Customer service

Customer service is a vital component of the consumption experience to any firm who wants to retain customers and grow their business.

Great customer service means customers are likely to come back, but a subpar experience means they are unlikely to come back.

What Is Customer Service?

Customer service is the support provided by a firm or brand to the customers or potential customers of their product or service. It can happen before, during or after customers purchase or use a product or service. Firms aim to meet the needs, desires and requirements of these customers through delivering professional and supportive and assistance, to ensure an easy and pleasant consumption experience.

Customer service can be face to face in a store, over the phone, through digital activities such as text, social media messaging or email, or by automated means such as an ATM. This interaction between a service organisation and its customers or clients is referred to as a service encounter and a firm has the opportunity to form an impression with customers every time they come into contact.

“Interpersonal interaction between an organisation’s employees and its customers… have a high “impact” on the consumer and the quality of the service encounter… thus a vital ingredient in the overall quality of service experienced by the customer.” (Lewis & Mitchell, 1990)

Why is customer service important?

Customer service is part of the promise brands give customers. There is an expectation from modern consumers for businesses to provide a certain quality of customer service. This is especially true in the services industry. Even the local mechanic now needs to step up their game. Businesses need the ability to learn, identify and adapt to the needs and wants of consumers. Customer-oriented firms have a higher ability to anticipate the developing needs of consumers and respond with goods and services.

Customer service that is at least on par with competitors is critical to competing effectively. If it is better, it can give you a competitive advantage. Customers do not shop based on price as often as they used to. Instead, their overall experience is often the motivator.

“89% of companies now expect to compete mostly on the basis of customer experience.” (Gartner Research, 2014)

It is cheaper to keep existing customers than to acquire new ones. But it is not as simple as just having great products to retain them — your customer service needs to be on point. Bad customer service is enough for previously loyal customers to choose a competitor — if customers are not happy with the service, chances are they will leave.

The benefits of great customer service

Providing customers with an elevated level of service quality has a positive relationship with brand performance and customer satisfaction. Service quality is how well the delivery of that service matches customers’ expectations. Satisfaction has a positive relationship with repeat purchase, and this is particularly true for service industries. Customers are satisfied when a firm performs better than they expected.

Prioritising customer service support might increase the costs of a firm through needing extra staff or tools/technologies, but there are a few benefits that should outweigh the investment. Studies have indicated that over 80 per cent of people would pay more for better customer service.

Some other benefits of providing great customer service include:

  • customers are more satisfied with their experience
  • enhanced perceptions of the firm’s overall market strategies
  • increased positive word of mouth and referrals attracting new customers
  • increased customer loyalty and repeat purchase
  • increased ability to upsell or cross-sell relevant services
  • customers can be willing to pay higher prices for a better experience
  • customers perceive products and services as having better quality
  • customers perceive the servicescape as being of higher quality

The customer service of a firm or brand can ‘make’ or ‘break’ their reputation.

“…Organisational culture that stresses the customer as the focal point of strategic planning and execution… Employees consistently exhibit customer-oriented behaviours, and consumers thereby become accustomed to this philosophy.” (Brady & Cronin Jr, 2001)

Having somebody yell through the phone line is nothing new to customer service representatives
Having somebody yell through the phone line is nothing new to customer service representatives

Bad customer service

In the world of mobile phones and social media, it is hard to hide a bad customer experience. People can quickly share a negative experience online, which can reach a large audience. With many people using Google search to check out a business, a couple of bad reviews can make a significant difference. People are more likely to share a negative experience on social media or talk about it with their friends than they are with a positive experience.

How can firms improve their customer service?

Improving customer service means making every touchpoint great and not letting any interaction fall between the cracks. There must be consistency across the organisation in providing a great customer experience.

In 2020, it is not enough for firms to only use the traditional means of customer support such as over the telephone for customer support. Customers expect to be able to reach organisations by whatever means they find convenient, whether it is email or social media. Therefore, firms must have a comprehensive approach and provide a range of customer service options to customers.

Businesses can also provide self-service support to customers so they can find the answers they require without needing to deal with customer support staff.

A customer orientation

Marketing has progressively moved towards a customer orientation since Leonard Berry’s seminal writing on Relationship Marketing (1983), now considered a fundamental principle of marketing. To be customer-oriented implies that a firm focuses on the customer as the centre point of their strategic planning and execution. They aim to identify and adapt to consumers’ needs and wants as a competitive strategy through learning from customer perceptions of their experience.

“Having a customer orientation has a positive influence on customer perceptions and, ultimately, the performance of firms.” (Brady & Cronin Jr, 2001)

A customer’s evaluation of the overall service quality is determined by three factors: employee service performance, physical goods/service quality, and servicescape (place of business) quality. Firms must be proactive in collecting and analysing customer data for a better picture of how they are performing and the needs and wants of customers, and to act on this information.

Digital tools for customer service

In the digital age, consumers now have several methods available to communicate with customer service representatives.

Over the past few years, social media has become increasingly popular to request and receive customer service. It is an expectation now to be able to send a message via a major brand’s Facebook page with any questions or problems you may have related to their products or services and receive a prompt response. Around half of the internet users now turn to social media for help. Accordingly, many large organisations implemented dedicated customer service teams to respond to social media messages. Studies (see Xu, Liu, Guo, Sinha & Akkiraju, 2017) have indicated that users who message a brand’s Twitter account expect a response within an hour.

This consumer demand for an instant response and the time-consuming nature of manually addressing these requests lead to the rise of AI for customer service on social media. This led to the creation of chatbots to automatically generate responses for user requests on social media and now on websites. These chatbots provide an opportunity for brands to provide individualised attention to consumers.

“Marketing is concerned with exchange relationships between the organisation and its customers. Quality and customer service are key linkages in this relationship.” (Christopher, Payne & Ballantyne, 91)

A genuine smile goes a long way in customer service
A genuine smile goes a long way in customer service

Key customer service skills

As much as a firm can have a customer orientated strategy, much of the responsibility for great customer service falls on the staff members. Luckily, customer service is a skill that people can learn and develop, rather than a personality trait you either have or you do not.

Here are ten customer service skills that are key to providing great customer service.

1. Patience

Patience is vital for anybody with customer service in their role. From real estate sales to a check out operator at a supermarket. Customers who reach out to support are often frustrated and at their wit’s end. Sometimes they want to vent. There could be a simple solution, but let the customer get it out of their system. For example, a study found that 40% of user requests on Twitter are emotional and not intended to seek specific information. Empathy goes hand in hand with patience, which is a person’s ability to understand another person’s feelings. A staff members ability to see an issue from the customer’s point of view is a huge advantage and customers appreciate it.

2. Listening

The ability to truly listen is not only a key skill for customer service but life in general. Listening allows you to fully understand the customer’s point of view and solve their problem. When you do not listen, it is easy to get it wrong and create a frustrating experience for the customer. Customer service reps can often jump to conclusions about a solution, which can come across as rude and brash. Take time to listen and understand customer issues, it will show you value their needs.

3. Communication

It might sound obvious, but how you communicate with customers is key to their experience. You do not want to come across as condescending, grumpy or rude — this will translate into a negative experience. It is important to be mindful of how staff communication comes across. As well as attitude, the clarity of the communication during customer service is key providing the right outcome. The last thing you want is more confusion on the part of the customer because they do not understand what they are supposed to do or what the solution is.

4. Learning

By learning about the issues and concerns of their customers, so they can provide a solution. How do we learn from our customers? By asking questions and listening when interacting. The more your customer service staff know about your customers’ needs, the more of an asset they are to both the organisation and the customers.

If the same customer issues come up consistently, chances are you have not learnt from this to provide an adequate solution. Staff must communicate these issues to management so they can plan to resolve the problem. If your customer service team is working like a well-oiled machine and learning from the feedback, you will start anticipating problems instead of just solving them.

5. Time management

Customers often expect a resolution as quickly as possible. They hate to wait — especially over the phone, so long waiting times can negatively affect customer experience. So, whilst patience and taking time with customers is important, there is a limit to how long you should commit to each customer. Firms should provide customer service employees with the information and tools to support their customers are as quick as possible. Staff training can help improve resolution times.

Customer service representative on the phone

6. Composure

Customer service staff must have the ability to stay consistently calm under pressure, even if they are experiencing difficulties with an upset customer. This cool demeanour can help calm down the customer and keep the conversation as objective as possible to find a resolution to their issue. Emotion triggers many of the interaction customers have with customer service, so it is key for staff to remain level-headed — even when customers are being insulting to them or their firm. The staff that can think on their feet are a huge advantage — not every interaction will be in the training manual. Expect the unexpected.

7. Negotiation

Often staff members will need to negotiate with customers to find a resolution. Conversations need to end with a solution and/or with the customer feeling that the firm have (or will) taken care of their needs. Negotiation is not arguing — it is important to remain calm and have a constructive conversation. There will always be one party who feels like they have come out better off than the other party — make sure that is the customer! Do not just give in to the customer demands, there must be some give and take. Customer service staff require good persuasion skills when there is no obvious solution, this reasoning can help convince the customer of a suitable outcome.

8. Teamwork

Teamwork and customer service go hand in hand; both staff and customers will benefit when customer teams work together as resolutions to the customer issues are faster. One customer service representative will never have all the answers, so there must be open communication lines across teams to find a solution to each unique issue. Large firms often have several dedicated customer service teams for different requirements. There might be one team for technical support, another team for accounts and billing, and another team for general inquires. In smaller firms, provide all employees with some customer service training so they can help when required.

9. Positivity

It can be a challenge for customer service staff to spend their days dealing with customer complaints and negativity that comes along with the role. However, it is a key customer service skill to remain upbeat and positive. If staff meet customers with a smile and a cheerful attitude, it makes customers feel a lot better. This can put staff on the front foot when trying to find a resolution. It also creates a better work environment. If staff are happy and they can feel other staff are happy, they enjoy their jobs more and become more productive.

10. Product & brand knowledge

The more your sales staff know about your product or service, the better they are at selling them. Similarly, with customer service, the better staff become at providing a solution. Training should be a key part of customer support. Many large companies onboard every new employee to ensure they know their products inside and out. Onboarding is the process of integrating new employees into an organisation, familiarising them with the products and/or services. The best customer service staff have intimate knowledge of how their products work or order to find each customer an adequate solution to their problems.

Read more: Add Some Spring Cleaning to Your Customer Service!