Customer Service Skills: How to Improve Empathy, Active Listening and Knowledge


A photo of smiling contact centre advisor making a point

We take an overview of three of the most important customer service skills and assess how we develop them in the contact centre.

Customer Service Skill #1 – Empathy

Building empathy is a big subject. There is more to it than you may think. The key thing to remember is that empathy is a skill and, as a skill, it can be learned.

For example, we can learn about being flexible in our tone of voice, body language and our use of language. We can also choose words that our customers will hear as being on their side.

However, there’s more to it than that.

To really demonstrate empathy, I believe you have to be genuinely curious about people and want the best outcome for your customer.

As Steve Shellabear, the Managing Director of dancing lion, tells us: “To really demonstrate empathy, I believe you have to be genuinely curious about people and want the best outcome for your customer.”

“If you do not take this approach, applying methods to simply sound empathetic can come across as insincere and manipulative.”

So, empathy begins with trying to understand another person, why they do the things they do, and finding a way to relate to their feelings.

3 Steps to Building Contact Centre Empathy

When training advisors to show empathy, you can use a step-by-step process, to better ensure that this customer service skill is not lacking in your contact centre.

Step 1 – Creating Self-Awareness

The first step in building empathy is being self-aware, which means being conscious of your own thoughts and feelings, including any biases you may have.

“To help with this, encourage advisors to listen to the customer’s problem from three perspectives: that of yourself, the customer and what will work best for them,” says Steve.

A thumbnail picture of Caroline Cooper

Caroline Cooper

However, if advisors aren’t being empathetic because of biases, we need to focus on making them conscious of the fact that these exist. This will, over time, improve empathy.

To encourage self-awareness when it comes to developing skills, take a look at the following video, where Caroline Cooper, a Trainer and Consultant at Naturally Loyal, describes how she helps customer service professionals become more self-aware.

Step 2 – Listen to How the Customer Feels

It’s very easy to fall into the mistake of listening to the event the customer is describing and remembering a similar event we’ve experienced before and making a judgement about how the customer dealt with the situation.

If we dealt with it differently, we can easily think: “Well, I wouldn’t have done that!”

Instead, Steve tells us: “The trick is to listen to how they said they felt as they were experiencing the incident. While we may not have felt that way with that type of incident, we have all felt upset or angry at times. Remembering how you felt will help you to identify with the customer.”

Reflecting back the words that the customer uses to express their emotions is also helpful when it comes to this, as we are demonstrating an understanding of how they are feeling.

Step 3 – Know How to Frame Your Empathy Statements

While reflecting back the words that customers use to express emotion can be a great way to build on this customer service skill, there are lots of other ways to help convey empathy over the phone.

For example, using lots personal pronouns – such as “I” and “you” – helps convey to the customer that you are personally interested in them as an individual, highlighting that helping them is your priority.

Using active verbs – such as: “I will immediately ask the team to resolve this” instead of: “This will be resolved by the team” – helps us to show that we are actively working towards fixing the issue.

Also, using active verbs – such as: “I will immediately ask the team to resolve this” instead of: “This will be resolved by the team” – helps us to show that we are actively working towards fixing the issue. This alerts the customer to the fact that their issue is important to us.

Tips like these can be great, but they must be taught in training, so they come naturally. This can be done through special exercises to develop empathy, just like the one below.

For more advice on framing empathy phrases, read our article: 18 Empathy Statements That Help Improve Customer-Agent Rapport

A Simple Exercise to Help Develop Empathy as a Key Skill

In Steve’s customer service training programmes, he gets participants to practise remembering and sharing emotional experiences with each other, where they practise listening, giving their full attention and showing they understand.

A thumbail photo of Steve Shellabear

Steve Shellabear

According to Steve, this helps to underline that “we may never truly understand how they feel as they are a different person, but the fact that we acknowledge our own thoughts and feelings, try and put ourselves in their position and look for the best workable resolution to their issue will help.”

The customer will feel your empathy when you talk to them from that place and we should begin to notice that we are automatically using personal pronouns and active verbs.

Just remember, as Maya Angelou once said: “People will forget what you say but remember how you made them feel.”

For more training activities to help build this customer service skill, read our article: How to Coach Empathy in the Contact Centre – With Three Training Exercises

Why Do Contact Centre Advisors Often Lack Empathy?

There are two key reasons why advisors lack empathy.

The first is that it is common for advisors to fail to appreciate exactly why the customer may be finding something difficult, if they find the process easy, so it becomes very difficult to relate to the customer’s feelings.

It’s very easy to fall into this trap, as we listen and view a customer issue from either our own perspective, as someone working in a contact centre, or from the position of the contact centre who employs us.

A picture of a target with a dart in it

It is easy, as an advisor, to be solely task focused – asking questions to solve the issue that the customer has, but forgetting how we are communicating with them.

The second reason is that it is easy, as an advisor, to be solely task focused – asking questions to solve the issue that the customer has, but forgetting that how we communicate with the customer is as important as resolving their issue.

“If the advisor can communicate well, they can go a long way to reducing much of the frustration the customer may be feeling. In a sense, they are managing the emotions of the customer,” adds Steve.

For this reason, many contact centres structure their training programmes to begin with testing advisors’ current level of awareness and skill.

Customer Service Skill #2 – Active Listening

Active listening is the customer service skill of listening beyond what the customer is saying, as we also listen to tone of voice and language selection.

We can also think of active listening as listening to what is not being said and, if we are being active, we are also letting the customer know that we are listening. This can be achieved with verbal nods, such as “uh-huh” and “yes”.

From this definition, we can see that there are lots of key elements to active listening. But it’s important to develop this skill so that we, as advisors, can check our understanding and get to the heart of the issue.

Active listening therefore helps us to ask better, more relevant, questions, while it can also build the customer’s trust in us, which leads on to the next point…

Empathy Relies on Active Listening

Empathy begins with trying to understand another person, why they do the things that they do, and finding a way to relate to their feelings.

From this, we can see that the skill of active listening is very closely linked to empathy, as listening is a skill that helps us to unlock that understanding of the other person.

Without active listening, we cannot show proper empathy and we fall into traps like assuming we know the problem, without having a full understanding of the issue.

So, without active listening, we cannot show proper empathy and we fall into traps like assuming we know the problem, without having a full understanding of the issue.

Also, we may be able to meet the functional needs of the customer, but some will want to have the space to vent, to get the issue fully off their chest. With active listening and empathy, we can ensure that we meet the customer’s emotional needs, as well as those functional needs.

3 Exercises to Improve Active Listening in Customer Service

To help develop active listening, and also empathy in the process, here are three activities to help train the customer service skill in the contact centre, as suggested by Steve Shellabear.

1. Don’t Get Angry!

A picture of an angry businessperson

A training exercise we do to show the importance of listening is to divide the group into two then have half of the group share an experience with a partner, where the partner has been briefed to stop listening after 30 seconds.

The speakers usually get frustrated and annoyed, even though they know it’s a training exercise.

Then we switch roles so that those who weren’t listening have a go at speaking and experience what it’s like to not be listened to.

Finally, we finish up with both really listening and acknowledging each other. Everyone usually says they feel the difference.

2. Grapevine

A picture of a grapevine

A fun exercise to develop listening skills is a version of the grapevine, which is also commonly known as “Chinese Whispers”.

To play, ask one volunteer go outside of the room and instruct them that you will give them directions to arrive at a destination. Have these prepared beforehand.

Then have your volunteer come back into the room. The other participants in the group then line up and the volunteer whispers the directions to the first person.

They then whisper the directions to the next and so forth, carrying the message down the line.

When all have heard the directions, ask the last person in the line to say out loud the directions they have. They are likely to be very different from how they started out!

3. A Dramatic Event

A picture of blue and red theatre masks

Another fun exercise is to prepare a short description of a dramatic event – no more than 250 words – and then a series of questions to ask the group about it.

With each correct answer, the advisor receives a point.

This exercise highlights how we all pick up on different parts of a story and why it is always necessary to speak with several people if you want a full recollection of an event.

One story that you can use for this game is called “The Witches of Glum”, which can be found with an internet search.

For more training activities to help build this customer service skill, read our article: How to Train Active Listening in the Contact Centre – With Four Exercises

Active Listening Relies on an Advisor’s Ability to Refocus

Keeping 100% concentration, throughout the day, to use active listening and show genuine empathy is a very tricky task – especially when advisors are handling very similar call types.

With this in mind, the ability of an advisor to refocus, contact after contact, becomes a key customer service skill in itself.

So, while each contact centre is different in terms of how it is managed and the challenges the advisor faces, the following pointers, as suggested by Steve Shellabear, are good to keep in mind when helping advisors to refocus:

Breaks are important, particularly at peak times – If the advisor is overloaded with calls and feels stressed, they will not have the energy to put themselves in the customer’s shoes. The advisor will be too busy just trying to make it through their shift.

Interaction with team leader/coach – Research has consistently shown how important the relationship is between the team leader and advisor. If the agent feels they are valued and listened to, they are more likely to interact with their customers in the same way.

Team leaders should prioritize communication and maintaining an empathetic relationship with their reports. Lead by example!

Gamification can make achieving targets fun, by using advisors’ core drivers to motivate them as individuals.

Make it a fun environment – Many of the calls can be competitive – have games and a simple reward scheme.

Who says call centre work has to be boring? Not at all. Gamification can make achieving targets fun, by using advisors’ core drivers to motivate them as individuals.

Have the coaches catch the advisors doing something right – Give praise for the skills and know-how shown.

Too often agents can say ‘I only get told when I’ve done something wrong!” Coaches and team leaders should look out for what’s working and being done well and tell their team.

Look for personal development opportunities – Look for development opportunities that can be achieved through honing communication and empathy skills.

With the right approach and focus, contact centres can be a highly rewarding place to work to develop core communication skills, time management, personal discipline and to build relationship with other advisors.

Allow leeway on targets – Call-flow and process should be followed effectively, but allow some slack on metrics such as Time to Answer and Average Handling Time (AHT) – have the focus on the quality of the call, the interaction and rapport.

Allow some slack on metrics such as Time to Answer and Average Handling Time (AHT) – have the focus on the quality of the call, the interaction and rapport.

Most of us know that pursuing AHT at the expense of First Call Resolution (FCR) is self-defeating as a management metric.

Monitoring the agent’s ability to build rapport and resolve the query is the priority. Think customer experience and lifetime value!

For more advice on keeping focused in the contact centre, read our article: Maintaining a Call Centre Focus: Ten Tips to Preserve High Performance

Customer Service Skill #3 – Knowledge

With active listening and empathy, you can meet the customer’s emotional needs, but we also need to meet the customer’s functional needs too.

To meet these functional needs, we still need our active listening skill, but we also need to train knowledgeability, which can be particularly tricky in certain contact centres, where there is a lot to learn and things are changing all of the time.

So, keeping up to date with industry knowledge is vital. That includes contact centre developments and industry know-how.

However, many contact centres struggle in this area, with many relying on traditional classroom training and an infrequently updated knowledge base. This means that they don’t cater for the different ways in which advisors learn.

But, with this in mind, how can we improve our internal processes to improve advisor knowledge?

9 Quick Tips to Develop Advisor Knowledge

Steve Shellabear presents nine ways to better train advisor knowledge in the contact centre, as we look to move away from traditional methods of learning.

1. Subscribe and Read Trade Journals – Give advisors a small amount of time each week to become an industry expert. It’s easier than you think!

2. Set a Time Each Week to Grab a Coffee and Skim Through Relevant Journals – Ask advisors to think to themselves: “What is of most relevance to my customer base?”

LinkedIn may have some interesting articles, while advisors can also share best practices on your intranet or community group.

3. Scan and Engage With Forums and Discussion Boards – LinkedIn may have some interesting articles, while advisors can also share best practices on your intranet or community group.

4. Research What Information Your Own Organization Has Already – Think about what you can make freely available on the intranet or knowledge base, as well as looking for gaps.

5. Involve Advisors in Content Creation – Have your best advisors sit beside people with good writing skills to create content for the knowledge base, to share their insights across the contact centre.

6. Network – Meet experts and ensure constant communication with your other business sites, to share and suggest best practices.

7. Talk to Customers – Engage with your customers off the phone and get advisors having ad hoc conversations with them, to help bring the voice of the customer into your contact centre.

8. Keep an Eye on Your Competitors – How does your proposition compare to your competitors? By allowing advisors to research this, you can gain knowledge of areas in which you are superior to them.

9. Listen to Podcasts With Advisors – Hear industry leaders, keep up with or ahead of developments and perhaps even ask advisors to create webinars to share with the rest of the team.

We have a great podcast of our own, which you can find by following the link: The Contact Centre Podcast

The Aim Is to Create a Learning Culture

While there are many approaches to topping up advisor knowledge, some of which are highlighted above, we don’t want to be constantly thinking of how to do so. Instead, we want to create a culture where this happens naturally.

The answer to this lies in setting the right routines for learning. This starts in induction and should carry across the entire employee journey.

To start this, one of our readers says that their contact centre “has asked for advisors to volunteer to be ‘Culture Change Ambassadors’. We want them to be empowered and to be able to voice new ideas/concerns.”

This is an interesting approach, as these ambassadors can help to establish a learning culture by establishing a knowledge manager, creating a knowledge-sharing platform or developing engaging learning content.

A thumbnail photo of Nick Drake Knight

Nick Drake-Knight

After all, when you task advisors with coming up with culture improvement ideas, they will be far more likely to buy into them.

For more on sustaining contact centre learning and making it enjoyable, listen to the following episode of The Contact Centre Podcast with Nick Drake-Knight, Founder of Continue & Begin, where he explains how to develop a contact centre coaching philosophy.

Using Customer Service Skills With Angry Customers

Learning each of these three key customer service skills is great, but it is often an entirely different ballgame when the customer on the other end of phone is angry.

We want to be able to use empathy, active listening and our knowledge in thsee tense, highly pressured scenarios, to help turn a negative situation around.

To do so, we need to remember that the customer has probably tried to resolve their issue through self-service or by looking through the website first, so we should appreciate that as a source of frustration.

Remember that the customer has probably tried to resolve their issue through self-service or by looking through the website first, so we should appreciate that as a source of frustration.

In addition, the customer is likely to have been taken through an IVR menu, then been placed on hold. This too can be an irritating process, so we can see how anger can build.

Understanding this process is important in order to stay calm and best utilize our customer service skills.

Yet there is much more great advice for better handling contacts from angry customers, as Steve Shellabear shares below:

  • If they sound angry or upset, remember that it is not personal – however, you need to respond personally.
  • Ask probing questions and find out the cause of the issue.
  • Actively listen to the content of what they are saying.
  • Don’t sympathize, empathize with how they feel – don’t just say ‘I understand how you feel’, see if you can really relate and build on what they are saying, keeping one eye on the outcome.
  • Sincerely apologize once you have a full understanding of the issue,
  • Consider what options you have to assist them. There will always be something you can offer. A practical solution that resolves their issue works best.
  • Check they are happy with the solution offered.
  • Summarize and tell them what you are going to do.
  • Let them know your name, so they can be routed through to you in the future.
  • Thank them for their time and for bringing this matter to your attention.

Alongside using customer service skills with angry customers, take some advice from our article: The Right Words and Phrases to Say to an Angry Customer

Which Other Skills Are Crucial for Delivering Good Customer Service?

While empathy, active listening and knowledge are arguably the most important customer service skills, there are others.

In fact, here are five more customer service skills that are great to focus on when building your contact centre’s very own training programme.

  1. Resilience – While you can follow all of our great advice above, listening to angry customers can be a burden that many advisors don’t enjoy. However, if they are trained in resilience beforehand, they will feel better prepared to handle these challenging call types.
  2. Patience – Alongside resilience, patience is a key skill for dealing with challenging types of customers, like those who are indecisive, nit-picking or vulnerable.
  3. Tech Savviness – The ability to navigate various contact centre systems while maintaining good conversations with customers is becoming increasingly important. We can also use good technology to improve things behind the scenes, to support our efforts in customer service.
  4. Flexibility – If advisors can quickly refocus between contact and channel types, we can improve the way in which we utilize them, in order to better meet demand.
  5. Team Orientation – The happier people are to share tips with one another and support new recruits, the better culture we create. If we can create a positive culture, we can create an environment for developing happy employees, which will foster good customer service.

For more detail about these customer service skills and others, read our article: The Top 10 Most Important Customer Service Skills

In Summary

There are a number of customer service skills that are great to develop in the contact centre, but arguably the three most significant are empathy, active listening and knowledge.

While some will pick up these skills more easily than others, they are skills and, as such, can be taught.

To improve empathy, we can improve self-awareness. To improve active listening, we can role-play. To improve knowledge, we can establish an internal communications system.

This is just some of the great advice shared in this article, and we hope it will help you to develop in these three key areas and deliver an even greater level of customer service.

Good luck!

For more on developing various customer service skills, read our articles:

Published On: 12th Feb 2020 - Last modified: 19th Feb 2020
Read more about - Customer Service Strategy, , , , ,


Get the latest exciting call centre reports, specialist whitepapers, interesting case-studies and industry events straight to your inbox.