The complete guide to customer service

Defining customer service: what it is, why it matters, who is responsible for it, and how businesses can use it to build relationships.

By Tara Ramroop, Senior Content Marketing Manager

Published November 13, 2018
Last modified July 15, 2020

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.

What is customer service?

Customer service is the act of supporting customers. It's also the processes that support the teams making good customer service happen across a business

Why is customer service important in business?

Customer service sets your business apart from competitors. It can make people loyal to your brand, products, and services for years to come.

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.

Great customer service tries to deliver the best possible customer experience at all times. It plays a key part in helping a company meet its customer experience (CX) goals.

Great customer service often means:

This may sound like a lot more than you thought. If so, you’re not alone. Customer service, customer care, and customer experience used to be handled only by support agents or front-line associates. But nowadays, customers expect more from businesses than ever. To keep up with your competitors, you have to make customer service a top priority.

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 keys are:

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

There is a difference between customer support and customer service:

Customer Support Customer Service
Responds to problems that customers identify Identifies possible problems in advance and helps customers avoid them
Is the how: the nuts and bolts of troubleshooting in the moment Is the why: recommending why someone should take steps to prevent smaller issues from escalating

When front-line customer service agents talk to customers, they look for opportunities to build relationships. Leaders should hire for and encourage behaviors that support this vision.

If you sell enterprise software, your agents might add value by:

This all helps with customer retention. And just a 5 percent increase in customer retention can lead to a 25 percent increase in revenue. Plus it can help you get new customers through online reviews and word of mouth.

Just a 5 percent increase in customer retention can lead to a 25 percent increase in revenue.

Honing the right customer service skills

Jonathan Brummel, Senior Manager of Premium Support Engineering at Zendesk, says customer service managers tend to hire for technical skill sets.

Technical skills are important, but soft skills matter, too.

Here are the top eight skills that all customer service professionals should develop:

  1. 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 how to handle angry customers 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. Listen first, then validate the problem

    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. Communicate hold times

    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. Use personalized templates, not boilerplates

    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.

    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. Be comfortable with 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. Look for cues if something is unclear

    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 agents a better idea of how to tailor their customer service approach.

  7. On social media, (almost) always respond

    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. Determine if a social media query is a support query

    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.

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.

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.

Prioritizing customer service training

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."

You can better engage and train agents with projects like:

Customer satisfaction surveys also allow agents to get feedback on what they’re doing well, and what they can improve for next time.

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 by listening to their feedback. This includes when they:

  • Have complaints
  • Ask for new features
  • Share how they prefer to communicate

A great customer experience is easy. One way to achieve customer satisfaction and loyalty is to talk to customers using the channels they pick.

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 wherever they are, so they can connect however and whenever they want.

42 percent of customers say that 24/7 real-time support is vital.


Learn how to build an effective customer focus strategy in our blog post.

Creating a customer-centric culture

As we said earlier, customer service is everyone’s job. It’s not just something for customer support teams and other front-line associates to think about. The most customer-centric businesses have already adopted this idea.

A customer-centric culture:

  • Structures internal teams to better meet customer needs
  • Adjusts customer service KPIs or even the product itself

Changes like these can massively benefit customer loyalty and other areas of the business.
Data access across an organization is one 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.

Building relationships with good customer service

Customer service can be the key to attracting and retaining customers. Customers will purchase more if they’re happy. And even more customers will stop buying (and tell their friends) if they aren’t.

Customers have long memories. It’s up to everyone in an organization to help make them positive ones with great customer service.

Implement a world-class customer service solution

Translate your company goals and strategy into requirements, and establish concrete plans for scaling customer service as your company grows.