The Essential Customer Service Skills

Customer service can affect a client's entire experience with your shop. Does your staff have the skills to keep customers coming back again and again?

The key ingredient for many screen printing shops is their ability to win over their customers and become their true partners. Nobody does business with their enemies, but everyone loves working with friends. Long-term customers can become just like family members, with relationships that can be just as permanent.

So what’s in the secret sauce that makes these bonds so strong? It’s nothing more complicated than providing exceptional customer service. Ask yourself if your staff has these essential traits.

Are They Incredibly Prepared?
Good service means good answers. If a customer were to call and ask whether you would need to print an underbase on a light blue shirt if the overprint color is PMS 116, could your CSR tackle that query quickly and correctly? Knowing how to use your shop’s MIS system proficiently is important, but it’s not enough to be a good CSR.

A great rep can instantly decide whether a job can be produced by next Friday, determine how many colors the design may require on a dark garment, or even easily locate a tracking number for an order that shipped last week. They have to do a lot of simultaneous ball juggling. The more prepared and organized the person, the easier it is for them to help the customer with their order.

Customer service reps have one of the hardest jobs in the shop as they often find themselves between a rock (your company) and a hard place (your customers). They have to balance the needs of both. Great reps, backed up with detailed and pertinent information on both entities, can easily help manage the chaos.

Look to see how organized and prepared they are every day. Are they ready to face the challenge, or are they constantly searching for notes or even a pen to write something down? In customer service, being meticulous matters. Prepared people don’t need a lot of hand-holding.

Great reps are usually extremely self-sufficient and should be able to do their jobs without your involvement. If they can’t, it may mean they aren’t prepared, but it could also be because of something they lack, like training, information, or supplies. How often are you assessing the readiness of your CSRs?

Are They Fantastic Listeners?
Active listening is a rare skill these days. This isn’t so much about a CSR’s phone skills, but about really paying attention to what is being said and the customer’s tone or attitude. Reps with great active listening skills will always take notes, repeat back what they have heard, and make the customer feel they are their number-one priority.

Author Stephen Covey includes this skill in his famous The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Customer service reps must make sure they completely understand the customer, and the first step in this task will always be active listening. Remember, there is a reason you have two ears and only one mouth. You should listen twice as much as you speak.

This is especially true for employees handling the walk-in ordering desk or taking phone orders. Can they negotiate the rocky road of communicating with an uninformed customer? Not everyone knows our industry lingo. They need to know when to offer to bridge that gap with a “Hey, let me show you the difference between these two types of shirts.”

On a side note, listening also extends to reading comprehension, especially today. A good amount of our jobs come in through purchase orders or other online means. Account reps are more than just data-entry people, as they need to wade into the order information and ensure that it is set up correctly. Understanding what the customer intends is much more valuable than just slamming data into fields in your MIS.


Treasured reps constantly catch mistakes, omissions, and quirky tidbits that just don’t look right. The most common mistakes in our industry involve the art color count, pricing, quantity, adult versus youth sizes, and gender styles. Saving the day by finding those things your customer missed is how relationships grow.

Do They Have Empathy and Humor?
Customer service is a people-facing position. Great reps need to be able to relate to other people. Uncomfortable situations will inevitably happen and your reps must face these challenges with aplomb.

Empathy is all about understanding and relating to how the other person is feeling. It provides a reference point with how to deal with a situation. If a customer is really anxious about a big order, the rep should be looking for ways to ease that tension. Maybe there’s a big problem and the rep has to withstand an angry phone call with some harsh words about your company. Can they weather the attack and help get the customer back on track with a problem-solving resolution?

Humor, in this context, isn’t being a stand-up comedian, although I’ll bet a lot of those would make great customer service reps. Remember, people won’t really remember exactly what was said, but they will always remember how you made them feel. If a rep can get your customers smiling and laughing, the long-term benefit will be profound. Small jokes, acting goofy or silly, even some personal teasing can work – when it’s natural and in context, not forced.

Interpersonal relationship skills are always at the heart of customer service. Finding reps who are loaded with empathy and good-natured humor will always pay off.

Are They Detail-Oriented?
They say the devil is in the details, and this is absolutely true in customer service. Excellent customer service always begins by making sure that everything is perfect. If you want to solve more problems in your shop (and who doesn’t?), snuff them out before they start.

Reps who have laser-like focus and review all of their work epitomize what’s needed in the position. Common mistakes happen when order information is keyed into the system too quickly or a customer email from a week ago is forgotten. Before you launch a work order into production, you’d better be certain it was reviewed for accuracy. You want detailed problem solvers on your team who can do that.

A great rep knows that mistakes are bound to happen sooner or later. That’s why they place so much emphasis on double checking their work, developing checklists for accuracy, and using other tricks to ensure that perfection is the standard. This also means resolving challenges as they occur by finding the answers. Digging out these details for customers to ensure things go smoothly is a core trait of excellence. If the customer says an order must be shipped by Thursday, the rep better know that the production team can make it happen before accepting it.

Do They Ask Proactive Questions?
Want to know what could be the most valuable trait in a customer service rep? Having a gut-level sense that something might be wrong before disaster strikes. It’s a trait that gets them up off their chair to ask, “Did those small shirts finally come in?” “How come that art hasn’t been approved yet?” “That sample order has to ship tomorrow, and the screens aren’t burned yet. When will they be ready?”

This is the skill of determining the what-if doom failure scenarios that are always lurking around the corner in any shop. Sure, it’s probably easier to just not say anything and let the order ship late. But a good rep won’t take those commitments lightly. They will do their best to keep things on track by pushing each department to do its part, holding the other departments accountable and to a higher standard.

What Good CSRs Aren’t
So, we’ve identified five traits you should look for in a great rep to hire or keep. Here are a few qualities you don’t want:

Do they blame others? Good reps understand that they represent the company as a whole. They don’t point fingers. You succeed as a team, and fail as a team.

Are they poor time managers? Everything we do in this industry is deadline-based. If the person can’t manage their own sense of time with their job, they aren’t going to be able to monitor the steps that have to happen to meet the deadlines that are critical to your customers.

Are they argumentative? Some people always have to be right. Even when they are wrong.

Are they closed-minded? This industry is constantly evolving. Having an open mind and a willingness to learn is important, even if it means taking an opposite approach to “how you’ve always done it.” Closed-minded people aren’t on a journey to success.

Be honest in evaluating which set of traits your CSRs have. Ask your production managers whether the reps are helping or hurting your success. Set expectations on how you want this critical department to function and either build or train the staff to meet those points. Not only will your customers thank you, but your employees will as well.

Read more from Marshall Atkinson here.

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