How do you define Customer Service?

Photo by Reynermedia -
Photo by Reynermedia –

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.

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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.

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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.

Noreply@ Emails Are Dumb

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Imagine if you had a store and on the front door you placed a sign stating, “We’re not open for business.” You wouldn’t expect many people to come to your door, much less people to come back and see you again. Yet that’s exactly what your company does when you place a “noreply@” email address in an email that you send to customers. You’re missing an opportunity to communicate with people who could tell you valuable things about your business.

“” tells me that you don’t really care about customers. That email address tells me that you don’t read your email. And it tells me that replies to that email are going into silent oblivion. Yes, you say – it’s hard to answer all of those pesky emails – I agree. It’s a lot of potential responses. But most people never think to let you know what they are feeling when you put up a virtual Do Not Enter sign.

Here’s another thought. Why not start by having a “PleaseTalkToUs@” email alias tied to your emails that you send? Or “WeLoveToHearFromYou@” or “YourThoughtsMatter@”? It’s just an alias – you can keep the “noreply@” hidden somewhere if there is someone grumpy at your company who just doesn’t want to read email.

But consider the value of having the first time someone hears from your company be a personal touch, like “love@” or “WeLoveCustomers@” and see how the emails change from “Get Me Off Of This List” to “I’d love to tell you something important about your product, and I just need someone to listen.” It all starts with being mindful about the face you show to customers. Start with a smile and see what happens.

Small Companies Care More About Customers


Quick, name the last time you dealt with a big company and had a great experience.

For most of us, it’s hard to think of a time when that happened.

Now, think of a neighborhood business or a shop or a small business and remember the last time you had a really great experience. That’s not hard at all – it’s something that they do every day.

Small companies care about customers because they have to care. Any one customer interaction can make the difference between finding a lifetime advocate and disappointing someone who tried out your product or service and found it wanting.

One of the biggest challenges for any big company is to seem more human. The other day when I went into the AT&T store on 4th avenue in Seattle, I was ready to have an awful experience. And I was pleasantly surprised. Both Caleb and Martin were patient, pleasant, competent, did more than asked, and solved a set of complex problems in under an hour.

Why doesn’t this usually happen?

  • It’s difficult to script – many of the non-standard issues that happen in customer service are edge cases – and you must rely on the best judgement of your people
  • You can’t teach empathy easily – companies focus on tools and processes which are necessary and not always sufficient for a good customer outcome
  • My interaction happened in person – some interactions are more high bandwidth than others (think text message vs in-store experience)

What should big companies do to solve this problem?

Kaizen, or “good change”, is a great tool to find the next biggest problem you can solve. Used in a business sense, Kaizen is a philosophy of improvement that enables change in very small increments.

People rarely succeed unless they have fun in what they are doing. – Dale Carnegie

Enabling line workers to contribute changes with Kaizen helps the individual customer and the larger group of all customers.

What should small companies do to avoid becoming complacent?

Whenever you hear a complaint from a customer or identify a win, add it to a list where you can better count how often it happens. The most recent customer complaint may be a brilliant example of a long-standing problem, or it may be a single customer’s opinion.

Whodunnit? A Customer Service Detective Story

(Lego Minifigs of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson courtesy of
(Lego Minifigs of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson courtesy of

Once upon a time, you had a problem with customer service and you mentioned the problem to your server, the front desk, or the person who interacted with you directly. You may have also called a toll-free number or a front office to tell them about your experience, only to find that no one remembered your call or logged it anywhere. If you solved your problem, you often did it by personal persuasion or by forcing the representative to follow a policy that was written on a wall or documented somewhere.

In the present, when you have a problem with customer service, you likely call the front desk, email the company, or call the toll-free number, and the person on the other end of the line knows that you called, logs it for their supervisor, and is able to do … very little. You might get them to answer your question. You might get them to do what you want, but it’s very hard to convince them what happen, to get something substantive to change, or to publicly acknowledge that they are changing their process to treat customers better.

In the near future (or for some the present), you Tweet at the company or complain in social media to make a point because it forces the company to acknowledge you and to at least say “We Got This.” Many times the individuals manning the social media communications channel can and do more than the people you talk to on the phone. And when you call in the representative knows you contacted the company online and can tell you what you did, what happened, what are the options for you to process, and how they can help you.

Now, imagine a future state where you will call or contact the company, they know that you contacted them, and they make it very clear to you what the steps are in the processwhat’s next, how to get there and when it will happen. If this dialog happened before you even knew there was a problem, you might really consider this “Wow” customer service.

What could we do with today’s tools and services to get closer to that state?

Step 1: The customer starts a conversation with the company and it moves into another channel like email.

There is a gap in today’s customer service process where the customer doesn’t know what was done to solve the problem, the company doesn’t have easy access to the transcript of the customer’s opinions and actions, and there are no clear next steps. Logging and categorizing the inbound contacts is “table stakes” for baseline customer success – there really needs to be a next step to understand the actions of a likely happy or sad or indifferent customer.

In a world where all of the customer’s interactions are treated similarly – as inbound communication – it will be easier for companies to know about the breadth of the customer’s experience across channels. Yet it places more pressure on the company to behave transparently (or at least, consistently) in public and private communications to the customer.

Step 2: there is a gap where the customer doesn’t know what is done to solve the problem.

It would be nice if simply saying “We Got This” was necessary and sufficient to solve the customer’s issue. The reality of many customer problems is that they are complex, nuanced, and not always easy to solve. When they are easy to solve and easy for the customer to know that they are solved, simply communicating the steps to resolve, the result, and the change in process may be enough. But many customer problems need first to be triaged, acknowledged, and dealt with before any root cause analysis is complete.

Step 3: companies cannot always share how they solved the problem in a transparent way to the customer.

There are many good reasons why you cannot always share all of the details of how a problem was solved. The customer only cares whether the problem was solved or not, and how they felt about the whole process. Making the problem solving process as transparent as possible is the best way to make the customer feel better. After a mistake, restore trust for the customer and make it “one in a row” for the customer by telling them exactly what’s going to happen for them and when and make sure it happens.

Step N: Take what you learn and make it better

When customers are upset, they are telling you important things about your business.You learn more from an upset customer than you do from a neutral customer, so take those messages to heart and do something about it. Customer feedback is the best way to solve your customer service mysteries and turn them into solutions.

Great Service Starts When the Customer Walks In

(image courtesy of Moleskine)

THE SCENE: Your Average Neighborhood Art Store
THE PROTAGONIST: Your Average Customer
THE CUSTOMER’S RESULT: “Wow, I don’t think I’ll ever go there again.”

How often have you walked into a store, found something on sale with a “can’t say no” price, walked up to the cash register intending to buy, and then found out that the price was wrong and that the special didn’t apply to that item? Did you still buy the item, or did you walk out empty handed?

The hallmark of great service (not just good service) is the willingness to acknowledge the customer’s request and find the right solution that fits that customer, not just the one size fits all of a policy that doesn’t really make anyone happy.

The Search for a Great Sketchbook

Today I went to Aaron Brothers intending to buy a new Moleskine Unlined Notebook (or maybe a lined one – I hadn’t decided yet) and found a big fat 50% OFF sticker next to the product I thought I would buy. So I took two, went up to the register, and … was promptly disappointed when the cashier rang up the items and they were selling at the regular price.

“Wait a minute,” I said, “this price doesn’t seem right. I thought I saw a half-off price on the shelf.” So I led the clerk to the shelf, expecting her to confirm that the item was indeed 50% off. She looked at the shelf, at the sticker, and at the Stock Keeping Unit number (SKU, of course) associated with the notebook. She read the SKU to herself and walked back to the cash register.

Once the cashier reached the register, she informed me that the display was wrong – there was no sale on that item – and that the price shown on the register was correct.

The Service Catalyst

At this point the cashier had at least a few choices:

  1. Give me the 50% discount – this is what I hoped for and what would have resulted in a WOW experience – Moleskine products are hardly ever discounted and this seemed like a fantastic price.
  2. Offer to ask her manager whether she could offer me a discount – this is what I expected and is typical procedure in a store like this, giving the manager and the employee the opportunity to help me (but probably not the motivation)
  3. Just say “Sorry, that’s the price” and continue on with her day.

Any other flavor of “Next Customer” could have sufficed here – not a great experience, but

She chose “Sorry, that’s the price today – the sale applied to the other item” and I wasn’t sure what to do. Was I a bad customer for asking? Is the price wrong for all of the items on that row? Why isn’t she removing the wrong price tag or restocking the items in a less confusing place?”

So I left the store. They lost a sale. And I won’t be going back soon because I can buy that item in lots of places. I asked for the sale on my terms based on what was in the store and they told me they made a mistake, and didn’t do anything to try to keep me as a customer.

Remember, new customers are much harder to get and sell to than existing customers.

This store visit could have gone very differently. When I asked for the discount, the cashier could have given it to me and figured out a way to make it work – I drive by this particular store several times a week and I am sure that if I shopped there more often the store would have recouped the $10-12 it stood to lose in this single transaction very quickly. The cashier could have also asked me about what I intended to draw in the notebook, and taken my name and number to let me know the next time this product went on sale. Or … any one of a number of options.

A great service experience would have resulted in my saying “I love that store and I always want to shop there because the employees like their product, want to serve customers, and take an interest in me and how I use their products.” I hope the next time I go back to that store they’ve fixed the price stickers and encourage their employees to reach out to customers who use their product.

And one more thing – one of the reasons I expected great service from this store was that they carried the quality product I wanted. When you associate yourself with a great brand you take on the great power and responsibility of that brand (sorry, Stan Lee) – your service experience should not only maintain the brands in your store but also enhance the customer experience at the same time.

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