What is customer service? Definition, importance & tips

The ultimate guide to customer service: what it is, why it's important, and tips for improving it.

By Courtney Gupta, Customer Service Enthusiast

Published May 26, 2021
Last updated May 12, 2022

Customer service can make or break a business. But not everyone agrees on what it is or how to do it well. In this guide, we’ll share how to set your business up for customer service success.

The definition of customer service

Customer service is the act of supporting and advocating for customers in their discovery, use, optimization, and troubleshooting of a product or service. It's also the processes that support the teams making good customer service happen. A successful customer service team is important for attracting new business, boosting retention, and increasing sales among your existing customer base.

The evolution of customer service

The main difference between service today and service 10 years ago is that customers expect premium service to be built-in from the first sales or marketing interaction and carry through to the moment they ask for help, post-purchase, and back again. To position themselves for success, businesses must integrate service into the journey at every interaction point.

The difference between customer service and customer support

customer service

There is a difference between customer support and customer service. It helps to think of customer support as the how, such as the nuts and bolts of troubleshooting an issue, and customer service as the why—why it’s recommended to set up your cloud account in a certain way or why today’s issue could balloon into a bigger issue in time if certain steps aren’t taken.

A customer support team can fix a technical issue in the short term, but providing good customer service helps build relationships and establish a true partnership in the long term. Adding the “why” into the support process improves the experience for customers, and it helps agents grow.

This may sound like a lot more than you thought. If so, you’re not alone. We've narrowed it down to a few key takeaways:

Why is customer service important in business?

Customer service is now a key differentiator between companies, a top consideration for customers, and a profit-generating force in its own right.

And whether a company exceeds or falls short of customer expectations is often directly tied to business success. It’s a high-stakes game—61 percent of customers would now defect to a competitor after just one bad experience, according to Zendesk's 2022 Customer Experience Trends Report. That’s a 22-percent jump from the previous year. Make it two negative experiences, and 76 percent of customers are out the door.

  • 64 percent of business leaders say that customer service has a positive impact on their company’s growth.
  • 60 percent say it improves customer retention.
  • 47 percent report an increase in their ability to cross-sell.
  • More than 60 percent of customers say they now have higher customer service standards.

customer service

Top customer service questions

What is good customer service?

Good customer service means meeting customers' expectations. And meeting customers' expectations pays off: 81 percent of customers say a positive customer service experience increases the likelihood they will make another purchase.

What company has the best customer service?

We found that some of the companies with the best customer service are Zappos, Dollar Shave Club, Slack, Amazon, and Lessonly.

Is the customer always right?

This customer service philosophy was never meant to be taken literally. The point wasn’t that customers should always get their way no matter how outrageous their demands. It was to give employees permission to truly listen to customers and go the extra mile to understand their needs.

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 in a human way, it can make a big difference.

What are 3 important qualities of customer service?

Customers are looking for helpful and empathetic agents, always-on support, and fast, personalized, and uninterrupted service across their preferred channels.

How do you provide excellent customer service?

Excellent customer service ultimately comes down to the human elements. Customers want speed and convenience, but they also look for empathy and commitment to the issues they care about. 74 percent say they will forgive a company for its mistake after receiving excellent service.

Examples of customer service

A good place to look for examples of customer service is how others in your industry are doing it. But here are a few examples of good and bad customer service that are applicable across the board.

Examples of good customer service

We’ve all heard the stories of companies going above and beyond to provide their customers with incredible support. Morton’s steakhouse met a man at the airport with a steak because he asked for one in a tweet. Nordstrom’s accepted a set of returned tires even though Nordstrom doesn't actually sell tires. But good customer service is ultimately about the scalable ways a company meets customer needs every day.

Here are a few everyday examples of excellent customer service.

  • Providing fast first-response times
  • 76 percent of customers say they expect to engage with someone immediately when contacting a company.

  • Serving your customers via the channels of their choice
  • Customers want to connect with you 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. In fact, 93 percent will spend more with companies that offer their preferred option to reach customer service.

  • Personalizing interactions
  • 90 percent of customers will spend more with companies that personalize the customer service they offer them.

  • Helping customers help themselves
  • 89 percent of customers will spend more with companies that allow them to find answers online without having to contact anyone, such as via a knowledge base.

  • Being proactively helpful
  • Great customer service often means anticipating your customer's needs before they even have to tell you.

Examples of bad customer service

Bad customer service is when a customer feels their expectations were not met. According to our Trends Report, the top indicators of poor customer service include long wait times, an automated system that makes it hard to reach a human agent, and having to repeat information multiple times.

People have expectations for how a company will serve them. If your customer support is not up to par, it can spell bad news for your brand. When customers have a negative service experience, they’re often quick to voice their complaints on social media. The message is clear: You can’t afford to ignore these annoyances in today’s digitally connected world.

The Museum of Annoying Experiences brings customer service nightmares to life:

7 tips for providing 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 drive better customer service.

1. Make agent training a priority

Consider developing a tiered training plan that starts with basic technical skills, including product knowledge, and then advances agent knowledge at regular intervals.

2. Automate repetitive tasks

Identify and automate the most repetitive tasks to free up agents’ time and improve performance.

3. Personalize every experience

Give agents access to valuable customer information—beyond just the customer’s name—that they can use to improve experiences.

4. Evaluate existing channels

Ensure that you have satisfaction metrics linked to each and every channel. Actively track and benchmark performance across channels to check for continuous improvement.

5. Focus on business impact

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 separate profit and loss statement that captures revenue generated by agents so the link between customer service and business growth is more tangible.

6. Integrate systems

Integrate customer service and CRM platforms to monitor changes in customers and their lifetime value. Sharing data between these platforms can lead to the discovery of personalized, relevant solutions to customer issues that otherwise wouldn’t be considered.

7. Keep leadership in the loop

Ensure the core team provides regular updates to leadership so they’re aware of evolving customer service plans and metrics. Create opportunities for customer service insights to play a greater role in larger company policy and strategy.

Types of customer service you should know about

Each channel could be considered a different type of customer service, but the mindset your business has around customer service is more important. There are four main types of customer service your business should know about: proactive vs. reactive and synchronous vs. asynchronous.

Proactive vs. reactive support

Reactive support used to be the standard: you wait for a customer to contact your business with an inquiry or issue. Proactive service, however, is now a crucial type of customer service—it means anticipating your customers’ issues and addressing them before your customers do. This might include:

  • An e-commerce company getting ahead of abandoned shopping carts by deploying a chatbot on its checkout page to answer frequently asked customer questions.
  • An internet provider sending customers a text about upcoming service disruptions.

Synchronous vs. asynchronous support

Live chat is typically a one-to-one real-time conversation that is session-based and synchronous. Synchronous means real-time chat. Like a phone call, it requires most or all of your attention, and has a defined beginning and end.

How to structure your customer service department

Learn more about the key steps for structuring your customer service team with this free guide.

Unlike live chat, messaging is asynchronous. Asynchronous messaging can be understood as conversations that start and stop when convenient for the participants. They can occur in real-time, but like an exchange on WhatsApp or in your Instagram DMs, you can put it in your pocket and pick it back up where you left off without losing the context and history of the conversation. This allows customers to troubleshoot while they do other things, like walking the dog, and agents to help more customers at once. And it's one of the reasons why companies that provide messaging support have the most satisfied customers.

The most important customer service skills

Customer service skills or characteristics represent the qualities and abilities a customer service representative needs to deliver good customer service. Customer service managers tend to hire for technical skill sets. Technical skills are important, but soft skills matter, too.

Here are the top customer service skills your customer service representatives need:

  1. Ability to mirror a customer's language and tone

    Mirroring another person’s language and tone can help you connect with them.

    Now, if a customer is angry on a call, you don’t want to copy their frustration. Instead, remember that “calm is contagious.” Be firm and work to bring the intensity down a notch. Customers respond well to getting help from someone who's clearly level-headed.

    Learn more tips for dealing with customers that are angry in this Forbes article.

    On live chat, responses are often short, quick, and incomplete. This makes it harder for you and the customer to understand each other’s tone. Choose your words carefully and err on the side of caution and clarity. Try to avoid puns or regional turns of phrase.

    Instead, use a gentle, informative tone. Patience is your best friend when helping a frustrated customer.

  2. Active listening

    When customers complain and are frustrated, they might not be able to take in what you say. So scrambling to a solution isn’t always the best approach.

    The ability to display empathy first is crucial. Remember, both you and the customer want to reach a resolution, not just a solution.

    Customers who are stressed need to feel heard. Explain that you understand the reason for their call. This little bit of empathy will go a long way toward improving a difficult customer experience.

  3. Clear communication

    Nobody likes to wait on hold, especially if they don’t know how long it’ll be until they can talk to someone.

    When customers call or start a live chat, set their expectations about hold times. This can help them feel like their issues matter to you.

  4. Interpersonal skills

    The best customer service templates do more than give agents pre-written text to copy and paste. They’re the starting point for high-quality, personalized answers so agents can build real, human connections with customers.

    Start with a template, then adjust it before replying to customers. This makes your answers feel more personal to customers.

    It’s OK to use your own voice and approach—just make sure you reflect the company’s brand and philosophy. For example, maybe you can make your own email signature unique.

  5. Comfort multitasking

    Live chat agents are expected to handle more than one chat at a time. This is a skill in itself. Great multitaskers don’t lose sight of the bigger picture as they're bombarded by questions.

    Be careful not to handle too many chats, or else your customers will be waiting too long between responses. You can always put a chat on a brief hold if you need more time to find an answer. But just like with phone support, set expectations first. For example, ask if you may put them on a brief hold to conduct more research.

  6. customer service skills

  7. Attention to detail

    Sometimes it’s harder for customers to express themselves in writing. Don’t read too quickly and jump to conclusions. It takes a lot of training and practice to understand how different customers communicate. But it's key to success in customer service.

    For example, someone who works in sales might come off as assertive or aggressive. Or, an engineer might want more technical details about how their problem was solved.

    Being able to read cues like this can give a customer care representative a better idea of how to tailor their customer service approach.

  8. Attentiveness

    Always respond to a customer’s social post when they need help. You may not be able to answer right away. But it’s still important to make quick initial contact with that customer and let them know when you’ll respond. Providing speedy responses means being adept in addressing a customer's problem with a precise and polite tone.

    The exception to “always respond” is when agents are confronted with an obvious attempt to pick a fight on public channels. These comments are often directed at the company itself. It can be tempting to engage with the person if you feel strongly about the issue at hand. But a company can’t afford to have an agent, or any employee, make mistakes on social media. So, always proceed with caution when responding publicly.

  9. Collaboration skills

    Answering a customer's question often involves working with other teams or departments. Is answering a social media post a job for customer support, or for marketing? Sometimes it’s hard to tell.

    If your marketing team manages your social media, 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 will need to have strong collaboration skills.

Learn the top customer service skills for 2022 in our blog post.

Customer service objectives

The objective of customer service isn’t just to find a quick solution to any one customer problem. It’s to build a long-term relationship, one where each customer interaction offers opportunities for deeper, more valuable engagement. When measuring customer service performance, companies tend to take a narrow view by focusing solely on metrics like customer satisfaction (CSAT). By widening the scope to focus on things like customer retention and loyalty, they can better understand the impact of customer service on the bottom line.

“Being able to tie customer service to business growth is incredibly valuable and often what is needed to get leadership backing and the investment in customer service that they don’t have today.” Adrian McDermott, chief technology officer, Zendesk

Identify and track key metrics associated with quality customer service that go beyond CSAT. Fostering an organization-wide understanding of the importance of indicators like first response time, average handle time, Net Promoter Score (NPS), and Customer Effort Score (CES) creates multiple lenses for viewing the quality and progress of your customer experience efforts. Conduct weekly reviews of key performance metrics and corresponding revenue projections that reveal low-hanging fruit and other opportunities to iterate on ways to improve customer service quality.

All year, every year at Zendesk, some of the world's sharpest analysts are doing research and then painstakingly interpreting it to illuminate the coming year's biggest trends in customer service. A few of the top customer service trends in 2022:

  1. Doubling down on customer service as an engine for growth
  2. High performers are 7.6 times more likely to strongly agree that they view customer service primarily as a revenue driver and are 6.2 times more likely to strongly agree that customer service funding has kept pace with company growth. They understand the inherent value of their customer service teams. Not only are they more likely to prioritize funding of customer service initiatives, but they’re also more likely to keep a close eye on the business impact and make necessary changes along the way.

  3. Getting strategic buyin at the top
  4. High performers are also over 9 times more likely to report that senior leaders view customer service metrics on a daily basis and nearly 8 times more likely to strongly agree that senior leaders immerse themselves in customer service. Companies that are leading in customer service have buy-in from top to bottom. Instead of a siloed customer service team, leadership takes an active role in monitoring performance and impact. And in many cases, compensation of senior executives is directly tied to customer satisfaction.

  5. Tapping the full potential of agents
  6. High-performing companies understand the need for more training, more empathy, and more investment to reduce churn and empower their people. They’re nearly 10 times more likely to strongly agree that their agents are of the highest caliber and over 6 times more likely to have plans to greatly extend education and training opportunities.

  7. Integrating emerging capabilities across the business
  8. Companies that are ahead of the customer service curve have their fingers on the pulse when it comes to the latest trends and technologies. For their customers, this means more channel options, fewer headaches, and better experiences overall. For example, they’re 6.8 times more likely to have already implemented conversational customer service capabilities, including adding messaging channels or making it possible to switch between channels for a single ticket. They're also nearly 3 times more likely to use AI-powered chatbots to help with agent workflows.

What is conversational customer service?

The ability to offer fast, personalized, uninterrupted service across web, mobile, and social apps.

Customer service impacts the bottom line

Customers have long memories. It’s up to everyone in an organization to help make them positive ones with great customer service.

How to structure your customer service department

Learn more about the key steps for structuring your customer service team with this free guide.

How to structure your customer service department

Learn more about the key steps for structuring your customer service team with this free guide.

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