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Customer service definition and skills for 2020 and beyond

Updated: Dec 30, 2022

Customer service is the act of supporting customers. Learn key customer service skills, types, job requirements, and more.

Zendesk CRM

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 (cus·tom·er serv·ice, noun) is "the assistance and advice provided by a company to those people who buy or use its products or services," according to Lexico. It's also the processes that support the teams making good customer service happen. Most people think about customer service as something that happens when people reach out to a business with a problem. That’s really only half the story, though. Customer service isn’t just what happens when a customer calls or emails you. For example, it also happens when:

  • People are shopping for a solution and they find your business. Customer service is happening, even though that person isn’t even a customer yet.

  • People are on your knowledge base, answering their own questions. That’s customer service, too.

What is good customer service? Ultimately, the human elements of customer service are what really defines good customer service. Customers expect fast replies, on the channels of their choice—but that's table stakes. Winning customer experiences are about how a customer feels they are being treated. For example, if a customer has to repeat themselves while being bounced between different departments or waiting on hold, they aren't going to feel heard or that their time was respected. Excellent customer service is when a company exceeds a customer's expectations. This might include delivering proactive support and anticipating customers' needs or getting ahead of a problem before it happens. It can also mean going the extra mile to build deep customer connections. For instance, Zappos' Customer Loyalty Team is empowered to do what it takes to build real, human relationships with customers. "Our Customer Loyalty team can stay on a call as long as necessary (our longest call was 10 hours and 51 minutes), but calls lasting around two hours happen every day," said Harmoni Hines, Senior Manager, Customer Loyalty Team at Zappos. "One of Zappos’ 10 Core Values is to build a positive team and family spirit—and to us, our customers are family. We want them to feel that way when they contact us." Excellent customer service often means consumers are willing to tell others about the experience. You can measure excellent customer service by tracking and analyzing key metrics like customer satisfaction scores (CSAT).

The difference between customer service and customer support

customer service vs customer support

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:

  1. Types of customer service

  2. The importance of customer service

  3. Customer service objectives

  4. Customer service skills

  5. Customer service books

  6. Customer focus

  7. Customer service news

The 2 types of customer service you should know about Each channel could be considered a different type of customer service, but in reality, there are only two types of customer service your business can offer: proactive and reactive.

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 engagement, 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.

Why is customer service important in business? Customer service is important because it sets your business apart from competitors. It can make people loyal to your brand, products, and services for years to come. But this is only possible if your business makes customer service a top priority—customers aren’t willing to compromise if you don’t. In fact, Zendesk’s Customer Experience Trends Report, 2020 revealed that roughly half of customers say they would switch to a competitor after just one bad experience. In the case of more than one bad experience, that number snowballs to 80 percent. Half of customers say they would switch to a competitor after just one bad experience. In the case of more than one bad experience, that number snowballs to 80 percent.

What are the three most important things in customer service? Customer service looks a little different at every company, but it always follows a simple rule: add value for the people who use your 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. We've learned that the 3 most important things in customer service are:

1. Practice empathy Employing empathy for new and existing customers has become essential to customer service as the need for thoughtful and efficient responses has increased. Customer empathy can mean:

  • Reaching out on your customers' choice of channels to create an effortless experience: According to Zendesk’s 2020 Customer Experience Trends Report, 42 percent of customers say that 24/7, real-time support is vital—companies should meet their customers where they are, so they can connect however and whenever they want.

  • Putting yourself in an angry customer's shoes

  • Listening to customer feedback and using it to get better

2. Equip agents with the tools they need to solve customer issues quickly and effectively Customer service software is key for equipping a support team with the tools they need to deliver excellent customer service. For instance, the Agent Workspace within Zendesk’s Support Suite equips support teams with:

Context that moves from channel to channel

Agents need access to context, such as a customer's contact information, preferences, and account type, so customers don't have repeat themselves or wait on hold while an agent looks up the details.

Collaboration tools

When agents have collaboration tools, like the ability to send and view internal notes without leaving a conversation or integrations with email and Slack to share best practices across departments, they can get customers the best answers to their questions with speed.

Workflows, triggers, and automation

These streamline customer-facing interactions, saving support resources and decreasing time-to-resolution.

3. Show that customer service matters across the business Customer service is everyone’s job. It’s not just something for customer support teams and other front-line associates to think about. Companies with great customer service show that the customer experience matters across the organization, at every step of the customer journey. This includes:

  • The honesty of their marketing campaigns

  • The transparency of their pricing models

  • The ease of their sales cycle

  • The quality of their actual products or services

Customer service objectives The primary objective of customer service is to answer customer questions quickly and effectively, resolve issues with empathy and care, improve brand credibility, and nurture relationships. Support teams can measure objectives with key metrics such as:

  • Average first response time

  • Average resolution time

  • A customer’s CSAT rating over time

  • CSAT ratings, by channel

  • Ticket backlog

When customer service teams master their more direct objectives, they help the organization to meet more cross-functional objectives, including:

  • Improving customer retention

  • Boosting customer loyalty

  • Increasing customer lifetime value

  • Reducing customer churn

  • Creating a better customer experience

Key customer service skills (and how to develop them)

Customer service

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. Language and tone

  2. Active listening

  3. Clear communication

  4. Interpersonal skills

  5. Comfort multitasking

  6. Attention to detail

  7. Attentiveness

  8. Collaboration skills

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. 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.

7. 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.

8. 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.

Agents need customer service skills specific to each support channel The best customer service employee will be able to move easily between channels. This involves solving problems with the skills that best suit each channel. Hone your ability to practice empathy and communicate your product knowledge with customers. You’ll be a rockstar in customer service.

Many support teams provide service across multiple channels. Each of those channels requires slightly different skills.

Phone support: How’s your “phone voice”?

Some say we wear our emotions on our sleeves. Others say we convey our emotions in our voices. Customer service employees know how frustration and anger translates through the phone lines. And, of course, that communication is a two-way street. So phone agents reading from a script must consider their tone.

To provide good phone support, you must:

  • Mirror a customer's’ language and tone

  • Listen first, then validate the problem

  • Communicate hold times

Email support: You are not a robot

To provide great email support, you have to write well. Email responses require more structure and precision than other kinds of support. You must write clearly and concisely while avoiding any mistakes that could confuse the customer. To deliver great email support in any situation:

  • Use templates, not boilerplates

  • Respond in a defined timeframe

  • Imitate a customer’s phrasing

Chat support: Multitasking is a key skill

Great live chat support requires both phone and email skills. Chat is conversational and real-time, just like customer service over the phone, but it also requires strong writing skills. Here’s what every great live chat agent needs to pay attention to:

  • Use a gentle, informative tone

  • Multitask

  • Read customer cues

Social media and messaging support calls for speedy deliveries

Social media and messaging support require all of the above skills. When live chat isn’t available, customers often turn to the same channels they use to communicate with family and friends. Channels like SMS, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, or Twitter DMs can provide a faster, more convenient experience. And the use of messaging is only going in one direction. Zendesk’s Benchmark Snapshot revealed that global WhatsApp use alone increased by 154 percent since the outbreak of COVID-19 across the globe, the highest of any customer support channel. The following skills are crucial for social media and messaging support:

  • (Almost) always respond

  • React carefully to confrontation

  • Differentiate social media tickets to determine whether it should be handled by support or marketing.

Customer service books to share with your team Here are our favorite customer service books to help customer service professionals grow their skills and deliver knockout experiences:

  • Hug Your Haters: How to Embrace Complaints and Keep Your Customers by Jay Baer

  • Customer Understanding: Three Ways to Put the "Customer" in Customer Experience (and at the Heart of Your Business) by Annette Franz

  • What Customers Crave: How to Create Relevant and Memorable Experiences at Every Touchpoint by Nicholas Webb

  • Customer Loyalty: How to Earn It, How to Keep It by Jill Griffin

  • Strategic Customer Service: Managing the Customer Experience to Increase Positive Word of Mouth, Build Loyalty, and Maximize Profits by John A. Goodman

  • Undefined World - life in CX & beyond by Elisa Reggiardo with Alexa Huth

Keeping focus on customers Customer service skills and training help you maintain a high level of customer focus. Companies that are good at it show customers that their needs matter across the business. Every team should have their focus on customers. One way to put customers first is listen to their feedback. This includes when they:

  • Have complaints

  • Ask for new features

  • Share how they prefer to communicate

Data access across an organization is another way to build this muscle. It allows everyone in the company to better personalize the customer experience. It might have made sense for one team to manage one support channel via one software solution in the past. But data silos often result from this internal structure, and it’s bad news for customers. Team A might only know certain things about a customer, such as their order history or marketing email preferences. Team B might only know other things, like their support issues. But that means that no one has a complete view of the customer. And customers can feel when there is a lack of focus on them behind the scenes. Learn how to build an effective customer focus strategy in our blog post. Top customer service news of the week We rounded up the top customer service news of the week so you can stay on top of the latest trends and stories.

  • How To Solve This Fatal Problem In Customer Service And The Customer Experience

  • 5 Experts Share CX Insights For National Customer Service Week

  • The future of banking customer service blends the use of digital and personal experiences

  • Zapier's Apps at Work Report: The Fastest Growing Apps of 2020

  • Best live chat software of 2020: ticketing systems and helpdesk solutions

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.

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