Customer service: the hard business skill with a soft edge

Customer satisfaction is vital for a business' success, so graduates need to give clients and customers the same care and attention they would give their boss.

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Don’t think that a customer or client is always external to your workplace.

Many students think that they only need customer service skills if they are applying for dedicated customer service jobs. However, if your job requires any interaction with a customer, a client, a service user or the public, you will benefit from having a good instinct for customer care.

Don’t think that a customer or client is always external to your workplace. For example, HR professionals often refer to, and treat, their colleagues as customers or service users.

Customer service skills can also help you with ‘stakeholder management’ – a task that is sometimes listed on graduate job descriptions. If you are working on a project, you will probably have to consider the views of various interested parties (stakeholders). Showing them the same courtesy that you would a client will do you no harm at all.

What is good customer service?

Effective customer service or client management is ensuring that customers and clients are happy with the service or goods provided and that any complaints or problems are resolved.

The best customer service professionals make the customer feel valued and listened to, while at the same time dealing with their issue efficiently so that they can then go on to serve other customers promptly. Sometimes, of course, it may not be possible to resolve the situation to the customer’s satisfaction, in which case the aim is to try to assuage the customer’s disappointment in order to neutralise any reputational damage.

Being ‘good at customer service’ requires a range of competencies and qualities, including:

How to gain customer service experience while at university

Lots of the part-time jobs you can get as a university student will build your customer service experience. The typical student bar job, working on the shop floor in retail or in a call centre are all brilliant for this. In fact, any part-time jobs that involve dealing with the public are advantageous: for example, temping as a receptionist, being a lifeguard or being a city tour guide.

You can also gain vital customer service skills outside of paid employment. Taking a public-facing role in a student society – such as running a stall during freshers’ fairs – can build customer service experience. Becoming a representative for your student body – for example, as a course, college or hall rep or helping out with student union activities – will provide you with essential interpersonal skills. Joining your student Nightline society (a student-run counselling service) or similar will also develop your active listening skills and emotional intelligence.

How to provide evidence of your customer service skills at application stage

Recruiters partly assess your customer service skills by looking for evidence of it on a CV or job application . When writing up your customer service experience, show it off to the best advantage by listing: good instances of customer service; any praise you received from your managers; the numbers of customers you would typically serve in a shift; and how you met or exceeded your sales target.

Get inspiration on how to write up your retail, hospitality and call centre work experience from our penultimate-year CV template.

At the application stage, how you deal with customers or clients could also be assessed through an online ability test, such as a situational judgement test (SJT) , or in a scenario-based video test . In both cases, you will be given scenarios (such as what you’d do if a client was unhappy) and asked to select the best option from multiple choices or write a brief answer. The best ways to succeed at these is to practise these tests beforehand and bear in mind the principles of good customer service.

Get links to free practice online tests .

How your customer service skills might be assessed at interview

‘Customer service’ interview questions are likely to be based around your understanding of the practice, your previous experience of providing customer service and hypothetical situations (‘What would you do if…?’). Common interview questions that test your customer service skills include:

  • What does good customer service mean to you?
  • Have you ever received very good or very bad customer service?
  • Tell us about a time when you exceeded a client’s expectations.
  • Give us an example of when you gave good customer service.
  • What would you do if a client complained?
  • (In retail job interviews especially) What would you do if a customer tried to return an item without proof of purchase?
  • How would you go about saying no to a client’s request?
  • How would you deal with a frustrated or unreasonable customer?
  • Would you ever go against our policies or ‘bend the rules’ to provide customers with a better level of service?

In general, when answering these questions, be guided by your definition of customer service. However, bear in mind that it is OK to check whether the company has any policies that would either inform your response or mean that you'd need to discuss how to proceed with your manager.

How your customer service skills could be gauged at assessment days

At an assessment centre, your customer service skills could be one of the competency areas that are tested when you are working on a case study group exercise . For example, you may be asked to solve a theoretical problem for a client.

Alternatively, you might be given a role-play exercise , particularly if you are interviewing for a role in retail. For example, you might be asked to sell something – such as a paperclip – to the assessor. Or the assessor might pretend to be an unhappy customer.

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