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Why Soft Skills Are Not So Soft Anymore

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Think about the last time you had a great customer experience at a business you chose to spend your money with. Why was it great? Was it one zillion thread count sheets or those napkins that are folded to look like animals? Car wash after a repair job? A “free” something with a purchase? Maybe your great encounter had more to do with how a person/business dealt with your problem?

Lots of times we think of cool amenities when rating good customer service – and people love these - but I believe the key in creating a great experience for someone else has to do with how they are treated, talked to, interacted with, served, and cared for. And all of these things are predicated on our skills – many of which we call “soft” skills. I couldn’t disagree more with that adjective.

If you look up examples of so-called soft skills, you’ll find words such as: communication, conflict resolution, problem solving, critical thinking, adaptability, and more. These are the backbone of our success when dealing with others personally and professionally. Of course, I have a story on this matter and its importance to customer satisfaction. A story you say Jim?  Why yes, let me share it.

I’m standing in line at the customer service department in a well-known retail store. There are two employees handling sales and returns at separate registers. I’m next in line for whichever one opens up and each scenario is worthy of its own reality show. One situation has an elderly lady returning a couple of things but also paying for 15-20 cat-related items (we’ll call her Cat Lady.) The other line has a woman who is returning 15-20 food items, the last one being a bunch of bananas (we’ll call her Banana Lady.)

Both transactions/interactions were going very slowly (for different reasons), but they were handled in totally different ways. The employee (we’ll call her Wonder Woman) working with Cat Lady was kind, patient, engaging and attentive. WW was interacting with her verbally and non-verbally. She recognized this patron was older and having a difficult time with pretty much everything. WW’s body language and words reassured this woman and made her feel at ease even though she was struggling.

In the line just a few feet over it was like a different timeline in the multiverse (that seems to be in ¼ of the movies I’ve seen lately.) This employee (we’ll call him Mr. Roboto) never made eye contact with the customer; gave curt answers with no follow up; and was generally engaged only to the point that the transaction moved forward … barely. That - whatever opposite of interaction is - came to an awkward stop when bananas were handed over as the last return item and Mr. Roboto said “Oh, you can’t return those here. They have to be returned at one of the main registers.” Then silence. There was an epic stare-off for a minute (the only time Mr. Roboto made eye contact) and then Banana Lady said “I know it’s not your fault, but we’ve already done all this, so isn’t there a way we can figure it out?” The answer was a deadpan “No” and repetition of where the bananas needed to be returned. The audience building in the customer service line with me all turned to see every sales register on the main floor full with long lines. We all groaned in unison.

Banana Lady kept her cool at first and then started to get frustrated there was no effort to figure out this tiny problem. She started to speak louder and louder about how – after 20 minutes already - there must be a way to do this without having to take one item to a different line when this transaction was one key-stroke away from being finished. Mr. Roboto response: no change in facial expression or body language; no genuine communication; no problem solving; no adaptability; no creativity; nothing.

Finally, WW looks over and gets the attention of Mr. Roboto and says quietly “just go ahead and do it and we’ll figure it out later.”   DING DING DING! WINNER! Wonder Woman walked over and smiled at the upset customer and spoke in a kind voice, reassuring her they would figure it out. They deciphered how to do the transaction, thereby de-escalating a situation that was going from bad to worse. Kudos to WW for using all of the mushy, fluffy, velvety skills I mentioned earlier. I can assure you Banana Lady didn’t think those skills were soft AND neither did all 15 of us standing in line watching.

There is some bad customer service in general here that I could harp on, but my topic is geared toward the soft skills involved. Mr. Roboto exhibited a distinct lack of these skills, leading to lackluster effort and unhappy customers. Fortunately, Wonder Woman’s skill set saved the day. Proof that these characteristics are important to make things run smoothly AND overcome problems or issues.

As technology continues to advance in our everyday lives and interactions, it only makes sense that certain skills will suffer if we don’t pay attention to them. Our younger generations may be at more risk of this since they’ve grown up with so much tech to rely on. Their strength in this area can also be a weakness. The better they are at using tech, the more important it is to work on interpersonal skills. Gen Zs and Millennials may be an easy target here, but all ages can use help in this area.

Transition to more remote work is another issue. There is a social aspect of doing business with others that can enhance or detract from what you’re trying to accomplish. Yes, we can do a lot of transactional business on our phones or computers now, but a company or person’s ability to build relationships (even in brief encounters) can determine the difference between a one-time consumer and a life-long client. Evolving technology tries hard to build relationships, but it will never be the same as face to face or talking to an actual human on the phone. (Picture me yelling “REPRESENTATIVE!!” into a phone when none of the automated prompts apply to my situation.)

Let’s once and for all get rid of the term “soft” when it comes to the skills that are uniquely inherent in making relationships work – in every part of our life. Until AI takes over the world remember; how we treat, talk to, interact with, serve and care for others will help determine our success as businesses and as people.



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