Everything You Need to Know About Customer Service

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It doesn’t matter how great your product is: If your customer service is poor, people will complain about it, and you’ll lose customers.

The good news: It’s not impossible to turn things around. Moving from poor to excellent customer service won’t happen overnight, though. It requires a serious commitment to meaningful change and work across the entire organization. Consistently good service is not something you can do with customer-facing staff alone, but it’s absolutely doable.

In this guide, we take a deep dive into the world of modern customer service, explaining what it is, sharing some facts that show why it’s critical for today’s businesses, and exploring what teams and companies can do to deliver consistently excellent service to their customers.

A brief history of customer service

Before call centers and social media, local business owners often knew their customers really well. In the video below, Help Scout alum Emily Triplett-Lentz discusses the principles of old-school customer service with her father, who ran a butcher shop for 37 years.

And while local businesses often knew their customers well, customer service during that time wasn’t perfect. Customers had limited options for purchase and support, few ways to educate themselves and solve their own issues, and scant resources for avoiding businesses with subpar products and poor service.

Customer service has undergone some dramatic changes since that time, starting with telephone-based business and the advent of call centers in the 1960s. Suddenly, companies were able to resolve customer issues (or at least nominally offer service), if somewhat impersonally, on a larger, more efficient scale.

That trend surged dramatically in tandem with increased competition and pricing pressures, and by the 1980s, many companies were offloading any service extras that couldn’t be directly tied to their bottom lines.

But more widespread access to the internet changed things again. Between social media, online forums, and review websites, today’s customers have a wealth of resources for learning more about the businesses they’re considering and the products they offer, and dissatisfied customers can reach many more people with their support horror stories.

That has created a new era of customer service, one where there is a much greater need for companies to stand out by providing great service. Today, the companies that are coming out on top are those that understand the ROI of great support and treat exceptional customer service as a feature instead of an inescapable cost.

A new definition for customer service

So what is customer service today? At Help Scout, we define it as the act of providing timely, empathetic help that keeps customers’ needs at the forefront of every interaction.

Instead of a cost center, customer service teams are the face of the company. They play a critical part in sales and word-of-mouth marketing, work side-by-side with product teams, and have a seat at the table when it comes to company decision making.

Modern customer service is a much more all-encompassing role that plays a part in the entire customer lifecycle — from acquisition to retention.

Why is customer service important?

When 86% of customers quit doing business with a company due to a bad experience, it means that businesses must approach every support interaction as an opportunity to acquire, retain, or upsell.

Good customer service is a revenue generator. It gives customers a complete, cohesive experience that aligns with an organization’s purpose.

According to a variety of studies, U.S. companies lose more than $62 billion annually due to poor customer service, and seven out of 10 consumers say they’ve spent more money to do business with a company that delivers great service.

Understanding that customer service is the cornerstone of your customer experience helps you leverage it as an opportunity to delight customers and engage them in new, exciting ways.

What is good customer service?

Good customer service has four key qualities: It’s personalized, competent, convenient, and proactive. These four factors have the biggest influence on the customer experience.

If you’re thinking through ways to deliver better customer service, check your strategy against these four important elements, and see where you can improve:

  • Personalized: Good customer service always starts with a human touch. Personalized interactions greatly improve customer service and let customers know that your company cares about them and their problems. Instead of thinking of service as a cost, consider it an opportunity to earn your customer’s business all over again.
  • Competent: Consumers have identified competency as the element that plays the biggest role in a good customer experience. To be competent, a customer support professional must have a strong knowledge of the company and its products, as well as the power to fix the customer’s problems. The more knowledge they have, the more competent they become.
  • Convenient: Customers want to be able to get in touch with a customer service representative through whichever channel is the most convenient for them. Offer support through the channels of communication your customers rely on most, and make it easy for customers to figure out how to contact you.
  • Proactive: Customers want companies to be proactive in reaching out to them. If one of your products is backordered or your website is going to experience downtime, proactively reach out to your customers and explain the problem. They may not be happy about the situation, but they will be thankful that you kept them in the loop.

By building your customer service strategy around these four main principles, you’ll create a positive, hassle-free customer experience for everyone who deals with your company.

8 ways to deliver consistently excellent customer service

While there are many different approaches to delighting your customers, here are our eight best ways for company leaders to enable their teams to deliver excellent customer service consistently.

1. Make sure your team has the right tools

While it’s certainly possible to run your entire support operation using a shared Gmail or Outlook mailbox, it’s not always the best way to set your team up for success. Dedicated customer service software is often a better choice for enabling your team to deliver excellent support.

Tools that have been designed specifically for support teams offer features like shared inboxes, built-in help centers, saved replies, automated workflows, duplicate reply prevention, and customer relationship data.

These features help your team deliver personalized, fast, and expert service with every customer interaction.

2. Offer self-service support options

Sometimes, delivering excellent customer service means making it easy for customers to help themselves. In fact, 81% of consumers attempt to resolve issues on their own before reaching out to customer support, and 71% want the ability to solve most issues on their own.

Make sure you have a knowledge base that includes answers to frequently asked questions and how-to articles that walk customers through the steps required to solve common problems.

Next, make it easy for customers to find that documentation by optimizing your content for search (both within your knowledge base and on the major search engines), structuring your knowledge base logically, or adopting a tool like Help Scout’s Beacon that surfaces relevant content when customers initiate live chat.

3. Hire for key customer service skills

Some of the most important skills for support professionals are patience, attentiveness, the ability to communicate clearly, a willingness to learn, and empathy.

Your team needs to be composed of people who want to learn everything there is to know about your product because they genuinely want to help your customers succeed. They must be willing to dig in to troubleshoot issues, solve problems outside of their domain, and actively listen to customers to determine what they really need.

To attract skilled professionals, you’ll have to pay rates that are attractive to skilled professionals, and you’ll need to offer career advancement opportunities that are far more varied than simply moving into a team management role.

4. Give your team authority to use their skills

Having to check with management to solve all but the most basic requests will disempower even the most competent agents. In addition to being skilled enough to answer complex questions, they must also be empowered to solve requests on their own.

For example, the Ritz-Carlton is well-known for its $2,000 rule: Everyone on their customer service team can spend up to $2,000 per guest, per incident to resolve guest issues.

But empowering your team doesn’t have to be quite so extravagant; it can also be as simple as documenting policies and guidelines in a place that’s easy for everyone on your team to access.

The guidelines you document don’t even have to be specific. American Express’ Jim Bush found that guidelines as simple as “use creative (and where possible, inexpensive) methods to delight customers” encouraged employees to come up with and share lots of inexpensive solutions to customer problems.

5. Foster effective problem solving

The call center customer service teams of the late 20th century were held to operational metrics tied to cost-cutting, such as first response times and call resolution times. But providing excellent customer service means focusing more on holistic metrics that are tied to company-wide goals, such as customer satisfaction and NPS.

Solving requests in a reasonable time frame is still important. But great customer service beats speed every time.

Customers understand that more complex queries take time to resolve. There’s a difference between the time it takes you to respond and the speed at which you resolve their problems. They’ll spend as much time as it takes to resolve their issues.

Encourage your team to get back to customers in a timely fashion, but don’t hold them to metrics that make them feel rushed to close requests before a customer’s issues are completely resolved.

6. Make it easy for customers to get support

If you search Google for ”[company] customer support,” in most cases Google populates a featured snippet containing the contact information for that company.

There’s a reason for that: Some companies bury their contact information to make it difficult for customers to get in touch when they have problems.

Don’t make your customers turn to Google to find out how they can get in touch with your support team. Make it easy for them by displaying your contact information in logical places on your website. Also, consider meeting them where they are by offering live chat support within your product or accepting support requests over social media.

Help Scout's live chat tool, Beacon, offers a feature called modes that surfaces relevant content from your knowledge base before putting customers in touch with your support team. This lets you prioritize self-service to reduce support volumes while still making human help available.

7. Don’t prioritize automation over personalized support

Automation is a great addition to your team’s toolkit because, when used correctly, it eliminates some of the mindless, repetitive tasks that keep your support agents from delivering attentive, personalized service. And in some cases, AI tools are even great for customers because they provide quick, instant answers to simple questions.

But when used incorrectly, chatbots can easily become the voice-activated phone menus of the online customer service age. They misunderstand questions, pointing customers to the wrong resources, or send customers around in circles trying to solve problems that require critical thinking and other exclusively human skills.

While customers like quick, easy answers, they expect more human service when it comes to solving complex problems. They don’t want to be referred to as a ticket number, don’t want to repeatedly provide long explanations as they’re transferred to different teams, and don’t appreciate generic responses to genuine concerns.

Make sure that the tools you use make it easy for your team to see who they’re speaking to before they respond — and that those tools don’t get in the way of your ability to provide personalized, human support when it’s needed.

8. Use data to find ways to continually improve

Are your customers struggling to find the answers and how-tos you’ve documented in your help center? Are there specific questions your team spends time answering over and over again that could be easily solved with better user onboarding or in-app tips? The answers to these questions are often readily accessible in your data.

Often, the best customer service is proactive. Your conversations with customers offer a tremendous amount of insight into what they’re struggling with and how you can resolve issues so customers don’t have to continually reach out for support.

This is a big reason why it’s crucial for customer service to be involved in company decision making. They’re in the queue every day talking to customers and making an effort to understand what customers need, and they’re usually the most familiar with the tools you use to get the data you’ll need to make informed decisions.

The evolution of customer service

As Seth Godin wrote, customer service means different things to different organizations, but things aren’t going to end well for the companies who see simply see customer service as a “cost-cutting race to the bottom.”

Gary Vaynerchuk echoes that sentiment in The Thank You Economy, where he outlines the evidence that there is profit and growth for any company that openly communicates with its customers in an effort to make them feel appreciated and valued.

The bottom line: Great customer service is a growth center, not a cost center. It’s really that simple.

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