What is Customer Service?
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What is Customer Service?

Back in 1962, a struggling car rental company came up with a slogan that not only defined it for the next 50 years, it also laid out the very essence of customer service: “We Try Harder.” When Avis, the car rental company that was second at that time to Hertz Rent-a-Car, started highlighting its commitment to customer service, the company turned a $3.2 million loss into a $1.2 million dollar profit in a single year. Avis went on to keep that slogan for 50 years, a testament to the importance of customer service in any industry. When Avis finally decided to change its branding in 2012, according to ad industry bible, Advertising Age, company CEO Jeanine Haas emphasized that the tag line wasn’t exactly going away. “We firmly believe that after nearly five decades, ‘We Try Harder’ is fully embedded in the Avis DNA” she said in a statement, “and defines the spirit our employees embody to deliver superior customer service.”

What is Customer Service?

While Avis may never have used the word “intentionality” in reference to providing excellent customer service, they may be one of the first large companies to intentionally make superior customer service central to its brand identity. In order to maintain its customer service reputation across hundreds of branch offices, Avis instituted a number of programs, including dedicated customer service training to ensure that all of their employees understood the importance of customer service and followed its best practices. The company also gathered information from its customers and implemented customer service tips offered by its employees at regular employee participation meetings. Those tips led to such innovations as cars reserved specifically for non-smoking customers and compiling local traffic laws and tips for each service area.

When your company is trying to figure out what is the customer service experience for your typical customer, it helps to distill some of the lessons learned from companies with a reputation for excellent customer service, not bad, good, or even great customer service (see continuum below). One of the major lessons Avis learned is that great customer service doesn’t come naturally – it’s a highly individual concept that every company must establish for itself, and train its employees to effectively maintain in all of their day-to-day customer interactions.

Your Company’s Definition of Customer Service

So how do you start improving customer service in your company?

The first step in creating a culture of excellent customer service is to understand what bad, good, great, and excellent customer service means. According to Investopedia, customer service is “the process of ensuring customer satisfaction with a product or service.”

That very generic definition explains the goal of every customer service program, but it doesn’t tell you much about how to achieve that goal. In actuality, the concept of ensuring customer satisfaction is something that must be built into every step of your business’ interaction with customers – and it starts well before any employee actually comes into contact with a single customer.

The businesses that excel at providing a good customer experience intentionally create processes that gather information from customers and define customer service standards for your business. Once that’s done, you need a way to disseminate what you’ve learned to every employee, as well as to keep everyone up to date as your company learns more about what your customers expect. These days, the easiest and most efficient way to train your employees on your company’s expectations of service is through training software. The best customer service training software can not only teach your employees how to interact with customers, it can help you track performance, keep everyone on the same page with updated standards and ensure that every single one of your customers gets the same excellent customer experience as your very favorite customer of all time.

Of course, that barely scratches the surface of the true definition of customer service. Read on to learn more about the different levels of customer service and how you can improve towards excellence.

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What Is Bad Customer Service?

It’s tough to lay out a specific definition for bad customer service, but anyone who has been on the receiving end definitely knows it when they see it. It can be as blatant as a rude front desk clerk or waiter, or as subtle as not addressing a customer by her appropriate title.

While the specific definition might be open to question, there’s no denying the effect bad customer service can have on your business. According to a 2011 American Express customer service survey, 78% of those responding had bailed on an intended purchase because of poor service somewhere along the way. To put those numbers into dollars and cents terms, an infographic shared at Entrepreneur.com stated that bad customer service costs US business a staggering $83 billion annually. That’s not chump change.

And it’s not in a vacuum, either. In these days of social media, a bad customer experience can rapidly damage your company’s reputation. All it takes is one dissatisfied customer with a healthy following on Twitter or Facebook to totally trash your positive efforts. After all, people love to spread bad news.

Your best defense against that kind of loss is to make sure you provide excellent customer service to each and every customer that contacts your business. And if, despite your best efforts, someone slips up and a customer complains about poor service, remember that customer service extends to aftercare as well. It’s not unheard of for a business to turn a complaining customer into an ardent supporter by providing excellent customer care in following up on complaints.

What Is Good Customer Service?

So, what exactly is good customer service?

Again, it’s easier to recognize than it is to define good customer service. Essentially, it means making sure that your business meets the basic needs of your customers. Every industry has a different definition of good customer service. In the retail industry, it might include making sure that your store stocks the products your customers want most. In the hospitality industry, examples of good customer service would include greeting customers with a smile, ensuring that their rooms and amenities are clean and in good repair, and making it easy for your guests to make reservations. Some other examples of good customer service include these customer service tips:

  •  Responding to emails and telephone calls in a timely manner
  • Offering to replace products for dissatisfied customers
  • Clearly stating your return policies, shipping policies and other important policies so your customers know what to expect
  • Creating a set of good customer service standards and making sure your employees all know what is expected
  • Adhering to industry standards for customer service in your sector

Good customer service can keep a customer coming back to your business – but it’s a low bar to set for your employees and for your business. If you want to stand out from your competition, your customer service can’t be merely good.

What Is Great Customer Service?

How do you achieve great customer service? One definition of great customer service might be going above and beyond what your competition is doing to ensure that your customers are satisfied with your products and services. We define great customer service as seeing every interaction from the customer’s perspective, and then acting on that vision to make the customer experience as easy and rewarding as possible. Of course, the experience in each industry is a little bit different. What is great customer service in retail varies from great customer service in transportation, for example. That’s why it’s important for each business to review the best practices and standards for customer service in its own industry – and then take it a step further and personalize those standards for your business.

Micah Solomon, who regularly writes about customer service for Forbes.com, makes the point that having a set of best practices for a great customer experience can be comforting, but that it’s important for a business to tailor those standards to suit individual circumstances. He gives the example of greeting a restaurant customer who is returning from a funeral with a cheery, “It’s a great day here at Applebee’s. How can we serve you?’

In that case, one would hope that your company’s customer service standards allow servers and customer representatives to rely on their own instincts to offer an appropriate greeting. And that is exactly what separates good customer service from customer service that is memorable and great – the ability of your employees to respond to every individual situation with the appropriate level of service and attention. In some cases, you can facilitate that by empowering your employees to take certain steps to resolve complaints. In a retail setting, for example, you might have a standing rule that every floor manager is authorized to offer a 10% discount to customers under specific circumstances. If you’ve done the appropriate level of customer service training, you can be comfortable that your managers will know when it’s appropriate to offer that discount.

That’s just one example of great customer service policies – the kind that enable and empower your employees to provide the type of customer service that cements relationships between your business and your customers.

Consider these tips to take your customer service level from good to great.

  • Experience your company the way your customer does – shop in your store or use your company website as a regular customer, for example.
  • Reinforce customer service training with regular updates and chances to practice.
  • Ask your customers for ways on how to improve customer service
  • Listen to your front line staff – they’re the ones most likely to hear complaints or recognize ways to make the customer experience better.
  • Use training and tracking software to pinpoint problem areas and establish best practices.

What Is Excellent Customer Service?

Finally, let’s talk about excellent customer service – those unforgettable experiences that can turn a casual customer into an ardent advocate and supporter of your business. These excellent customer service examples show companies that go far beyond what’s expected in the normal course of business to establish themselves as true leaders in their fields.

Trader Joe’s is well-known for its quirky ads, laid-back atmosphere, and excellent customer service experience. We have some personal experiences with the way the company steps up to make sure every customer leaves their stores feeling good about the company. A few years ago, we stopped in a Trader Joe’s on the way to visit relatives to pick up a gluten-free goodie to bring along. At the register, the card scanner refused to read the debit card strip, even after multiple attempts by both the cashier and the store manager. “No worries,” the store manager finally said. “It happens sometimes. Enjoy the cookies – they’re on the house.”

We chalked it up to a great manager, but it turns out that it’s far more than that. Trader Joe’s makes it their mission to define exceptional customer service and instills that mission into every associate. Their culture of providing excellent customer service extends far beyond a company policy of giving away groceries in situations where a customer runs into problems with a payment method.

At American Express’ OpenForum, writer Glen Stansberry tells a story that defines exceptional customer service. A Pennsylvania store received a call from a woman concerned about her 89-year-old mother’s ability to get groceries during a snowstorm. She was looking for a store that would deliver and had made multiple calls before calling Trader Joe’s – which also doesn’t deliver, but decided to make an exception. Not only did the manager agree to deliver the order – and recommend specific products to fit the woman’s special diet – he then refused to accept payment for the $50 order, merely wishing the woman a Merry Christmas.

Of course, you don’t have to give away your services to be memorable. Sainsbury’s, the UK grocery chain, once changed the name of one of its signature items on the suggestion of a 3-year-old customer who observed that their tiger bread looked a lot more like a giraffe’s coat than a tiger’s stripes. The VP that made the decision also took the time to answer the letter and called the idea “brilliant.”

Sometimes, all it takes is a few extra minutes of an employee’s time, as in the case of  ranch and farm supply distributor, D&B Supply. A customer posted a recall notice from Purina to the company’s Facebook wall, just in case the company hadn’t seen it. Just 20 minutes later, a company representative posted that their pet food buyer had checked the lot numbers on their stock and contacted Purina to ensure that they weren’t selling any of the recalled items.

Those may seem like minor things, but the simple act of responding to customer concerns in a timely manner is the hallmark of excellent customer service. Here are a few ways that you can instill a culture of exceptional customer service among your workforce.

  • Establish floors, not ceilings, in customer service expectations. Your employees should know that your standards represent the very minimum every customer should expect.
  • Empower employees to provide excellent service. By establishing policies and levels of escalation, you make it easier for every company rep to make your company look good.
  • Make it easy for customers to give feedback on company performance – and act on the feedback you receive.
  • Reward employees who go above and beyond their expected jobs to provide solutions to your customers’ problems.


What Is Customer Service to You?

As you can see from the examples above, the definition of customer service is a fluid and expansive one. It includes anticipating what your customers want and need from you and extends to following up on interactions to ensure that they got everything they needed and expected from your business. The one key factor is that everyone associated with your company knows your customer service standards and acts on them at all time.

Before you can get everyone on board with your company’s definition of customer service, though, you have to decide what it is. What does customer service mean to you? How do you define customer service for your company?

You don’t have to fly blind when you’re figuring out what will exemplify excellent customer service for your brand. Remember Avis, the #2 company that decided to define themselves as the company that tries harder? Their mission statement is a good framework to help you consider all the ways that your company can excel in customer service.

It begins:

Our Vision: We will lead our industry by defining service excellence and building unmatched customer loyalty.

Our Mission: We will ensure a stress-free car rental experience by providing superior services that cater to our customers’ individual needs…always conveying the ‘We Try Harder®’ spirit with knowledge, caring and a passion for excellence.

Now it’s your turn. How will you define excellent customer service for your company, your employees, and most important of all, your customers? Getting this one thing right may be the single most important thing you ever do.

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