Customer service definition, skills, and important elements for 2021
Customer service is the act of supporting customers. Learn key customer service skills, types, job requirements, and more.
Published June 13, 2020
Last updated May 19, 2021
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. The goal of customer service is to foster better customer relationships.
How has customer service changed?
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 COVID-19 pandemic also changed customer service for good. What started as a global health crisis became the accelerant in our transition to a truly digital-first world. And the surge to online has put the spotlight on customer service, with half of customers surveyed in our 2021 Trends Report reporting that CX is more important to them now compared to a year ago. Customers are more online than ever—and they expect online experiences that are on par with, or better than, in-person experiences.
The pandemic has also underscored the importance of empathy in the customer service experience. It’s not enough for companies to simply provide fast, friendly service. In a world marked by uncertainty, customers are seeking empathy and want to buy from companies that reflect their values. Our research also revealed that 66% of customers report being more loyal to a company that shows they’re empathetic and understanding when a customer has an issue.
Customer service questions you should be asking
Good customer service means meeting customers' expectations. For example, businesses with the highest customer satisfaction scores interact with customers over messaging channels (think: WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger) because customers expect convenience. They also invest in their knowledge base because customers expect to find answers on their own. And meeting customers' expectations pays off: 75% of customers are willing to spend more with companies that give them a good customer experience, according to our 2021 Trends Report.
What are the 3 elements of customer service?
We surveyed 3,000 customers across the world and looked at our data index of 90,000 companies using Zendesk to find this answer. The 3 elements of customer service come down to speed, convenience, and friendliness. This means delivering fast resolutions, on the channels of your customers' choice, and seeing things from the customer's perspective.
What are the most important qualities of customer service?
The most important qualities of customer service are the human elements. Customers want speed and convenience, but they also look for empathy and commitment to the issues they care about. Walking a mile in customers' shoes has big-time business value: 61% of customers say they will spend more to buy from a company that is empathetic and understanding, according to our Trends Report.
The difference between customer service and 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:
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.
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 when necessary, 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 messaging saw the biggest jump in new users last year. In fact, 42% support teams that have the fastest resolution times and highest CSAT ratings are 42 percent more likely to be messaging with their customers.
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 will vote you off the island if you don’t. In fact, our Trends Report 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%.
Customer service objectives
The primary objective of customer service is to be the customer's champion. This means answering customer questions quickly and effectively, resolving issues with empathy and care, documenting pain points to share with internal teams, nurturing relationships, and improving brand credibility.
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: According to our research with ESG, companies that prioritize customer service are more than six times more likely to exceed their customer retention goals
- Increasing customer lifetime value: Our research with ESG also revealed that companies with high-performing customer service teams are nearly nine times more likely than their low-performing peers to have significantly grown customer spend during the COVID-19 pandemic
- Boosting customer loyalty: Our Trends Report showed that 77% of customers report being more loyal to a company that offers a good customer experience if they have an issue
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 2021 in our blog post.
What skills should you put on your resume for customer service?
Agents need all of the above skills to help them do their jobs well. Some common customer service skills and qualities employers look for include:
- Experience working in a customer service focused environment
- Excellent problem-solving skills—you have ideas for how to make a challening situation successful
- Strong attention to detail, with exceptional time management
- Passion for building relationships
- Clear, effective communication with strong interpersonal skills
- Anticipates customer needs by constantly evaluating customers for cues
- Acts with a customer comes first attitude
- Remains calm under pressure
- Can juggle multiple tasks in a fast-paced environment
- Self-motivated and has a positive attitude
- Empathy for customers to maximize customer happiness
- Confidence that if you don’t know something, you can learn it
- Enthusiasm for the company's industry
- Experience using customer service software, such as Zendesk Support, to track and manage customer conversations
Customer service responsibilities and job requirements
The primary job of a customer service representative is to advocate on behalf of the customer.
Responsibilities of support professionals often include:
- Directly interacting with customers across all communication channels
- Defusing high-stakes situations by listening to customers and providing speedy, effective resolutions
- Acting as the voice of the company on the front lines servicing customers
- Keeping customer records up-to-date
- Sharing customer feedback with other teams to improve the customer experience
- Canceling or upgrading accounts
- Helping with refunds or exchanges
- Creating knowledge base content
But the main role of customer service can vary depending on how a company defines customer service and how its customer service team functions within the organization.
Some teams refer to agents as customer service representatives, and others use special, branded names to highlight their unique role at that company. For example:
- GoFundMe calls its customer service team Customer Happiness and refers to its customer service representatives as Happiness agents
- BaubleBar staffs a SWAT team, which stands for Service with Accessorizing Talent
- Nordstrom calls its customer service representatives Personal Stylists, Beauty Stylists, Wedding Stylists, and Designer Specialists
- Shopify refers to its support agents as Gurus
- Birchbox has a team of Discovery Specialists
Happiness agents must complete an intensive training program because they are often helping people through sensitive times where the human touch is especially important.
The name celebrates its customer service team's unique impact on the customer experience. For instance, SWAT team members proactively email customers to follow-up on abandoned carts or to see how they liked a recent purchase.
Beyond the standard customer service skills, Nordstrom agents need to have a keen sense of fashion.
This underscores its agents' real-life experiences in building a community of business leaders. Gurus are a cross between librarians and business coaches, according to Shopify.
Discovery Specialists do everything from answering phone calls, emails, and social media messages to managing subscriptions and overseeing quality control on all deliveries.
While agents may have different team names and slightly different roles, they all share one thing in common: they're on the front lines, communicating with customers directly. So whether you're an agent or a Guru, at least a few of these phrases are bound to sound familiar:
Customer service training activites
Most customer service professionals come to the table with a good mix of skills, described above. Customer service training keeps these skills sharp.
It can be difficult to carve out the time. But training becomes more important as companies build out their omnichannel experiences. This requires 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."
Customer service management can better engage and train agents with projects like:
- Technical product documentation
- Knowledge base content creation
Customer satisfaction surveys also allow agents to get feedback on what they’re doing well, and what they can improve for next time.
Examples of good customer service
What are some examples good customer service? Here are a few (hopefully) familiar examples of excellent customer service.
- Resolving issues quickly
- Providing convenient solutions, 24/7
- Serving your customers in the channels of their choice
- Being proactively helpful
- Personalizing interactions
- Helping customers help themselves
- Using customer feedback to get better
73% of customers say quick resolutions is the top factor of good customer service.
Over 40% of customers believe 24/7 support is a key component of great customer service.
75% of customers want a personalized experience.
69% of customers want to resolve as many problems as possible on their own, and 63% always or almost always start with a search on a company's website.
If you want to provide better service for your customers, you have to listen to what they have to say. Instead of approaching customer complaints as a game of dodgeball, customer-focused companies use their feedback to create a better experience.
Customer service trends 2021
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 2021:
- Speed up your digital timeline
- Customers expect companies to lead with their values
- The rise of messaging
- Automation improves experiences for customers and agents
75% of company leaders agree that the global pandemic has compressed the timeline for acquiring new technologies to reach customers and connect distributed service teams.
63% of customers want to buy from socially responsible companies. 54% want to buy from companies that prioritize diversity, equity, and inclusion in their communities and workplaces.
Nearly a third of customers messaged a company for the first time in 2020, and 74 percent of those say they will continue to do so.
Interactions with automated chatbots jumped 81% in 2020.
Managers cited difficulty adapting to change as their biggest pain point last year.
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:
- The Thank You Economy by Gary Vaynerchuk
- Customer Understanding: Three Ways to Put the "Customer" in Customer Experience (and at the Heart of Your Business) by Annette Franz
- The Effortless Experience: Conquering the New Battleground for Customer Loyalty by Matthew Dixon, Nick Toman, and Rick DeLisi
- 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
Customer service news of the week
- Your customers have changed - are you changing with them?
- Is 2021 the Year AI Dominates the Call Center?
- Best CRM Software for Small Business Owners and Marketers
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.