Customer service definition and skills for 2021 and beyond

Customer service is the act of supporting customers. Learn key customer service skills, types, job requirements, and more.

By Tara Ramroop, Senior Content Marketing Manager

Published June 13, 2020
Last updated January 12, 2021

Customer service can make or break a business. But not everyone agrees on what it is or how to do it well. In this guide, we’ll share how to set your business up for customer service success.

The definition of customer service

Customer service (cus·tom·er serv·ice, noun) is "the assistance and advice provided by a company to those people who buy or use its products or services," according to Lexico. It's also the processes that support the teams making good customer service happen.

Most people think about customer service as something that happens when people reach out to a business with a problem. That’s really only half the story, though.

Customer service isn’t just what happens when a customer calls or emails you. For example, it also happens when:

  • People are shopping for a solution and they find your business. Customer service is happening, even though that person isn’t even a customer yet.
  • People are on your knowledge base, answering their own questions. That’s customer service, too.

What is good customer service?

Ultimately, the human elements of customer service are what really defines good customer service. Customers expect fast replies, on the channels of their choice—but that's table stakes.

Winning customer experiences are about how a customer feels they are being treated. For example, if a customer has to repeat themselves while being bounced between different departments or waiting on hold, they aren't going to feel heard or that their time was respected.

Excellent customer service is when a company exceeds a customer's expectations. This might include delivering proactive support and anticipating customers' needs or getting ahead of a problem before it happens. It can also mean going the extra mile to build deep customer connections.

For instance, Zappos' Customer Loyalty Team is empowered to do what it takes to build real, human relationships with customers.

"Our Customer Loyalty team can stay on a call as long as necessary (our longest call was 10 hours and 51 minutes), but calls lasting around two hours happen every day," said Harmoni Hines, Senior Manager, Customer Loyalty Team at Zappos. "One of Zappos’ 10 Core Values is to build a positive team and family spirit—and to us, our customers are family. We want them to feel that way when they contact us."

Excellent customer service often means consumers are willing to tell others about the experience. You can measure excellent customer service by tracking and analyzing key metrics like customer satisfaction scores (CSAT).

What are the 4 principles of good customer service?

We surveyed 3,000 customers across the world and looked at our data index of 45,000 companies using Zendesk to find this answer.

We learned that the top 4 principles of customer service are:

  1. Fast resolutions—whether that's through an agent, self-service, or a chatbot
  2. Having the ability to find answers as soon as questions come up—24/7 and in real-time
  3. Interacting with a friendly, understanding agent
  4. Being able to contact support via the most convenient channel

customer service principles

The difference between customer service and customer support

There is a difference between customer support and customer service. It helps to think of customer support as the how, such as the nuts and bolts of troubleshooting an issue, and customer service as the why—why it’s recommended to set up your cloud account in a certain way or why today’s issue could balloon into a bigger issue in time if certain steps aren’t taken.

A customer support team can fix a technical issue in the short term, but providing good customer service helps build relationships and establish a true partnership in the long term. Adding the “why” into the support process improves the experience for customers, and it helps agents grow.

This may sound like a lot more than you thought. If so, you’re not alone. We've narrowed it down to a few key takeaways:

The 2 types of customer service you should know about

Each channel could be considered a different type of customer service, but in reality, there are only two types of customer service your business can offer: proactive and reactive.

Proactive vs. reactive support

Reactive support used to be the standard: you wait for a customer to contact your business with an inquiry or issue. Proactive service, however, is now a crucial type of customer service—it means anticipating your customers’ issues and addressing them before your customers do. This might include:

  • An e-commerce company getting ahead of abandoned shopping carts by deploying a chatbot on its checkout page to answer frequently asked customer questions.
  • An internet provider sending customers a text about upcoming service disruptions.

Why is customer service important in business?

Customer service is important because it sets your business apart from competitors. It can make people loyal to your brand, products, and services for years to come.

But this is only possible if your business makes customer service a top priority—customers aren’t willing to compromise if you don’t. In fact, Zendesk’s Customer Experience Trends Report, 2020 revealed that roughly half of customers say they would switch to a competitor after just one bad experience. In the case of more than one bad experience, that number snowballs to 80 percent.

Half of customers say they would switch to a competitor after just one bad experience. In the case of more than one bad experience, that number snowballs to 80 percent.

What are the 3 most important things in customer service?

Customer service looks a little different at every company, but it always follows a simple rule: add value for the people who use your product or service. Your product could be the best thing since sliced bread. But it won’t be the total package unless good customer service comes with it.

We've learned that the 3 most important things in customer service are:

1. Practice empathy

Employing empathy for new and existing customers has become essential to customer service as the need for thoughtful and efficient responses has increased.

Customer empathy can mean:

  • Reaching out on your customers' choice of channels to create an effortless experience: According to Zendesk’s 2020 Customer Experience Trends Report, 42 percent of customers say that 24/7, real-time support is vital—companies should meet their customers where they are, so they can connect however and whenever they want.
  • Putting yourself in an angry customer's shoes
  • Listening to customer feedback and using it to get better

2. Equip agents with the tools they need to solve customer issues quickly and effectively

Customer service software is key for equipping a support team with the tools they need to deliver excellent customer service. For instance, the Agent Workspace within Zendesk’s Support Suite equips support teams with:

  • Context that moves from channel to channel
  • Agents need access to context, such as a customer's contact information, preferences, and account type, so customers don't have repeat themselves or wait on hold while an agent looks up the details.

  • Collaboration tools
  • When agents have collaboration tools, like the ability to send and view internal notes without leaving a conversation or integrations with email and Slack to share best practices across departments, they can get customers the best answers to their questions with speed.

  • Workflows, triggers, and automation
  • These streamline customer-facing interactions, saving support resources and decreasing time-to-resolution.

3. Show that customer service matters across the business

Customer service is everyone’s job. It’s not just something for customer support teams and other front-line associates to think about. Companies with great customer service show that the customer experience matters across the organization, at every step of the customer journey. This includes:

  • The honesty of their marketing campaigns
  • The transparency of their pricing models
  • The ease of their sales cycle
  • The quality of their actual products or services

Customer service objectives

The primary objective of customer service is to be the customer's champion. This means answering customer questions quickly and effectively, resolving issues with empathy and care, documenting pain points to share with internal teams, nurturing relationships, and improving brand credibility.

Support teams can measure objectives with key metrics such as:

  • Average first response time
  • Average resolution time
  • A customer’s CSAT rating over time
  • CSAT ratings, by channel
  • Ticket backlog

When customer service teams master their more direct objectives, they help the organization to meet more cross-functional objectives, including:

  • Improving customer retention
  • Boosting customer loyalty
  • Increasing customer lifetime value
  • Reducing customer churn
  • Creating a better customer experience

What is the golden rule of customer service?

Most customer service objectives are tied to a metric. But the golden rule of customer service comes down to understanding what a customer needs and doing what you can to make them happy.

If a customer call lasts longer than it should because an agent was having a friendly conversation or going above and beyond for that customer, that's great service—even if the resolution time was high.

If a prospect is reaching out to support to get more information about a product and the agent is understanding, efficient, and helpful that prospect is going to remember the experience as a positive one—even if they never become a paying customer.

The most important customer service skills

Customer service skills or characteristics represent the qualities and abilities a customer service representative needs to deliver good customer service. Customer service managers tend to hire for technical skill sets. Technical skills are important, but soft skills matter, too.

Here are the top customer service skills your customer service representatives need:

  1. Ability to mirror a customer's language and tone

    Mirroring another person’s language and tone can help you connect with them.

    Now, if a customer is angry on a call, you don’t want to copy their frustration. Instead, remember that “calm is contagious.” Be firm and work to bring the intensity down a notch. Customers respond well to getting help from someone who's clearly level-headed.

    Learn more tips for dealing with customers that are angry in this Forbes article.

    On live chat, responses are often short, quick, and incomplete. This makes it harder for you and the customer to understand each other’s tone. Choose your words carefully and err on the side of caution and clarity. Try to avoid puns or regional turns of phrase.

    Instead, use a gentle, informative tone. Patience is your best friend when helping a frustrated customer.

  2. Active listening

    When customers complain and are frustrated, they might not be able to take in what you say. So scrambling to a solution isn’t always the best approach.

    The ability to display empathy first is crucial. Remember, both you and the customer want to reach a resolution, not just a solution.

    Customers who are stressed need to feel heard. Explain that you understand the reason for their call. This little bit of empathy will go a long way toward improving a difficult customer experience.

  3. Clear communication

    Nobody likes to wait on hold, especially if they don’t know how long it’ll be until they can talk to someone.

    When customers call or start a live chat, set their expectations about hold times. This can help them feel like their issues matter to you.

  4. Interpersonal skills

    The best customer service templates do more than give agents pre-written text to copy and paste. They’re the starting point for high-quality, personalized answers so agents can build real, human connections with customers.

    Start with a template, then adjust it before replying to customers. This makes your answers feel more personal to customers.

    It’s OK to use your own voice and approach—just make sure you reflect the company’s brand and philosophy. For example, maybe you can make your own email signature unique.

  5. Comfort multitasking

    Live chat agents are expected to handle more than one chat at a time. This is a skill in itself. Great multitaskers don’t lose sight of the bigger picture as they're bombarded by questions.

    Be careful not to handle too many chats, or else your customers will be waiting too long between responses. You can always put a chat on a brief hold if you need more time to find an answer. But just like with phone support, set expectations first. For example, ask if you may put them on a brief hold to conduct more research.

  6. customer service skills

  7. Attention to detail

    Sometimes it’s harder for customers to express themselves in writing. Don’t read too quickly and jump to conclusions. It takes a lot of training and practice to understand how different customers communicate. But it's key to success in customer service.

    For example, someone who works in sales might come off as assertive or aggressive. Or, an engineer might want more technical details about how their problem was solved.

    Being able to read cues like this can give a customer care representative a better idea of how to tailor their customer service approach.

  8. Attentiveness

    Always respond to a customer’s social post when they need help. You may not be able to answer right away. But it’s still important to make quick initial contact with that customer and let them know when you’ll respond. Providing speedy responses means being adept in addressing a customer's problem with a precise and polite tone.

    The exception to “always respond” is when agents are confronted with an obvious attempt to pick a fight on public channels. These comments are often directed at the company itself. It can be tempting to engage with the person if you feel strongly about the issue at hand. But a company can’t afford to have an agent, or any employee, make mistakes on social media. So, always proceed with caution when responding publicly.

  9. Collaboration skills

    Answering a customer's question often involves working with other teams or departments. Is answering a social media post a job for customer support, or for marketing? Sometimes it’s hard to tell.

    If your marketing team manages your social media, make sure they connect with the customer service team for help with any incoming support requests. Remember, everyone is responsible for good customer service so agents will need to have strong collaboration skills.

Agents need customer service skills specific to each support channel

The best customer service employee will be able to move easily between channels. This involves solving problems with the skills that best suit each channel. Hone your ability to practice empathy and communicate your product knowledge with customers. You’ll be a rockstar in customer service.

Many support teams provide service across multiple channels. Each of those channels requires slightly different skills.

  • Phone support: How’s your “phone voice”?

Some say we wear our emotions on our sleeves. Others say we convey our emotions in our voices. Customer service employees know how frustration and anger translates through the phone lines. And, of course, that communication is a two-way street. So phone agents reading from a script must consider their tone.

To provide good phone support, you must:

  • Mirror a customer's’ language and tone
  • Listen first, then validate the problem
  • Communicate hold times
  • Email support: You are not a robot

To provide great email support, you have to write well. Email responses require more structure and precision than other kinds of support. You must write clearly and concisely while avoiding any mistakes that could confuse the customer.

To deliver great email support in any situation:

  • Use templates, not boilerplates
  • Respond in a defined timeframe
  • Imitate a customer’s phrasing
  • Chat support: Multitasking is a key skill

Great live chat support requires both phone and email skills. Chat is conversational and real-time, just like customer service over the phone, but it also requires strong writing skills.

Here’s what every great live chat agent needs to pay attention to:

  • Use a gentle, informative tone
  • Multitask
  • Read customer cues
  • Social media and messaging support calls for speedy deliveries

Social media and messaging support require all of the above skills. When live chat isn’t available, customers often turn to the same channels they use to communicate with family and friends. Channels like SMS, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, or Twitter DMs can provide a faster, more convenient experience.

And the use of messaging is only going in one direction. Zendesk’s Benchmark Snapshot revealed that global WhatsApp use alone increased by 154 percent since the outbreak of COVID-19 across the globe, the highest of any customer support channel.

The following skills are crucial for social media and messaging support:

  • (Almost) always respond
  • React carefully to confrontation
  • Differentiate social media tickets to determine whether it should be handled by support or marketing.

What skills should you put on your resume for customer service?

Agents need all of the above skills to help them do their jobs well. Some common customer service skills and qualities employers look for include:

  1. Experience working in a customer service focused environment
  2. Excellent problem-solving skills—you have ideas for how to make a challening situation successful
  3. Strong attention to detail, with exceptional time management
  4. Passion for building relationships
  5. Clear, effective communication with strong interpersonal skills
  6. Anticipates customer needs by constantly evaluating customers for cues
  7. Acts with a customer comes first attitude
  8. Remains calm under pressure
  9. Can juggle multiple tasks in a fast-paced environment
  10. Self-motivated and has a positive attitude
  11. Empathy for customers to maximize customer happiness
  12. Confidence that if you don’t know something, you can learn it
  13. Enthusiasm for the company's industry
  14. Experience using customer service software, such as Zendesk Support, to track and manage customer conversations

Customer service responsibilities and job requirements

The primary job of a customer service representative is to advocate on behalf of the customer.

Responsibilities of support professionals often include:

  • Directly interacting with customers across all communication channels
  • Defusing high-stakes situations by listening to customers and providing speedy, effective resolutions
  • Acting as the voice of the company on the front lines servicing customers
  • Keeping customer records up-to-date
  • Sharing customer feedback with other teams to improve the customer experience
  • Canceling or upgrading accounts
  • Helping with refunds or exchanges
  • Creating knowledge base content

But the main role of customer service can vary depending on how a company defines customer service and how its customer service team functions within the organization.

Some teams refer to agents as customer service representatives, and others use special, branded names to highlight their unique role at that company. For example:

  • GoFundMe calls its customer service team Customer Happiness and refers to its customer service representatives as Happiness agents
  • Happiness agents must complete an intensive training program because they are often helping people through sensitive times where the human touch is especially important.

  • BaubleBar staffs a SWAT team, which stands for Service with Accessorizing Talent
  • The name celebrates its customer service team's unique impact on the customer experience. For instance, SWAT team members proactively email customers to follow-up on abandoned carts or to see how they liked a recent purchase.

  • Nordstrom calls its customer service representatives Personal Stylists, Beauty Stylists, Wedding Stylists, and Designer Specialists
  • Beyond the standard customer service skills, Nordstrom agents need to have a keen sense of fashion.

  • Shopify refers to its support agents as Gurus
  • This underscores its agents' real-life experiences in building a community of business leaders. Gurus are a cross between librarians and business coaches, according to Shopify.

  • Birchbox has a team of Discovery Specialists
  • Discovery Specialists do everything from answering phone calls, emails, and social media messages to managing subscriptions and overseeing quality control on all deliveries.

While agents may have different team names and slightly different roles, they all share one thing in common: they're on the front lines, communicating with customers directly. So whether you're an agent or a Guru, at least a few of these phrases are bound to sound familiar:



Customer service training activites

Most customer service professionals come to the table with a good mix of skills, described above. Customer service training keeps these skills sharp.

It can be difficult to carve out the time. But training becomes more important as companies build out their omnichannel experiences. This requires nimble agents who can provide service in multiple channels.

On the more human tip, ongoing training and assigning a range of projects help keep agents engaged. As Brummel says: "I think if you skip the training component...they're going to get bored or burnt out."

Customer service management can better engage and train agents with projects like:

  • Technical product documentation
  • Knowledge base content creation

Customer satisfaction surveys also allow agents to get feedback on what they’re doing well, and what they can improve for next time.

Customer service books to share with your team

Here are our favorite customer service books to help customer service professionals grow their skills and deliver knockout experiences:

Keeping focus on customers

Customer service skills and training help you maintain a high level of customer focus. Companies that are good at it show customers that their needs matter across the business. Every team should have their focus on customers.

One way to put customers first is listen to their feedback. This includes when they:

  • Have complaints
  • Ask for new features
  • Share how they prefer to communicate

Data access across an organization is another way to build this muscle. It allows everyone in the company to better personalize the customer experience.

It might have made sense for one team to manage one support channel via one software solution in the past. But data silos often result from this internal structure, and it’s bad news for customers.

Team A might only know certain things about a customer, such as their order history or marketing email preferences. Team B might only know other things, like their support issues. But that means that no one has a complete view of the customer. And customers can feel when there is a lack of focus on them behind the scenes.

Learn how to build an effective customer focus strategy in our blog post.

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