THE BLOG
02/14/2014 02:30 pm ET | Updated Apr 16, 2014

Four Reasons Why Customer Service Skills Are as Important as STEM

Embarrassed, I finally mustered enough nerve this week to wait my turn at the pharmacy consultation window at a store in my community. I don't remember every word the pharmacist said after I confided the delicate details of my problem, but key phrases will stick with me a long time: "Ridiculous!" "That doesn't make any sense!" "I mean, stop and think about it..."

Have you ever had a "consultation" with this charmer? If not, I'll bet you have been on the other side of the counter, the telephone, the desk, or the cash register with one of his cousins. They're not the norm, thankfully, but they pop up often when and where we customers don't need them: in banks, post offices, restaurants, dentists' offices, motor vehicle bureaus, help desks, phone stores. If you and I put our stories together, we would soon fill a book.

Crankiness goes both ways in the service economy, for sure. Many good people in customer service roles take a lot of unnecessary grief. I recently heard an angry passenger chew out a flight attendant who had casually called her "sweetie." This passenger shouted for all to hear that that she was "highly offended" by such language. Meanwhile several other passengers and I were yearning for someone to call us sweetie, just once, during an otherwise unfriendly trip. Who will step up and break this vicious cycle of gruff?

Of course, if it weren't for the scientists, technologists, engineers, and mathematicians, there would be no pharmaceuticals, no airlines, no product or service innovations to make our lives better. But, after the STEM, it all comes together (or doesn't) in the customer experience.

That's why people skills are, in the end, just as important as the technical ones. All emotions aside, research provides at least four reasons.

1) People skills are a top priority for employers.
Employers have responded to survey after survey with the clear message that "soft skills" are essential in today's competitive job market. One such survey, conducted by four national organizations, asked 400 employers across the US to rate the skills they find most essential for new entrants to the workforce. Their report, Are They Really Ready to Work?, names the top skills as professionalism / work ethic, oral and written communications, teamwork / collaboration, and critical thinking / problem solving.

These are not just the behaviors needed for entry-level occupations. They are increasingly important across the spectrum, as information and computer technologies allow repetitive and technical tasks to be automated, and the work available for us mortals will be, according to Daniel Jelski's analysis of the future of employment, "in non-tradable skills that can't be computerized. At their most valuable these jobs depend on human-human interaction - empathy. Counseling (of any sort...), sales, customer service, management, and personal services all rely on empathy, as does waitressing. While much teaching can be computerized, what remains will depend more on empathy than anything else."

2) Employers bemoan the lack of people skills in applicants.
Nick Schulz of the American Enterprise Institute wrote in the Wall Street Journal that the manufacturing leaders he interviewed found the lack of soft skills among applicants more frustrating than inadequate technical skills. "Applicants were often so underqualified, they said, that simply finding someone who could properly answer the telephone was sometimes a challenge."

Schultz goes on to cite a 2012 Manpower Group survey finding that nearly 20% of employers cited a lack of soft skills as a key reason they couldn't hire needed employees. "Interpersonal skills and enthusiasm/motivation" were among the most commonly identified soft skill deficits.

But despite years of employer protests, soft skill gaps persist. The College of Business Administration at the University of Missouri-St. Louis conducted their third skills-gap survey in 2012, with more than 700 business respondents identifying essentially the same deficits, year after year. Among the top ten were the very skills we hope to see when we open a bank account, buy a new car, or get a prescription filled: oral and written communication, critical thinking, people management, and active listening.

3) It's not just about skills; job structure is important.
"Good jobs" can be structured to encourage employees to use their people skills. Zeynop Ton of the MIT Sloan School of Management conducted interesting research with a handful of corporate giants in retail and food services. The companies excel in employee engagement, retention, and productivity, despite being in typically high-turnover industries. Professor Ton says that their secret is in working conditions in which the business does four things: offers fewer products (allowing employees get to know the product line well), encourages employees to solve problems in standardized processes, cross-trains employees, and operates with slack -- giving employees the time, space, and tools needed to engage more fully with customers.

These important conditions complement -- but do not substitute for -- good wages, of course. Working two or three jobs to make ends meet is not conducive to mental or physical health, parenting, or self-sufficiency -- much less good customer service.

4) Businesses with a customer service culture are more competitive.
In research conducted for the Society for Human Resources Management and the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology, Benjamin Schneider and Karen Barbera cite "30 years of robust evidence" that "service businesses where employees have a positive service climate have customers that are more satisfied," contributing toward "increased competitive financial performance for the company, often including a stronger market value."

The authors stress that a positive service climate isn't just about pleasant customer service representatives. It requires a culture that values employee engagement and positive interaction up, down, and around the organizational chart. The authors' research in the banking and retail service sectors shows that "... people who deliver services to customers are dependent on the service they get from others (i.e., from the 'back room' support team). When this service is good, customers report higher levels of satisfaction."

In the daily stream of too-much information, it may be easy to forget these four reasons why customer service skills are so important. But we will all have frequent reminders, nearly every time we step out as consumers in the marketplace. I have my community pharmacist to thank for that helpful consultation.