Build Your Business:

Key Traits for Customer Service and Sales Teams

March 4, 2013

As many of you are distinctly aware, the apparel decoration industry is one that thrives on relationships. Building a successful business depends on nurturing a stable of long-term, repeat customers, and your customer service and sales teams are your direct links to this most vital need.

It’s often said that a company is defined by the employees it keeps. Your hiring choices, ongoing training, expectations, goals, and development of your customer service and sales teams defines your business every day. This article will explore and discuss some common traits that staff members share in these departments, so better hiring decisions or training programs can be made or developed.

All companies in this industry are different and serve a plethora of niches: retail, contract, small, large, corporate and family-owned. For some, staff members wear many hats and do a lot of the daily heavy lifting. For others, each department is segmented into highly defined, specific tasks. Regardless of how you define your company, this list of attributes and skill sets should serve as a guideline when you are thinking about expanding your company or training your existing staff.

Great customer service and sales reps thrive on outstanding communication skills, both written and verbal. The daily conversations that your team has with your customers can define your company more than any other attribute. Some thoughts:

1. Speed is everything. You want to look for someone who not only can answer key questions while juggling other tasks simultaneously, but who also is proactive in addressing potential challenges before they surface. For example, it’s ideal to have someone who not only quotes the job, but also contacts the shirt vendor to check on availability. After all, what good does it do to secure the order if you can’t get the goods?

2. Respond, even if they don’t know the answer. Clients want to know your company is on top of things. A good rep proves they are working on a challenge by quickly following up by phone or email and gives an estimate on when everything can be wrapped up. Your reps should follow the “Sunset Law,” which mandates that every question is answered before the sun goes down.

3. If silence is deadly, procrastination is even worse. If a staff member can’t handle a task for some reason, he should delegate it to someone else. This culture is difficult to build, as people want to naturally “own” their orders and sales. Giving up some responsibility to another team member for the sake of the company is an outstanding trait and should always be encouraged. It’s called teamwork, folks.

4. Find out how your clients prefer to communicate. Some people love a phone call, but others prefer email. A great salesperson knows his customers’ preferences and feeds into them.

Listening Skills
I’m listing this skill as an independent attribute because it’s very important. Truly understanding others is a skill that needs to be nurtured. Great customer service and sales reps know how to listen effectively to their clients, other staff members, and supervisors. Here are some thoughts on developing active listening skills:

1. A great rep will focus solely on what the speaker is saying. Listen, and then respond. Being present in the conversation is a great attribute and harder than it sounds.

2. Keep an open mind. A great rep won’t try to anticipate where the conversation is going, but instead focus only on what is being said.

3. Don’t interrupt. If a customer has a complaint or is emotional, the rep will wait until the person finishes before talking.  This means no interruption, and taking notes, if needed. Great reps know when the moment arises to respond, and often will paraphrase the problem to the customer to verify the situation is completely understood correctly.  

Problem Solving
You can score big points with your clients if your customer service or sales teams can solve frustrating situations. This challenge can include numerous scenarios, like orders getting destroyed when the UPS truck catches on fire after a wreck (I had it happen). Your team will inevitably be handed some sort of tricky situation, and if they know how to respond with some humor, class and skill, you will continue to build your stable of clients because they’ll rely on you to make them look great. Some thoughts:

1. Good communication and a proactive mindset are key skill sets for these roles. Problem solvers bring in help, clearly define expectations and what’s needed to accomplish the work, and will delegate tasks with clear goals.

2. Maintain calmness. A problem solver will stay calm and clear-headed, even in the craziest of situations.

3. Problem solving is all about being realistic and making immediate, sound and clear decisions.
Sometimes you have to pick the best choice and go with it. Pushing forward gets the job done.

4. Experienced customer service reps and sales staff are great role models and teachers. Have them involved with your training programs for your staff and talk about challenges they resolved in the past to younger or less-experienced staff. Mine your staff’s skills and talents to help build your future.

Tough-Minded & Strong-Willed
If the core of the person isn’t tough, some customer service or sales situations can make a weaker person crumble. Being tough-minded and strong-willed shores up the defenses and helps deflect challenges, as these kinds of people can separate a tough business situation from a personal attack.

1. Salespeople must be able to handle rejection. “Sorry, I don’t want any…” can’t be misread into “Sorry, I don’t like you.” Great salespeople are Teflon-coated and always keep pushing for the sale. They know they can’t close everyone and it’s the law of numbers. The more sales you ask for, the more you’ll get.

2. Customer service reps are resilient and they persevere. People with these qualities get through a tough phone call when an order doesn’t go right and the client is emotional and upset. Great reps can calm the customer down by practicing active listening skills while working to resolve the challenge quickly. Reps earn their money with these types of interactions and their skills will help you keep your client.

3. A strong-willed person will help newer or more problematic customers adhere to your company’s procedures or policies. A weaker rep will just take whatever the client hands him — even if it is a crazy mess. Stronger staff members won’t accept someone else’s unprofessional business habits; instead, they will corral them into handling things in a more productive, professional and easier way of doing things.

These days, if you don’t have the skills, you won’t pay the bills. Great customer service reps or salespeople use a diverse array of technology to keep them focused, handle their chores and keep them moving forward. Here are the basics:

1. Email. Sure, everyone uses this…but do they use it correctly? These days, email is such an important communication tool, and is so ubiquitous that it often gets overlooked as a key part of someone’s day. An outstanding email user isn’t a slave to the technology and can easily manage a flood of communication. This person has rules written that automatically separates the email stream into folders, so it only has to be touched once. Key clients or important items are flagged and will automatically get immediate attention. Things are organized, and this person will know how to use the search function to find an email message from three months ago immediately.

2. Excel. Microsoft Excel divides people into two camps. Some see it as a tool for developing and sharing information.  Others see it as the devil.  If you are a top-minded business professional, you are in the first camp. This powerful program is a great tool for not only assimilating data, such as a customer’s drop ship list, but also analyzing your top customers’ data and predicting trends, margins, viewing sales history or any other business idea you might have.

3. Social Media — specifically LinkedIn. For anyone who is customer focused, this is a gold mine for developing new customers and expanding relationships with current clients. Top team members use this to not only stay connected with customers, but also see if their customers are being wooed by a competitor, what problems they be experiencing, interests they may have or other interesting tidbits. People love to share things, and LinkedIn is a great tool for this.

If someone has a distinctive, friendly and engaging personality, he can go a long way in either a customer service or sales role. The apparel decoration business is built on human relationships. Let’s face it: People want to do business with other people they like. Who does business with anyone who comes across as sour, disinterested or bland?

1. Encourage people to be themselves. Fantastic customer service or sales team members develop relationships with their clients by engaging them with all sorts of non-business-related items. A series of short conversations with your customers during any interaction builds common trust, experiences and breaks down walls. In these roles, your client-facing staff needs to have these interactions. Over time, they blossom into trust and understanding that solidifies business relationships. Personality goes a long way.

2. Smile. The most effective way of engaging anyone is to smile — especially when talking on the phone. Great customer service or salespeople are usually the friendliest, warmest and most sincere people you employ. Think about any interaction with any company you have ever had. My guess is that the best and most positive ones in your mind all stem from that interaction with a smiling person. Want success? Keep your staff smiling! Frowning businesses close shop.

3. Humor. Want more sales or better relationships with your clients? Making them laugh isn’t as crazy as it sounds. Great interactions with your clients can benefit from using humor as a tool for engagement. Good customer service reps and salespeople use humor to help define the situation, temper a problem or just keep someone interested in your company. Being funny and distinctive gets you remembered and shared. Humor is the opposite of boring.

Own the Customer’s Voice
The customer service and sales departments are uniquely positioned as the middle points between your customers and your company. To be successful, you want these employees to constantly voice their opinions on your policies, rules, work habits and ways of conducting business that may affect how your clients see the company. Some thoughts:

1. Include your team on all major decisions, pricing changes and marketing ideas before launching. Get the feedback. Make corrections before it goes out and is a disaster. Have your team understand that they can speak up and challenge anything. Good, honest debate and conversation should always be encouraged.

2. They understand your production schedule. A big order is coming in on Friday; can we ship it? If your customer service or sales staff can’t understand this without asking anyone, you need to work on developing a methodology that will allow them to get this information quickly so they can communicate it to your clients.

3. They don’t hide anything. If a problem develops or a client makes a comment, it goes to the top so actions can be created to resolve any potential challenges. You want these interactions to flow freely so you can continuously improve and adjust your business. What one client says is what a dozen clients may be thinking. Getting that information out and an action plan developed makes your company stronger and keeps it ahead of the competition.

There probably are dozens more attributes that great customer service and sales staff may possess, but I just wanted to highlight a few to draw attention to the top ones. When hiring or building your customer-facing team, you want to develop core attributes to keep pushing your company into new levels of success. Challenge: What attributes did I overlook? Drop me a line and let me know! Let’s share the wealth of knowledge!

Marshall Atkinson is the chief operating officer of Visual Impressions Inc., and Ink to the People, Milwaukee. Atkinson has lectured on sustainability at ISS trade shows, and webinar industry panel discussions regarding the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA). For more information or to comment on this article, email Marshall at or follow him on Twitter at @atkinsontshirt.