What makes for good service, though?
First, let’s start off with a reality check. Good service isn’t those heroic moments where someone goes absolutely above and beyond. Those stand out and wow you, but they can’t be the norm. Instead, good service is found in meeting your customer’s expectations.
Zendesk surveyed over 3,000 people worldwide to answer the question of what customers think makes for good service, and the answers are fairly simple:
- I can resolve my problem quickly.
- Customer support is available 24/7.
- The agent was friendly.
That’s it — efficiency, accessibility, and friendliness. It’s not a huge bar to hit, and yet so many companies don’t.
A lot still goes into those three ingredients to make up the recipe of great support for your company, and your customer’s needs may differ and change over time. But let’s talk about some strategies to help you hit that bar and hopefully exceed it.
10 ways to deliver great customer service
1. Remember your customer
What your customer needs is going to differ from every other business out there. While they’ll have similarities — we are still people after all — the exact needs you’ll see will come down to your product and customer base. That’s why you always want to keep your customer in mind. Be customer-centric and human-centric. Remember that your customer is what makes your business, and you want to meet their needs at all times.
“Customer centricity is literally putting the customer at the center of everything you do.” - Zendesk
Make sure you’re taking the time to track why your customers are reaching out. Part of tracking that data is that you can use it when formulating your overall strategy. If you’re hearing a lot about problems from your customers, make sure you’re fixing those problems. Or, if they aren’t problems you can immediately fix, make sure you’re doing what you can to be proactive and help them.
Another tip is to run customer surveys several times a year. Ask specific questions about what expectations they have and what they may seek your help with. The best way to get to know your customer’s needs is to ask them. You can then use those answers to decide on what channels you want to support, or what type of service you prioritize (live channels, self-serve, etc).
2. Speed matters
Research study after research study has pointed to the reality that the most important thing to customers is a quick response. And it makes sense — if someone needs help, they don’t want to wait! There’s a reason social media has become a more prominent support channel, and live chat and telephone continue to be popular.
Have you ever been so frustrated waiting for an email that you looked for a number to call instead, or tweeted at a company to get a quicker response? So have your customers, and that’s the mindset they’ll come to you with. You can’t undo the slowness they experience in other contexts, so focusing on your own speed can help bring the “wow” to your interactions.
What do we mean by a quick response, though? First, let’s talk about first response time, or FRT. Your first response time is the time it took for your customer to receive their first response from you, during your business hours. It’s typically formulated like this:
Sum of First Response Times / Number of conversations = Average First Response Time
There isn’t just one ideal FRT. Instead, it’ll differ by channel and by audience. There are some broad benchmarks you can look at, but remember that what works for your company may differ as your customers may differ.
- Email - SuperOffice recommends a response time of within 1 hour.
- Live Chat - According to Solvvy an average benchmark is 58 seconds.
- Telephone - Solvvy’s benchmarks point to 3.4 seconds of customer wait time
- Social Media - It tends to depend on the channel, but typically response times are similar to Email response times.
Okay, now you know what response times are and why they matter, but what can you do about them?
First, if it’s busy, think about triaging your queue. Have someone who dedicates an hour or more a day and just flags questions that are more urgent. Then, make sure you answer those first. Anything to do with something completely broken (preventing use) or concerning billing or money tends to come in as high priority.
Think about the types of questions where your customer would be stuck or very anxious, and reply to those first. It won’t bring down your overall response time, but it will prioritize that response time for the questions that really matter to your customers.
Next, be comfortable with stalling. If you can’t immediately answer a question in full, there is nothing wrong with letting a customer know you’re working on it and you’ll be in touch soon. I wouldn’t recommend messages like that if soon = 10 minutes or something quick, but if you target under-an-hour responses to emails and it’ll take you a half-hour at least to solve a problem, you should let the customer know you’re working on it.
Third, offer multiple channels if your team is large enough. Live support channels like chat or phone are hard with a small team, but if you have the staffing, offer some degree of truly live help. Just keep in mind what you can realistically deliver on — waiting an hour on hold for a call feels worse than waiting a few hours for an email response (as anyone who has gotten hold music stuck in their head can tell you!)
And lastly, be sure to read through the remaining tips to great service below. They will all lead to quicker service as well as higher quality service. A knowledgeable and empowered team speeds things up for your customers.
3. Keep a consistent voice but allow individual personality
Part of offering human-centric support is keeping front of mind that everyone involved is, well, human. That means keeping the needs of your customer in mind, but also showing your team’s humanity in every response. This means that while you should absolutely put careful thought into your support tone of voice and make sure your team all follows it, you should also make sure they all stay true to themselves.
I recommend keeping an eye on their tone as part of your Support QA, but look for ways they can still sound like themselves, just the “company version” of themselves. Sounding natural helps to speed up your responses and reminds your customers that they’re talking to humans. It can be absolutely disarming in a difficult situation to say “Oh my gosh!” or exclaim in sympathy if that’s something your customer base allows.
Allowing for personality also smooths over rough edges when a team member makes a mistake. Who wouldn’t understand if someone makes a small mistake, corrects the issue, and then vows to drink more coffee while apologizing?
4. Understand your product and your customer
To provide great or even decent support, your team needs to understand your product and your customer base. They need to know the answers to common questions off-hand to speed up a response, and they need to have a good understanding of your customer’s use case so they can make recommendations or figure out workarounds if something is broken. Having a deep well of product knowledge also helps with that #1 goal of speedy replies. Think about it: If you know exactly where you’re going, a trip is much smoother and quicker than it would be if you had to pull out a paper map — right? How can you do that within your team, though?
- Onboard and train new team members.
When a new member joins your team, don’t just drop them in your queue with a list of FAQs and a shrug. Support is a complicated job and new hires deserve time to slowly learn the product and your customers before being set loose to help.
On my end, I have a four-week training program that all new team members go through. They answer their first tickets within their first couple of days, but they dip their toes in slowly. They have guided training and projects to learn everything about our customers and slowly wade in, only answering questions they’re ready for. We also pair them up with buddies in the queue who are there to work with them on their tone and product knowledge, and double-check their responses.
I also suggest separate training for each channel you support. We don’t let anyone jump into a live channel like chat until week three at least, and again, only with their buddy there in case they get stuck. The skills and knowledge you need in chat or on the phone are very different from email, and they both need to be taught separately.
It can be tough if you’re a small company to provide well-planned and guided training, but it’s essential and worth it in the long run. You can’t expect people who don’t know more about your product than your customers do to help them.
- Offer product samples for hands-on knowledge.
Whether you have a physical product or support software, your team needs to have used your product themselves. If they’re supporting software, make sure they have a test box or sandbox they can test with and be familiar with. If it’s a physical product, send them some samples so they can use them in their own home.
Even if your team members aren’t examples of your target market, you still want them to have personal knowledge of how things work. You want them to be able to clearly explain something rather than giving scripted instructions that they themselves don’t understand.
- Write and share internal knowledge.
Just as offering self-service options for your customers matters, so does self-serve for your employees. No one can be expected to store all the information in their memory or personal notebook.
It’s important to create a source of internal knowledge with tips and tricks or how-tos for common questions. Do you have a process someone needs to follow? Document it in your internal knowledge base.
If you’re having trouble getting started, check out this guide from Zendesk on how to create an internal knowledge base.
- Always be onboarding.
Does your product stay static without any change? Of course not! And because of that, you need to constantly train your team as things change. No matter how good of a grasp on your product they have initially, their information will become out of date as new features or product lines are released.
Make a point of having regular refresher training with each product update, or at least twice a year.
- Have frequent sharing sessions and encourage collaboration.
Learning and training doesn’t happen in a bubble and you want your team working together to share tips. Have them work together on difficult customer situations, or just get together to share things they’ve learned.
I love arranging for “lunch and learn” sessions and encouraging everyone to walk through tricky situations and how they handled it, or sharing product knowledge or just general tips. They can be tricky with remote teams, but utilizing something like Loom and having them pre-record and then share the video in Slack with a threaded discussion is a good workaround.
- Mentor new team members.
You may have noticed a trend with several of the suggestions here — they’re all about training, because what better way to learn a product? Well, this is no different, but does come with a twist. As part of onboarding new team members, I always suggest pairing them with a buddy who takes on the role of a mentor. They’re there to share tips they’ve learned or their general knowledge, and guide someone in their new role.
Mentoring plays an important role for everyone involved, though. It’s not just about training your newest team member, it’s also about giving your existing team members refreshers. As time goes on and you learn more and more, it gets harder to put yourself in the mindset of a customer who is coming from a place without that historical knowledge. Regularly guiding someone who is learning everything for the first time plays an important role in keeping knowledge fresh for more tenured colleagues.
- Support QA.
While our first several suggestions were aimed at building that product and customer knowledge, QA is about tracking it. How will you know if your team members have the product knowledge they need if you’re not checking?
We recommend setting up a Support QA program if you haven’t already, and regularly checking your team member’s customer replies. Everyone is going to need coaching to continue growing and getting better at their roles. It’s important to have specifics to offer improvement suggestions on.
5. Keep your customer history handy
Make sure you’re maintaining a record of all of your past customer support interactions. It’s a common feature in support platforms and something that you should be able to find, whether you're a B2C or ecommerce company, or offer B2B or SaaS support.
Part of this is to help identify areas for improvement across your product and service as a whole, but it’s also important to individual customer conversations.
Imagine this: You’ve run into the same issue four times now with software you use daily. Each time, in order to solve the problem you have to write into the software’s support and ask for help. It’s better if that support team knows your history and can fix the problem quickly and can talk to their internal product team about why you keep running into that problem, right? No one wants to be treated as though this repeat issue is brand new each and every time.
This doesn’t mean that your team needs to scour your customer history before sending each reply, but they should be trained to skim subject lines or take careful notes that can be reviewed each time. A little bit of effort with each interaction can take something from just neutral and tip it over into great territory.
6. Provide knowledge 24/7
Quick service doesn’t simply mean your team replying quickly to individual questions. It’s just as much about your customers being able to get help around their schedule and not waiting for your team to be online to help them. Self-service or knowledge bases are key to this. They’re there 24/7, 365 days a year, which can be hard for a support team to staff! They also scale brilliantly, because you can answer 100 customers with the same amount of effort as just one customer if you write a help article answering the question.
And the simple fact is, the vast majority of your customers don’t want to contact you. According to research, 81% of people try and solve their own problem before they reach out. Not to mention that 53% of people will just give up if they run into a problem when trying to purchase, rather than reaching out for support. This is because they have no clue how long it would take to solve their problem.
So what does that mean? It means to provide a good customer experience you need to help your customers help themselves. That means if you don’t already have a knowledge base you should start building one as soon as you can. Most major support platforms offer at least basic knowledge base products, enough to get you started. And if your platform doesn’t, there are a number of standalone knowledge base platforms out there ready to help.
It can be a lot of work, but to get started you can write out your basic FAQs. Create an article for each question you commonly see and give your customer the answers. As your knowledge base grows, you can give detailed knowledge about each product or feature you offer, walkthroughs, and even videos. It’s also a good idea to use the data you gather from support tickets to identify new areas of knowledge that you should provide.
7. Be accessible and proactive
Having great support and self-service means nothing if your customers don’t know how to find it. Make sure your support is accessible and you’re explaining to new customers how to reach out. And reach out before your customers do if there is a predictable cause of an issue.
A few different ways to do this:
- Send a welcome email to a new customer after their purchase or when they sign up for a free trial. Point them to your knowledge base and also include instructions on how to contact your team.
- Be proactive. While a full proactive support policy can take time and effort, you can get started right now by having a status page and contacting your customers if you have planned maintenance that may cause issues. If you’re using a messenger or in-app service, add text that says when you know you’re having a problem or add a banner to your knowledge base. Simply telling customers you know there is a problem and pointing to a spot where they can get updates provides a much better experience for your customer than waiting for them to write in, thinking that they’re the only ones having the problem.
- Track your Customer Effort Score (CES). This is a single metric that asks your customers how much effort it took to get their problem solved. In past research, it’s been shown that reducing the effort your customers go to when interacting with you is a better predictor of customer loyalty than one-off moments of delight. It all comes back to the original point: that the key to great service is meeting expectations, not constantly going for a “wow.”
8. Learn (and grow) from bad customer service experiences
Not every experience your customers have will be a great one. We all wish they could be, but the reality is that things go wrong. What’s important, though, is that your team learns from them. Every mistake is an opportunity to make it right. This means:
- Coach your support team and help them improve.
- Recognize that your team will make mistakes and you need to forgive them.
- Apologize when it makes sense. This means you can’t say you’re sorry or “apologize for the inconvenience” constantly — it needs to be when you truly mean it.
In the end, what matters is focusing on what makes for a great customer service team member, and letting them learn from their mistakes.
9. Stand by your promises
Part of meeting your customer’s expectations is delivering on what you’ve promised. This means if you promise 24/7 support, that doesn’t mean your team only works eight hours a day, but they can contact you 24/7. It also doesn’t mean promising a bug fix and then never contacting them again.
You don’t need to authorize your team to spend up to $2,000 to make a situation right, like the Ritz Carlton does. Or, spend almost 11 hours on a single support phone call, like Zappos. What you need to do is keep your promises.
If you tell a customer a bug fix is coming, follow up when you have an ETA, or even if you don’t have one and it’s still hanging out there waiting for a developer to help. If someone asked for a feature two years ago, email them when you ship it and let them know.
And if you tell a customer your team replies quickly, make sure you’re always staffed appropriately to allow for that, or warn customers in advance when you’re too busy to keep up the same way you normally do.
A big part of building a loyal relationship with your customers is building trust. And keeping your promises is key to building and keeping trust.
10. Care about your team
Lastly, we’re going to talk about the most important part of achieving great support — having a great support team. 73% of customers stay loyal to a company in part because of positive interactions with their support team. While there is a lot of help out there when it comes to hiring a great team (just like it costs 5x as much to acquire a new customer as it does to retain an existing one), it’s incredibly costly to have a lot of employee turnover. In fact, The Human Resource Institute estimates that turnover costs $10-15,000 per front-line employee.
If you want a team that cares about customers, you need to care about them in return. That means empowering them with skills and knowledge. It means paying your team well. And most importantly, it means remembering that we’re all human. Truly caring about your customers means truly caring about your employees and treating them the way you’d want to be treated.
Have you gotten some ideas here for how you can improve or build your own great support offering? When it comes right down to it, everything revolves around being customer-centric and human-centric. Everything comes back to those points.
Share your own tips for great service, or just share interactions that you’d rate as great on our LinkedIn.