Why Communication Skills Don't Work In Customer Service

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Why Communication Skills Don't Work In Customer Service

By: Tim Dawes

Every time my firm conducts communication skills training, we know someone is going to object.

"That doesn't work. Everybody's heard of active listening. You can't use that stuff anymore."

And we have to admit, there's a lot of truth in that. Everyone has heard of active listening. And it doesn't work for many people much of the time.

But communication skills can work for your staff.

The problem usually isn't the skills. It's the way people are trained to use them. Learn to use communication skills effectively, and they can create happy customers and higher income.

There are two components to good communication skills: (a) the skills themselves, and (b) what you're trying to do (your intention) when you use them. Many employees learn communication skills from manuals. And many manuals emphasize either skills, or intention but not both. And so, much of what we think of as communication skills training fails.

Here are a couple of examples:

Example 1: How active listening gets a black eye: using good skills, but with the intention to fix or change a customer

I was coaching a hospital social worker through a confrontation with a mother who was terribly frightened. The social worker was doing his best to demonstrate active listening.

"OK, I get that you're upset. And you want to get out of here. And I want to help you. But you've got to go through this process before you can take your daughter home."

The mother didn't react at all the way he'd hoped. "I don't want to hear all this institutional talk," she said. "You leave me alone. I'll sue if I have to!"

This appears to be a failure of active listening. And it is, but the problem goes deeper than that. When I paused the encounter and asked the social worker how he thought the mother was feeling and what she needed, he said, "I don't really know. I was busy trying to get her to do what I wanted and think it was her idea."

Active listening skills are useful, but they're only tools. They serve the intentions of the person using them. And if you don't teach trainees useful intentions, most will fall back on trying to fix people or change them. So you'll be training your staff to be very effective at letting your customers know they need to be fixed or changed. And your customers will let you know how unpleasant an experience that is.

Example 2: How "understand before you are understood" fails: having a useful intention but lacking the skills to communicate it

I paused a training scenario just after an angry man blew up at a nurse. I was coaching the nurse through an encounter with a father who felt the staff was trying to hustle him and his son out of the hospital.

He told her that he worked all day and came into the hospital all night. And where did she think he was going to get the time to go through training before he took his son home?

When I asked her how she thought the man was feeling and what he needed, she suggested that he seemed overwhelmed and afraid, and that he might need some support.

When I suggested she might ask the man if that's what he was experiencing, she turned to him and said, "You need an appointment with a social worker. I'll set something up for you."

This is a classic failure that comes from understanding your customer, but lacking the skills to communicate it. The nurse could describe the source of the man's anger clearly to me. She had real empathy for him. But she couldn't put her words together in a way he recognized as compassionate.

We'd taught her the words, of course. But like most people who learn new skills, she lacked the confidence to use them. So she, like the trainee above, fell back on trying to fix the customer. And he let her know how much he disliked being treated that way.

It don't mean a thing if you ain't practicing

Both of the examples above underscore a third important component of communication skills training, namely, the practice.

The trainee in the first example was a compassionate man with a degree in social work. I'm sure he'd had ample exposure to good communication skills. It had never gelled for him before.

Once we put him in a scenario, coached him through the skills, and alerted him to the fact that he was struggling because he was trying to fix his customer instead of connecting with her (that's the intention we teach), he developed skills rapidly. He even returned to training weeks later to report that he'd created a real difference in his life using the skills at home. He quickly became a valued mentor to others in his work group.

Communication skills are deceptively challenging. It takes no great intellect or dexterity to utter the words. What is terribly demanding is all the processing: keeping your focus on the other person despite your own discomfort, listening for the needs beneath complaints and accusations, drumming up the nerve to suggest to an outraged man that he might value some support.

What gets you through tough interactions is your confidence in your own intention and skills. And you learn confidence through practice.

In my experience, those are the keys to effective communication skills:

1.) holding a useful intention like understanding the other person or connecting with them,

2.) employing skills that communicate your intention, and

3.) practicing the skills and intentions so you have them at hand, even when interactions get intense, especially when they do.

Find training that will provide you all three, and you'll have communication skills that will please your customers and increase your income.

About The Author

Tim Dawes, founder of Interplay, Inc., specializes in helping health care organizations exceed their strategic goals by demonstrating unexpected empathy to patients. Sign up for free monthly "how to" articles at http://www.interplaygroup.com/pages/free_resources.html


Doris D 13.08.2007. 20:57

How long have you been in customer service, who is you client base, how many customers do you service daily? how important is the communication skills? What is your biggest challenge in customer service, What trends are you seeing in customer service today? What advice would you give someone in customer service? Does your organization observe National Customer service week in October?

Doris D

Admin 13.08.2007. 20:57

1) 24 years
2) Mainly internal office co-workers
3) There are 500 people in my office. I also service 54 branches in Eastern Canada
4) Communications are key.....To be able to complete even the simplest request, you must communicate what is needed/wanted.
5) Keeping a sunny disposition and trying to remember the part about communication
6) Unfortunately, a lack of concern for the client
7) Always try to see the situation from the point of view of the customer...then try to help them resolve the situation.
8) No.


Bobby J 06.03.2012. 02:52

What is the skill name for the ability to bring customers back? If a customer keeps on coming back because of you, what skill is that? Not customer service skills or communication skills, but something more indepth. It's because of your warmth, your charm. What's the skill called for that?

Bobby J

Admin 06.03.2012. 02:52

I think you mean customer retention. Or, it could be loyalty.


J J 18.03.2008. 01:07

How do I answer these questions on a job application? 12. Describe your communication skills:
13. Describe your customer service / people skills:

Umm... I know how to say "Hi, can I help you" ? LOL. Seriously, I'm lost here.


Admin 18.03.2008. 01:07

12. Communications skills. If you can tell someone exactly what they need to hear in as few words as possible.

13. Customer service skills. How do you handle an irate customer. One who complains and doesn't want to hear how to fix their problem.

Glad to help.


zdotgirl 16.01.2008. 17:35

i am doing a application for a fashion retail job does this sound ok for my key skills? I am an enthusiastic, self-motivated, organised person, whom possesses excellent communication skills and I am able to learn any new skills required. I am able to meet deadlines set. I am a very fast learner. I have previous customer service skills. I have a very good phone manner. I know how to work well as an individual, and also to be part of a team.


Admin 16.01.2008. 17:35

The skill set is good. I'd probably word it a little differently....something like:

I am a well organized and self-motiviated individual. I am very enthusiastic about learning new skills and committed to meeting all deadlines and project objectives. I have unsurpassed customer service skills and work to achieve the full satisfaction of the company's customers. I also have excellent communication skills.

Good luck in your application....I hope you get the job!!


boxbeatle 13.07.2007. 21:33

How difficult is it to sell cars? I am considering a career change at 55. I have very good customer service and communication skills. I dress well, and it sounds like something I would like to do. I have been told it is very competitive, and most dealers have very high expectations. Can I hear from individuals that have sold cars.


Admin 13.07.2007. 21:33

I am a sales manager in the "car business." Alot of people will tell you it's all about ripping people off and making the most money you can. The problem is, none of them have had a good experience with a dealership. This business is really the "people business" as we are consultative sales persons. WE take the time to get to know our customers wants, needs and desires to help them choose the right vehicle at the right price. Alot of "salespeople" will try to force customers to buy a particular car or buy at more payment then they can handle: these are the people who give the honest professionals in the industry a bad name. Treat people with respect, listen to what they need and desire, and treat them fairly and you will go far in the business.
I was once told, "This will be the easiest high paying job in the world, or the worst low paying job you will ever have." You take the time to do all I've said above you will realize the former, not the latter statement.


Shadow 600 09.06.2013. 16:53

How to put tutoring experience on my resume? I want to put tutoring experience on my resume. Basically I tutor math privately from pre-algebra up to calculus III to make extra money. I do this when time allows and when I can find students to tutor. Most of my students found me on Craigslist. I have been doing this for about two years now.

The experience proves that I have customer service and communication skills. Should I put it on my resume for relevant jobs and how should I write it, since it's not a real job?

Shadow 600

Aaron 04.09.2010. 23:11

What of the courses listed would be good to take for becoming a Real Estate Agent? 1) Finance & Business Technology:
In the first year of Finance & Business Technology, students taking this program will obtain technology and office skills as well as accounting basics. They will learn what is necessary to work in today's office and have a well-rounded knowledge of everything from the Microsoft Office Suite to handling basic accounting functions and the administrative activities of an office. Second year students will have the opportunity to pick either the Finance track or the Business Technology track. Students choosing Finance will obtain more advanced accounting skills and software. Students choosing Business Technology will learn more office skills and procedures.

Students are assigned to a computer workstation. Students work independently, collaborating with team members, and completing various assignments related to business applications and accounting. Students also work with various software applications, apply communication skills, obtain office skills and procedures, and develop information processing skills.

2) Marketing & Entrepreneurship:
Marketing & Entrepreneurship is a fast-paced and high energy field. In West Michigan, travel and tourism is one of the largest industries. There are endless possibilities for careers in the marketing and entrepreneurship fields including public relations, advertising, market research, and special events.

Students will explore concepts in marketing including economics, selling, customer relations, promotion, distribution, marketing information management, product planning, and hospitality. In addition, students will be able to choose two or three main areas of focus during the year. Focus areas include travel & tourism, event planning, sports & entertainment, entrepreneurship, school-based enterprise/customer service (The Student Pulse), and professional sales (DECA).


Admin 04.09.2010. 23:11

Being a realtor is really about selling and entrepreneurship so it may be better to take the second course. And it would also be particularly helpful if any of the subjects you plan to take will discuss how best to manage the sales funnel.


Debbie S 26.10.2007. 07:31

Who is hiring administrative and/or general office assistants in Long Beach, CA area? I would like to introduce myself. I have been searching for a job located in Long Beach including surrounding areas. I am a dependable, self-motivated, hardworking individual with strong clerical and communication skills. I am capable of handling multiple tasks, have strong customer service skills and enjoy a deadline type work environment. I take great pride in my work and how it represents me and my employer is my main priority. I feel I could be a positive addition to the organization who would be willing to give me a chance to prove my skills and level of determination.

Debbie S

Admin 26.10.2007. 07:31

Try using www.indeed.com to search for job postings in your area. Good luck.


Tyler 29.09.2011. 04:48

What are my chances of getting a job at costco? I just applied at a costco that is less than a mile from where I live. I am 19 about to turn 20 and I have about 7.5 years of sales and customer service experience. I am a full time student in college but my schedule allows evenings Monday-Thursday and I have Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays completely free. I have great communication skills and I am a friendly and outgoing person. Are my chances good?


Admin 29.09.2011. 04:48

that is good but what does your resume look like


ya51nm 23.09.2007. 13:54

can someone check my cover letter and give me some pointers? i wantd some help with my cover letter, for a job at currys which i have pasted below(some of it), thing is i am not too confident and wantd sum help/pointers towards my letter, and some views

Based on the requirements emphasised on your website, I feel that my skills and experience are a perfect match for this position. While I have little experience, I have excellent communication skills and an aptitude for customer service. My communication skills have been enhanced over the past year due to the fact that I have given many presentations, on my own and in a team, as part of my University course.
I have had some experience over the past two years, where I worked in a newsagent, which involved me in dealing with customers providing them with services offered in the shop. As you can see from my CV, I am goal-orientated, driven, and not afraid of hard work, qualifications vital to anyone who will be a productive staff member for your firm.
just a little bit more to my cover letter:

I have also had experience dealing with customers in a Pharmacy, where I assisted the Pharmacist on his daily routine, helping him with customers and keeping records.


Admin 23.09.2007. 13:54

The rest of the answers gave good tips. It might help if you told us what type of job you are applying for and a little bit about the company. Here are my ideas for you.

I would also maybe put in an intro paragraph. Make sure to state your name, a brief sentence about what you are up to right now ( i.e. are you pursuing a degree? is it part time or full time?), and why your interested in working for Curry's in general. What is it about their company that you like?

Showing you did some research on the company before applying will give you major brownie points.

I would also cut out "I have had some experience over the past two years," and just put "My previous job experience includes working as a news agent which taught me how to provide excellent customer service by going above and beyond what was asked of me. "

How does your resume show that you are goal oriented and hard working? I would give some examples of these.


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