Softskills lead to Success in the Workplace
Soft Skills What are they, why do you need them?
This is a series of articles on skills that every employer wants you to have, but you will have a hard time finding a class on them in regular curriculums. The soft skills that we are talking about include:
Interpersonal relationships & Conflict Management
|Coping with stress
Positive work attitude
CUSTOMER SERVICE – Let’s start with customer service. Many people think that customer service is what happens in situations where you are purchasing something or have a contract with someone like your phone service or a waiter/waitress in a restaurant, or the salesperson in a retail location. But customer service is inherent in almost any job that a person could have.
Customers are the lifeblood of a business, winning new customers is important, but retaining customers is even more important. Customer service and quality products are the two factors to retention. If a product has a quality control issue, it is the customer service that can help rectify the situation. There is too much competition in today’s marketplace to not be concerned with customer service.
External Customers Since this is the most common form of customer service, we can begin with our discussion here.
In the days preceding social media, customer service was how you gained and maintained your customer base. If a customer was treated well they may tell two people. If they were treated poorly, they told ten people. With the expansion of social media, the numbers of people who are being informed of the customer service of a particular organization can reach into the thousands and millions. For example the case of the guitar player who had his expensive guitar banged up and a particular airline only wanted to reimburse him with the standard luggage rates. After a posting by the musician on YouTube, and over 8 million views later, the airline conceded to paying the full cost of the guitar.
There are different kinds of customers. Some want to be left alone, others want to know that you are close by if they need you, some want to be directed, others want you to take them by the hand and guide them through the entire purchasing experience. Knowing the difference between those types of customers and employing the proper techniques for each of them is a skill. Being able to determine expectations that a customer has is key to winning the sale and possibly a devoted customer. BUT if you make the wrong choice, say the wrong thing, aren’t available or don’t respond in a timely fashion, you could alienate the customer and potentially end up with bad press on YouTube, Twitter or Facebook.
Some key components to good customer service are:
- Making a good impression You are representing your organization. You may be the very first contact this customer has with your company. Are you dressed according to company guidelines? Is your grooming within standards? Are you smiling? Do you say hello or welcome when a new customer enters your work area? Most companies will have a “prescribed” greeting to use that may include current specials or promotions that are taking place use it.
- Accentuate the positive Find out the benefits of the product or service you are working with and convey those to the customer. A half-full attitude is always more appealing than a half-empty one. If you are required to provide comparisons between your product and the competitors, avoid being negative. Stay with the facts.
- Good communication skills The biggest factor here is: are you hearing what is being said or are you LISTENING? Ask leading questions to determine what you can do to help the customer. Speak clearly. Practice active listening skills that require the listener to understand, interpret, and evaluate what they heard. This also helps alleviate having to resolve conflict later.
- Dealing with a difficult customer just do an internet search of this phrase and the results bring up over 16 million links. This can be the most frustrating part of providing excellent customer service, but being able to accomplish it, is the most rewarding. Most of the time you will find the difficulties in a return/refund situation or the redemption of a promotion. Implementing active listening skills and providing a timely response or action will help diffuse the situation. You could also employ non-defensive communication tactics:
- Focus on the situation or issue
- Strive to remain calm in the interaction
- Take responsibility
- Be assertive, not aggressive or passive
- Depersonalize the situation
- Ask what you can do to rectify the situation (if you are empowered to do so)
- Phone etiquette This topic depends upon the type of customer service you are doing. If you are in a call center, there are guidelines to which you must adhere. If you are working at a carry-out pizza place, your customer service will depend upon you getting the order correct and providing the right cost and delivery/pick-up time to the customer. In general, several key components come into play:
- Diction and tone people need to understand you. Not everyone will speak the same language, so you may need to speak more slowly, more clearly, you may need to repeat yourself, or you may need to ask a caller to repeat themselves. Because you are not speaking face to face, your tone is how someone will interpret your words. Unless you know someone personally, you should maintain a neutral/positive tone.
- Polite ask someone if they are able to hold. If you don’t know the answer to a question or have to reference something out of the reach of phone, ask someone if they have the time to hold. If not ask for their number and give them a time frame for a return call from you. And then, call them back. The Golden Rule applies here treat others as you want to be treated. If you need to transfer a caller, know how to complete the task, let the caller know that you are doing it and if possible stay with the call until someone answers.
- Listening skills (notice a theme here) it is difficult to hear what someone is saying if you are speaking at the time. It is compounded when using a telephone for that conversation. Employ the active listening skills, wait until someone is finished speaking before you begin.
Internal Customer Service you may not work for a company that deals with sales or service, or you may not work in a department that deals with anyone outside your company. A good example of this is the benefits division of a human resources department, the IT department for a call center, or the vehicle mechanics for a delivery company. You have customers – the other employees of your company. You still need to employ the same techniques to keep your customers happy. The key components here are cooperation, coordination, and teamwork. Again, active listening can help if you need to be “cross-trained” in other areas of your company. Sometimes good customer service is nothing more than knowing who to call to obtain an answer or knowing what the responsibilities of another division of your company are.
In general, no one likes to feel neglected or an inconvenience if they need to ask for something. Be proactive with your outreach in your customer service and you will win them every time.
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TEAMWORK Internal customer service is a great segue into how teamwork is a desirable soft skill to have. A team is a group of individuals who work together to complete a task. The team is focused on a situation or an issue to achieve a result. Learning how to work with a variety of personalities within the group is a key factor as to how effective the group performance is.
How the team collaborates cooperates with each other, join forces, or work in partnership, is one of the main ways to analyze the team’s effectiveness.
- Communication is the imparting or interchange of thoughts, opinions, or information by speech, writing, or signs. Does the team communicate in a productive fashion? Are they sharing the information so all team members can do their part to participate effectively?
- Coordination – making different people or things work together for a goal or effect. Is each team member working on one part for the good of the whole? Does the team leader know where everyone is in the process to keep the task on target?
- Balance of contributions – is the problem of ensuring that all participants believe that they are doing equal shares or their “fair share” toward the completion of the task. No relationship is ever 50/50. At times one member of the team may be doing more than another, but as long as everyone feels that their share of the project is in proportion, it is in balance.
- Mutual support team members provide and evaluate relevant information, share experience and knowledge, listening to ideas (brainstorm), provide understanding and establishing networks. If one member of a team is struggling with a particular portion of a project or needs to connect with a resource, someone else on the team may offer assistance or knowledge. It may be nothing more than a word of encouragement to help maintain or boost another team members’ self-confidence or self-esteem.
- Effort The amount of energy a team member exerts to accomplish the goal. Again, this may not be a perceived equal distribution of energy. Some team members may be able to “breeze” through their portion of a task, depending upon their experience or expertise, but, is that member giving it all of their effort to meet deadlines for the rest of the group?
- Cohesion – the bonds or “glue” between members of a group. Often, you can hear people remark that “that couple has no chemistry” which can apply to a team. The old adage “one bad apple can spoil the whole bunch” is representative of one team member not being cohesive with the rest. Do you do your part to be a positive active member of your team?
Once you have the team working the reason for the team is to solve a problem. To solve a problem you have to make decisions. Having a decision making process in place is essential to getting the best results in the most efficient manner. Utilizing the following or similar steps could help the process:
- Create a constructive environment – focus on the issue not the person
- Generate good alternatives brainstorm to obtain a number of alternatives
- Explore these alternatives – flow charts allow you to determine the paths should one alternative be selected over another.
- Choose the best alternative not necessarily the most popular, but the best for the resolution to the situation.
- Check your decision.
- Communicate your decision, and take action.
Finally, as a member of the team are you leading by example. This doesn’t mean that you have to be the team leader, but are your actions reflective of how you would like to be treated by others?
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EFFECTIVE COMMUNICATION – Earlier in the customer service section we spoke about listening skills, being polite, diction, tone and all of the physical characteristics of communication. To be effective on the job there are several other components.
Work related terminology specific jobs require specific skills, and typically specific language. If you are a carpenter you would know what the term jack rafter means, but might not know what a mother board is. The terminology you learn in a skilled career path normally doesn’t change unless there is new technology developed or processes implemented in a particular company.
Barriers to communication would include things like:
- Noise this could mean physical noise like machinery or wind, but it actually means any distraction that keeps you from effectively relaying your message to the intended receiver. It could be an open file on your desk, a picture on the wall, a ringing phone or any number of things.
- Mental the recipient or the sender does not have the right frame of mind to send or receive the message as intended.
- Word Selection using the proper words when giving the message, simple, concrete terms instead of complex, abstract phrases help convey your message appropriately. English especially has a challenge as one word can sound the same as another but have totally different meanings i.e. Rode or Road: witch or which: there or their: bear or bare; or, stare or stair.
- Media Selection what sort of media are you using to convey the communication? Is social media going to do the job? Do you use a telephone? Is video an option? Is the communication being sent by email or in a letter/envelope? Will the media be able to explain the thought you are trying to convey as well as a face-to-face encounter?
- Time & Space – both periods of time and physical locations can be a barrier. Being able to discuss at the moment that a discussion needs to take place isn’t always an option. What method do you use to effectively overcome this barrier? Is it memos, voicemail, or what?
- Empathy This is an important barrier. Empathy defined is “understanding so intimate that the feelings, thoughts, and motives of one are readily comprehended by another. ” Many messages are effectively communicated because the sender “feels” the same feelings as the receiver. Without empathy, many messages are “pushed aside” upon receipt because the receiver feels unappreciated or something similar.
Ability to Communicate in English with the population in most major metropolitan areas becoming more ethnically diverse, the job ads are stating “Bilingual” within the ad more frequently. While this is a plus on the job seeker side, it does not mean that you would communicate solely in a primary language other than English. If English is not your primary language, finding resources to help you learn how to read, write and speak in English would be recommended to make you the most marketable in today’s workplace.
Follow oral and written directions Being able to do your job completely requires you to follow directions. Unless you own the company and charting the direction of the business, you will need to be able to complete tasks at the direction of others. You may receive instructions by speaking directly to a supervisor, or you may receive a memo or email giving you directions for a task or project. If you don’t understand the directions, you will need to be able to ask the appropriate questions to be able to finish the task on time and correctly.
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- Do you do the job to the best of your ability; take pride in the job you do; make a positive impact?
- Do you start your workday neat and clean; report for work on time and stay for your entire shift or workday?
- Do you honestly earn your pay; keep your mind on the job at hand; respect your work?
- Do you treat your customers and coworkers with respect and dignity?
- Do you employ good manners in my interactions with others?
- Do you take care of your tools and supplies, whatever their cost?
If you are the supervisor do you:
- Set an example of proper performance for your staff?
- Acknowledge and reward excellence among your staff?
- Give meaningful feedback when you see a problem developing?
- Enforce company guidelines evenly across your staff?
- Provide a “measuring stick” of what you expect from your staff?
- Supply appropriate tools to enable your staff to perform their work?
Some aspects need a bit more explanation.
- Attendance and Punctuality – Everyone in the business relies on you being ready to work when you are scheduled. Punctuality is an important quality that employers look for in their workers. If you are scheduled from 8AM to 5PM, your employer wants you to be ready to work at 8AM. Calling in frequently not only hurts your employer and fellow employees but reflects badly on you. Being absent or tardy may cause your employer to stop scheduling you or even let you go.
- Treat people with respect and act properly. Do not tell rude or embarrassing jokes, gossip, use slang, or use harmful language.
- Participate in meetings with a positive and helpful attitude. Sit up straight, listen, maintain a comfortable level of eye contact, take notes, and ask questions when the time is right. Speaking up in a meeting may be a challenge if another coworker is more dominant or if you are unprepared.
- Dress properly and maintain good personal hygiene for the job. Most businesses have a business casual dress code so employees may be comfortable while maintaining a professional image. Find out what the employer dress code is and adhere to it.
- Clarifying roles and responsibilities understanding what the chain of command is, who is responsible for what portion of a project, and knowing what your specific role is important to being effective in your job.
- Above and beyond going to work every day, doing your job correctly and on-time are key factors to keeping your job. In some economies, it isn’t enough. If you show a willingness to learn new things, take the initiative on projects or to solve problems, or accepting responsibility may give you an edge in your level of professionalism.
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Interpersonal Relationships & Conflict Resolution Interpersonal relationships are, in effect, how you get along with your co-workers. For some people you spend more of your waking hours with your co-workers than you do with your family. Therefore, it becomes extremely important that your interpersonal communication with your co-workers is at its best. Several things that you can do to improve your relationships include:
- Don’t criticize, condemn, or complain about people instead ask questions about what and how the person is doing something. Provide a helpful alternative that is a benefit to their performance.
- Appreciate people genuinely provide appreciation for the good things that employees or co-workers do. This adage applies to both of these first two points “If you can’t say something nice, don’t saying anything at all.”
- Solve your own problems by solving other people’s problems especially in a sales situation; if you ask questions of the person you are interacting with to find out how you may solve their problem, you may in fact end up solving your own. In another way, if a co-worker is not completed with a task that is holding you up from completing your own, you may ask them questions to figure out how what you want might benefit him or her.
- Be genuinely interested in others most people’s favorite subject is themselves. Use this to your advantage.
- Smile it helps you and everyone around you feel better.
- Be a good listener listen more than you speak. It helps you gain insight and build relationships.
- Make others feel important Be sincere when you tell others, including your family and friends, that they are important to you.
- Understand that you really aren’t always right arguing results in neither person listening to what the other is saying. Remain calm, listen to the other person’s perspective, be tactful, and consider feelings including how you would feel if you were in the other person’s position.
- Accept responsibility if you are wrong, made a mistake or misspoke, help rebuild trust and admit to your error.
- Anger breeds defensiveness approach a person calmly and ask to discuss a problem amicably. This approach can deter someone from immediately going on the defensive and putting up a wall to communication.
- Suggest, don’t tell short of implementing procedures, people react more favorably when given an option to consider than being told how to think or do something.
Now that you have established a great interpersonal relationship, what happens if you do encounter a conflict? This will depend upon the actual relationship between the people in the relationship. Is it a superior/subordinate, co-worker, customer/vendor, union/management sort of relationship? Whatever the case there are a few basic things to consider:
- Deal with the issue things will fester and become worse if an issue is prolonged. By learning how someone gives feedback or deals with feedback, you can sometimes avoid the conflict in the first place.
- Listen feelings aren’t always apparent when someone is in the middle of a conflict. By listening effectively, you may become aware of anger or resentment in the other person. Learning to bridge the gap between the two sides of an issue is accomplished with active listening skills and trying to understand the other person’s perspective. If you do need to express your feelings use the “I feel” statements in a clear non- confrontational manner to avoid inflaming a situation.
- Solutions is there a happy medium that can satisfy both sides of the conflict. Does one person “win” this time and concede an issue the next, or is it a situation where you just must agree to disagree?
- Limits have the limits of the relationship been reached or breached? In some situations, there may come a time when the boundaries established have been exceeded and the conflict causes a relationship to “go their separate ways”. Being able to recognize if a relationship, whether work or personal, is able to overcome a conflict is the key.
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Stress is defined as (among others):
- Physical, mental, or emotional strain or tension: Worry over his job and his wife’s health put him under a great stress.
- A situation, occurrence, or factor causing this: The stress of being trapped in the elevator gave him a pounding headache.
- A specific response by the body to a stimulus, as fear or pain, that disturbs or interferes with the normal physiological equilibrium of an organism.
When we as individuals encounter stress under the first and second definition, we almost always see the results in the third definition. There are several methods to cope with stress that we will address.
Alter one of the most effective ways to cope with stress is to alter the source of the stress. In effect, remove it. This may not be the easiest option, but is THE most effective. For example: your shoes do not fit, causing you stress because you are unable to walk properly. Change your shoes. While this solution is simple it illustrates how you can alter the situation.
- Express your feelings instead of bottling them up.
- Be willing to compromise.
- Be more assertive.
- Manage your time better.
Avoid remove yourself from the situation. You know that a particular person “pushes your buttons” so to avoid the stress of the situation, avoid interactions with that person. Many of us have acquaintances or family with whom this may be the biggest source of stress. If at all possible, don’t allow yourself to be caught up in those types of situations.
- Learn how to say “no” Know your limits and stick to them.
- Avoid people who stress you out Limit the amount of time you spend with the person or end the relationship entirely.
- Take control of your environment Traffic gets you tense, see if you can use public transportation, change your work hours or take a longer but less-traveled route.
- Avoid hot-button topics Repeatedly arguing about the same subject with the same people, excuse yourself when it’s the topic of discussion.
- Pare down your to-do list Distinguish between the “shoulds” and the “musts.”
Accept- just as it says. You have no control over the weather, but if you are flying from one destination to another, the weather may be grounding flights. You need to accept the fact that you cannot go anywhere, SO why let it stress you out. Another example: you must work with someone that just grates on your nerves; accept them for who they are and learn to work with them.
- Don’t try to control the uncontrollable.
- Look for the upside.
- Share your feelings with a friend or a therapist.
- Learn to forgive.
Building resistance There are three ways to build resistance physical, mental or spiritual. In certain situations you will need to do all three to effectively do your job. Example: you feel stress because you were just placed on a new line at work and physically cannot keep up due to your inability to lift 25 pounds. It causes you to worry about whether or not you will be able to keep your job. You can begin a weight lifting regime to increase your strength.
Changing perceptions a quote I heard was “when I change, others change”. It isn’t so much about the others changing as it is about your perception of others.
Manage expectations this once is quite simple if you have no expectations, you have no disappointments. Is what you are expecting of yourself and others realistic? If you are expecting too much of (insert whatever or whoever you want here because it would apply) you will surely be let down. Humans are fallible beings and can only do so much.
Build self-esteem if you are more confident in yourself, you will be more self-assured. If you help build others confidence, it will go a long way to avoiding a conflict situation.
Navigate change by your reactions everything about stress can be handled within yourself. It is how you react to the situations that present themselves to you. But you can help control your stress level by taking care of yourself:
- Get moving – For maximum stress relief, try to get at least 30 minutes of heart pounding activity on most days but activity can be broken up into two or three short segments.
- Make food choices that keep you going and make you feel good – Eating small but frequent meals throughout the day maintains an even level of blood sugar in your body.
- Drink alcohol in moderation and avoid nicotine – Alcohol only temporarily reduces anxiety and worry and smoking when you’re feeling stressed and overwhelmed may seem calming, but nicotine is a powerful stimulant, leading to higher levels of anxiety.
- Get enough sleep – lack of sleep leaves you vulnerable to stress.
- Reducing stress by prioritizing and organizing.
Time management tips for reducing job stress
- Create a balanced schedule.
- Don’t over-commit yourself.
- Try to leave earlier in the morning.
- Plan regular breaks.
Task management tips for reducing job stress
- Prioritize tasks.
- Break projects into small steps.
- Delegate responsibility.
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One of the most important might be time management.
Time management is important to business owners to meet deadlines, to plan for the immediate future and to be profitable.
One of the first places to exhibit a proper sense of time management is submitting applications, paperwork and arrival at an interview. If you have met those deadlines, you have a good start.
525,600 minutes is the time you have in one year – as made famous in the musical “Rent” song Seasons of Love. How you use the time is up to you. Managing time is what we will discuss.
What are some of the symptoms of poor time management?
You always feel like you aren’t accomplishing anything, you miss deadlines, you take work home, you spend an overabundance of time socializing at work, interrupting others, or too much time on the telephone.
Do you have a problem saying “NO”? Do you end up doing others work?
How do you manage time?
Four basic skills you need to manage time well are:
- Strategize, Organize, Implement, & Monitor
Strategize – try to envision the outcome. What do you see? Now, make a plan with the goals and time line to achieve each step. Determine how to measure how effectively you meet each goal.
Organize – what resources will you need to accomplish your goals or steps, do you need to consider money, time, help from others, equipment, team work
Implement – Who is going to complete each step, do you need interim due dates, and then follow-through to complete each step.
Monitor– how effective are you, do you need to reassess and adjust to meet your time-lines?
Stephen Covey wrote in his 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, that Habit 3 is Personal Management includes knowing how to define what is urgent and essential. The whole concept is to be able to work within quadrant 2 – deciding when you can accomplish something, not feeling like it needed to be done yesterday. This process comes along with learning to be pro-active rather than reactive. If you work in a team, who delegates the duties? If you work independently, who can help you when you are under a bit more time pressure? How can you work smarter, not harder? Where do you focus your energy? What things do you control and what things do you have no control?
Here are nine ways to help you begin to manage your time better and accomplish more:
- Plan your activities the day before.
- Know the time of day when you accomplish certain types of tasks better – i.e. do you need to be more physically active in the morning vs. the afternoon? Identify your high energy time of day.
- Deal with your toughest tasks during the highest energy time of the day.
- Learn and use current technology effectively – work smarter, not harder.
- Use an agenda and keep to a time schedule for meetings.
- Alert others if you need time “to concentrate” without interruptions.
- Segment your schedule – block out a time of the day or week for all your meetings, desk/computer time blocked out, only make phone calls from xx AM to xx AM, or only read your emails 2-3 times a day instead of checking constantly.
- Organize your office/work area so that it works best for you
- Use a personal organizer – does paper work better for you or do you use a digital calendar/planner