Core Competencies for Customer Service in Complex Times

Even with the best organizational strategy, customer service always involves people. Whether you provide services online or face-to-face, there is another human being at the end of the interaction.  This article helps us understand people better. Why? Understanding people helps us identify the core competencies that are most needed to serve them.

Understanding Customer Types

First, let’s brainstorm different customer types. Why do this?  Understanding the make-up of your customer base helps your organization recruit people who relate well to customers, or who provide the best behind-the-scenes operations expertise to serve them without ever talking to them.


  • Are you selling to consumers or other businesses? Business-to-Customers (B2B) are organizations or businesses that purchase products or services for their own operations or resale.  Business-to-Consumer (B2C) is the more traditional consumer-facing operation.
  • Generational cohorts are often used to describe age. Senior Citizens are elderly customers who may have unique preferences and needs, such as accessibility considerations. Gen X and Millennial Shoppers may have distinct shopping habits and values. Generation Z customers are known for their digital-native and socially conscious behaviors.
  • Your business may want to target men, women or everyone – these choices come with benefits and trade-offs. This also applies to other demographics, like religion, politics, and other personal characteristics.

Money Management

  • Discount Shoppers: These customers are primarily motivated by discounts, coupons, and sales.
  • Bargain Hunters: Like discount shoppers, they actively seek out the best deals and are willing to spend time researching prices.
  • Frugal Shoppers: Customers who are extremely budget-conscious and prioritize savings above all else.
  • Luxury Shoppers: Customers who seek premium and luxury products and are willing to pay a premium for quality and exclusivity.
  • High-Value Customers: High-value customers spend more than average, making them a valuable segment for businesses.
  • Subscription Box Subscribers: Customers who subscribe to monthly or periodic subscription boxes that deliver curated products.

Consumption Patterns

  • Loyal Customers: These are customers who consistently choose your products or services over a long period of time and are often brand advocates.
  • Impulse Buyers: Impulse buyers make purchases on a whim, often without much prior planning or research.
  • Window Shoppers: They browse products without necessarily intending to make a purchase, often for entertainment or research purposes.
  • Online Shoppers: Customers who prefer to shop online, either due to convenience or geographic constraints. In-Store Shoppers: Customers who prefer to visit physical stores to make their purchases.
  • First-Time Buyers: Customers who are making their initial purchase from a business. Repeat Customers: Customers who have made multiple purchases from a business but may not be loyal yet.
  • Casual Shoppers: Customers who make purchases infrequently and without strong preferences.
  • Tech-Savvy Customers: Customers who are early adopters of new technology and may prefer digital or tech-based solutions.
  • Family Shoppers: Customers who make purchasing decisions on behalf of their family and consider the needs of multiple family members.
  • Gift Shoppers: Customers who buy products primarily as gifts for others, often during special occasions.

Emotional Patterns

  • Brand Loyalists: These customers are fiercely devoted to a particular brand and may not consider alternatives.
  • Social Shoppers: Customers who make purchasing decisions based on recommendations from friends or social media influencers.
  • Complaining Customers: Customers who have had a negative experience and are vocal about their complaints or concerns.
  • Eco-Conscious Customers: Customers who prioritize environmentally friendly and sustainable products and practices.
  • Indecisive Shoppers: Customers who have trouble making purchasing decisions and may require extra guidance.
  • Local Customers: Customers who primarily support local businesses and products.

Remember that customers often fall into multiple categories, and these categories may evolve over time as preferences change. Businesses often use customer segmentation to tailor their marketing strategies to different customer types.  It can also help you identify the core competencies you may want to recruit and hire to best serve the target mix.

Understanding Core Competencies

It is important to recruit staff that have the personality characteristics and basic skills to service your typical customer base.  Here are examples of core competencies:

    1. General Strong Interpersonal Skills: This includes people who understand how to read and address emotions and communicate effectively in high pressure environments, either on the phone or in person. These skills are particularly vital for when the business attracts a wide range of diverse people across the categories above.
    2. Active Listening Skills: Some people are particularly good at drawing out others and helping them talk their way to a decision. The best salespeople often talk less than they speak allowing the customer to get to “yes” on their own.
    3. Operations Management and Problem-Solving Skills: These are people who help solve operational challenges that impact the customer service system – staffing, scheduling, prioritization, behind the scenes activities. This may include the more direct type of problem-solving with customers who come with a problem.
    4. Flexibility and Troubleshooting: It takes real skill to change in real time. Flexibility underlies a lot of strong negotiating skills and creates opportunities and convert “no” to “yes” in real time.
    5. Technical Expertise/Attention to Detail: These skills relate to the product or service itself, and are needed for high information customers, or when the product or service itself is complex.
    6. Conflict Management: These skills are particularly useful in high-stress customer environments or when you have a lot of complaining customers. Emotionally connecting with the customer takes energy, but showing you care and want to connect can go a long way in deescalating conflict.
    7. Networking Skills: In business-to-business settings, knowledge of the different players in the field, and different resources is invaluable to “working the system” to meet your specific customer needs. Any type of brokering service, B2B and direct to consumers, also typically falls into the category.
    8. Technology Skills: People who can envision and deliver alternative customer information sources, like online support tools, or in-store references or prompts (like QR codes) that can lead to more detailed information or online product listings.


    Assessing Fit and Building Alignment

    What type of customer service skills are most needed in your organization? Assessing your own personal skills, or your organization’s strengths and weaknesses in customer service is an important step toward providing a better overall customer experience. Here are some steps in this area. Again, these can be applied for your own development, or in building your team or organization.

    • Self-Reflection: Take some time to think about past experiences in customer service. Consider both positive and negative interactions you or your team/organization have had with customers. Were there moments that felt successful and capable? Were there times when you struggled or saw gaps?  Are you providing the best form of customer service for your actual customer types?
    • Seek Feedback: Ask for and assess feedback from others. This could be from other people or reviewing recent surveys or online reviews. These can be hard to hear but can provide valuable insights about how to communicate.  Customer feedback, whether through surveys or direct conversations, can offer a candid perspective on your strengths and areas needing improvement.
    • Self-Assessment: Evaluate your skills and behaviors in customer service against a set of criteria set by yourself or your organizations through a performance management process. List strengths in customer service (e.g., the core competencies listed above). Identify weaknesses (e.g., difficulty handling difficult customers, lack of product knowledge). Consider opportunities for growth (e.g., additional training, mentorship, or resources).  Recognize potential threats to customer service performance (e.g., mismatch in needs/delivery, high workload, time constraints).
    • Training and Development: Once you identify weaknesses, seek out opportunities for training and development. This could involve enrolling in or offering customer service courses, attending workshops, or seeking mentorship from experienced customer service professionals.

    All of this involves looking for the underlying needs and values of your customer base, deciding what to focus on, and developing the skills to deliver on that focus with skill and grace.

    Next Steps in Development

    Many skills are needed for effective customer service – the emotional interactions you have with the customer can make a huge difference to your success, and your own sense of well-being.  Emotional Intelligence is a critical skill that supports this work. Consider Pryor’s EQ Toolbox: Becoming Socially Aware and the webinar Emotional Intelligence: The Keys to Working More Effectively with Others to keep these skill sharp.

    Pryor has several offerings related to Customer Service. In particular, Effective Techniques for Dealing with Difficult Customers offers a wide range of tips for helping manage these difficult encounters.  Also check out Watch Pryor’s online video on Managing Stress for some useful tips!