If hard skills can get you the job, would soft skills let you keep it?

by Louisa Wong:
Executive Chairman Global Sage and LinkedIn Influencer

Today, experience trumps everything in our personal and professional lives. For many jobs, there is now greater focus on experience, rather than process. Hard skills may be good in making process work, but it is soft skills that define the experience, and experience is what makes customers stay happy.

Employees are putting experience above pay or career advancement when planning or making decisions about their career. Brands are investing heavily to ensure that their customers are provided with a unique experience in using their products and services.

Very recently, I got to experience the Great Barrier Reef up close and personal, in the water with schools of beautiful fish and turtles. It was indeed an awesome way to witness one of the greatest natural wonders of the world. 

The trip, however, was tarnished by the very unpleasant customer experience we had with an Australian airline at Cairns airport. 

For 30 minutes my friend and I were subjected to aggressive language by ground crew who did not bother to look at our e-tickets, which were issued by the parent airline, another Australian airline, for this co-sharing flight. We were forced to check in all our carry-on bags and made to pay a staggering A$A610 in cash for excess baggage based on company policies. We had to pay on the spot or miss our flight. 

I’m not going to argue who’s right or wrong in this situation, but let’s call the experience for what it is: a catastrophe in customer service. If anything, the experience gave me a simple but timely reminder…

…in today’s technology-rich environment,

soft skills are becoming more important than ever before.

Here are my takeaways from our ordeal at Cairns, and three soft skills that could have made a huge difference:

(1) Attention to detail 

Organizations today want to be more efficient through technology and data. Rather than hire or retain employees, many prefer to invest in new technology to perform work, powered by artificial intelligence, data, and all sorts of algorithms that predict what we search and buy, what we should read or watch, or where to go on our next trip. We are practically told what to think or do. 

This is very true in the airline industry. I mean, who even prints out e-tickets nowadays? You go to a check-in counter (if you haven’t yet done so online), present your luggage, and with a few taps on the keyboard, the airline staff sends you off on your merry way. That works most of the time, until something or someone throws a monkey wrench into the transaction, in which case one needs to put technology aside and attend to the specific demands of the situation on hand. 

In our case, despite my objections, the crew hadn’t checked that my ticket had specific provisions that clearly stated a second bag charge of A$40 for up to 25 kg, no restrictions on carry-on luggage, and frequent flyer benefits with One World. I was charged A$15 per kg instead. Paying attention to these details, rather than just following general company policies, would have saved everyone all that trouble.

(2) Agility 

Having rules and processes are important to every organization, but these must be enforced with a great deal of sensitivity to our specific surroundings and circumstances. For people in service jobs, “putting your customer first” should guide behaviors, not just blindly following rules regardless of circumstances.

Agility allows one to make decisions on the fly, in a highly flexible and interactive manner, placing importance on individual interactions over processes, and responding to change over following a rigid plan. Before, an airline staff could manage by simply sticking to the standard process: 1-2-3-4-5. Now, what’s 1-2-3-4-5 today, can be 3-4-5-2-1 tomorrow and 3-3-3-3-5 the next day given that technology is replacing existing processes all the time and creating new paths.

Many organizations are already putting more energy into building an agile team, rather than creating more rules and processes. I’ve heard of a company that dedicates a big part of its on-boarding into teaching new employees to be candid in giving and receiving constructive criticism, which improves composure and the ability to course-correct. Other organizations are spending more training hours into improving employees’ creative and collaborative problem-solving skills.

Technology is disrupting how information flows, how decisions are made, and how organizations are structured. When the focus is on the team, rather than a process, it becomes easier to adapt to the ever-shifting technology landscape. 

Jobs are being redefined and the skills required are also changing. One can no longer rely on job titles to know one’s responsibilities. The pace of polarization and disruption are changing normal business cycles at a rate faster than companies are prepared for, and at the same time opens new business opportunities that would have been unthinkable before. The traditional multi-year strategic plan is being obliterated by this breakneck pace of disruption.

Industry leaders are setting up incubation and innovation centers inside companies to imagine what the world, and hence business, will be like in 2020. “Project Star Wars”, as these innovation hubs are fondly called by some, are run by people who are tech-savvy but have little or no relevant industry experience. These centers have direct and significant impact on the future of the company, yet only a few in the organization fully understand their role and function. Existing business processes are under the spotlight and being scrutinized for changes, even as many people will naturally resist them.

The very fabric of organizations is going through revolutionary and irreversible changes.  Hence, understanding how organizational dynamics are changing is extremely important to one’s ability to perform. Often, information no longer flows through a linear path – and therefore decisions no longer do, too. 

 

(3) Empathy

Technology can enhance and even replace some of the hard skills needed to perform jobs today and in the future. But if there’s one thing technology will never do quite as well as people, at least not in the near future – it’s the subtle art of “human connection”. That’s where empathy shines.

Recent studies show that empathy actually has more to do with imagination than with actual feelings. It’s being able to “step outside” of your position in a situation, especially a volatile one, and calmly “step into” the other person’s shoes.

If you think about it, today’s world is super interconnected and our experiences are shared. One bad experience that goes viral has long-term effects. Hence, in many jobs, there should be greater focus on experience, rather than process. 

Just imagine how differently our airline experience would have turned out if somebody had just taken a moment to ask a simple question: “I understand how frustrated you must feel right now. What can I do to help you enjoy the rest of your journey?”

Or to ask how someone can afford to pay A$610 on the spot when the cost of the ticket is way below that amount? A$610 is a lot of money and might very well be someone’s entire travel budget.

Or to ask how the customer would feel afterwards? My frustration was exacerbated when I walked into a half-empty plane with ample storage space for all kinds of luggage.

A simple gesture of empathy (perhaps by offering to find us a better seat in a plane that was half-full) would have made a difference in my experience. Common sense becomes less common when we rely strictly on technology to guide our feelings and decisions.

Soft skills, such as Attention to Detail, Agility and Empathy, can help us cope with the mind-boggling pace of change and better understand the new rhythm of the workplace. The lack of these soft skills can lead to confrontations, awkward moments, ill will, and can even cost you your job.

Nature is a great teacher. The Great Barrier Reef was an unforgettable experience, and it gave me an important reminder that many of us take for granted in our fast-paced, tech-rich life: people remember experiences and not processes. Soft skills make us stronger as it enables us to connect, perform, and often control or predict outcomes.

Lots of Love,

Louisa