Editor's note: This is among our most popular articles, so we’ve recently updated to keep things fresh.

Good customer service isn’t what it used to be. There was a time when returning customers’ voicemails in a prompt manner would pass as good enough. But customer expectations have changed drastically in the last decade, pushing the bar for customer service standards ever higher.

To answer the question “what is good customer service” today, we’re digging into survey results from two research reports — “State of Service” and “State of the Connected Customer.” The former is a global survey of more than 3,500 service leaders and agents worldwide; the latter is a global survey of more than 6,700 consumers and business buyers (generally referred to as “customers” where B2C and B2B survey groups are combined).

This article aims to answer some common questions, including:

  • What does good customer service mean?

  • How can businesses deliver service that exceeds customer expectations?

  • How do you measure customer service experiences?

 

 

The definition of good service has evolved

Customer service encompasses any interaction, online or off, that a customer or potential customer may have with your company — and it includes the entire experience, from initial contact to final sale and beyond.

It’s easy to see how technology in the Fourth Industrial Revolution has blown the lid off of customer expectations. What’s not quite as easy is actually delivering customer service that lives up to these very high standards.

Gen Z almost takes for granted that they can check on an order status simply by speaking into a device. But their parents remember when mail-order catalogs were around. Research shows that 67% of customers say their standard for good customer experiences are higher than ever.

Increasingly, great customer service means:

  • Service that is fast (“real-time” or “always on” in marketing-speak)

  • Service that is personalized

  • Service that provides a connected experience

  • Service that’s proactive, offering a resolution before an issue or disruption occurs

 

This article takes a closer look at each factor.

 

 

How much does real-time service really matter?

In short, it matters a lot. The old saying “the customer is always right” could be modernized to “the customer is always right now.”

In our research, we asked customers to rate a wide variety of service factors on their level of importance. The attribute with one of the highest ratings for importance was “real-time messaging when I need service.” Another quality with high ratings is self-service tools — for example, FAQs or account portals that let customers click around to find immediate answers on their own. In an age of near-constant connectivity, customers see real-time messaging and self-service capabilities as quick paths to a resolution.

A previous study showed that 64% of consumers expect companies to respond and interact with them in real time. In an era of constant connectivity, good service means customer service that’s always on.

 

 

What’s the impact of personalization and connected customer service?

We’ve likely all experienced the matrix of customer service phone lines — and the frustration of having to repeat our issue several times over. The bottom line is that customers don’t care about your business siloes. They see your business as one entity, and aren’t particularly forgiving about the fact that your service team doesn’t have access to your sales or marketing teams’ database.

Research shows that 70% of customers say connected processes are very important to winning their business. What’s more, 70% of customers say service agents’ awareness of sales interactions is very important for keeping their business. So if customer loyalty and retention are metrics your service team is accountable for, you can’t underestimate the importance of connecting and personalizing service touchpoints.

Customers expect engagement that’s uniquely personalized. This isn’t an expectation of consumers alone. Seventy-two percent of business buyers expect vendors to personalize engagement to their needs.

An earlier study revealed that 66% of consumers say they’re likely to switch brands if they feel they’re treated like a number rather than an individual.

Unfortunately, customer service representatives who have neither the authority nor the ability to resolve problems on their own are often forced to take those issues to higher levels and run the risk of alienating customers. This is a common problem; 26% of consumers have experienced being transferred from agent to agent without any resolution

 

What’s it take to deliver exceptional customer service?

To provide good customer service, companies need to look beyond the checkout counter or call center — even beyond the inbox.

The average customer uses 10 different channels to communicate with companies. Customer service teams, who use an average of nine channels, are in a race to keep up.

While tried-and-true channels like phone and email have near-universal adoption, customer service is on the cusp of a digital revolution. Sixty-six percent of service professionals say their organization is seeing increased case volume through digital channels.

Social media, SMS-based text, and messenger apps like WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger are already used by the majority of service teams. In the near future, channels with the biggest growth will include mobile chat and video support. Over the coming 18 months, the use of voice-activated personal assistants like Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa in customer service will see 152% growth.

Overall, 80% of service decision-makers say emerging technology is transforming customers’ expectations of their service organization.

But even making customer service available on every imaginable channel may not be enough.

 

 

Customers look for proactive service

Customers increasingly equate good customer service with proactive service — for example, notification that a shipment will be delayed before the arrival window even occurs.

An earlier Salesforce study showed that 59% of customers expect companies will soon anticipate their needs and make relevant suggestions before customer contact. Among B2B customers, 75% expect that by 2020, companies will anticipate their needs and make relevant suggestions before they contact them. Another 63% expect businesses to use artificial intelligence (AI) to automatically purchase or recommend products based on their company’s preferences.

Already, more than half (56%) of service organizations are investigating ways to use AI — technologies that perform tasks that usually require human interaction — which could free up customer service reps to focus on higher-value work.

 

How do you measure customer service experiences?

Before service expanded beyond the call center, it was seen as a necessary expense by the boardroom, and metrics focused on keeping costs low. With their pivot to a source of revenue and driver of loyalty, customer service teams are finding new ways of defining and measuring success.

“We are seeing unprecedented customer service transformation from top-performing companies, with top priorities including moving from being a cost-center to profit center by changing the role of the agent to a trusted advisor," said Natalie Petouhoff, VP of Service Innovation at Salesforce.

While tried-and-true KPIs like case volume and average handle time aren’t going away, they are increasingly being tracked alongside new performance measures that account for the broader customer experience.

Top-tracked metrics for customer service teams include

  • Customer satisfaction (net promoter score, CSAT, etc.): 80%

  • Employee experience: 75%

  • Average handle time (AHT): 70%

 

 

Other tips to improve customer service

1. Customers want transaction transparency

As a customer navigates your online store, will they see a clear reason why a sitewide sale isn’t being applied to their order? Can they easily access information about delivery timeframes and returns? Will they be able to understand when and how discounts can be applied? 

If the answer to any of these or similar questions is “no,” then you may be coming up short on the customer service front — and could be sacrificing sales as a result.

According to Forrester, 45% of customers will abandon an online transaction if they cannot easily find an answer to their question.

When it comes to providing information, it’s always better to err on the side of caution. Providing a clear FAQ page is a start, but the most successful online companies take it further by offering guidance and direction along the way, and making sure not to hide any pertinent information that the customer may find useful.

In brick-and-mortar stores, things are handled slightly differently. In this case, good customer service hinges on signage and verbal communication. The last thing you want is for a customer to make incorrect assumptions while in your store. If you’ve adopted a no-return policy for certain items, for example, this should be made clear to customers before they purchase. Also, don’t expect customers to read the fine print; any important data should be shared upfront — if there's transparency throughout the transaction, you'll minimize surprises on both ends.

 

2. Help them help you

In the age of e-commerce, many companies make the mistake of letting online shoppers fend for themselves, relying on self-service resources.

Although it’s true that today’s buyers are more independent, not everyone is equally tech-savvy, or always in the mood to put their self-sufficiency skills to work. Sometimes your customers don't want to figure it out and want an answer by asking someone.

According to eConsultancy, a large majority of web customers (83%) require some degree of customer support while shopping online.

Whether that's speaking to an agent in person or online, or over an email (for issues that aren't as urgent) — most customers, at some point, prefer human interaction so they can get straight to the point or complete their transaction.

To avoid a sea of abandoned shopping carts, ensure you are meeting your customers' needs with the support they expect. Live chat is best, as this has been proven to reduce abandonment rates. If live chat isn't an option, be sure to at least provide an easy-access link for email questions and a 24/7 toll-free number posted prominently on every page of your site.

If your customer feels like they have nowhere to go to get a quick answer, then you place the customer in a situation where they abandon their shopping cart. They may intend to come back later or they may have decided that it's not worth the effort. Whatever the reason, the likelihood of that sale happening just dropped significantly.

Reduce the amount of abandoned shopping carts by providing timely, well-placed service resources in front of the customer.

 

3. Build trust and they will come (back)

If your company is answering a phone by the first ring, is straightforward with all pertinent buying information, and is giving customers a personalized experience when they need it, then congratulations, you are building much-needed trust. This is the final piece of the puzzle, but it's the most important.

Your product or service will attract them initially, maybe even bring them back a second time, but what consistently entices customers to return is trust that they're going to have a good, barrier-less customer experience.

If you can provide the customers what they're looking for, when they need and expect it, then that trust built between your company and the customer will evolve into invaluable customer loyalty. 


For a closer look at customer service trends, get the complete research report.