The complete guide to customer service

Deconstructing customer service: what it is, why it matters, who is responsible for it, and how to do do it well

By Tara Ramroop, Senior content marketing manager

Published March 15, 2020
Last updated October 26, 2020

Many businesses agree that customer service is important, but not everyone is aligned on what it is exactly, let alone how to go about doing it well. Use this guide to demystify the process and set your business up for customer service success.

What is customer service?

Customer service is the act of supporting customers in their discovery, use, optimization, and troubleshooting of a product or service. It's also the many processes that support the many people making good customer service happen across a business

Why is customer service important?

Customer service is important because it can set you apart from competitors and inspire loyalty to your brand, your products, and your services, for years to come.

Customer service happens throughout the customer journey: when they're shopping for a solution, when they have questions about the best ways to use the product, or when they're at their wit's end over an issue. Each of those scenarios involves delivering the right experience—either self-service or agent-assisted—to the right user at the right time, within a company’s budget and customer experience (CX) goals. It means personalizing customers’ experiences on your website or in marketing emails via responsible use of customer data, providing excellent customer support when they need help, and checking in on them after they’ve made a purchase, ensuring their needs are still being met, and paving the way for a long-lasting relationship that goes beyond the transactional.

That may already sound like a lot more people and teams than you thought. It is—customer service and customer experience are no longer relegated to roles long considered “customer-facing,” such as support agents or other front-line employees. Though every company defines customer service differently, a guiding principle rings true throughout: Customer service is the act of adding value, wherever you sit in an organization, to your product or service, for the people who use and depend on that product or service. Your product could be the best thing since sliced bread, but it won’t be the total package unless good customer service comes with it.

Here are some key things to consider to help ensure customer service adds value and leads to great experiences for customers. They include:

How to handle customer complaints

Customer complaints are golden opportunities to not only rectify an issue, but to demonstrate how the company comes through when customers need them most.

When patience might be running low, the first step for customer service representatives is identifying and rectifying the problem—quickly. Customers are speaking out about what they want, and 61% of them say that resolving an issue quickly is the most important aspect of good customer service, according to the Zendesk Customer Experience Trends Report 2020. As a bonus, handling complaints well can turn a negative experience into a positive for everyone; the Harvard Business Review found that people who complained about a brand on social media and received a response from the company were more loyal afterward than those who never complained at all.

Customer complaints can also be opportunities to improve the offering for customers. Stella Connect captures agent-level feedback from customers after every service interaction, and then shares that feedback directly with agents and team leaders. And at Guru, the entire organization logs prospect and customer feedback into a repository that is reviewed by the product team and organized into themes and priorities. That provides Guru with an up-to-date view of customer expectations that informs the product roadmap, design decisions, and the approach to both prospecting and customer service.

Defining customer support—and using good principles of customer service to your advantage

Customer complaints typically fall within the realm of customer support, which many consider the function of traditional technical support teams that help when a customer has trouble with a product.

But first, it’s worth noting that there is a difference between customer support and customer service—as well as important overlap. While a customer support team can fix a technical issue in the short term, providing good customer service helps build relationships and establish a true partnership in the long term, according to Jonathan Brummel, senior manager of premier support engineering at Zendesk. If customer support is the how, such as the nuts and bolts of troubleshooting an issue in that moment, customer service is the why—recommending why someone should take x, y, and z steps to prevent smaller issues from coming to a head in the future.

It’s up to leaders to hire for and encourage the behaviors that help front-line customer service agents see interactions with customers as relationship-building opportunities. After all, customer service is not just about providing support throughout the purchasing and problem times. For enterprise software, for example, agents might add value by offering links to content from the knowledge base, providing established, publicly available tips and tricks from within the community, and generally tapping into their own wealth of knowledge to help customers use products more effectively, and run their businesses better. The payoff is a big one: those patrons are more likely to view the company as a trusted partner walking hand-in-hand with their business.

All of the above not only helps with customer retention, it promotes the company as one that offers premium customer care, which can attract new customers through online reviews and word of mouth.

Honing the right customer service skills

Brummel says support leaders tend to hire for technical skill sets. While those are essential functions of the work, the soft skills of customer service are also essential for success. For example, a keen sense of empathy or the ability to “read” a customer and de-escalate, whether on the phone, in a chat window, or in an email. Smiling—yes, even on the phone—listening carefully, and ensuring someone feels heard can go a long way toward customer satisfaction.

For the complete list of tips, download the ebook.

illustration of a person with building blocks

Prioritizing customer service training

Many customer-service professionals come to the table with a good mix of relevant skills, described above. Even so, ongoing customer service training is essential to ensure everyone stays fresh. While it can be difficult to carve out the time, it will only become more important as companies build out their omnichannel experiences and require nimble agents who can provide service in multiple channels. On the more human tip, ongoing training and assigning a range of projects help keep agents engaged. As Brummel says: "I think if you skip the training component...they're going to get bored or burnt out." Consider tapping them for technical product documentation or creating content for the knowledge base, for example.

Keeping focus on customers

While customer service skills and training are key to maintaining a high level of customer focus, companies that excel at it demonstrate to customers that their experience matters across the organization, at every step of the journey—from the honesty of their marketing campaigns and the transparency of their pricing models, to the ease of their sales cycle, the information available on the website, and, of course, consistent quality of the products or services.

One way to keep focus on customers is by listening to and implementing their feedback. Not just when they have complaints, as outlined above, but when they share their preferences for how they want to communicate or express a desire for new features or functionality.

Communicating via customers’ channels of choice is a powerful driver of loyalty, according to the CX Trends Report, and 42% of customers say that 24/7 real-time support in particular is vital. Furthermore, a great customer experience is one that’s easy for customers. That’s why customer-focused companies meet their customers wherever they are, so they can connect however and whenever they want.

Just like long-term partners or friends have a shorthand for understanding what each other needs or wants, businesses that cultivate real relationships with customers listen carefully and read between the lines.

Creating a customer-centric culture

We said earlier that customer service is no longer confined to customer support teams and other front-line associates; customer-centric businesses have already accepted and adopted that principle within their organizations.

A customer-centric culture prioritizes customers’ needs on the back end, ensuring the business is organized to, first and foremost, meet customers’ needs. That includes internal team structures, customer service KPIs, perhaps even the product itself. The downstream business benefits can be massive, namely in terms of customer loyalty.

Data access across an organization is one way to build this organizational muscle, because it allows everyone in the company to use key information about a customer to better personalize their experience.

It might have made operational sense for one team to manage one function, each supported by one software solution. The byproduct of this internal structuring, however well-intentioned, is data silos. If Team A only knows certain things about a customer—such as order history and marketing email preferences—and Team B only knows other things—such as their support issues or preferences—then no one has a complete view of the customer. In this example, a lack of customer-centricity on the back end makes it impossible to keep focus on the customer on the front end.

Leveraging customer service to impact customer acquisition

Considering how important customer service is to business success, it's important to consider how customer service professionals can provide value outside of their traditional roles. Customer acquisition is one area that is ripe for exploration.

Customer acquisition is the process of bringing new customers to your business to ensure that your company grows at a healthy and profitable rate. The stages in that process—awareness, consideration, and conversion—involve generating leads and convincing them to consider your business with the hopes that they’ll become paying customers. While many may consider this the purview of sales and marketing teams, your customer service team has a big role to play, as well. In fact, they can even help reduce customer acquisition costs while increasing lifetime value.

Implement these tips to help keep service top of mind when building a customer acquisition strategy.

Deploying conversational channels like live chat to meet customers' needs

Live chat support is a huge component of omnichannel support, and its strengths make it an ideal channel on which a businesses can provide more personalized customer service. The immediacy of a message or live chat has raised customers’ expectations for speedy responses over email; according to the CX Trends Report, 28 percent of people expect a reply on chat in under five minutes.

Learn more about live chat benefits and best practices, how chatbots and AI fit into the mix, and the fundamental differences between chat and messaging.

Building relationships with customer service

Customer service can be the key to attracting and retaining customers in a highly competitive marketplace. Customers will purchase more goods and services after a good customer service experience, and even more will stop buying (and share their stories about it) after a negative experience—particularly if it is also handled poorly.

Customers have long memories, and it’s up to everyone in an organization to help make them great ones via great customer service.