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2020 Customer Service Guide

  • Avoid common customer service mistakes
  • Refine your customer service strategy
  • Boost customer experience for better business results
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From the basics to business revolution

Customer service is everywhere in 2020. Customer-centric is a trendy word. Everyone tries to better serve customers. But we often only get generic and superficial information about the topic. Here we tell the whole story of customer service for a new decade and beyond.

1

What is customer service?

Customer service is the connection that you form with a consumer, by what you say and do, through branding, marketing, sales, and support. Customer service starts when the consumer knows about your brand and product and ends when the consumer forgets.

Customer service can be as different as the products and personalities of the organizations that provide it. Take two well-known examples: Amazon ecommerce and Disney theme parks.

Amazon stays out of your way as much as possible. The retail giant makes it easy to buy and offers low prices by ruthlessly optimizing operating costs. Its customer support is top-notch and acts fast to resolve problems, but you’ll rarely have the occasion to experience it. The platform is designed to prevent and handle issues so you don’t need support. Amazon doesn’t sell different products, it sells the same products differently.

Disney created a sophisticated system, guestology, to help create a unique experience in their theme parks. It has even its own terms: visitors are guests and employees are cast members, for example. Unlike Amazon, price isn’t the focus. Disney differentiates themselves based on the unique product it offers, not on its prices or efficiency.

Even with examples as different as Amazon and Disney, customer service in general has the same set of goals:

  • Offer something that customers want, need, and appreciate.
  • Effectively set and consistently meet customer expectations for a particular set of products.
  • Add extra touches wherever possible to exceed expectations and stand out among the competition.

Disney’s magic, Amazon’s efficiency, Aldi’s mysterious appeal – all come from deep customer understanding and a clear strategy

What does customer service include?

Branding

Branding sets the tone for future interactions. If that tone stays consistent through marketing, sales, and support, then branding benefits customer service as a whole.

However, if your tone changes, it could hurt the quality of customer service. For example, if you imply your brand is direct and to the point, but conversations with customer support are long and meandering, some customers will feel misled, even if your chatty support staff are friendly and charming.

Stay on brand and you’ll keep your promise to customers, strengthen your brand image, and help customers remember who you are.

Make sure there are clear guidelines for creatives in your company.

Marketing

The promises you make in marketing campaigns, and how you make them, will affect how you sell and support your products. Customers will ask about promotions, advertised features, and even slogans.

Marketing should be done in a way that fits the tone and content of other interactions that customers have with your company. Marketing departments and agencies need to work closely with other teams so that customers have a consistent experience as they move through marketing and sales funnels.

Content Marketing

Content marketing means creating articles, guides, videos, etc. that are useful to customers while not directly promoting your products. It’s a popular form of marketing and branding and important for search engine optimization. It’s also a unique way to serve customers.

Better informed customers are sure to make better use of your products, especially if you spend lots of time crafting accessible and useful content. It’s a win-win situation where customers will positively remember who you are and what you do while also associating your brand with their own successes.

Sales

Sales is more than transactions. Each sale is an opportunity to create a lasting connection.

The reasons for high conversion and retention rates are found before, during, and after the sales process. The way you sell should fit perfectly into the experience you offer customers.

Customer support

Customer support is the part of customer service concerned with responding to product questions before and after purchase. This could be in the form of a real-time conversation by chat or phone or it could be through email or a help center.

TWhatever the form of customer support, it should match the tone and personality of all of your communication.

Customer support and customer service are often considered to be the same thing. They are not. Customer service is a broader idea that covers the whole relationship between you and your customer. Customer support is just one part of that relationship.

Customer success

Customer success is similar to customer support, except that it puts a larger emphasis on anticipating and preventing problems. It also involves looking for new opportunities to better serve customers.

Customer success departments are also usually given more room to work than customer support. Whereas support staff are focused on technical problems and their solutions, customer success could talk with groups from marketing all the way to product engineering in search of ways to improve customer service.

Other concepts connected with customer service

Customer experience

Customer experience is how a customer feels during customer service. Customer experience concerns all interactions, such as during marketing, sales, and support. It includes how the customer feels during any given moment, as well as the overall impression they have of your brand and product.

Customer journey

Customer journey is the path a consumer goes through as they develop a relationship with your brand and product. This includes all the interactions a person has with you, direct or indirect, such as a chat on your website or reading an article about your product. Unlike customer experience, customer journey is about the hard facts of that path and not about what the customer feels at any particular part of the path.

Real people are messy. They often won’t follow a customer journey planned out for them by some marketing or sales department. There is The Customer Journey and then there is each customer’s journey. When we say customer journey here, we mean all possible options. So it could include the neatly planned journey but it could also include any other possible variations.

Customer satisfaction

How do you tell if a customer is satisfied? You ask them. Or you observe what they do. Or both.

The American Customer Service Index (ACSI) is based on customer surveys going back to 1994. It is the generally accepted standard for customer satisfaction across many industries. Net Promoter Score (NPS) has also emerged as a popular way to measure customer service. The NPS method is much simpler than ACSI surveys, but is also based solely on asking customers what they think.

However, asking customers what they think is full of problems. People change their mind quickly and often have trouble with expressing their thoughts well. So while surveys are worth using, it’s also important to see what customers do, no matter what they say. For example, they may say they don’t like the customer service of some store, but still buy frequently from it.

We’ll talk about both approaches as each is worth understanding and using.

Ask customers what they want and pay attention to what they do – the two results are rarely the same

2

What is good customer service?

Good customer service is consistently giving customers exactly what they need and often doing extra to go beyond expectations. This means doing the research to understand those needs. It also means developing an effective organization to meet those needs, adding extra touches to delight customers, and still making a healthy profit.

Understanding customer needs is not as easy as it might seem. Asking customers won’t always give you the right answer. Sometimes customers don’t know they need something until they get it. Though other times companies simply don’t ask. It’s better to be on your toes and not completely rely on approaches that only survey customers or others that just assume what customers want. Let’s look at a couple examples.

Few people will say they want to feel panicked at a supermarket. Yet “Aldi panic” is a thing. And not a bad thing, either. Aldi built an experience that emphasizes speed of service and low prices but it turns out that a sense of panic during check out is part of the deal. Customers panic while trying to keep up with lightning fast, and mostly unsmiling, employees. Customers love it, panic and all. Aldi had to read between the lines. They had to go beyond what people say to get a deeper insight that would serve as the base for a successful business model.

What’s more important, customers buying your product or customers saying they enjoy buying your product?

On the other hand, imagine asking anyone in the 90’s: “Would you like to quickly buy something, without talking to anyone, and get it delivered the next day?” Most people would have said yes. Cocooning, staying at home and avoiding people, had been a trend since the 80’s and technology seemed to be moving in a direction where an ever deeper cocoon would be possible. Jeff Bezos listened. Many retail giants did not. Of course it’s easy to predict the ecommerce boom in hindsight, but the point is that Amazon identified a key customer need and then worked on a way to satisfy it. That information was available to anyone who was willing to listen to customers.

Good customer service is getting it right. It’s about the result and not how you get there. Process-focused guides will always miss the point with advice like: “Smile!” Sure, sometimes smiling helps. But try working in customer service in France with a big American smile on your face. Good customer service is understanding what this customer in front of you needs, right now. Repeat that millions of times over several years and you’ll have good customer service. Make a system that helps that provide that service while still making a profit and your business will be successful and stay that way.

Customer service starts from the moment someone knows your brand, not when they start asking questions about a product they bought.

Which companies have the best customer service?

The quality of customer service is hard to measure. So it follows that us, or anyone, declaring who has the best customer service should be treated as suspect.

We could say the company that sells the most stuff probably has the best customer service. According to the Fortune Global 500 that would mean the top 3 are Walmart, Royal Dutch Shell and BP, excluding state-owned enterprises. But this approach presents several problems.

Walmart doesn’t show up in most popular customer service rankings, even though they are clearly effective at getting customers to shop at their stores. The other two are multinational oil companies. We could dig into oil operations and figure out who exactly their customers are in each part of the business. But extracting and selling oil is not what most people think of when they ask about customer service.

We also don’t want to follow ACSI or NPS scores to the letter. Survey methods aren’t perfect. For example, Walmart is not even in the top 20, even though consumers clearly think they have good enough customer service to give them the highest revenue of any company in the world, public or private.

So we’ve taken a mixed approach. We’ve chosen companies that rank highly in customer surveys that are also large and growing. We tried to choose examples that are instructive and interesting. So this is not a top 5 list. This is a list designed to help you understand how diverse and interesting customer service is.

Amazon - making it work

Critics complain that they have no brand at all. Nobody is loyal to Amazon, they just buy there because of the cheap prices and fast delivery. These critics have a point. Amazon has few traditional brand associations – no strong emotions tying people to the brand. Maybe the strongest is the smile logo on their boxes. But “I smile when I buy stuff” would probably not fly at an ad agency brainstorming session.

These criticisms also miss the point. The association of low prices and fast delivery is enough. It’s a reputation of efficiency and getting the job done. And sure, a little smile at the end when you get unbox your purchase a day after you ordered it. That’s the brand. Amazon has created a sophisticated machine around that brand to make it one of the biggest companies in the world.

Maybe in 10 years people will no longer want to buy from such a company. But for now Amazon customers are satisfied with the service they receive. Despite this supposed lack of connection with customers, Amazon’s retail sales are growing and its customer service ranks among the highest according to the ACSI.

Disney Theme Parks – The Happiest Best-organized Place on Earth

Disney Theme Parks’ success comes from carefully planned operations which are based on a detailed strategy grounded in deep customer research. Surprise! There’s no magic involved.

The irony of Disney’s customer service is that to the inexperienced eye it may look like the simplest mix of courtesy, enthusiasm, and smiles. The classic 90’s guide to customer service.

Courtesy is indeed one of Disney Theme Parks’ core values. Yet Disney courtesy runs deeper and comes from their own advanced system of understanding and serving customers – Guestology. Quality Standards, Delivery Systems, and more complex-sounding words leads Disney customer service towards its happy ending.

To give an outstanding customer experience, Disney analyzed the customer journey and experience from top to bottom. It made specific improvements based on research as intricate as customer facial expressions at different points in the park. This led to changes such as a special system to help guests remember their parking place and areas to sit and relax where research found that guests started feeling tired.

Everything you see, smell and touch in Disney Theme Parks was planned to fit your customer journey and improve your customer experience. Some call it magic, we call it a solid strategy.

Costco – Deal hunting with an exclusive feel

Disney Theme Parks – The Happiest Best-organized Place on Earth

Costco combines the prestige of upscale shopping with the excitement of finding great deals at a second hand store. It wraps that feeling in a consistent experience across stores, even internationally, with friendly and competent staff.

Costco perfectly targets what turns out to be a large group of people – those with money to spend who also hate feeling like they spent a penny more than they had to.

To offer customers the best deals, Costco minimizes costs across its operations, such as building skylights into their warehouses to save on electricity for lighting. It also doesn’t advertise, at least not in the traditional sense of buying ads from outside media companies on the radio or TV. The only way to get access to those deals is to buy a membership – yet another smart way to lower prices and add an exclusive feeling to shopping in a warehouse.

Yet Costco isn’t cheap. The retailer invests where it counts, including in its employees. While many companies in the sector pay minimum wage and have shaky relations with employees, Costco regularly ranks highly as an employer. That investment pays off in the customer experience. Just because prices are low doesn’t mean that the experience in stores suffers.

From start to finish the experience is optimized for a target group of customers that nobody serves better. Even amid intense competition from large retailers, both online and brick-and-mortar, Costco has more than tripled its number of warehouses over the past 20 years. They also did it all without any advertising or branding campaigns, showing that there are a lot of different ways to let customers know you exist and establish a brand identity.

3

Why is customer service important?

Customer service is important because it puts a shield around your business and the core products you offer. Product features can be imitated. Prices can always drop – some competitors will even take a loss just to put you out of business. But if you place products and pricing behind a solid shield of good customer service with a brand all your own, you’ll stay safe from competitors’ inevitable attacks. Let’s see what makes a good customer service shield.

Customer service can both provide logical arguments and work on emotions. However, reaching the emotional centers of the brain means reaching the source of each decision customers make. Customers interpret isolated parts of customer service logically: the price, advertising, individual features, how to get support, and so on.

But the big picture of all the elements together makes people feel a certain way. This is where the connection between the brand and the customer happens and is what leads to customers to choose one product over another. This is even more the case when the competing products themselves are similar or identical.

If you put customer service first, you’ll be in a position to make more profits in the long term

Specific, consistent communication of the company’s promise attracts a specific audience. If the company delivers on what’s promised, customers have no reason to go. However, as people change, so do their needs and expectations. There is no way to erase the problem of customer churn completely, as you can’t change in line with every single customer.

All components of customer service directly or indirectly affect customers’ experience. None of them, however, should be treated as an isolated goal that will make or break the business. It’s the bigger picture of all the elements working together that builds an overall brand impression. The goal is to make it consistent and clear for your audience.

The customer journey is called a journey for a reason. It’s full of adventures, ups and downs, ins and outs. Customers go away and come back, change their mind, and get interested in the competition. Each step of the journey affects their experience.

Outstanding customer service doesn’t mean a company will meet the expectations of all people. It does mean a company will meet and exceed the needs of the people whose profiles match their target audience.

5 benefits of outstanding customer service

A promise to your customers, a mission for your employees

Good customer service has to be based on a clever strategy. It requires lots of insight to sbuild, and a smart, well-crafted tagline to be put to work.

A purpose-driven strategy has at least two significant benefits that serve both the customer service team and the customers themselves. It inspires employees, becoming their mission, and motivates them to fulfill that purpose. It also acts as a promise to customers, allowing them to better picture the experience on offer.

Take Disney’s “Happiest Place On Earth”. The purpose of the parks is to “Create happiness by providing the finest entertainment for people of all ages, everywhere.” It couldn’t be more clear about what to expect as a customer, “the guests,” and about what’s expected of the employees – “the cast.”

Customer service is a broader idea than customer support – it includes branding, marketing, sales, and support

Improved brand loyalty, that is, brand trust

Customer loyalty is difficult to measure and tricky to anticipate. It depends on the type of product you offer. Big B2B enterprises invest a lot to acquire a new customer and even more to keep them. This means longer relationships and higher customer loyalty.

On the other hand, ecommerce and retail businesses can’t expect such customer loyalty in 2020. The market is overflowing with a variety of products and promises. Customers are more than happy to experiment and go along with new trends. Brands like Coca-Cola get much of their sales from one-time or occasional buyers.

Even so, a well-crafted customer service strategy that delivers a consistent customer experience helps in both scenarios. It keeps enterprise customers happy and satisfied, decreasing churn. It allows the companies to save on customer acquisition and invest in existing relationships.

In retail and e-commerce on the other hand, improved customer experience keeps the brand top of mind, even if they don’t stick to a single brand on a daily basis. It also helps to raise brand awareness thanks to positive word of mouth and reviews, decreasing acquisition costs and increasing sales.

A well-crafted customer service strategy can help both the IBMs and Coca-Colas of the world. Increased trust means that customers will be a little less likely to reach for that Vive Cola or call that other big tech company with lower prices but worse service. It’s not loyalty because in either scenario, nobody wins or keeps customers 100% of the time. But by increasing trust with good communication and solid customer service, you can convince enough customers to choose you and keep your business growing at a healthy pace.

4

How to improve customer service?

To improve your customer service, you need to understand your customers better than they understand themselves. This also means there is no one best path, just as no target group of customers is identical to another. The outstanding customer service of Amazon, Aldi and Disney are different, but all are equally outstanding.

There is no shortcut to outstanding customer service. But there are tips and tricks that will make the process easier, which you’ll find at the end of each section.

Improving customer service means digging deep into your company’s current strategy and asking uncomfortable questions. You need to put yourself in the shoes of your customer and be a harsh critic of your own motivations. Or hire people to do it for you. Either way, you need to put the customer perspective at the center of your strategy and then make space for the required changes.

It’s useful to have fancy social-proof logos on your home page, but more important is what customers say to friends and family

Do you know who your customers are?

No uncertain head nodding. No “more or less.” Either you know exactly, which makes possible outstanding customer service, or you have a rough or unproven idea and you deliver mediocre customer service, settling for being just polite and friendly.

Amazon’s customer service is hardly visible for most customers because they know what those customers want and deliver that experience up front.

Disney is all about courtesy and politeness. It puts special effort into smiling, laughing and singing because that creates the magical experience expected by their “guests.”

Aldi’s staff don’t care about niceties at checkout. They stock unattractive, yet practically packaged, goods because they know their customers want to get good stuff, fast and for less. They’ll sacrifice the smiles if it means the quality of the products stays high.

All these brands deliver different yet outstanding customer service. They can do this because they’ve researched what their customers care about the most.

Do the values you communicate to the world match what your customers believe in?

If you do understand your customers well, do you show it in your day-to-day communication? Is it visible in your slogans and blogs you write? Analyze what you do from a customer’s perspective.

You might know your customers love jokes and memes, but you focus on delivering valuable guides and infographics because that’s what is trending in content marketing.

It’s useful to have fancy social-proof logos on your home page, but more important is what customers say to friends and family

Do you tell your customers what they should hear?

Marketers and creative people lose sleep to come up with new content and advertising campaigns. They change regularly because they’re afraid of appearing boring and unattractive. But it turns out that customers need time to understand and absorb what brands communicate.

Instead of delivering a colorful and attention-grabbing variety of messages, try to create strong, consistent communication. Make sure the values you offer are recognizable and understandable.

Engaging in real-time marketing and getting lots of attention thanks to a pithy tweet during the World Cup Finals sounds great. But it won’t help you in the long run if the people you attract to your profile won’t understand who you are and what you offer.

Sending extra vouchers and discount codes or getting crazy about Black Friday will not work if you want to position yourself as a high-end brand.

Ordering fast food for a hungry customer stuck in line waiting for your customer support is not a great idea if the value you offer is sustainability and environmental friendliness.

Make sure your short-term campaigns and spontaneous gestures match your brand strategy and message.

Do the values you communicate match your values?

You might have all of the above figured out perfectly. Yet your company still doesn’t perform the way you expected.

Important questions: Do you actually believe in the values that you use as brand values? Could you prove it?

Putting customer service before profits does not mean spending endless amounts of money with no return on that investment

5

Summary

The world would be a simpler place if smiling and giving away free stuff were enough for businesses to get ahead. They’re not. Worse, your competitors are right now doing research on your customers, with the intention of serving them better than you are. To build up a customer service shield and protect your business, keep the following in mind:

  • No two customer service strategies will look alike. If you look exactly like another company, you’ll just confuse consumers.
  • Put customer service before profits, but that doesn’t mean spending endless amounts of money with no return on investment
  • Get in the heads of your customers, that means doing market research, asking hard questions, and listening closely to the answers

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