The Master Guide to Advancing Your Customer Service Skills

Great customer service should not be difficult. After all, according to a 2009 study, happy customers only want two things: service staff that is competent (78%), and personalized service (38%).

Two things sound easy enough to manage. Surely anyone you hire is competent, and of course you deliver personalized service. (You think.)

Of course, you know it’s not that simple. Those “two things” are actually countless numbers of things all rolled up into a sound bite. Customer service is a people issue, and those are the types of issues that aren’t easy to manage at all.

In case you aren’t convinced it’s a people issue, and think better technology or systems can do the trick consider this: a Genesys survey found that the most requested improvement customers wanted–at 40% and far above anything else–was better human service. Not more bells and whistles, not more products on the shelves, not more rewards cards and programs. They simply wanted a better human experience. They wanted to feel like they mattered as a person, and that they were dealing with people who cared about them.

And that’s the catch.

Why Does Good Customer Service Matter?

A McKinsey Quarterly report revealed that 70% of customer buying experiences were based in how customers felt they were being treated.

Think about that for a minute. Customers are making purchase decisions not based on price, ambiance, selection, marketing, or any of the other aspects of sales that businesses tend to fuss over. Instead, they made decisions based on how they felt you treated them.

Not how you actually treated them. How they felt you treated them. Their perceptions and their feelings will trump what you do. This is tricky, it sounds like a lot of headache and bother, and maybe you’re tempted to simply skip providing good customer service and focusing on merely beating competitor’s pricing.

Customer service attracts new customers.

When you’re a business known for great customer service, you will attract customers. The reverse is also true.

A 2011 American Express survey found that 78% of customers have chosen not to complete a transaction or follow through on an intended purchase simply because they had a poor experience as a customer. Rather than become a real customer, they walked away and went directly to a competitor, since a customer is four times more likely to head to your competitor if the problem was customer service related rather than if it was merely about price or product.

You can pay for advertising and price your products competitively, but great customer service is the real customer magnet. One of the things you’ll see throughout the rest of this article is that, repeatedly, customers make buying choices based on how they are treated rather than on prices, even to the point that they’ll gladly pay more for something if there is good customer service available.

Good customer service is a rare thing, so it gets noticed when it actually exists. It attracts new customers.

Customer service retains current customers.

Good customer service is the best way to retain your current customers. According to that 2011 American Express survey, almost 60% of people would give up on a current business relationship to try a new company if there was better customer service.

In order for this to scare you a bit, you first need to understand how valuable those current customers are.

  • Current value: According to the White House Office of Consumer Affairs, a current customer is worth up to ten times as much as their first purchase.
  • Profit increase: According to a Harvard study, retaining even just 5% of your current customer base can increase your profits from 25% to 95%.
  • Future revenue: 80% of your business’s future earnings will come from 20% of your current customers.
  • Cost savings: The Harvard study also discovered that retaining customers is less costly than chasing after new ones. It costs up to seven times more to get a new customer than simply hanging onto ones you already have.
  • Effort savings: The probability that you’ll sell to a new customer is only 5-20%, while the probability that you’ll sell to a current customer is 60-70%.

If you like numbers, there you have it: current customers are extremely valuable to your bottom line no matter how you look at it. These numbers don’t even touch on their value in spreading positive word-of-mouth about your business.

Providing great customer service helps you hang onto a huge asset.

Customer service increases sales and overcomes price sensitivity.

That same American Express survey revealed that 70% of people are willing to spend more if they think they’ll get better customer service. Good customer service can overcome price sensitivity.

Consider airlines. You’d think they were about flying people from point A to point B (and they are), but their real business model is based on pain. Or, more accurately, the avoidance of pain. If you want to have a better experience boarding, with your luggage, with legroom, with snacks and amenities…you pay more. People are willing to pay more if customer service–which should negate pain and fear–is increased.

If you are in a competitive market where pricing to beat competitors is a real problem, you can overcome this by offering stellar customer service.

Customer-focused service builds employee confidence and united purpose.

We’ll talk more about building a culture of customer service later in this article, but when you and your team have the same focus on customers you are unified in purpose.

When employees know that the goal is customer service, they know that anything they take action on with that in mind will not be punished. Think about it: employee interactions with customers are where some of the most challenging moments arise, and where they often have to make decisions in the moment. Giving them permission to “side with” the customer gives them the confidence to solve the problem without needing to get permission from someone higher up the ladder.

What Is Good Customer Service?

Customer service is, quite simply, any interaction between a customer (or potential customer) and your staff. Great customer service is when that customer leaves with a positive feeling towards your business.

It’s important to point out that customer service occurs all along the sales funnel, from the time a potential customer is considering a purchase to after the sale is completed. It might be as simple as answering a few questions before a sale is made, or as complicated as installation of a product after the sale or dealing with support request.

Any time a customer comes to your business with a question or need, you provide customer service. And, as I’ll point out later, every employee is in the customer service business no matter what their job is. This is a crucial point when talking about employee training.

Customer service has an emotional investment.

Good customer service has an emotional investment. It’s not merely a successful delivery of facts and help.

There often tends to be a gap between the customer and “frontline” employees they deal with. According to that McKinsey Quarterly report, there are customer-employee interactions that are “moments of truth”. These are the most emotionally driven moments when customers have a higher amount of emotional energy in the game (returning merchandise, seeking a refund, etc.). It is in these moments, where that emotional energy is involved, that your customer service is made or broken.

When employees understand the emotional component of customer service and that customers are coming to them hesitant, unsure, wary, upset, angry, or any other variety of emotions, they start to see it less as a mere handing out of information and instead a way to meet customer’s emotional needs.

This blog post includes over 10,000 words of actionable ideas! If you want to spend more time digging into the tips and processes covered below, download the free ebook version of the Master Guide to Advancing Your Customer Service Skills!

In other words, customer service is not something that can be scripted. There must be real emotion and empathy for the customer in order for the service to feel authentic.

What customers really want from you.

For one thing, they want to be a treated like a person.

Did you know that employees ask for a customer’s name only about 21% of the time? Asking and using a name is the most basic way to treat another person and most businesses aren’t bothering to do even that.

According to Entrepreneur.com, customers are asking you four basic things:

  1. Do you like me?
  2. Do you care about me?
  3. Can I trust you?
  4. Do you know what you’re talking about?

That list is striking in that it has very little to do about the sale and more to do about the relationship of the people involved. The first two unspoken questions are the customer wanting to know that you value them. The second two unspoken questions are the customer wanting to know if it’s safe to spend money with you.

When a customer feels like a number or nothing more than a walking potential sale, all the gimmicks in the world won’t make your customer service shine.

Customer service must avoid impossible promises.

Good customer service is about satisfaction. Great customer service is about delight. Satisfying a customer is the minimum and meets expectations. Delighting a customer can set you apart from competitors.

The idea of customer delight seems to be a bit of a buzzword in recent years, but there’s validity to the concept. Delighting a customer generally means that a business goes above and beyond the customer’s expectations. That means, in order for delight to happen, you need:

  • To know customer expectations.
  • To be able to exceed them.

Oddly enough, moments of delight are often found at the end of a serious customer service failure, those emotional moments where a customer has had a bad experience, a product failure, or is on the cusp of walking away. That’s when you can use delight to your advantage since expectations are already low and it will be quite easy to exceed them and turn the entire situation around. When an airline, for example, puts a stranded passenger up in a hotel room instead of abandoning them to a night in the airport before flying them out the next day, that passenger is probably going to associate positive feelings towards the airline from then on. In the darkest moment, the airline came through and went beyond expectations.

Moments of customer delight stand out in a customer’s mind, but you can’t be the big hero all of the time. That’s impractical. Still, periodically going for the moment of delight is a good move since it feeds into “confirmation bias” in which, for example, a customer who has always been satisfied with your customer service will, upon being delighted, continue to associate your business with fantastic customer service even if everything from there on out is back to the usual good customer service. In other words, mixing delight with satisfactory service can boost a customer’s opinion of your service for the long haul.

Here’s the catch: if you make promises to a customer, those become a part of the customer’s expectations. Meeting that promise isn’t going to delight the customer; it isn’t even going to satisfy the customer. So before you make broad customer service promises about how great you are and that you care about the customer more than anyone and that there’s a money-back guarantee, be sure you can follow through. If you can’t, or your staff isn’t able to act according to the hype, you’ve basically set yourself up for dissatisfied customers.

Be careful about the customer service promises you make, because every promise raises customer expectation and makes it more difficult to satisfy them, much less delight. Big promises make it almost impossible to delight.

Know the relationship between customer satisfaction and customer experience.

Customer satisfaction and customer experience often correlate, but don’t always have a causative effect.

In the 1950’s, Frederick Herzberg came up with something called the “two factor” theory. His idea was that measuring employee satisfaction and employee dissatisfaction occur on two different “scales” and were not necessarily directly dependant on the opposite other. “Motivator” factors cause satisfaction (e.g. recognition, responsibility, opportunity), while “hygiene factors”, when absent, cause dissatisfaction (e.g. job security, benefits, salary). When motivating factors are present, people feel satisfaction. When hygiene factors are absent, they feel dissatisfaction.

In the customer service realm, “motivator” factors include things like free products, moments of delight, and speedy help. “Hygiene” factors include things like phone wait times, hassle-free returns, and personal interaction.

The previous discussion about customer delight and expectation can tie into this easily when you consider that those “hygiene factors” form the basis for customer expectation. When a customer experiences your business and finds that those “hygiene factors” are missing, your customer service has failed even if you dump all the motivators in the world on them. Remember, these two factors are not on the same scale; they do not balance each other out.

Here’s the takeaway: the customer experience must not dip below the baseline of customer expectation, or dissatisfaction is the result no matter how many fun gimmicks you use to try to make customers happy. They might have an experience of delight now and then, but if there is a regular history of failed “hygiene” factors, the delight won’t do the trick in the long term. A great customer experience once in awhile won’t make up for long term shortfalls.

You must consider customer experience, but you shouldn’t do it at the expense of overall customer satisfaction. This is why it’s important to know what your customers expect in the first place.

Putting Customer Service Skills To Work

Talking about customer service skills in abstract theory is all well and good, but you have to do something with that knowledge and make it practical. So how do you advance your customer service skills?

Hire with an eye towards customer service.

Your employees are at the frontline with your customers. When hiring employees, do so with an eye towards customer service. While many skills can be learned (and I’ll talk about that next), there are some personality traits that make potential employees ideal. People who naturally possess some or all of these traits will be an incredible help in your business.

  • Calm and patient. These folks are able to handle pressure and tense situations without cracking. Even when faced with an emotional customer situation, they remain calm.
  • Able to listen and be attentive. Anyone can hear someone. Few are actually able to listen. This is a person who can listen even beyond what the person is saying, reading their body language and emotions, to get to the heart of any problem.
  • Able to channel their own emotion. Customer service can be trying, and even the best employee may struggle with being reactive or defensive. This is someone who can exercise self-control and channel their emotion in a positive way.
  • Able to handle surprises well. Customers say and do the unplanned, all the time. In the trenches, customer service is rarely as tidy as any training you might provide, so this type of person is able to think on their feet and make decisions on the fly.
  • Ability to empathize and be compassionate. The ability to feel empathy for another person is far too rare. Empathy comes from being around people who are different than you, and it is practiced by finding a way to be interested in who someone is.

Sadly, most hiring focuses on skill sets and technical ability instead of these types of personality traits. When it comes to skills, you can usually train on the job. But when it comes to the abilities listed here, that’s not so easy.

When a job candidate with exceptional customer service abilities shows up on your doorstep lacking a few technical skills, try to overlook the lack of skills if possible. This is what hiring with an eye towards customer service means.

Teaching employees customer service skills.

Not every person has the perfect personality for customer service, and you still need to fill job positions. Fortunately, there are many customer service skills that can be taught.

Communication: This is the holy grail of customer service, being able to speak and share information between customer and other team members. This involves:

  • Sharing only the information customers need, avoiding off-the-topic rambling or sharing personal information.
  • Communicating back to the customer, in your own words, what the problem is and what the customer seems to want as a solution.
  • Bringing clarity to a possibly emotional customer moment.
  • Telling other team members who might be involved in the solution exactly what they need to do and when they need to do it.

Keeping promises and follow-up: At it’s foundation, this is simply an organizational and motivation issue, and it involves:

  • Avoiding procrastination when dealing with customer issues.
  • Being able to plan out a solution or resolution on a timeline.
  • Communicating with other team members who might be involved in the solution both during and after the incident.
  • Making sure everyone involved is sticking to the timeline.
  • Contacting the customer before, during, and after the resolution as it applies to the situation.

Honesty and ethics: If a person doesn’t have a strong sense of honesty or good ethics, you may need to use reward and punishment to enforce what you set as a standard in this area. Sometimes dishonest rises from a fear of being punished when a customer service incident doesn’t go well. Establishing a reputation for not being punitive in those moments, but instead using them to learn from, will help erase that fear. Training your employees to be honest and ethical in customer service means:

  • Being honest about what has happened with a customer.
  • Owning up to shoddy work or service that has led to a customer complaint.
  • Being willing to apologize to a customer if the situation calls for it.
  • Being on point in customer service whether they are being monitored by managers or not.

Becoming an expert in the industry: Your employees don’t have to be the world’s greatest expert, but they should know a lot about the industry they work in so that they can answer customer questions. This means you need to train them to:

  • Know the latest trends in the industry.
  • Be familiar with common customer questions.
  • Be familiar with the answers other team members have given customers.
  • Have used the products or services themselves for customers who want anecdotal information.
  • Talk about the products in a positive way, and be able to upsell to customers (where applicable) when it would benefit the customer.

Paying attention to customers: No one wants to feel as if they are being ignored or are some kind of intrusion, especially a customer. The simple act of paying attention to customers means training your employees to:

  • Put away mobile phones and other distracting devices.
  • Leave their personal life at home and be fully in the moment.
  • Maintain situational awareness and take an interest in customers who are present.
  • Maintain eye contact when speaking with a customer, or when approached by a customer.
  • In appropriate situations, getting the customer’s first name and using it.
  • Taking a short break if their attention span is faltering due to weariness (customer service can be draining).

Positive body language: What employees do with their eyes and gestures says more than their words. Ever been at a store where the employee at the counter never met your eyes once the whole transaction and, in a monotone and uncaring voice, told you to have a nice day? You know, by their body language, that they don’t care one bit about your day. Here’s the thing about positive body language: even if you have to fake it at first, just the act of doing it has a positive effect on your attitude.

  • Make direct eye contact without staring. Be natural and look at people when you are speaking to them.
  • Keep your posture tall and avoid slouching into your hands or covering your face with your hands.
  • Be standing at the counter when a customer comes to make a purchase so they don’t feel guilty for making you get out of your chair to help them.

Talk and rephrase problems positively: The idea of positive language is sort of like the importance of positive body language. Even if an employee doesn’t “feel” positive, the act of doing it can change an attitude. When it comes to using positive language, your team learns to avoid words and phrases that point out a negative (e.g. “we can’t get that today” or “we won’t be able to get that until next week”), and instead rephrases things with a positive spin (e.g. “it will take a week to ship, but I’m happy to order it for you”).

  • Learn to see delays in products or service not as a negative, but as a chance to show you are happy to do the hard work and simply let the customer know when something is available.
  • Understand what products or services are not going to be available, and be prepared to offer a better substitute.

Learn from mistakes: When things go badly in customer service (and they will), reassure your staff that there is nothing to fear from management and provide them with the training and opportunity to learn from their mistakes. Whether it’s one-on-one after an incident, or as a team using scenarios, help them dissect what happened so they can learn how to avoid it in the future.

  • What words or phrases to avoid using.
  • How to control emotions and avoid defensiveness.
  • How to handle an aggressive or abusive customer.
  • How to close a sale properly.

Learning right after an incident where things went wrong is a powerful teaching time. They will remember because it’s fresh in their memory and they don’t want it to happen again.

Know organization and the business: It is surprising how many businesses neglect to teach their employees about the business itself. Sometimes simply telling a customer that the sale they are about to make is a good one, with specific reasons why in comparison to competitors or industry standards, are all it takes to push them past hesitation. Employees should know:

  • Who the manager is for a specific department.
  • The return and refund policy (if you have a rigid policy).
  • Warranties and guarantees.
  • Upcoming product releases.
  • Financing, layaway, or other sales-related policies.
  • Product, service, or industry information.
  • Knowledge of competitor’s products and the ability to (with positive language) show how your’s are different to the customer’s benefit.
  • Industry standards, and the areas where you exceed them.

Time management: Tricky as it may be, there are times when you can’t help a customer. Some have a problem you can’t solve, some don’t actually want their problem solved but just want to wheedle a deal out of you, and some just like the attention. That’s where customer service time management comes in.

  • Determine how much time should be the maximum allowed for a customer service need (though do allow for leeway when an employee is working a genuine problem).
  • Determine what the ultimate solution will be (e.g. full refund, no questions asked) so that you can use this method when it seems all else has failed.
  • Know your customer service load and keep tabs on it so that you stay on top of that maximum service time.

Basic human psychology: Just as your employee’s body language tells the customer about their sincerity, so can you learn from the customer. Providing your staff with training on some basic consumer psychology principles will go a long way in improving your customer service skills. There’s so much you can learn from a customer through observation or by listening to what they are saying beyond the actual words.

  • How patient they are, or what their mood is.
  • When they are ready to buy.
  • How price sensitive they are.
  • If the customer is motivated by exclusivity and urgency.
  • Why the customer is really making a purchase (needs the item, alleviate a pain point, emotional spending, etc.)
  • If they are motivated by brands, labels, and loyalty.
  • If they need to feel that their purchase goes for a higher good.
  • If they prefer to be combative or argumentative with sales staff in order to establish their own expertise before buying.
  • If they need reassurance that they aren’t making a mistake.
  • What type of buyer they are: tightwads, spendthrifts, average spender.

It’s easy to balk at the idea that you should behave and speak in a way that you don’t honestly feel, but you and your staff don’t have the luxury of showing off any chips on your shoulder for every customer to see. You may have to fake positivity until it actually sets in. Sometimes the action comes before the feeling, and forcing yourself to think, speak, and act positively can actually change your attitude. Anyone on your staff who rejects the idea that they cannot bring their personal drama into work or is unwilling to “fake” it for your customers has no place in a customer-centric business.

Build a customer service culture in your business.

Most businesses are about doing business. Eye on the bottom line, meeting budgets–that kind of thing. Customer service is secondary when it should be a core quality in your business’s culture. So how do you go about building customer service into your culture?

  1. Use a common language. Make sure your whole team is using the same phrases or jargon so that when one employee speaks to another about an incident, they know what they are talking about. This is part of that whole “be better at communication” aspect.
  2. Be conscious of your customer expectations. Keep in mind the customer service gap model, an idea which says that a large difference between customer expectations and customer perceptions is a bad thing.

Customer expectations might be built based on what they’ve heard via word-of-mouth, advertising, their own culture or regional background, and what you and your team have promised them. This is especially challenging if you run a business, such as a franchise, in which national advertising or promotion might be challenging for your local business to meet.

Customer perception is, unfortunately, a bit subjective. It is how they perceive your business to really be. It might vary depending on the attitude of the sales clerk or how the customer herself was feeling the day she decided to do business with you. She might have purchased a one-off faulty product and that has colored the way she sees all that you do.

How do you close the gap?

  • As I’ve mentioned previously, don’t set customer expectations higher than they should be, as far as what you can control. Don’t promise the moon, in other words, if you can’t deliver it. Avoid grand and sweeping statements about how you’re the best if you’re not. Don’t promote sales and coupons that have excessive fine print that all but negate the value of the deal.
  • Build the customer’s knowledge of your products or services so their expectations are more realistic. Whether that’s through your blog, video segments online, the local morning news show, or simply taking the time to explain things to a customer who has asked, knowledge can bring perception more in line with reality.

Know your market or target audience so you know how much of a gap there is. You can’t close it if you don’t know the size of the gap.

  1. Put the customer in the middle. Though there are some exceptions, just about everything you and your team talk about and decide involves customers–what products to create or sell, what services to offer, what prices are best. And yet, how often do you make decisions about your business based on just about every other factor except your customer?

When you put your customer in the center, for example, you don’t stock up on products they don’t want, forcing your sales staff to try and push products onto people who aren’t interested in them. A customer service culture starts by making every decision (when viable) centered around the customer.

  1. Build your staff with your customer in mind. I mentioned earlier about how you should hire your employees with an eye more towards customer service rather than skills, but suffice it to say that every employee that walks through your door as a new hire should be one who is pointed towards customer service. You will have to do continued work to keep them pointed in this direction, however. This means:
  • Giving out rewards and recognition for customer service excellence. It’s easy to reward sales and other skills, but you should reward those employees who have been quietly working wonders with your customers.
  • Seriously encourage your employees make suggestions, comments, or even share concerns about customer service. Let them know that the bottom line is important, but that customer service ideas are just as important, too.
  • Make customer service training a crucial part of your regular training schedule.
  • Train your staff regularly on how to use your products or services. For example, if you run a restaurant, make sure they have tasted the food and are familiar enough to recommend their own favorites to a customer who might ask.
  • Make sure your staff know where things are located in the store. It seems silly, but it is very frustrating for a customer to need help and have a staff member unable to assist them because they don’t know where something is located.
  • Have your employees experience the store as a customer would, especially your new hires who haven’t become desensitized yet. It’s easy to stop noticing things about your business that customers find frustrating or annoying simply because you’ve become used to it. Perhaps the afternoon sun hits them in the eyes when they sit to eat because you don’t have any shades on the window, or the music is too loud. Look at every touchpoint, every product and sales experience (even the restrooms!) and make sure that the customer is the favored focus, not you.
  • Walk your own talk. Make sure you and all managers are as customer service focused as everyone else on all of these things. Remember, everyone–managers and all staff–are in the customer service business.

Creating a managed system with a customer service focus.

It’s easy to list some rather abstract ideas that need to happen with regards to customer service, but there also has to be something concrete to keep you actually moving in the right direction. This is where the idea of a managed customer service system comes into play. Note, though, that this is a managed system. Someone must be managing it, i.e. paying attention to it.

Such a managed system has several key qualities:

  1. If you choose to define, make it clear. Not everyone is a fan of a hard-and-fast return policy, for example. Some business in some industries (e.g. startups) don’t want to be locked into a policy and hear employees say “that goes against our policy” to any frustrated customer. For businesses that do want to lay out policies, be sure you make it clear.
  • Define terms in clear language. For example, if you “guarantee your service” what do you mean? A full refund if things go wrong? A voucher for a future purchase? When customers ask, your employees have the right answer.
  • If there are exceptions, or you are willing to let your employees have a bit of leeway in making decisions with regards to customer service, be clear about that, too.
  1. It must be built for handling customer complaints. Customer service doesn’t necessarily mean complaints, but it often does. Creating a system where you can collect those complaints is vital. It should be a system that all employees can contribute to, and one that someone is regularly monitoring.

Why bother with this? Why not just solve the problems on the fly and forget about them?

  • It gives you the ability to measure data. (I’ll talk about the need for measuring this data in detail in just a bit.)
  • It makes sure no complaint is ignored.
  • It allows you to detect patterns of complaints (e.g. from the same customer, for the same product, involving the same employee).
  • It makes a habit of importance, in regards to customer service, that all employees develop simply by the act of adding information to the system.
  • It makes employees more aware of the complaints and gives them the ability to make adjustments through their own observations.
  1. It must be able to help you connect with our customers. Let’s say you want to reward your loyal customers on their birthdays (a common practice in restaurants). You have to have a way of knowing both their birthday and their loyalty. Or, perhaps, you want to offer specials to them that relate to their past purchase history. Again, you have to know it. While it would be nice if we could remember all of our “regulars” by memory, you’ll probably need your managed system to do it for you.

Remembering birthdays, past purchases, favorites, special events, or simply rewarding loyalty makes your business seem more personal to customers, and that matters. Remember, customer service is about people, and people are personal.

What If Things Go Wrong?

It’s not always easy to know if you have a problem with your customer service skills. According to customer service expert Ruby Newell-Legner, businesses hear from only about 4% of their dissatisfied customers.

Think about that for a moment; 96% of customers who have had a bad experience simply say nothing, most (91%) customers who experience bad customer service choosing to simply not come back to your business.

It’s difficult to know when things are going wrong if you are relying only upon customer complaints.

Know the common problem areas in customer service.

Because you can’t rely on customers to tell you in plain language that your customer service skills need work, you need to better understand the areas where customer service tends to go off the rails.

This list is a few of the top ways businesses supremely fail at customer service.

  1. Slow response times to customers who ask for help. When a customer approaches you for help, whether online, in the store, or over the phone, do they have to wait a long time to get any service? Do you have a maximum customer wait time, and are you able to measure if you are exceeding that too often?
  2. No follow-up with customers who have asked for help or have made purchases that might need further instruction. Depending on the purchase, product, or service, a customer may appreciate follow-up. This is particularly true for big ticket items that are complicated to use or are paid for through subscription payments. Do you contact customers who have recently purchased something to see if they are satisfied, need help, or do they feel like you’ve forgotten them? Follow-up is the place where customers who might not have revealed their dissatisfaction feel able to do so and give you valuable information on what needs improvement. The sale is not the end. Follow-up after a sale means returning customers.
  3. Incomplete or inadequate help or instruction. You may offer help or information on your website, in print materials, or in your store. Is that information adequate? Is it truly helpful? Do you have a method in which your customers can let you know if the information was helpful or not? Unless you rely totally on in-person help, be sure your online or printed materials answer all the questions your customers keep asking.
  4. Passing the buck with no real resolution or answer. You and your employees may catch yourself passing the buck, when it comes to customer service, because you either don’t know the answer and don’t know who is qualified to help a customer, or you simply don’t want to deal with a problem. Harris Interactive discovered that customer service employees failed to answer customer questions 50% of the time. 50% of the time!

Half of customer questions, to your staff, going unanswered? Think of the lost sales! Customers rarely spend money or buy when they doubt or don’t understand what they are buying.

Yes, closing the sale is exciting and it’s easy to focus on that singular thing, but you must be equally as interested in “closing” the problem that a customer brings to you or there will be no future sales.

  1. Apathy or inability to understand customer distress. According to CSM, a magazine for customer service managers, 68% of customers that no longer support your business left simply because they felt there was an attitude of indifference towards them by you and your employees.

The product, the price, even the help might have been sufficient, but just the sense that your staff was apathetic towards them was enough to send customers packing. Do you or your employees act bored or ignore customers? Do customers feel like they’re interrupting you when they try to make a purchase? Do you promise to deliver a service in a particular timeline and then give them excuses as to why you haven’t shown up yet?

  1. Angry or rude responses to customers. CSM also discovered that it takes 12 positive customer service interactions to compensate for one bad one. Customers come to you to give you their money in exchange for something, and they feel (rightly so) that they are doing you the favor. When they experience rudeness or anger, it takes a lot to make up for essentially two debts: you not understanding they have the money you want, and you being rude to them while still asking for it. What’s worse is that angry customers will tell eight to sixteen people about their negative experience.
  2. Defensive posturing when faced with customer complaints. Some people take everything personally, and are naturally defensive when faced with anything remotely accusatory. Employees that have this problem are going to need training, because you and your staff simply cannot interact with any customer in this way. Becoming defensive about products or services only heightens the desire to fight in customers prone to complaining, and only chases those who tend to stay silent right out the door. No one wants to buy something from a business in which any legitimate question or complaint is met with a strong defense. It’s too much work and they’d just as soon take their money elsewhere.
  3. Lack of knowledge to answer customer questions. Even the most willing and friendly employee needs to know the products and services you are selling or their customer service skills will fall flat. Customers who have basic questions they need answers to before buying aren’t going to make a purchase if no one can give them the answers.

Do your employees know everything about the products and services you are selling, or do they have to constantly tell the customer to wait a moment and they’ll go find an answer? When new products or services are made available, make sure your employees are trained on them before you offer them to customers. Your employees should also be well versed in your rewards programs, current promotions and sales, and even have used the products themselves in order to provide anecdotal help.

  1. No method of measuring customer service success or failure. This is where that managed customer service system comes into play. Poor customer service starts and continues simply because businesses don’t bother to try to measure their weaknesses. Look at the previous eight items on this list. Do you notice something interesting about these common customer service problem areas? Many of them are not exactly quantifiable, particularly in light of how few customers are willing to voice their displeasure. Knowing where weaknesses typically occur in customer service is fine, but what do you do with it? That’s where measuring comes in.

Measuring customer service failures.

80% of businesses claim they deliver fantastic customer service. But guess what? Only 8% of people actually think they do.

There is a serious gap between what businesses believe and what customers believe, and it exists because those businesses aren’t bothering to determine what’s really happening. You can’t find the areas that need improvement if you don’t have a way to measure or take a temperature. But how do you measure something that doesn’t have a number or can be displayed on a graph?

  1. Ask your customers. This is such an obvious way of obtaining a measurement of how your customer service is, yet so underused. Sure, a majority of customers won’t tell you if there’s a problem on their own, but when you ask them, it’s a different story. You might ask them:
  • How they felt about their experience.
  • How they feel about your brand.
  • How they rate your products.
  • How they rate your prices.
  • If the staff seems knowledgeable and/or friendly.

You can ask your customers through surveys, after the sale, or even through electronic kiosks that ask them to rate your service. The key is to make it easy and even rewarding. Your customer’s time is valuable, so you don’t want to hit them over the head with a 100 question survey, and you want to reward them for participating. Ask a few key questions, and switch them over time so you can build some data on how customers feel about a variety of areas such as sales, products, prices, staff, and so on.

  1. Track actual customer complaints. This is what I mentioned previously, but with more specifics. First off, treasure complaints. The few complaints you do get, considering the low percentage of customers who tell you, are like gold.

Yes, you should be responding and answering, but you should also have a system in place where you can track the complaints. Tracking means that you are purposefully looking for data points that establish a pattern.

For example, it would be handy to know:

  • What the specific complaint is. Do they need help? More information before buying? A question about price? A desire to return a product?
  • When the complaint occurs. Is it during an event? In the afternoon? Usually on Mondays? During specific types of promotions?
  • How the complaints come in. Is your phone getting the workout, or do most requests come in on your social media accounts?
  • What the complaint seems focused around. Do you get a steady supply of complaints around a particular product or service? Is a particular employee always involved?

With this kind of tracking, you can use customer service indicators to tell you if certain promotions are more trouble than they’re worth, if you need to discontinue a product or service, or if an employee needs more training or needs to be let go.

Whether you use something as simple as a spreadsheet, or something more complex like a database, collect the data and plug it into your system and keep an eye out for disturbing trends. The idea here is that you can be proactive about customer service instead of reactive. You learn what tends to happen and when, and you and your customer support team can be ready for it.

  1. Pay attention to your competition. Hopefully you’re paying attention to your competition for other reasons, but have you ever done it from a customer service standpoint? What does the competition’s customers say (good and bad) about their experience there? Have you experienced their customer service first hand, and if so, how does yours compare?

While it might sound a bit stalker-ish, hop onto Yelp or other review sites to see what people are saying, and then be honest. Would those complaints or praises apply to you?

Assessing the competition is painful, if you’re honest about it. You will find areas that you are weak in, and it’s tempting to ignore them.

  1. Track self-service usage. If you have set up a website to provide information, track how much traffic you are getting there, and where that traffic is coming from. Pay attention to the search terms and links that bring you there. Not only might you learn quite a bit about potential customers, but you’ll find out what search queries and questions people have. Is your staff equipped to answer those types of questions in person?

If you’ve set up other customer self-service methods (for example, the night deposit drop at a bank), track how often it gets used and used successfully. If not too many customers are making use of these methods, either you’ve solved a problem that wasn’t really a problem (and maybe missed one that was), or you’ve created a solution that’s too fussy to use and is creating customer service problems of its own.

  1. Track customer loyalty. Hopefully you have some idea of how often you get return customers, whether it’s through loyalty programs or simply recognizing the “regulars”. A high rate of customer loyalty is a good indication of excellent customer service.

Sure, prices keep people coming back for a while, but great customer service keeps them for good. Remember that American Express survey I mentioned earlier that revealed nearly 60% of people would go elsewhere if the customer service was better? Clearly, competitive pricing doesn’t have an iron grip on customers.

  1. Hold and waiting times for customers. How are you doing as a “first responder”? It’s not unusual for a company to promise to get back to a customer within 24 hours, but just because that’s common doesn’t make that acceptable. The longer a customer has to wait, the more their satisfaction drops.

Customers will put up with waiting different amounts of times depending on the method they used to contact you:

  • 53% of customers think three minutes is longest they should wait for help on the telephone. And in case you were wondering, the phone is still the most commonly preferred method of getting help.
  • More than a day or two is too long to wait for a response over email.
  • On social media, 42% of customers think an hour is the maximum wait time, while 32% think a half hour is the limit.
  • 33% of customers would recommend a brand that provides a fast but ineffective response, as compared to only 17% that recommend a brand that provides a slow but effective response (in other words, response time matters even more than resolution!). People want to be acknowledged quickly.

Track the time customers spend waiting on a phone, or waiting to get an answer. Not only do you want to find out how long this is, but you want to know when it happens. There may be peak customer service times, for example, that you need to have extra staff on hand for.

  1. Track how long it takes a customer to find what they’re looking for. This is a bit more tricky, and may only apply to some industries (e.g. online stores), but if possible try to determine how much time it takes a customer to get the information they need to make a purchase. Customer service happens during every part of the sales funnel, not just afterwards, so a customer that is able to make a purchase relatively quickly has access to enough information to do so. According to Buffer 55% of customers commit to a business simply because it is easy to find information and help.

The easiest thing to measure will be anything you can apply a number to, such as wait times or peak customer service times. Consider those types of things the minimum and at least make the effort to track them.

Improving your employees current customer service skills.

Frankly, even if you and your staff are known for fantastic customer service, you still need to be actively pursuing improvement even if only to maintain your current standards. Customer service is not a self-maintaining skill by any means. And truthfully, most businesses really do need improvement when it comes to customer service. Here are a few key ways for you and your employees to improve their customer service skills:

  1. Make sure it is a value your entire staff shares. Too many businesses give lip service to the importance of the customer. They have mission statements and posters that talk about how valuable customers are. But what kind of action backs up all that talk? And, does your entire staff truly share those customer-centric values or do they simply nod when you ask if it’s important?
  2. Be consistent about the importance of customer service to your staff at all times. As a business owner, you’ll face a lot of challenges. When possible, for those challenges that in any way involve customers, stay on message. Never let slip negative comments about customers, and always make decisions in accordance with your focus on customer service. In everything you say, decide, explain, and do–stay on message! This will help ingrain it in your employees that you are serious about customer service.
  3. Avoid allowing employees to hide behind technology or other methods to avoid dealing with proper customer service. Many employees want to avoid dealing with customers, particularly if the customer has a problem or needs help. This might stem from several different reasons, such as not having the knowledge necessary to offer help and feeling ashamed or afraid that this might be revealed, or perhaps having a bad attitude about their job and the customers associated with it.

Whatever the case, employees can be very clever about avoiding customer service. They can procrastinate and put off responding to social messages or phone calls. They might assign customer service requests to another team member. Or they might simply ignore customers at all levels of the sales funnel. If you see this happening, get to the bottom of it. Do employees simply need more training so they are confident they can answer questions? Are they getting burned out and can’t handle another customer? Is there something else going on that has made them resent their job and their customers?

  1. Have someone able to handle customers at all current contact points. Whether you choose just one or several people, part of making sure your customer service improves is to take it seriously enough that you dedicate team members to it. Whatever contact points you’ve opened up to your customers (telephone, email, social media, online help desk, customer service counter), you need someone dedicated to responding there.

If you expect all of your team to just “keep an eye on things” most will assume or hope someone else does it and your customers will experience extreme lag times.

  1. Avoid employee customer service burnout. Customer service is extremely draining. If you aren’t careful, you’ll see employees leaving their jobs or getting snippy with customers simply because they are drained from having to deal with the same types of issues.

Yes, it’s true that every employee is in customer service in their own way, but some employees bear the daily brunt of it (sales floor staff, or support desk, for example). This is an especially difficult thing for introverted people who are emotionally drained the more they interact with others.

Have enough employees trained in customer support so that you can rotate the staff and allow for a few days on and off from direct customer support. If possible, see that employees have other duties to keep them busy at work without being on customer support. Or, rotate employees through their shift from cashier to back room.

Whatever it takes, particularly for employees whose personality tests may reveal a difficulty in dealing with people for long periods, find a way to protect them from burnout. Burned out employees come to despise customers and do damage to your business before ultimately quitting.

  1. Make knowledge easily available for customers to get on their own, if possible. Not every business needs a full slate of online exposure, but making the most basic questions available to customers on their own time will save your staff from repetitive customer service inquiries.

Your website and social media pages, for example, should list your location, your phone number, and your hours of operation. Depending on your business, you might make a menu, a list of services, prices, or top-selling products available. Perhaps you’ll create a “frequently asked questions” page based on the most common questions you’ve been fielding at your help desk, updating it as needed.

Why is this type of information necessary? According to customer service expert Flavio Martins, 53% of customers make a purchase after they’ve done online research. Putting your own information out there for them to read helps bring them to you for the sale.

While some customers are always going to come to you for every question, many (especially today, with the high rate of mobile devices) actually prefer to find out everything they can on their own. Make it easy for them and consider the act of doing so its own kind of customer service.

  1. Offer a self-service option if applicable to your business. If you are able, you might want to go beyond merely providing helpful information and offer a self-service option for customers.

Think of banks (as I mentioned earlier) and how they use deposit boxes for after-hours deposits. Or how Amazon.com makes it easy for customers to return purchases by printing off a label for their box. The famous cupcake shop Sprinkles even came up with an ATM which dispenses cupcakes to die hard customers after hours. The idea is to find a pain point where customer service is frequently needed and to determine if there is a way you can allow customers to help themselves not just for information, but to actual service.

Be careful, though, that you don’t automate the human touch completely out of your customer service approach. 67% of customers have hung up the phone because they were frustrated that they weren’t able to talk to a real person, while 75% think it takes too long to get to a real person.

  1. Regular training of employees using customer service scenarios. Customer service training should go beyond mere lecture. Equipping your employees with real world training experience is going to do more in the long run.

For example, you might use training modules to simulate various scenarios an employee might face during a typical customer service interaction. This type of training works like a flow chart of sorts, helping an employee see what the result of their decisions might be. You could build a module that helps an employee work through a scenario with a customer returning a product that broke, or complaining about the service they just received.

Scenario-based training not only allows an employee to experience how a situation feels, but to experiment with what happens and gain confidence in their ability to deal with it.

  1. Empower your employees to make things right. Give your team a clear set of what they are allowed to decide and do without needing to run to a manager, and what kinds of rewards or restitution they can make without consulting you.

Part of the frustration of some customers is that they feel as if they have a simple need and employees can’t help them without dragging out the process by involving a manager. Think of the Starbucks “free drink” card; any employee can give that to a dissatisfied customer, on the spot. The quickness of it is part of the reason customers feel pretty good about the resolution.

Customer service that is time consuming and full of fussy process and red tape is painful and not really service at all.

  1. Make it safe for employees to appeal to superiors. Let’s not pretend–some customers are extremely difficult and can be impossible to deal with. Make it clear to your employees that in such situations, they can turn the customer over to management.

This is about protecting your employees, who are your most valuable asset, while also trying to salvage a customer experience. In your training and your employee instructional materials, let them know they can take this route when they feel things are beyond their control, and never make them feel embarrassed for asking for your help in this way.

Customer service skills don’t come into being simply because you tell your employees that they need to have them. They come from training, habit, and purposeful focus.

Repairing a broken customer relationship.

As you can see at this point, by some of the statistics of what customers do when they’ve been on the receiving end of bad customer service, it’s important to keep it from happening in the first place.

But sometimes things go wrong. An employee has a bad day, or a customer proves difficult to please. What can you do to make things right and avoid the lost future sales and bad word-of-mouth?

  1. Assess what went wrong before contacting the customer. Before you contact the customer, figure out what actually happened. Talk to employees involved, review records, and get an accurate picture of what happened. Some of this information gathering should probably match the data points you are tracking, such as:
  • When the incident happened.
  • Who was involved (employee, manager, customer, shift manager, etc.).
  • What product or service was in question.
  • What, if any, resolution was offered.
  • What, if any, online complaint or response has occurred.
  • What, if any, promotion or sale was in question.

Keep in mind that this isn’t so you can argue with the customer (see the next point), but merely so you have a better understanding of what happened, why it happened, and how a customer might be feeling about it all. Somewhere, in all of that, something did go wrong and the customer left unhappy. It might have been employee error, customer expectation, faulty products, or simply a bad day for everyone involved. Knowing the facts as best as you can make it possible for you to ask the right questions.

  1. Let the customer be right. How valuable is that customer? Do you want their return business? Have they been a customer of yours in the past? Even if the customer has the wrong understanding of what happened or may be in the wrong in some way, don’t insist on how right you are. You are trying to save the customer relationship, and unless circumstances truly require otherwise (dealing with a scammer, for example), you are trying to make it right.
  2. Apologize without deprecation, and be sincere. When you apologize (when, not if), be sincere. Don’t apologize with unnecessary gushing profusion. Be clear, direct, and sincere, even if you think the customer is in the wrong. And avoid apologizing for how the customer feels (i.e. “I’m sorry you feel this way.”), because that is language that hints at the customer being to blame for misguided feelings. Instead, apologize in concrete language directed towards yourself. “I’m sorry our product was unsatisfactory” or “I’m sorry that we failed to deliver the best service possible.” That is language that says you are owning up and taking responsibility for what went wrong, and that instills confidence in the customer that they are still valued and can trust you.
  3. Be able to listen past their anger or frustration. Remember, this is a chance for you to learn from a mistake or failure. How can you learn from an upset customer? Let them talk without being defensive or interrupting. You are not trying to justify yourself, but are here to learn about how a customer experienced your business and what needs fixing.
  4. Find out what the customer feels and wants. According to Yesware.com, you should ask open-ended questions that let a customer talk through things on their terms. Listen to what they say, and then ask questions that build on what they’ve told you in order to determine how they feel.
  5. Be able to offer quick resolution that at least meets their current need, preferably going above and beyond. If you can determine a specific problem that has happened that you can fix now, do it. It might be a full refund, a gift card, or, the next time they need your service, they’ll get it for free.

That Starbucks free drink card I mentioned earlier is a great example of this: if you don’t like your drink for any reason, they make you a new one on the spot or give you a card that says your next drink is free, any size, any drink. It’s fast and it keeps customer service time to a minimum.

The key to this is not only making things financially right, but doing it in a way that the customer doesn’t have to go through a bothersome process to claim what they feel is theirs in the first place. Don’t offer a resolution that makes a customer jump through hoops, use confusing rewards programs or points, or insists that they travel a distance to claim a replacement.

True customer resolution must come without pain.

  1. Know that repairing the relationship is an ongoing process. While you may be able to offer a speedy resolution to a specific problem, the entire negative experience isn’t always so easily put away. You may have to go out of your way with follow-up and connecting with the customer in order to get back into their good graces.

I have to say up front that it’s better to not ruin a relationship with a customer in the first place. There’s no guarantee that you’ll be able to repair something gone wrong. However, at least be prepared to take the steps necessary should you find yourself in that situation.

Here’s the simple takeaway for all of this: every business is a people business, because your customers are people.

This should be obvious, yet too many businesses get caught up in the idea that they are in the competitive pricing business, or they are all about a particular narrative. When you cut away all the distracting fluff, though, the core of everything is people. The loss of a single customer is extremely costly, both in dollars and in negative word of mouth.

Excellent customer service skills are the only way to hold onto customers and be in a top-notch people business.

The Master Guide to Advancing Your Customer Service Skills