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17 Experts Weigh in on the Term "Soft Skills"

diverse meetingFor many, their customer service vernacular is littered with the term “soft skills.” Venture into any customer service department or contact center, or read through a customer service job posting, and you won’t go long before you cross paths with it.

“Soft skills” is often used to describe some of those intangible, seemingly difficult to quantify and train customer service skills. The usual suspects include the relational stuff of a customer interaction like tone of voice, speaking pace, empathy, listening, and taking ownership of an issue. But are these skills really soft? In contrast, hard skills might include the ability to complete a certain task like answering the phone, or resetting a customer’s password, or a variety of other job-specific abilities that are trained and measured.

From discussions I’ve had, some folks would beg to differ with the traditional definition of and value placed on soft skills. Feeling the need to understand the different points of view out there, I asked 17 customer service and training experts to weigh in with their stance on the term “soft skills.” If they’re opposed to it, I’ve asked them to offer up an alternative.

Shep Hyken, Chief Amazement Officer at Shepard Presentations

Stance on Soft Skills: Against

Proposed Alternative: People Skills

Soft skills are traditionally compared to "technical skills." Sometimes soft skills are more important than technical skills, yet that is not always recognized. For example, American Express likes to hire customer/member service reps from the hospitality industry. They can teach the technical skill of jumping from one screen to another to find the right information for the customer. So, having someone with good people skills — with a hospitality mentality — is potentially their best employee. Hiring someone with excellent people skills who is capable of learning the hard/technical skills is a winning combination.

Giovanna Hopkins, Support Specialist at Soomo Learning

Stance on Soft Skills: Against

Proposed Alternative: People Skills

The term succeeds in making a distinction between the two types of skill sets, but also diminishes the value of this skill set by using the word "soft". Women tend to have a higher level of mastery of soft skills, and calling them so reflects a mindset that devalues these qualities and therefore women (even though research shows these qualities are essential to the success of any individual or company).

Communication through writing and speaking, emotional intelligence, creativity, work ethic, organization, and collaboration are all difficult things to measure (as opposed to hard skills) but they all have one thing in common: they make you a better human to work with and for. "People Skills" are what you learn in order to be the best human you can be. Without them, hard skills are just a list of abilities on a piece of paper, with no way to implement them. They are how to get your unique abilities out into the world, where they can impact other people in a positive way.

Patrick Russell, Director, Product Management, 8X8

Stance on Soft Skills: For

The term “soft skills” has become common vernacular in most organizations so regardless of whether or not people support it, it’s here to stay..

Leslie O’Flahavan, Owner, E-WRITE and Professional Training & Coaching Consultant

Stance on Soft Skills: Against

Proposed Alternative: Communication Skills

I deeply dislike this term. The word "soft" is dismissive. The skills we usually call "soft" are essential, not optional. They include communication skills, social skills, listening skills, and writing skills. What we call things matters. If we want customer service agents to have both types of skills, let's call them communication skills and technical skills, not soft skills and hard skills.

Jenny Dempsey, Customer Experience Manager at Pirch

Stance on Soft Skills: Neutral

Soft skills is a catchy way to sum up a type of skill. I'd rather be specific about the skill instead of group it into something that sounds oddly close to soft serve.

Evan Watson, Library Marketing and Outreach Manager at Duke University Press

Proposed Alternative: Communication Skills

The term is not well defined, so everyone has a different idea of what is being discussed when soft skills are talked about.

Erica Marois, Copywriter, Albertsons Companies

Stance on Soft Skills: Against

Proposed Alternative: Emotional Intelligence

Learning to use new software, memorizing product specs, and navigating a phone system certainly isn't easy; but with a bit of training, most anyone can adapt to new technology and processes. The most challenging part of any job is using interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence to communicate effectively. The intricacies of interpersonal relationships are complex, the impact is far reaching, and treating them as soft skills lessens the importance, is misleading, and frankly, just doesn't make much sense.

Emotional Intelligence is a much better descriptor of all the skills we should be training in contact center agents. Dictionary.com defines Emotional Intelligence as "skill in perceiving, understanding, and managing emotions and feelings." Isn't that exactly what's needed to manage difficult customer contacts and exhibit empathy and confidence in stressful situations? 

Jim Mackenzie, Support Programmer at Basecamp

Stance on Soft Skills: Against

Proposed Alternative: Skills

“Soft skills” is a meaningless, imprecise and occasionally harmful distinction. Developing a skill needs a combination of motivation, access to learning materials, patience for mistakes, practice and support. That doesn't change if you talking about changing a gasket, writing a compiler, negotiating a deal or supporting a friend through a rough situation. We should simply refer to them as skills. What benefit do you get by dividing the description into categories? It's unlikely to outweigh the costs.

Nate Brown, Senior Director of CX at Arise

Stance on Soft Skills: For

Proposed Alternative: Human Skills

I'm sure there's a better way to describe them, but the term "soft skills" works for me.  You've got obvious "hard skills" that result in technical abilities, certifications, or other credentials, but who ever received an award for mastering empathy?

Perhaps a better term would be "human skills".  This would encapsulate classic soft skills such as positive attitude, strong work ethic, communication skills, problem solving, and accepting feedback.

Antonio King, Head of Support, Veho

Stance on Soft Skills: For

Soft skills are the customer service skills that are more difficult to vet for. Most of them fit in the category of emotional IQ.

David Beaumont, Technical Support Professional - IBM

Stance on Soft Skills: For

Soft skills are essential tools to have that indicate your sensitivity to a customer's concerns. The meaning behind soft skills should alert a prospective employer that you have a caring demeanor. The soft skill attribute suggests that you can be in tune with the human element of a customer when it is time to walk in their shoes.

Scott Ontiveroz, Digital Advertising Director at SocialPath Solutions

Stance on Soft Skills: Neutral

No matter the moniker attached to the actual skill set, it's critical that front-line customer service employees have and use them. Too often in the industry, hiring decisions are based upon the affordability of the labor as opposed to the quality of it. These are the people who will be shaping the brand's image in the eyes of paying customers. Isn't it worth the investment to have the right people in those seats?

Sean Hawkins, Head of Contact Center, Anticimex Group

Stance on Soft Skills: Neutral

Proposed Alternative: People skills or Personal skills

I believe they are used interchangeably and point to your ability to interact with people. I think there is a valid argument to suggest people skills are a part of the larger soft skills. More importantly, is the ability to display either (depending on your preference) to others in a sincere and relatable way.

Justin Robbins, Senior Director, Corporate Communications & Evangelism at UJET

Stance on Soft Skills: Against

Proposed Alternative: Interpersonal skills, leadership skills, communication skills, behavioral skills

The term is a vague and inaccurate descriptor of the skill(s) actually being assessed or demonstrated. In addition, the term "soft skills" understates the importance of these essential performance traits.

Bob Thompson, Founder/CEO, CustomerThink

Stance on Soft Skills: For

Proposed Alternative: People Skills

Soft skills is generally understood to mean people skills, which would be fine too. Unless there is widespread confusion about what the term means, why bother trying to create a new word or phrase. I hope we don't end up with another TLA (Three Letter Acronym) as a result of this exercise!

Sheri Kendall-duPont, Training Manager, Wayfair

Stance on Soft Skills: Against

Proposed Alternative: Technical Skills

Using the term “soft skills” makes it sound like they’re optional, easy to acquire, or “nice to have.” A skill like interpersonal communication, for example, is essential for communicating with customers and clients so it’s important that it be taught, learned, and developed. Some might argue that skills traditionally known as soft skills cannot be taught. That is false. I teach them all day in the classroom and results can be tracked in a variety of ways. We should change the name to technical skills because that encompasses all skills necessary to do a job.

Debi Mongan, Call Center Manager, HealthRight 360

Stance on Soft Skills: Against

Proposed Alternative: Emotional Intelligence

The name implies that these skills and traits are unimportant or less valuable, whereas they are KEY in customer service. There is nothing "soft" about having these skills or learning them. And yes, they can be taught or enhanced with training. Emotional Intelligence is the closest thing I have come across. I still think there’s a better term that none of us have thought of yet. I just keep waiting for the epiphany!

If you kept score, 52% of our experts are against the term “soft skills,” while 30% are for it, and 18% are neutral. Does this make it imperative that you eliminate its use from your vocabulary and ban it in your organization? That’s a decision you can make for yourself, but I’ll to leave you with a couple things to think about:

The skills we traditionally call soft skills are essential in almost any role — especially in customer service. These skills should not be devalued in any way, and if calling them “soft” does that, perhaps it’s time to change the name, and more importantly, change our mindset.

While some people are innately better at these skills than others, that doesn’t diminish the fact that they can be trained, coached, and measured. Like any skill, with practice and hard work, anyone can improve their soft skills.

For those of you convinced that it’s time to change your vocabulary, our experts have proposed some terrific alternatives. The most popular were people skills, emotional intelligence, and communication skills, which I think are worth your consideration.

What are your thoughts? Does your skin crawl whenever you hear the term “soft skills”? If so, we’d love to hear why and what you’d use in its place.