Customer service is a key skill in many sectors, including hospitality and catering. Discover 9 customer service skills you can develop at any time – in your first summer job or at manager level!
What does customer service mean?
Customer service is a term you see a lot in career advice and job descriptions when you’re applying for jobs.
It means how well you work with customers to make them feel happy in their buying experience. It’s a really important skill, because so many jobs involve encouraging customers to buy something and walk away happy.
You could be using your customer service skills face-to-face in a restaurant or supermarket, or in a sales meeting with a client. You could be using them online or over the phone in a customer service call centre. You don’t have to be able to see your customer to make them feel like their time, money and happiness is valued by the company!
You may have great customer service skills naturally, because of your personality and who you are. You can also build them over time, and with more experience of dealing with customers in your work!
Examples of good customer service
- Asking a diner in a restaurant how their meal was, or if you can get them anything
- Listening carefully to a customer’s complaint and taking the best next step to fix the issue, whether it’s helping them yourself or passing the complaint to a manager
- Looking the customer in the eyes and smiling or making them feel welcome with non-verbal body language.
Examples of bad customer service
- Ignoring a customer who obviously needs your help because you’re talking to a work colleague or playing with your phone
- Looking as bored, tired, sad or angry as you feel when in public view of any customers
- Not taking their customer complaints seriously.
- Making them feel like they’re just a number on a list, not a real person who deserves attention and polite interest.
Many different skills work together to mean ‘good customer service skills’. Here are some of the most important ones:
1. Communication skills
Good communication skills mean listening to the customer and understanding what they want. Then you can speak in a way that makes them want to listen to you, and trust any information you share.
2. Problem solving skills
Problem solving skills are really important to giving good customer service because customers often have a problem they want you to solve. They have special diet requirements, or their food arrived cold, or they need a top in their size.
When it comes to customer service, your problem solving skills mean saying a customer’s problem is an MP (My Problem) not an SEP (Somebody Else’s Problem).
You will take responsibility for helping to solve a customer’s problem. This makes them feel like they were right to come to you for help. You will go the extra mile to get them what they need, talk to managers for support and apologise if you need to.
3. Positive language skills
You know what a customer doesn’t want to hear? The word “no”, or the phrase “I can’t do that for you”. These are both examples of negative language that put a wall up between you and the customer. They say you will not get them what they want.
You can make a small change to what you say to make the customer feel like you are listening and trying to help. This is a key part of good customer service.
Here’s an example:
Negative language: “We don’t serve vegan food. There are no vegan options on the menu.”
Positive language: “I will ask the chef if vegan alternatives to our menu choices are available.”
4. Positive performance skills (acting!)
You are not going to feel happy and full of energy all the time at work. However, when you are facing customers (e.g. in a restaurant or supermarket), you need to show them you have lots of energy when it comes to helping them have a great experience.
This is where your acting skills come in. Maybe you’ve got a cold, but the show must go on!
Don’t let customers see you’re bored, angry or tired. Stay active. Take the time to greet them and smile and pay attention to them. Make the customer feel that what they want is important.
Sometimes, acting happy around customers can make you feel happy. It’s a good feeling when a customer thanks you for being so helpful. And it’s all part of the service!
5. Self-management skills
Let’s say you’re working as waiting staff in a restaurant or as a counter service assistant in a supermarket. Your manager is not always going to be there to tell you what to do.
You have to expect to manage your time and activities yourself. This is a big part of self-management skills.
If you’ve been given a rota or shift work in a restaurant, stick to it. Don’t turn up late or fail to turn up – you’re making life harder for your work colleagues who have to cover for you, and reducing the number of people available to serve customers.
If there’s a quiet period at work? Don’t just chat with colleagues or look at your phone. Clean an area that needs cleaning, or arrange food and tables so they look tidy. Check the stock levels or ask your manager for any tasks they’d like you to focus on.
This is good for your own sense of doing a great job (and can impress your manager, which could lead to being given more responsibilities and perhaps promotion).
It is also good for customer service. Customers who walk in and see you lounging around looking bored will get a bad impression of the company, whether it’s a restaurant, supermarket, retail shop or anything else. They may also feel less confident in approaching you for help, because they’ll think you are arrogant or not willing to serve them.
Staying busy and caring for your workplace even when it’s quiet means customers will always feel like you put your job first and are willing to help them.
6. Self-control skills
Keep calm and carry on…
Sometimes customers will get angry, or they won’t understand just how much work you’ve got to do on top of serving them.
Just because customers get angry, that doesn’t mean you should.
Always keep your voice calm. Always keep your language polite. Always look for a solution to their problem. Always know which manager you can turn to if things feel like they’re getting out of control.
Good customer service means never losing control, even if the customers do. Because you’re a professional.
7. Negotiation skills
Do you know about upselling? It’s when a customer is ready to buy and you encourage them to buy even more. Negotiation is the art of persuading the customer they want more than they first thought. Clever negotiation means reading the customer and persuading them to buy just that little bit more – but only if they want to, of course!
Examples of good negotiation in customer service include:
- Asking if they want to super-size their fast food or coffee
- Informing them about ‘special of the day’ menu choices they may not have considered
- Asking if they want dessert or coffee when you clear away their plates at a restaurant
Good negotiation is gentle, not pushy. It’s good customer service because it opens a customer’s eyes to options they may not have thought about. It’s good for your employer because it helps to increase sales!
8. There’s always enough time for great customer service.
When you deal with customers every day – and often lots of them – you’ll see they can be slow at times. When it’s their turn to order fast food or drinks, they don’t know what to order and that holds up the queue. Or they want lots of advice from you before making a choice on what they want. Or they get frustrated because the thing they want is out of stock.
Even when you can’t deliver fast service, focus on great service.
Fast service is important, but if you go too fast you can get sloppy and make mistakes (which is bad customer service, obviously). You can also make the customer angry because they feel you’re not really listening to them.
It’s better to take the time to understand what that customer wants and serve them well than it is to ignore their need for help and rush onto the next customer. You have managers and work colleagues to help you if things get really busy or heated. But stay patient and try to help that customer if you can.
9. Presentation skills
While the way you look doesn’t matter so much if you’re serving customers over the phone or online, it really matters if you work in a public place like a supermarket, hotel or restaurant.
It’s not about having model looks or being super-fashionable. It’s about making the customer feel like you take your customer service responsibility seriously, and are professional about your work.
General personal presentation tips:
- Be clean
- Be tidy
- Wear your uniform correctly, if you’re expected to wear one
- Stay in line with health guidelines if you need to (e.g. on a cheese deli counter you may be required to wear provided gloves to handle food).
This all makes you a great visual ambassador for your employer’s brand – and it puts the customer at their ease. Whatever your role, they can see you are approaching it as a professional and you are there to help.
Customer service skills are often something you can start learning in your first job – but they are important for every kind of job where you meet or work with people, all the way up to manager jobs or starting your own business.
Value the skills you have, develop them as much as you can, and employers will value them too!
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