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May 22, 2023 | 5 Mins Read

The Hard Work of Soft Skills

May 22, 2023 | 5 Mins Read

The Hard Work of Soft Skills


By Sarah Nicastro, Creator, Future of Field Service

Across sectors, companies are grappling with labor shortages, shifts in how, where and when people work, and a spike in retirements and quit rates in a number of critical professions. In field service, one very large group of people (the Baby Boomers) are retiring, and younger employees are entering the workforce with very different backgrounds, skills, and expectations.

The reality of more open positions than available workers has led to an arms race in perks and salaries to attract and keep employees. What is less discussed, though, is the thinking and evaluation companies are doing around what skills they want those new workers to have. A shift in priority from technical skill to softer skills, including communication, attitude, and teachability, is taking place according to many service leaders I speak with. 

There was an interesting piece on The Hill earlier this year about the increasing importance of soft skills or social skills across different industries. LinkedIn reported that soft skills were featured in 78% of the jobs posted globally over the last few months. You can read the article here, but the overall theme was that when it comes to hiring, focusing on what potential employees know is going to be less important than how they approach the job and solve problems. How do they cope with uncertainty? Can they show empathy? Can they work collaboratively with clients and coworkers to address challenges?

The need to focus more on soft skills relates to something I have touched on in a few past articles and podcast interviews – vulnerability. In this case, though, customer vulnerability is the focus. Service technicians and customer support personnel are working with clients when they are in a vulnerable state, whether the customer is a homeowner with a broken furnace or a plant manager who had to shut down a line because of a problem with a machine. 

To really deliver great customer service, technicians need to be able to read the room, so to speak. What is it the customer really needs? Fixing the immediate equipment problem is usually at the top of the list (and that should always remain a key focus, of course), but there are usually other priorities on the client's mind, too. In the case of the homeowner, maybe they are expecting out-of-town guests, or they are worried about heating their house during a big storm. For the plant manager, they might be under pressure to deliver a big order ahead of schedule. 

Whatever those underlying needs are, they cause emotions that can lead service to fall short if not navigated adeptly by service personnel. This can mean something as simple as listening, acknowledgement, empathy, and clear communication. Sounds simple, right? What makes soft skills hard is that they can be far more challenging to “teach” than technical skills. And, according to many that I’ve interviewed recently, they are skills that many younger workers entering roles really lack.  

Differentiation Hinges on Soft Vs. Technical Skills

What exacerbates the need to improve your team's skill sets around the non-technical aspects of service is that the advantages you may have around technical competency, scheduling/dispatching optimization, or diagnostic capabilities are leveling off. As service becomes more digitally focused and more of your competitors adopt the same service automation technologies, there are diminishing returns when it comes to competitive advantage based solely on technical skill. As such, now and into the future, your ability to differentiate through service will increasingly depend on your reliability, those interpersonal interactions, and delivering customer insights.

So, what types of soft skills are we talking about? There are a variety, and some needs differ based on the structure and scope of the frontline worker’s role (which is also changing, but that’s a topic for another article!). But while it may seem elementary, you should start with the basics of on-site behavior – think of anything necessary to ensure a customer feels respected and well cared for during a visit. This can include where to stand when ringing a doorbell, practicing polite client interactions – especially when a customer may be frustrated, and awareness of any missteps that could make a customer feel uncomfortable, unheard, or unappreciated.

Communication is key. Your technicians should be trained to keep clients informed of their service status – what the diagnosis is, how they will fix it, how long it will take, and what progress they are making. Answer questions as quickly and thoroughly as possible and follow up if there are any outstanding issues (like a part being on order). It’s one thing to have a service visit end without resolution, but another for the customer left wondering what the next step is.  

Empathy is also incredibly important. You can’t really teach how to have empathy, but showing empathy may take some work, particularly in industries where technicians have been trained to be laser focused on the mechanics of fixing the problem at hand. 

Be sure you are also encouraging curiosity and active listening. This is important in avoiding miscommunications or missed expectations and can also lead to uncovering new customer needs. Technicians should be skilled at asking customers what they want/need, making sure they understand their answer, and continuing the dialogue until a customer’s needs are fully uncovered, understood, and documented so that they won’t need to be repeated at another point in the customer journey. 

Remember that fostering soft skills of managers is important, too. Many existing managers came from technician roles, so may have the same lack of these skills that’s evident in a generation of workers for which they weren’t nearly as important. Your technicians need good managers; they are going to have a hard time delivering friendly, empathetic, and competent service if they are exhausted or stressed out. If your scheduling, technician workloads, or performance measurement metrics are out of balance, that will eventually lead to a drop in service quality. 

It looks like a lot of companies are already doing the hard work of fostering more soft skills. A McKinsey survey from 2021 found that the majority of companies were doing more skill building than prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. As I mentioned before, this has also come up in a lot of conversations with service leaders and consultants – including in my conversation with Venkata Reddy Mukku at Bruker Nano Surfaces & Metrology, in this piece about the role of leaders in service transformation, and my article from last year on mental health and the workplace. This shift in how organizations are hiring and what skills they are trying to identify and foster may be a challenging one, but I am excited to see the impact it has on what the future of service looks like. 

I would love to hear your thoughts on what skills (hard, soft or otherwise) you are looking for in your next generation of service technicians and leaders and how you are upskilling or reskilling your more tenured teams.