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Nothing Soft About Soft Skills

by Rich Gallagher, Point of Contact Group

Could you imagine what Starbucks would be like if its CEO hated coffee? Or what if you started a rock band and never listened to rock and roll? These are examples of what, in my mind, is the single biggest problem with the customer support industry today.

About 18 months ago, I raised my hand at panel discussion of senior support executives and asked, "what trends are you seeing in soft skills for your operations today?" They hemmed. They hawed. Finally one of them said haltingly, "well, of course, it's important for people to be polite" before going on to the next question.

Before that, I spent two days at an executive retreat with support leaders from some of the biggest names in technology, as an observer. I heard lots of things about metrics, processes, and systems. But customers? Nary a word. So why is it that in a business that has "customer" as its first word, its C-level executives often seem to give a rat's patootie about customer experience?

I am biased, of course. I live and breathe in this world. I make much of my living teaching customer contact professionals how to communicate in their most difficult situations. When I last headed a 24x7 support center, strategically changing our communications and coaching skills was the linchpin of dramatically improving both our support metrics and the bottom line of our company. Its impact was in my view was greater than that of technology, even as we transitioned from pink pads of paper to CRM, remote support, and webinars. So here is what I would tell my colleagues in leadership roles today:

There is more research than ever on customer skills. Start with the wealth of surveys and white papers that are out there from industry portals like We now know in micromatic detail what kinds of training and tools will improve your metrics. For example, custom role-playing scenarios and support simulations are highly effective, while canned "smile training" is almost worthless. Same with how much to train, what to measure, and lots of other data – it's all there.

Soft skills are not so soft anymore. Few things have changed as dramatically over the last 20 years as the science behind how we communicate. With the advent of strength-based psychology, used widely in major league sports and leading businesses nowadays, there is now a strong evidence base behind how top service leaders train their front lines to communicate. They leverage these approaches as a strategic weapon to build their market share, and so should you.

Your soft skills brand you more than ever. Recently I visited a online support community for a major technology firm. They had a lone spokesperson giving robotic "read the manual" replies, and the unmitigated rage from customers in response was truly amazing to read. I actually took the unusual (for me) step of writing their support VP with examples of how I might reword these responses, and of course never got so much as a harrumph from the corner office. I see two points here: first, the pressures of social media are increasingly pushing your support services into the public eye. Second, Darwinism (e.g. competitors who are too stupid to care about their customer reputation) is giving you a huge opportunity to take the lead.

My advice? Get out from behind your spreadsheets once in a while, wander the floors, and listen to how your team interacts with your customers. Drink deeply from the books and research that are out there nowadays. Then start thinking strategically about what your "coffee" tastes like.

About the Author
Rich Gallagher is a communications skills expert and former customer support executive who heads the Point of Contact Group, a training and development firm based in Ithaca, NY. His book What to Say to a Porcupine: 20 Humorous Tales that Get to the Heart of Excellent Customer Service (AMACOM, 2008) was a national #1 customer service bestseller and finalist for the 800-CEO-READ's 2008 Business Book of the Year, and his latest book How to Tell Anyone Anything (AMACOM, 2009) explores the mechanics of difficult workplace conversations. Visit Rich online at