What is Good Customer Service? Definition, Data & 11 Qualities of Exceptional Support

What is Good Customer Service? A Definition, Data & 11 Qualities of Exceptional Support

Let’s explore a comprehensive answer—backed by data, five timeless sources, and 11 qualities of exceptional support—to, “What is good customer service?”

Good customer service is a company-wide strategy to (1) eliminate the root causes of support, (2) honor a customer’s time, preferences, and humanity, as well as (3) sacrifice ourselves in the service of exceptional support.

That’s a heavy definition, I know.

But, answering a question like, “What is good customer service?” isn’t something to be taken lightly. Nailing down the right definition for your business and aligning it with the qualities that match… can make or break success.

Given the central role service plays in all areas of growth, this article takes a detailed look at:

  • Defining good customer service
  • Rooting that definition in five timeless sources
  • And, applying it to 11 exceptional qualities (backed by data)

Good customer service definition: Unpacking five timeless sources

(1) Put service on the ‘entire company’

First and foremost, great service isn’t something that happens in isolation nor after a request for assistance. Service is the foundation on which your entire organization should be built. 

Adopting this philosophy—which Zappos famously embodies—all but guarantees to set your brand apart from the competition.

“We believe that customer service shouldn’t be just a department; it should be the entire company.”

Tony Hsieh

For one, this ingredient is proactive.

When providing superb customer service is the main focus of your organization, your team will continuously be on the lookout for ways in which to better serve.

Two, it’s infectious.

Once absorbed as an all-embracing philosophy, you’ll then be equipped to provide assistance to all of your customers’ needs—whether they’ve requested your help or not.

Three, by placing the customer at the center of every decision or action—even those made internally—your organization will be able to focus on the main reason it exists: providing the most possible value regardless of how someone engages.

(2) Eliminate ‘root causes’ of contact

Even companies that provide high-quality service usually operate reactively. To do so overlooks the fact that a problem occurred in the first place.

Those who have their issue solved with as little friction as possible will likely be appreciative. Still, they’ll be at least a little aggravated they had to go through extra steps at all.

That paradoxical tension lies at the heart of Bill Price and‎ David Jaffe’s modern classic The Best Service is No Service:

“Identify root causes of contacts, put in place countermeasures, and eliminate the contact from ever happening. The result: happier customers.”

Bill Price and‎ David Jaffe

“Customers would either prefer not to make contact at all or, in many situations, prefer the flexibility and convenience of well-designed self-service that they can use whenever they have the time, or of proactive alerts to them before an issue becomes serious.”

Think of it like this, you can either wait for your kids to scrape their knees and spend time applying bandages or you can give them kneepads and make sure they don’t get hurt in the first place.

(3) Don’t make customers ‘pay’

Here’s a radical idea: good customer support should be free.

Of course, given that most service doesn’t come with a price tag, what does “free” really mean?

Answer: truly free support removes non-monetary barriers that cost more than any price tag could. Namely, time and effort.

“I don’t like customer service, because I don’t believe the customer should have to pay and help out too.”

Jarod Kintz

Even if an organization is able to solve 100% of its service inquiries in a way that leaves people content, this still means someone had to go out of their way to get the problem fixed.

(Something they shouldn’t have had to do.)

Resolution, speed, and personalization will all be highlighted below. Each of those qualities—not to mention many others—hinge on a redefinition of free.

For now, it’s enough to say that customers should get what they paid for without having to jump through unnecessary hoops afterwards. If they need to reach back out to inform you of where you’ve fallen short, you’ve already made them do more work than they signed up for.

(4) Let go of the ‘rigid protocol’

The traditional model of providing support revolves around following templated workflows and call-center scripts that may or may not prove to be the best way to solve a given problem.

The obvious issue with this approach is that each will be unique in one way or another. Service reps who simply follow the flowchart will eventually run into a myriad of problems that they aren’t equipped to handle.

Worse yet, rigidity essentially says, “We care more about getting your issue off our plate than digging in to help you out.”

“Controllers value being allowed to solve problems in a way that doesn’t require strict adherence to a rigid protocol.”

Harvard Business Review

In addition to HBR’s Kick-Ass Customer Service, another formative article for me has been HBR’s Reinventing Customer Service. It’s opening lines paint a vivid, all-too-common picture:

“Visit any big company, and few departments will be as instantly recognizable as customer service. The call center usually resembles a factory floor, with row after row of reps, headsets on, sticking to the script and rushing from call to call as they try to minimize ‘handle time.’”

To be sure, clearly-defined structures are a necessity. Balance comes from providing flexibility and autonomy within those structures as unique problems arise.

(5) Sacrifice ‘yourself’ to find yourself

“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”

Mahatma Gandhi

At first glance, it may seem presumptuous to cite Gandhi in relationship to customer service.

But selflessness—the willingness to place others before our ourselves, even when they’re anything but polite and thankful—fuels exceptional service. 

While making a good living is certainly one of the main reasons for going into business, this goal should never take precedence over your unrelenting desire to provide value to your customers. 

As Gandhi explains, self-centeredness will ultimately cause you to lose sight of your company’s true mission. Although it sounds backwards, by staying dead set on serving those you have sworn to serve, bottom-line results inevitably follow.

19th Century philosopher and author of Think and Grow Rich, Napoleon Hill, put it like this: “It is literally true that you can succeed best and quickest by helping others to succeed.”

If your customers can trust that you’re wholeheartedly dedicated to helping them succeed, they’ll naturally end up returning the favor.

Each of the five sources tie together what great support is all about.

Above everything, they emphasize good customer service not as an act but as a philosophy that drives an entire business to put customers first: at the center of everything you do.

Good customer service is a company-wide strategy to (1) eliminate the root causes of support, (2) honor a customer’s time, preferences, and humanity, as well as (3) sacrifice ourselves in the service of exceptional support.

In this sense, you’ll never be “done” providing customer service—and that’s the point. 

In accepting that customer service is a philosophy to adhere to (and not something that needs to “get done” so you can move on to something else), your team’s dedication to your customers will shine.

Now, let’s get practical…

Qualities: What makes for excellent customer service?

1. Resolution

Across every quantitative and qualitative study, the desire for resolution defines good customer service.

For instance, Microsoft’s State of Global Customer Service Report asked 5,000 people, “What is the most important aspect of a good customer service experience?” More than a third of both global and US respondents answered: “Getting my issue resolved in a single interaction (no matter the length of time).”

The only response that outranked resolution—in the US anyway—was: “A knowledgeable customer service representative.”

Here’s the thing.

When that same study flipped the question and asked, “What is the most frustrating aspect of a poor customer service experience?” those two answers came together in a single statement:

“The representative lacks the knowledge or ability to resolve my issue.”

Ironically, while a majority of companies (65%) claim to provide effective tools and training to their agents, 42% of service agents still report being unable to efficiently resolve customer issues due to:

  • Disconnected systems
  • Archaic user interfaces
  • And multiple applications

What does all that add up to?

2. Control

In order to provide top-notch customer service, you need to have complete control over every experience customers have with your brand.

That’s not an excuse for inflexible, heavy-handed support. Even less is it a contradiction of the definition above. Instead, it’s an act of kindness.

People seek assistance because they’ve lost control over a situation. They’re scared, stuck, or stumped.

Whether the issue is a minor inconvenience or a major roadblock, that’s a painful and vulnerable position to be in.

Control provides an emotional and practical safety blanket.

In some cases, this may mean holding your customers’ hands step-by-step. In others, it may mean stepping back and letting them take the reins (with greater or lesser degrees of oversight).

And in all cases, it means giving them control before they even reach out through self-service knowledge bases:

Control is a quality of good customer service

73% want to solve product or service issues on their own;
64% try to resolve their issues before contacting customer service;
90% have used self-service systems to find answers to their questions

Regardless of the situation, assume the position of a leader. Think of good service—especially during the first few interactions—not so much as dispensing “how-to” fixes but as guidance from a benevolent dictator.

Act with confidence, anticipate blockers, and take immediate action to ensure their journey back to safety is as clear as possible.

3. Speed

Speed is a nuanced quality when it comes to service.

On one hand, first response time, average response time, and average resolution time are key metrics for reporting. If your customers have to sit on their hands for too long waiting for you to provide what you’ve promised, they’re not going to be happy.

On the other hand, should you sacrifice quality of service for speed of service? Afterall, if the problem isn’t solved, they’re not going to care how quickly you got back to them.

As William J. McEwen puts it in Married to the Brand, “Speed is one factor, but it is markedly less important than having tellers who can deliver services in a friendly and competent manner.”

Strike a balance by prioritizing speed along two lines: (1) channels and (2) severity. 

Most consumers expect brands to acknowledge receipt of request within 24 hours of sending. How soon within those 24 hours, however, varies based on the support channel they use.

Generally, the order of expectations—fastest to slowest—follows a predictable hierarchy:

  1. Chat
  2. Phone
  3. Social
  4. Direct email
  5. Onsite help desk
Customer service channel by speed expectations

Even more vital than channel is severity.

Every team needs a scaling (or, triage) system that automatically identifies highly sensitive issues, flags them, and then routes them directly to the appropriate expert or departement. And that means…

4. Structure

Structure refers to the blueprint through which you approach customer service in total as well as on a case-by-case basis. Developing an overarching structure ensures that you’ll provide consistently high-level service, regardless of the individual context.

To do so, industry leaders rally around three ingredients:

  1. Maintaining a well-documented, in-house playbook
  2. Onboarding new representatives thoroughly
  3. Selecting the right technology and tools

With the first two, structure should dictate what you communicate and how you actually converse with them—your tone, style, attitude, etc.

The real key is the third ingredient: finding the right tool.

Following best practices for Gmail support can work wonders—so long as your team is one or two people. For growing businesses, the better part of wisdom is to investigate and invest in help desk software that fits your needs.

How to Choose Help Desk Software for Your Small Business: Simple Over “Best”
Sample pages from How to Choose Help Desk Software for Your Small Business

There will be times where your team goes off-script. But, in developing a structure and aligning it technologically, you’ll ensure your team never strays too far from the processes that have proven themselves in the past.

5. Attentiveness

Providing surface-level service is easy enough: your customers’ needs are well-known to you. Fielding the usual suspects requires forethought into automation: namely, canned responses (editable email templates) and a user-friendly knowledge base for self-service FAQs.

Unfortunately, not all requests are straightforward. Worse, your customers won’t always make it clear what their more deep-seated needs are.

Attentiveness majors on active listening skills like…

Attentiveness and good customer service

Avoiding distractions during conversations;
Rephrasing to ensure understanding;
Paying attention to non-verbal cues; 
Keying into emotionally charged words;
Asking more and better questions

Even better, being ultra-attentive fosters empathy, a customer service skill that matters far more than baseline support and speed.

When Gallup measured feedback after service at a bank, people who felt the bank offered speedy service were six times more likely to be highly engaged.

However, those who gave the bank high ratings on “people” factors, like the tellers’ courtesy and willingness to help, were nine times more likely to be fully engaged.

Source: Gallup

6. Stories

Taking attentiveness a step further, superb agents aim to learn as much as they can about their customers and then enter their stories.

Here, we’re concerned with:

  • Who people really are beyond demographics
  • How they hope to succeed with and without your brand
  • What their next steps will be once they fix the problem at hand

This is, again, where empathy as a cornerstone skill comes in. Remember: we’re all individuals … with unique histories, unique fears, and unique dreams.

Every customer you engage with is the hero of their own story. And they’re relying on you to help them fulfill their heroic destiny.

Once they’ve reached their intended goal, you want them to be able to look back and say: “Hey, I did it. But I wouldn’t have been able to without your help.”

Less obvious—but no less important—is how you deliver your side of the story: namely, good news versus bad news.

Researchers at UC Riverside tested the order in which they delivered news to subjects, and gauged their responses and behavior.

People who were given the bad news first were more likely to feel better about what they were told, while people who were given the bad news last were more motivated to act on the news.

Two ways to tell customer service stories good news versus bad news

Generally, we want happy customers; so it’s a good idea to lead with the bad.

The exception? If you need to persuade them to act, then start with the good and end with the bad.

7. Communication

In its most literal sense, communication describes the transfer of information between your team and the people you serve.

Keeping customers in the loop during and after a support conversation cannot be over-prioritized.

Think that goes without saying? Maybe not.

During a recent study of ~1,000 small, medium, and large companies across the globe:

Companies of all data-lazy-sizes fail to communicate good customer service

62% did not respond to customer service emails;
90% did not acknowledge an email had been received;
97% did not follow up with their customers after the first email
Source: SuperOffice Customer Service Benchmark Report

On social, companies generally perform better. But it’s still not good. 55% of customer requests for service on social media are not acknowledged.

Worse, on social, expectations are high. In a survey by The Social Habit, 32% of social media users expect a response within 30 minutes and 42% expect a response within 60.

On social media, good customer support comes from fast responses

Moreover, customers don’t like to wait just because it’s a night or weekend. 57% expect the same response time at night and on weekends as during normal business hours.

A brief side note on proactive communication

In the same vein, it’s also essential to keep your entire customer base apprised of any improvements or changes that may affect their experience with your brand.

This type of communication is proactive and must be repetitive. Often, sharing updates feels like communicating to a six-year-old. (That’s not an insult; just a reality from hard-won experience).

This means two things.

First, when you feel like, “If I send this email or make this announcement one more time, I’m going to scream,” that’s usually the first time they start to pay attention.

Second, keep it simple. “If you can’t explain it to a six year old,” goes Albert Einstein’s famous line, “you don’t understand it yourself.”

Overall, remember that the vast majority of service operations happen behind the scenes. If you don’t have a clear line of communication, they have no way of knowing how hard you’re working for them.

But that doesn’t mean all communication is created equal …

8. Intentionality

For communication to positively affect your relationship with customers, it must be purposeful.

Whether responding, reaching out, or following up, frame every conversation around three steps:

(1) Set a clear goal
“The problem seems to be [blank]. Fixing it would result in [blank].”
“Did I get that right?”
(2) Create a plan of action
“To get there, we’ll need to take [blank] steps. Here’s how…
Step 1
Step 2
Step 3
(3) Determine who will do what by when
“My next step will be to [blank] by [date] and check back in on [second date].”
“Your next step will be to [blank] by [date] and check back in on [second date].”

Normally, the goal revolves around alleviating a certain pain point or obstacle. Especially in reactive settings. Intentionality clarifies the goal out loud or in writing rather than assuming there’s alignment.

Likewise, effective plans of action should be sequential, chronological, numbered, and (above all) accountable.

That’s what the third step is all about. Two truths are particularly vital. One: everybody’s job is nobody’s job—even when “everybody” is only you and the customer. Two: deliverables without due dates don’t get done.

9. Personalization

We’ve already talked about the importance of serving the individual—as opposed to catering to your “average” customer or making broad stroke assumptions.

Taking this a step further, understand that everyone evolves over time.

The person you served last week will, in a variety of ways, be a completely different person when you serve them next week. 

It’s not enough to allay assumptive thinking when serving similar customers. Approach each conversation as the unique experience it is.

Honoring someone’s humanity doesn’t have to be a grand undertaking in artificial intelligence or machine learning. Instead, personalization comes to life in ordinary actions we regularly overlook…

  • Addressing customers by name and pronouncing it correctly
  • Answering requests through the same channels they arrived through
  • Keeping track of problems—past and present—so anyone on your team can pick up where the last representative left off without forcing them to repeat the issue

Naturally, you’ll continue to glean more information about a given customer as you engage with them. And you should definitely use what you learn from these past engagements to inform your approach to future ones.

But you also need to keep in mind that a lot has likely gone on in that customer’s life since the last time you interacted with them. Their needs, goals, and preferences are constantly in flux—and it’s up to you to determine exactly what they’re looking for at a single point in time. 

If you don’t keep up with current needs, there will come a point where you’re no longer able to serve them as you once were.

10. Dedication

In stark contrast to common wisdom—and despite what the eleventh and final quality will be—your business doesn’t exist to make money.

It exists to serve. The compensation you receive comes after you’ve provided the services you’ve promised to deliver.

Dedication is the standout quality of good customer service; the standout quality of exceptional companies at large.


Because there can be no half-measures fulfilling your end of the purchase bargain. It’s not enough to just provide access to whatever it is you’re offering; you need to ensure your customers know how to extract the value they’re seeking from your offering.

This is why the best organizations provide tons of additional value to their customers in the form of onboarding instructions and other informational content. It allows them to hit the ground running, so they can quickly get moving toward their intended goals.

Brands that are well-known for their service efforts know they aren’t just serving customers; they’re serving people. To these organizations, it matters not that they’ve already received payment for their services—only whether or not they’ve fulfilled the promises they’ve made to the members of their community.

11. Growth

When Zappos exploded onto the e-commerce scene back in 1999, the company’s main focus was on making waves by revolutionizing customer service.

But Hsieh and company didn’t just rest on their laurels once the brand started to take off. Instead, they continued to improve based on the evolving needs of said audience members.

Two decades later, Zappos remains focused on giving people what they want and deserve—even when it means bucking many trends other major companies have fallen in line with over the years. 

A few examples:

  • Zappos doesn’t limit sessions based on time, but rather finds the best solution for the case at hand
  • Zappos’ service and support teams are provided autonomy with regard to how they handle individual service engagements
  • Zappos provides a no-risk, 365-day return policy in an age when many e-commerce companies are tightening up their policies due to “serial returners”

The point is what was considered revolutionary in 1999 would likely be par for the course in 2019.

And the data proves how service drives growth

Good customer service drives growth

86% of customers are willing to pay more for better service;
84% of businesses that improve customer service increase revenue;
And, 74% of shoppers say they have spent more with a company because of positive customer service experiences

‘Good’ customer service isn’t enough

So, what’s it all mean?

We started with a single question: “What is good customer service?”

The answer to that question—while robust, rooted in timeless sources, and back by data as well 11 qualities—doesn’t quite get us where we need to go.


Because, while providing “good” customer service is enough to keep your company afloat … “good” isn’t actually good enough. Only by understanding how your customers’ needs will evolve today and tomorrow—only by rooting your answer to that question in a philosophy of support that reaches beyond good—can you grow and succeed.

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