Have you ever experienced customer service so poor that you resolved never to interact with a company again?
Or, conversely, have you ever pledged undying loyalty to a company with customer service you’d consider excellent?
If so, you’d be surprised at how many people agree with you. According to some statistics, about 90% of people will use customer service as the deciding factor for how they feel about a company.
According to other statistics, millennials are even more dialed into your customer service. 21% say they’re willing to pay extra for companies who “excel” at it.
And that word—excel—is what this post is all about. What does it mean to create excellent customer service? How do you differentiate yourself from other companies who offer you customer service, but don’t excel at it? What’s the deciding factor for you? For your customers? Here’s what you’ll need to know.
Excellent Customer Experiences: A Definition
There’s a problem with excellent customer experience: it’s inherently an intangible idea. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, excellent customer service is in the eye of the customer. What they do—how well they review you, whether they recommend you to others—ultimately defines what good customer service is.
However, that doesn’t mean we have to remain totally in the dark about what good customer service might look like:
- For some people, speed is the name of the game. About one-third of people report the most frustration when they’ve been put on hold with customer service.
- For other people, it’s the need to be heard. The same amount of people, roughly one-third, reported the frustration that comes when they have to repeat themselves to different customer service representatives.
- For millennials, good customer service is increasingly about the interactions they have with companies on social media. 74% of millennials said that their brand perception changes due to a nice interaction with a corporate social media account.
Different customers, different priorities. It can be a bit difficult to untangle. But if we’re going to define customer service, let’s try including something comprehensive enough to cover all of what you just read.
Excellent customer service is what a wide range of customers experience when they interact with a company and feel motivated to share their positive experiences with other potential customers.
This definition might sound too general at first. But it will give you a measurable way to define whether your customer service is excellent. Do customers enjoy your customer service? Do they recommend you to others? What do they rate you?
With these questions in mind, let’s zoom in and see how it’s done.
Key Customer Service Skills Your Company Should Master
If mastering a skill sounds like too much work, consider that $62 billion is lost every year because companies don’t make the commitment to excellent customer service that they need to make.
But while we’ve already defined what “excellent” customer service is, we haven’t quite zoomed in on what it means to provide that customer service in the first place. Here is a look at a few of the sub-skills necessary to make customers believe in the quality of your service:
Simply put, people need to feel like individuals. If you ever initiate an email with “dear customer,” you’re already off to a bad start.
These days, there’s plenty of software that can help you personalize everything, from SMS campaigns to the emails you send out to your list. But it’s equally important to have CRM in place so you know who your customers are. What did they order? When someone calls your customer service line, do your representatives constantly have to find out who they are again and revalidate their information?
The skill of convenience might sound like it’s not a skill at all. After all, you can always throw money at a customer to provide them with a more convenient experience. That might involve sending them a new package when one has been lost or damaged, for example.
But that’s not always what you have to do. What you do have to do is acquire the skill of seeing things from your customer’s point of view. What conveniences matter the most for them? When you review customer ratings, which conveniences have the biggest impact on how they rated the entire experience? Most importantly, how would you feel if you were a customer who was trying to reach out to your customer service team?
Yes, attitude is a skill. And customer service work can make it difficult to remember that. For a customer service representative who’s been chatting with customers all day, it can be a bit grating to have nothing to hear about customers with problems.
However, a positive, friendly attitude will win out in the end.
This is slightly different than personalization because it requires a shift in perspective. Personalization is the skill of making customers feel that they’re regarded as people at your company. Humanization is what happens when you reassure people that your company is filled with real, live people too.
How do you do this? Here are a few quick tips:
- Express empathy. When a customer reports a problem, echo it back to them. “That doesn’t sound right—let’s see what we can do about that” is just a short sentence, but it will take your entire customer service experience to entirely new levels.
- Personalize your correspondence. Tell them your name. Ever notice how live chat services tell you the name of the person with whom you’re speaking? There’s a reason for that. This interaction helps people visualize an actual person behind the live chat. You can do the same for other media as well.
- Always focus on person-to-person. Remember: the best tone for excellent customer experiences is that you’re on the same team as the customer reaching out to you. If they complain about the company, listen. Don’t take sides with the company. Give the customer the sense that you’re on their side when it comes to solving this specific problem.
Examples of Excellent Customer Experiences
It’s one thing to hear about what customer experiences should be like. But what does it look like in practice?
Here are a few of our favorite examples of customer service experiences that left an impression.
Ritz-Carlton: Being on the Same “Team” as Your Customer
According to some sources, the Ritz-Carlton has a standing policy: if the customer’s problem can be taken care of for less than a certain amount of money, then employees are authorized to do it.
In one case, a customer had left the Ritz-Carlton without the specific phone charger he needed. He reached out to the hotel. Within a day, a package with his phone charger had been overnighted at great expenses, along with a personal note.
This was, of course, an expensive way to handle the issue. But it did handle the customer’s issue. And it gets back to the original point: customers should feel as though customer service representatives are on their side, not the company’s. Having this policy in place helps cultivate that atmosphere at Ritz-Carlton.
Real Canadian: Getting Proactive
This example helped drive a viral post from a happy customer, which is a great example of why excellent customer service is worth it. When you do things the right way, customers will automatically go out of their way to share their positive experiences with their friends.
In this case, Real Canadian, a grocery store chain, knew that it was going to struggle with out-of-stock items on a customer’s order. Rather than grin and bear it, waiting for the inevitable customer complaints, they reached out to the customer personally to let her know that they were incapable of offering what she provided.
The lesson? Proactivity can overcome a lot of mistakes and shortcomings. Of course a customer would prefer that you have all of their items in stock. But when they hear a real human voice on the other end of the phone—someone who’s taken time out of their day to specifically help them with their situation—they tend to be more than forgiving.
Although Real Canadian wasn’t looking for free publicity as a result of this interaction, the enthusiastic response of their customer ensured they had it.
Nordstrom: The Power of Affirming Customers
Nordstrom is famous for its high levels of customer service, which is one of the reasons people enjoy it so much. But why is that? It must come from a level of commitment that few other retailers are willing to go to.
One example comes from when an unreasonable customer showed up at Nordstrom looking for a refund on a tire. There was one problem. Nordstrom didn’t offer refunds. Yet according to some urban legends, Nordstrom did refund the tire. Whether or not you believe this particular one isn’t the point. The fact is that Nordstrom has made such a rock-solid commitment to affirming its customers that people started spreading a story about the lengths Nordstrom is willing to go to to make people happy.
Basecamp: Connecting Customer Service Specialists with the Company
It can be frustrating for customers when they reach out to customer service, especially when it seems like customer service knows nothing about the company they work for. At Basecamp, their policy is to avoid that problem entirely.
Basecamp accomplishes that by having their customer service reps get off the phones for two hours a day. In those two hours, the reps are actively involved in the rest of the business. This doesn’t only build a sense of investment within those reps, but helps them understand how the rest of the company works.
Because of this, customer service reps are better empowered to help customers’ problems when they’re on the line with them. They know the ins and outs of the business. They know the quirks. They’re able to respond to customer questions without referring those customers to articles. The end-result is better and more thorough customer support—and customer service reps who are better able to help.
Lyft: Putting Yourself on the Same Side as Your Customers
It’s important for people to perceive your company as someone who is on their side. There’s that old pervasive thought in American culture: the customer is always right. That doesn’t have to be the case. But the customer should feel that the company isn’t out to exploit them—but rather to partner with them.
Lyft accomplishes that with well-placed investments and donations in communities that its customers care about. As HubSpot notes, Lyft donated $1 million to the American Civil Liberties Union, for example. This was in the context of an executive order that Lyft perceived would affect many of the Lyft customers.
Political hot-button issues aside, the message here was clear: Lyft was thinking about its customers and how they would be affected by this executive order. Said Lyft in a statement: “Banning people of a particular faith or creed, race or identity, sexuality or ethnicity, from entering the U.S. is antithetical to both Lyft’s and our nation’s core values. We stand firmly against these actions, and will not be silent on issues that threaten the values of our community.”
How can you position your own company so customers feel like you’re on their team? It doesn’t have to be a $1 million donation. In some cases, it may be a statement to your customers. Or it can even be something as small as one transaction at a time, as you encourage your customer service reps to express to each customer that they’re here to help their problems.
Sainsbury: Becoming Adaptable
Sometimes, customer service problems run into a hard wall. Your company may be unwilling or unable to adapt to customer requests. To some extent, you don’t have to listen to every customer’s request for changes. After all, you’re running a for-profit business.
But when Sainsbury received a letter from a young girl about changing the name of one of its products, Tiger Bread, they did an interesting thing. The young girl requested that they change the name to Giraffe Bread. Initially, Sainsbury reached out with a gift card and a personalized note.
You could accurately say that interaction alone was an excellent customer experience. But one issue remained. The name. After the girl’s mother posted the interaction online, it started a mass frenzy to have the name changed.
Sainsbury could have ignored the request, but it proved itself adaptable. The product officially became giraffe bread.
The lesson? Customers already shape your company by their behaviors. What they buy will shape what you produce. Don’t ignore customer service experiences that can inform, alter, and even improve the quality of work you provide. Even if those requests sometimes come with little girls who have a better name for your bread.
Trader Joe’s: Above and Beyond the Call of Duty
It’s a good business practice to do just a little bit more for your customer than they expect. Going the extra mile pays dividends down the line.
Nowhere was that principle more apparent than in the case of Trader Joe’s. This one was posted on Reddit. (A common theme here: notice how customers with an excellent customer experience are willing to go online and promote your brand for free?)
In this case, the original user noted that a mother was looking for groceries for the woman’s father, an 89-year-old veteran. It was during a snowstorm, so there was some worry over whether the veteran would have enough to get by.
The problem: no one was delivering. The woman called grocery stores all over the area. The only one that showed some flexibility and willingness to bend the rules was the local Trader Joe’s.
Problem number two: Trader Joe’s didn’t offer grocery delivery. What happened next, however, made the woman’s day. Said the Reddit user:
She eventually ended up asking if Trader Joe’s did delivery and they told her they could in this instance. She read out a big order and then proceeded to ask them how she should pay. They told there was no need to pay and said, “Merry Christmas!” Trader Joe’s doesn’t do delivery, nor give food out for free normally. I’m glad to see people out in the world care about strangers and help out.
Trader Joe’s had a policy of not delivering. They delivered anyway. There was a snowstorm. They delivered anyway. The woman offered to pay. They didn’t accept anything, and left the customer with a Merry Christmas.
Obviously, your store would quickly go out of business if you treated every customer like that. But on those occasions when you go above and beyond the typical call of duty, you can change one customer’s day. Heck, you can change their entire month.
As Trader Joe’s demonstrated, it’s possible to make a lot of people feel good with one act of kindness.
Tips for Upgrading Your Customer Experience
The examples above are great demonstrations of certain principles at work. But customer service strategies can feel vague. Yes, it’s important to make your customers feel valued. But what are some of the specific ways you can codify this policy into your company?
Below, we’ve codified some of the examples above into real takeaways that you can start using at your business immediately.
- Make interactions as “human” as possible. Try to avoid text formulas and “thank you for calling, your number is very important to us” messages. Humanize yourselves whenever you can. As soon as a customer reaches out to you, you should find the tiny ways you can demonstrate that real, funny, thoughtful people are on the other end of the line. In some cases, it’s enough just to give out your first name. There’s a big difference between Customer Interaction Specialist 827 and Janet from Omaha.
- Let customers know you’re on their side. If you want a smooth experience with a customer who’s having a legitimate problem, you want them on your side. To do that, you’ll have to make sure they know you’re on their side. Encourage your customer service reps to use “we” language. How can we figure this out? What steps should we take next? Think of the way the Ritz-Carlton allows its customer service specialists to take care of customer problems if it’s under a certain budget. This gives customers the feeling that there is someone on their side, with the resources and know-how necessary to fix the problem at hand.
- Do a little bit more than customers expect. Good service is expected these days. That’s a given. But if you can find random ways to interject kindness into your customer service experience, it can have a far greater impact than you might imagine. Trader Joe’s is an example of a customer service team going far beyond those expectations. And you don’t have to pay customers’ gas bills just to earn their good favor. But look for the little helpful gestures that your customers don’t expect. You’ll find even a small gesture can go a long way.
- Reach out with problems first. A surprising number of customers are willing to forgive your company its ills if you bring something to their attention first. You’ll get extra credit points for being proactive. Remember: excellent customer service is not about succeeding all the time. Sometimes, it’s about how well you handle failure. And if you have an upcoming inventory issue, for example, you can reach out to the affected customers before the last minute. Customers won’t only appreciate this, but when they see how professionally you handled the problem, their opinion of you might go up.
Excellent customer service isn’t only about the policies you put in place. It’s about the people you hire to represent you. Ultimately, it’s a people business. And the better you can remember that, the better you can forge connections with those customers who make your company tick.
Not every customer will have a great experience. That’s just an issue of human nature. But the better habits you adopt, the better you’ll be able to craft a customer experience that people won’t forget.