Photo by Reynermedia - https://www.flickr.com/photos/89228431@N06/11221050956
Photo by Reynermedia – https://www.flickr.com/photos/89228431@N06/11221050956

What is Customer Service? It doesn’t look like this any more.

I often get asked whether I’m in Customer Service, even though my company uses the term “Customer Success” to define our interactions with customers. Customer Success is Not Customer Service, though it often has responsibility for Customer Service. Think of Customer Success as active and customer service as reactive; or think of customer service as a small piece of what goes on in the customer’s experience.

photo by https://www.flickr.com/photos/lauradinneen/7365351290

Visualizing the customer’s journey may help: from the point that customer starts thinking they have a problem they might need to solve to the end point of on boarding as a customer, the customer is on a journey to investigate, educate, evaluate, and then decide on a solution that meets their needs.

So what is Customer Service, really? If you think of the raw definition of service you’ll probably think of words like “Help”, “Support”, “FAQs”, and “Answers”. You might have – depending upon how old you are – a mental picture of the ways in which you might get support, ranging from an in-person kiosk to a toll-free phone number to an email or web form queue to an instant response that you get from an SMS query. But key to all of these metaphors or methods for getting support is the idea that you have a finite need that can be served by a person or by a system (if you prefer self-service, which many do) and that at the end of that process you’ll have a pretty good idea of whether you received good service or not.

Except the very idea of how to define excellent small-c customer small-s service is difficult to nail down. Is it the nature of being precise – the ability to zero in on the question you were trying to solve and to make sure you know how to ask the right question? Is the key attribute of service promptness – getting you the information you need as fast as possible and making every interaction as fast as possible? Is a key attribute of service accuracy – ensuring that you get the right answer to the question you asked? Is politeness the most important thing your service should strive to deliver? Or is it there a holistic overall description that combines these attributes so that you “know great service when you see it?”

Clearly we all have our definitions for when we have a great customer service experience — whether as a one time event or as a characteristic of a brand like Apple or Disney or American Express — and living up to that definition withconsistency and lacking in variability even when multiple team members are involved might be the clearest hallmark of great customer service. Clear policy and understandable procedure are at the core of any service team that really knows what they are doing, along with the ability to bypass the system for the right reasons. What are the right reasons? It kind of depends on the customer and the moment.

photo by https://www.flickr.com/photos/48424574@N07/5096035675

I believe that great Customer Service (now thinking of a broader definition) is a system of ensuring a great customer experience so that any service interactions are accurate, consistent, empathetic, precise, and friendly.
In this context:

  • Accurate means the organization understands what question or questions you are asking;
  • Consistent means you get a like experience even if you ask the question to different people or through different means of contact;
  • Empathetic means the organization and the people interacting with you effectively mirror your feelings and understand or communicate how you feel in a potentially difficult situation;
  • Precise means that you get an answer that is actionable and confined to the problem you asked, unless the problem you asked requires a broader, wider answer;
  • Friendly means that when asked, you would likely recommend this organization to friends or family members who needed this service.

Note that there are some things missing in this definition. I don’t believe customer service needs to be always available – there are some businesses for which you would make a distinction and say yes, the business absolutely needs to be available (financial services and telecommunications and utilities in general), but for the most part the key item you need to communicate is when a real human is available, how to reach that human, and what other ways you might have to solve your problem during the hours no human is available.

Customer Service is the art of delivering a consistent experience to your customer so that when they ask for help that they feel you have done the best job possible in anticipating their question, understanding how to solve it, responding in a friendly and correct way with the information you need, and generally building an environment where they feel comfortable asking you the questions they need to get answered. And when things don’t go right or feel adversarial, the best Customer Service departments and companies will Do The Right Thing and act with the customer’s best interest in mind.

Except when they can’t. Because sometimes customers do not want to listen, read the policy, or admit that the deal they agreed to is different than the deal that they want right now. And in that moment Customer Service becomes a “just-the-facts-Ma’am” dialog (in the parlance of the 1950s crime drama Dragnet) where the most important aspect of serving the customer becomes sharing the facts, educating the customer on the policy, and managing to do the right thing by being empathetic to the human on the other end of the communication.

You won’t always get it right. In fact, there are some situations where you can’t get Customer Service right. But you can get it right most of the time for most of the people. And the very best organizations do an amazing job at this while helping the customer and the company to do the right thing.

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