Wandering into a local retail outlet, my task was to pick up some needed items on the way home as quickly as possible. The items were spread throughout the store, so hunting them down caused me to look up and down almost every aisle. The “help wanted” sign on the door had clued me into the fact there probably wasn’t enough staff to provide searching assistance.

Once found, the items were taken to the checkout counter, where the young man silently, though promptly and quickly, rang the items through the cash register. I greeted him with an introductory comment, but his iPod earbuds indicated he was listening to something more entertaining than my voice. Eventually the pin pad revealed it was time to pay. I made a parting comment about their busy pace that went unanswered and probably unnoticed. During the entire encounter, the young man neither spoke nor lifted his head to look at me.

Few of the contributors to the lackluster experience were technical skills. The employee knew the procedures for working as a cashier and performed those duties fairly efficiently. What was missing is what human resource professionals call “soft-skills.”

It wasn’t a bad experience, but it didn’t feature interpersonal interaction, which would either endear me to the employee or to the business. Ian Siegel, co-founder of the employment website ZipRecruiter, recently reported that more and more employers are looking for “soft skills.” 93% of these employers say that these abilities make a candidate stand out and play a critical role in their hiring decisions.

The dictionary defines soft skills as “skills or personality traits that are typically not learned, difficult to measure, but which enable someone to interact effectively, efficiently, and harmoniously with other people.” There are as many lists of soft skills as there are human resource organizations. Let’s talk about four that seem really vital — and would look good on a resume.

Many lists of soft skills include communication as a top characteristic. Carmine Gallo, in his book Five Stars, argues that written and verbal communication are no longer soft skills, but the learned skills that champion success in any field. Warren Buffett agrees, “The one easy way to become worth 50% more than you are now — at least — is to hone your communication skills — both written and verbal.”

Let’s look at the four “soft” skills that could have been present in my recent retail experience.

The first skill needed is perception. In my recent encounter there were no words exchanged between the two of us. I wandered slowly and aimlessly through six aisles of the store, pausing often to scan the shelves and ponder. The employee could have made a simple inquiry, “Are you finding what you need?” Anticipating needs provides the opportunity for a caring response.

Another skill needed is change and adaptability. LinkedIn produced a job hiring report by surveying over 1,200 hiring managers across the country. According to the people making the hiring decisions, the most important soft skill to possess is adaptability. It is impossible to put on a job description every situation that an employee will encounter. The best employees need to be able to change — quickly, seamlessly, and effectively.

Kristin Kelley, chief marketing officer at CareerBuilder.com notes that “people really have to be able to turn left, turn right on a dime, join the Zoom, and be able to manage their own instant messages coming in.” Multitasking involves juggling several tasks, but also managing changing needs.

A third skill worth possessing is the ability to listen empathetically. Regardless of the industry, most employees are going to have to solve problems during the course of the day. You cannot navigate challenges and discover solutions without listening empathetically to the needs the customer is trying to convey.

Jobs are filled with distractions and interruptions. Don’t add to those distractions by not actively listening. You can contribute to your own downfall by listening to streaming music or your favorite podcast. Give your job and the customer your undivided attention.

Good listening takes in and evaluates information. Liz Wiseman, author of the book Multipliers, claims the best leaders are often the quietest people in the room. When they do talk, they show understanding by repeating the person’s key terms and applying what they processed.

Finally, cultivate the ability to make immediate decisions and prompt responses. Good employees set themselves apart by showing their ability to take charge. Part of taking charge means responding quickly. When emails go unanswered or voice messages remain unreturned, you communicate a lack of respect for the customer. A message also resonates of your personal disorganization or apathy.

The burden for a better experience doesn’t rest solely on the shoulders of the employee. Customers can be demanding, rude, and unrealistic in their expectations. Treat employees with grace and respect. Show them you understand the challenges of such a job and you are willing to partner with them to make the experience better for all involved.

Daniel Shapero, COO at LinkedIn commented, “Several of these skills speak to a single theme … making those around you better. The best employees not only deliver against their own goals, but also lift the performance of their colleagues.”

From the Catbird Seat, not only does the best employee lift the performance of their colleagues, they lift the experience for their customers. Even if the job seems menial, the difference you make in the experience creates meaning.

Tom May is a freelance writer and educator, and a columnist for the News and Tribune. Reach him at tgmay001@gmail.com.

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