. But where we don’t have that luxury, we need to train people who have the technical ability in the right soft skills – deep listening, compassion, energy management, high interpersonal skills, adaptive behaviours, creative problem-solving, and good judgement.

Start with the basics. Strengthen the social intelligence that leads to good judgement and better problem-solving by training staff to listen, ask better questions, communicate clearly and navigate grey areas. Even a small investment will pay off exponentially. Soft skills are the future.