What is customer service?
Here's the ultimate guide to customer service: Discover what it is, why it's important, and tips for improving it.
Published May 26, 2021
Last updated September 13, 2022
Customer service is the support you offer your customers from the moment they first contact your business to the months and years afterward. Providing good customer service means being a reliable partner to your customers—it goes beyond helping them troubleshoot, use, and make informed decisions about your product.
The customer service journey is different for everyone. Some buyers may quickly make their purchase and move on, while others may return with a customer complaint or question. Either way, the objective of customer service is to make the most of every interaction and develop long-term relationships with your customers.
There are many types of customer service, and keeping the quality consistent can mean the difference between a buyer returning repeatedly or leaving for good. Need a little more clarification? Let’s break it down.
In this article, we’re going to discuss:
- Why is customer service important?
- How to deliver excellent customer service
- Key customer service traits
- Types of customer service channels
- Examples of good customer service
Why is customer service important?
Whether you’re a well-established firm or just starting to scale and grow, a successful customer service team can help attract new business, boost retention, and increase sales among your existing customer base.
So while Joan Jett may not care about a bad reputation, business owners and leaders should—good customer service plays an increasingly critical role in a company’s success.
It’s a high-stakes game: 61 percent of consumers would now defect to a competitor after just one bad experience, according to the Zendesk Customer Experience Trends Report 2022. (That’s a 22-percent jump from the previous year.) Make it two negative experiences, and 76 percent of customers are out the door.
73% of business leaders report a direct link between their customer service and business performance.
Benefits of great customer service
Customer service is the foundation on which you build a home for your buyers. Great customer service boosts business, reduces churn, and enhances the customer experience. Our CX Trends Report revealed that high-quality service:
- Drives business performance: 73 percent of business leaders report adirect link between their customer service and business performance.
- Stimulates business growth: 64 percent of leaders say good customer service has a positive impacton their company’s growth.
- Improves customer retention: 60 percent say it keeps customers coming back.
- Increases sales: 47 percent report an increase in their ability to cross-sell.
How to deliver excellent customer service
Whether you’re building a support team from scratch or you already consider yourself a pro, we’ve identified tips from our latest CX Trends Report to help you provide better customer service.
Make agent training a priority
Automate repetitive tasks
Personalize every experience
Evaluate existing customer service channels
Focus on business impact
Keep leadership in the loop
Companies with high-performing customer support teams understand the need for more training, empathy, and emphasis on empowering their employees. Consider developing a tiered training plan that starts with basic technical skills and product knowledge, then gradually advances to more complicated topics.
Our CX Trends Report found that high-performing businesses are nearly 10 times more likely to strongly agree that their agents are of the highest caliber and roughly six times more likely to have plans to greatly extend education and training opportunities.
AI is becoming increasingly reliable and popular. In a world where AI can create art and predict your next favorite TV show, your customer service team might not want to spend their time performing repetitive tasks. Identify and automate the most tedious tasks to free up agents’ time and improve performance.
For example, our CX Trends Report shows that high performers are nearly three times more likely to use AI-powered chatbots to help with agent workflows.
Talking to a customer service representative should fall somewhere on the spectrum between talking to your Google Home and catching up with an old friend. That means: personalized enough to not be robotic but formal enough to be efficient.
Arm your agents with the customer information they need to make the experience friendly, helpful, and fast. Customers will notice. In our CX Trends Report, 90 percent of respondents said they’re more willing to spend money with companies that personalize their customer experience.
According to our Trends Report, 93 percent of consumers will spend more with companies that offer their preferred option to reach customer service, whether that’s chat, email, or phone. Make sure you have satisfaction metrics linked to every channel, and actively track and benchmark performance on each of them.
Create opportunities for agents to drive profits through upselling and cross-selling, informed by a deep understanding of the customer’s immediate needs. Establish a system in which your support team can seamlessly hand customers off to the sales team to continue the conversation. Track these opportunities so everyone involved can see the impact of customer service on ongoing customer engagements.
High performers are already doing this: Our report found that top-performing companies are 7.6 times more likely to strongly agree that customer service is a revenue driver.
Integrate customer service and CRM platforms to monitor changes in customers and their lifetime value. Sharing data between these systems can lead to the discovery of personalized, relevant solutions to customer issues that otherwise wouldn’t be considered.
Companies with exceptional customer service have buy-in from top to bottom. Leadership takes an active role in monitoring performance and impact. In many cases, the compensation of senior executives is directly tied to customer satisfaction.
High performers are over nine times more likely to report that senior leaders view customer service metrics daily and nearly eight times more likely to strongly agree that senior leaders immerse themselves in customer service.
Types of customer service channels
An omnichannel customer service approach enables you to meet your buyers where they are and provide connected, consistent communications across channels.
A few of the most popular customer service channels include:
- Phone calls
- Mobile messaging
- Social media
Self-service includes resources like knowledge bases and community forums that allow customers to find answers to their own questions.
No matter which channels you use, it’s important to deliver comprehensive support and create a seamless communication journey for your customers.
12 key customer service traits
Customer service skills are the qualities and abilities a customer service representative needs to deliver good customer service. They include a mixture of technical and soft skills.
A little empathy goes a long way. If a customer is upset, being defensive in return can add fuel to the fire. Instead, let them know that you understand where they’re coming from and will do whatever you can to help. The same goes for customers who are sad, confused, or even happy. Empathy breeds connection.
Example: A customer is angry about a recent price increase. Instead of just telling them, “Well there’s nothing I can do,” show empathy by saying, “I understand that price increases can be upsetting.” Then inform them why the price increased, explaining that price hikes often add value to the product.
2. Active listening
Active listening can help you better understand what your customer feels, wants, and needs. To practice active listening, pay close attention to what the customer is saying, and take note of their body language and tone. Wait until they’re done speaking to come up with your response.
Example: A customer calls to complain about a product they purchased that isn’t living up to their expectations. By carefully listening to their comments, you’re able to determine that they meant to purchase a different offering, and you help them make an exchange.
When customers reach out for support, the last thing they want to do is wait on hold for an hour. So if your customer service team is busy, make sure customers know how long they can expect to wait. You may also consider implementing a callback system, where an agent will call or message a customer when they become available, so the customer doesn’t need to wait on hold.
Example: You deploy an AI chatbot that tells customers how many people are ahead of them in the queue and how long they will likely wait for help.
4. Interpersonal skills
When your job revolves around dealing with the public, you need to make sure you can, well, deal with the public. Interpersonal skills—like good communication, positivity, flexibility, and responsibility—create a winning relationship between yourself and the customer. They establish trust and improve customer communication.
Example: When you hop onto a phone call with an aggravated customer, you’re able to clearly and calmly explain how to resolve their issue. Pro tip: humor also helps.
5. Ability to multitask
Live chat agents are expected to handle more than one conversation at a time and to listen to each customer while simultaneously finding them an answer. This is a skill in itself. Great multitaskers feel comfortable interacting with multiple people at once and don’t lose sight of the bigger picture as they’re bombarded by questions.
Example: You’re chatting with two customers—one has a question and the other has a complaint. You manage both conversations without getting overwhelmed or distracted, enabling you to answer the customer’s question quickly while easing the other’s worries.
Sometimes, it’s hard for customers to express themselves in writing. Other times, customers are terse because they’re frustrated. Customer service agents should be well-tempered enough to remain calm and pleasant in any interaction, even when they perceive a customer is being slight with them.
Example: A customer is making rude comments via your internal messaging system. You don’t take this personally, and you’re able to stay positive during the interaction.
Even if you can’t address a customer’s needs right away, you can still make them feel seen and heard by acknowledging their request and telling them you’ll assist them when you can. This could mean emailing them back and saying you’ll respond more thoroughly later, or replying to an angry customer on social media and asking for more information via DM.
Example: You work for a travel booking agency and get a customer complaint on Twitter from someone who arrived at a hotel to find their room double-booked. You respond immediately asking for more information via private message so you can resolve the issue.
8. Collaboration skills
Answering a customer’s question often involves working with other teams or departments. Is responding to negative social media comments the job of customer support or marketing? Sometimes it’s hard to tell.
If your marketing team manages your social media accounts, make sure they connect with the customer service team for help with any incoming support requests. Remember, everyone is responsible for good customer service, so agents need to have strong collaboration skills.
Example: When a customer service inquiry comes in over Instagram DM, your marketing team knows exactly who to ask about next steps. A customer service solution like Zendesk enables teams to collaborate with one another and help customers faster.
9. Emotional intelligence
Emotional intelligence is the ability to perceive and control your emotions. That can mean recognizing when you’re about to get angry, sad, scared, flustered, or any other big emotion, and cope accordingly. Strong emotional intelligence is a critical skill for customer service agents because it can help them stay level-headed on the job and maintain their emotional wellness.
Example: You see several complicated requests come in at once, and you recognize that your heart is beating faster and you’re starting to feel overwhelmed. So, you spend a couple of minutes practicing deep breathing to calm down before tackling the tasks in front of you.
Try as you may to prepare for everything, inevitably a customer will have a specific need or question that you haven’t heard before. Sometimes, there might not even be an exact answer or solution for it. In these circumstances, creative thinking is key. Your agents must be able to think on the fly and discern what the customer truly needs, then come up with a unique solution that meets those needs.
Example: A customer asks a question that you don’t know how to answer because it hasn’t come up before. Instead of panicking, you take a moment to think of a solution that fits company guidelines. You’re able to respond quickly and effectively, resulting in a positive customer experience.
11. Customer-first mindset
The customer isn’t necessarily right or wrong, but their perception of events is crucial in shaping their experience. A customer-first mindset helps your agents prioritize the customer experience and tailor their service to meet each customer’s individual needs, even in cases when they don’t agree. This mindset also allows agents to offer proactive service by focusing on the customer and their needs, which can change the customer’s perception of events from bad to good.
Example: When an angry customer reaches out about an incorrect order, you anticipate that they’ll want a replacement and check your inventory so you can send it straight away.
12. Digital literacy
In our CX Trends Report, 60 percent of respondents said they have higher customer service standards now than ever before. And for companies looking to deliver great omnichannel experiences, digital literacy will help your agents navigate customer interactions across channels. Train your employees on how to provide good service—no matter which channel they’re on—and how to use your online knowledge base to search for information. You can also automate content using a platform like Zendesk, which makes finding the right article that much easier.
Example: You need to explore your company’s internal knowledge base to get an answer for a customer. Because of your digital literacy, you know exactly how to log on and find what you need, leading to a fast resolution.
4 examples of good customer service
We’ve all heard the stories of companies going above and beyond to provide their customers with incredible support—a Morton’s employee once met a man at the airport with a steak because he asked for one in a tweet. But you don’t need to create your own Morton’s moment to delight customers.
Here are a few everyday examples of good customer service.
1. Providing fast first-response times
No pressure, but 76 percent of customers say they expect to engage with someone immediately when contacting a company. The more you can decrease first-response time, the more you can improve the customer experience.
Even if you can’t resolve an issue right away, make sure you connect with customers as soon as possible to give them a timeline.
Example: Udacity implemented a chat feature that allows customers to get answers quickly via self-service, which helped the company reduce its first-response time and increase customer satisfaction. Read the full story here.
2. Meeting customers where they are
Customers want to connect with businesses on the same channels they use to talk to friends and family. So, being able to help a customer on their preferred support channel is one of the best ways to create an excellent customer service experience.
Channel preference can vary based on the issue type and customer need. Our CX Trends Report showed that 73 percent of customers want the ability to start a conversation on one channel and pick it back up on another. This is why omnichannel customer service is so important.
Example: WATCHA implemented an omnichannel customer service experience that enables its support agents to communicate with customers on their favorite channels and continue those conversations across channels. Read the full story here.
3. Helping customers help themselves
Customers don’t always want to speak to someone, especially if their inquiry is straightforward. Our report revealed that 83 percent of customers will spend more with companies that allow them to find answers online without contacting anyone.
Example: Spartan Race used chatbots and other self-service automations to empower customers to solve problems and find answers independently. The organization saw a 46-percent increase in self-service and a 40-percent increase in help center views—plus, a 90-percent CSAT score—as a result. Enabling customers to be self-sufficient allowed agents to spend more time on complex problems, increasing both customer satisfaction and engagement. Read the full story here.
4. Being proactive
Reactive support used to be the standard: You wait for a customer to reach out with a question or issue and then respond accordingly. But now, companies must also provide proactive support—this is all about anticipating customer issues and addressing them before your customers are aware of them or need to contact you for help.
Example: In Good Taste uses data to get a comprehensive view of all the different tickets that may come in so they can figure out what to focus on next and fix problems before they arise. Read the full story here.
Top customer service questions
What is good customer service?
Good customer service means meeting customers’ expectations. Your efforts will pay off: 60 percent of business leaders said providing good customer service improves customer retention.
What company has the best customer service?
We found that Zappos, Dollar Shave Club, Slack, Amazon, and Lessonly are among the companies with the best customer service.
Is the customer always right?
This customer service philosophy was never meant to be taken literally. Though it implies that customers should always get their way—no matter how outrageous their demands—in reality, “The customer is always right” means that agents should do their best to understand the customer’s perspective and come up with a solution that works for both parties.
How do you handle a difficult customer?
Handling difficult customers is challenging for any customer service professional. The most important thing you can do is show them respect, patience, and care. It helps to remember that your customers are human beings. If you can connect with them emotionally, it can make a big difference.
What are three important qualities of customer service?
The main things customers want in their customer service experience include:
- Helpful and empathetic agents
- Convenient support
- Fast, personalized, and uninterrupted service across their preferred channels
Knock customer service out of the park
We’ve said it once, and we’ll say it again: Customer service is crucial for driving and sustaining business growth. That’s one of the many reasons why you need to put customers first and deliver quick, thorough, and helpful service. Customer service software—like Zendesk—can help ensure you consistently provide the support your audience wants and deserves.