Customer Service: The Basics

A primer of what Customer Service is, how it’s changed, and why it’s important.

Customer service, at its core, is ensuring that your customers are happy with your products and company so they will continue doing business with you. Seems simple, right? Yet it’s becoming increasingly complex as the responsibilities of customer service change, the number of customer service channels expand and customer expectations increase. When you consider that 82% of consumers have stopped doing business with a company because of bad customer service, you begin to understand the scope of the issue. Poor customer service ultimately means lost customers and lost revenue.  Even worse, given the information sharing tools available today, unhappy customers can impact the choices of prospective customers more than ever before.

The good news?  Customer service still comes down to prompt, honest, empathetic communication with your customers, and even small companies can do it well.  The question is – how?  We are tackling this question on our Focus On: Customer Service series, where we’ll explore planning for, implementing and scaling customer service for your subscription business.  The full series includes:

This Customer Service: The Basics primer below provides a snapshot of what Customer service is, how it’s changed and why it’s important.  It also offers tips and some big-picture direction to establish the foundations of an effective Customer service department.

Customer Service: The Basics

A Brief History of Customer Service

There was a time when customer service wasn’t so complex. The first known customer complaint was recorded in 1750 BC and involved a dispute over the quality of copper ingots and the subsequent indifference of the offender. Customer service as we know it today originated in the industrial revolution.  With the advent of mass production, railroad expansion, Rural Free Delivery (mail) and the lowering of postage rates for catalogs to one cent per pound – the time was right for mail-order merchandise, made famous by Sears-Roebuck’s catalogs, and telephone order-taking and support.  As telephone use expanded greatly in the early 20th century, customer service “operators” became a must-have for businesses. Customer service had evolved from the personal one-on-one experience of shopkeepers to assisting someone the customer service representative would likely never meet. 

Since those early days, we’ve seen customer service evolve as it has leveraged new technologies, processes, and tools. From the Money-Back Guarantee (first offered in 1868), phone support (after Alexander Graham Bell created the telephone in 1876), Interactive Voice Response (the automated attendant customers love to hate was invented in the 1980’s), email and the web (invented years prior, became popular in the 1990’s) – to newer customer service tools and tactics such as CRM (mid-1990’s), Live Chat (late 1990’s), Off-shore Outsourcing (late 1990’s), Online Help Desks (mid-2000’s) and Social Media (Twitter was first used to respond to customers in 2006). The sophisticated analytics, surveys, video chat, mobile interaction capabilities and more available today continue to expand the options for how to interact with your customers.

Yet these new technologies have brought higher customer expectations.  31% of Millennials expect a response to a social media inquiry within 30 minutes, and will leave a company after just one bad experience. This is the brave new world for customer service!

What Does “Customer Service” Include?

Facets of Customer ServiceAs the trends described above hint at, one of the biggest changes to the practice of customer service is its overall scope. Today, customer service begins before you even know someone might want to subscribe, and continues through their cancellation and beyond. It encompasses not just the interaction itself but also the speed and number of updates involved. Resolution must be not only speedy, but pleasant and sincere. Customer service should be given consideration in all product development, marketing and pricing decisions, and the department should be asked to provide statistical as well as qualitative insight on the types of questions coming from subscribers. The facets of your customer service efforts include:

INTERACTION: Speaking or typing with a customer in a positive manner that makes them feel valued, listening intently to pinpoint true issues and remaining patient, pleasant and professional with even the most trying customer.

INFORMATION: Communicating information that will help customers use your products fully, understand service gaps and be ready for changes as your product evolves. Examples include answering questions about pricing, online user tools and delivery failures/downtime and explaining the features and benefits of various packages. “Providing information” also refers to the internal communications of customers’ needs, frustrations and fears to help continually build better products.

FACILITATION: Solving problems. Whether performing ID/password resets or walking through the registration process, solving problems is a foundational role of customer service. 

REIMBURSEMENT: Particularly when solving problems or providing refunds or retractions, customer service should be performed with as few internal handoffs and delays as possible, with regular updates as decisions are being made. You should have clear policies and processes for different types of issues as well, including technical issues, complaints, refund requests, questions about auto-renewals and escalating upset customers. Make sure whoever is in the lead for customer service at your company has clear instructions and have practiced difficult requests and situations that map to your expectations on how to manage a subscriber.

Why is Customer Service Strategy Important?

Customer service is the front facing team of your business to your customers, even more so than the executives or other “personalities” your business may or may not have. This is the team your subscribers call when in need. This is the team that potential customers will call with questions. This is most often the first touch for media or partnership inquiries.  This team may the first line of technical issues or even up-sell offers.  Beyond all that, why is customer service strategy so important?  Here are our 6 key answers:

  1. Gartner surveyLOYALTY:  Thinking through the experience of your customers and how your customer service leads the way in that experience will not only create customer loyalty but advocacy. According to Gartner, customer experience will overtake price and product as the key brand differentiator by 2020.  Today, 64% of people say the customer experience is more important than price in their choice of a brand. 
  2. EFFICIENCY:   Mapping the customer service process of who is responding, how they are responding (phone, social media, call), the timing of the responses (ASAP, one hour, one day), and issue escalation creates operational efficiencies. Thinking through how to handle a billing dispute or even a refund, so that the front-line customer service reps can resolve as many issues as possible without requiring multiple approval layers will save hours of time at all levels of your organization. 
  3. CRISIS MANAGEMENT:  Related to above, like a fire drill, knowing how and where to escalate major issues will result in better and faster resolutions. Clear, consistent and good communications between a customer service rep, management and teams on a situation will help your company avoid an issue getting out-of-hand. We all know of issues where a poorly handled issue has resulted in a social media firestorm.
  4. UNITY:  As with any clear and well-thought policy, good Customer service principles send an internal as well as external message of company commitment and brand awareness.
  5. IDEA FUNNEL:  A great customer service team and process is a source of product enhancement and new product ideas.  What you think is a product improvement, perhaps even one that justifies a higher subscription price, may not interest your customers at all.  Leveraging the knowledge gathered in Customer service allows you to deliver the product enhancements customer really want.
  6. COMPETITIVE INTEL: Good Customer service creates authentic rapport with customers, which leads to honest discussions of your strengths and weaknesses compared to your competition. Solid back-office data integration quantifies these comments to help identify areas to improve your subscription offering, or points of differentiation to tout in marketing materials.

Key Trends in Customer Service

So, what is happening in Customer service in 2016?  As you begin to formulate the customer service plan for your subscription or membership business, there are five key trends to keep in mind: 

1. Expected Speed of Response

As noted earlier, customers now expect responses in minutes, not hours – and certainly not days.  This doesn’t mean that the resolution is expected in that short period of time, but rather an acknowledgment of the customer’s need and a commitment to resolve it promptly. The “Speed of Response” expectation impacts the total number of communications that are necessary more than it does the speed of resolution. (PS: You should track and measure this!)

2. Expected Knowledge of the Customer

In the days of personal interaction and small local shops, both customer and shopkeeper knew each other. Guess what? Even though your company doesn’t personally know each and every customer, your customer expects you to know about them. Your customers are experiencing this level of service from others, and they expect it from you. No, they don’t expect you to know (or want you to know) their personal info-only the info related to them and your business. Make sure you have their history and other information about them ready. Leverage technology that helps personalize their user experience and preferences.

3. Number of Inbound Communication Channels 

Customer PowerNearly 100 years elapsed between the proliferation of the telephone and the rise of email as a tool used in Customer service.  Interactive Voice Response (IVR) technology became available in the early 1980’s. In the past 20 years alone, company-created and crowd-sourced help, remote desktop support, online live-chat, online shipping trackers, and how-to videos have created a massive amount of customer touch points which must be filled with content, tools and feedback loops.  The good news here is your customers can reach out to you in a number of ways and you can leverage free or low-cost tools that make information more easily accessible than it was even five years ago.

That proliferation technology cuts both ways, however. In 1983, someone who had a bad customer experience would tell 10 people. Through the explosion of social media, that customer now reaches 1,375 people! Customer service is no longer a one-to-one dialogue with your customer, but a complex stream of communications, reviews and information-sharing activities. Keeping up with the inbound customer questions from all of the various social media channels is challenging enough, but monitoring reviews on Amazon or through affiliate partners can be daunting.

4. Expanded Staffing Options 

The options for staffing your Customer service department are as varied as the communications channels are. Options range from in-house, to outsourced, to even virtual customer service representatives. This allows even a very small organization the ability to offer reasonable access to a live person when help is needed. In addition, IVR technology (both telephonic and text/online) and shipping and workflow tracking software are great equalizers for smaller firms.

5. The Need to Be Proactive 

It’s not enough to be responsive to customer needs when they ask for help.  In today’s connected world, customer service needs to implement “outbound” service practices for monitoring review/rating sites and blogs to discover the issues subscribers have that they’re not even telling you about. Companies now leverage teams with titles such as “customer success manager” for onboarding, increasing utilization of services and updating payment information. Leveraging CRM tools to identify emerging problems and having a communication plan ready is now an expectation of the market, not a “nice to have.”

Mistakes to Avoid

  • Making it difficult to find help.  Some subscription businesses offer free trials, with automatic billing that begins at the end of the trial. But when a subscriber tries to unsubscribe, he finds it nearly impossible to complete the process. Links and phone numbers are nowhere to be found, online processes are cumbersome and confusing, and sometimes even require a faxed or mailed request for discontinuance – for an online subscription! Subscribers may cancel for a variety of reasons, only very rarely do they because of disgust with your company or product. Don’t give them a reason to feel this way.
  • Not empowering the team. A customer service team that must continuously request approval to resolve issues causes poor internal morale as well as poor customer service. It also creates a sense of unease with the customer. If company leadership doesn’t trust the person answering the phone to put through a small billing credit, why is that person working there?
  • new voiceAssuming you know what customers define as “good service.”  Some subscribers are willing to leverage live chat for their questions, others are not.  Don’t assume. Ask your customers what “good” means to them.  
  • Over-surveying/Aggressive surveying.  On the other hand, popping in a survey every time your subscribers visit your FAQ page, or worse, badgering them for a high mark, will backfire. Asking for input is a delicate balance between caring and harassment.
  • Secrecy. In November 2015, Microsoft announced that, as a result of a few customers vastly overusing its free and unlimited OneDrive service, it would be setting a cap on most accounts and offering paid options for larger storage limits. While these changes take something away from existing customers, the announcement provided reasons, a schedule for the changeover and several other subscription options. Whether we agree with this change or not, the transparency of the decision is admirable.
  • Ignoring “buy” signals. Many Customer service reps choose that career path because while they enjoy dealing with customers, they hate to sell.  Many businesses are leery of seemingly hard-sell tactics being used at a time when subscribers are most likely upset with what they’re already buying.  While sensitivity and problem resolution is job number one for Customer service, listening for buying signals and offering a product to help resolve a problem is not out of line.
  • Sending them back to the website.  Customers call because they want to speak to a person, or email because they want a helpful response. They may not have exhausted all the online help options, or even tried online help, but help is something you offer on your their terms.
  • Not apologizing. You don’t have to agree with a customer’s position to sincerely apologize, nor does an apology imply that you are at fault. Taking responsibility for resolving the customer’s problem begins with empathy, and empathy begins with “I’m sorry.”
  • Arguing with customers. Even if you’re answering extreme rudeness with real facts, arguing with a customer will end only one way: you may win the argument, but you will lose the customer. Most loud or rude customers will lose steam after a few minutes of extreme behavior, if allowed to have their say. It can also be helpful to remember that the extreme point of view the customer has may be the result of fear or disappointment – perhaps they couldn’t access an article needed for an important presentation, or the gift subscription bought for a special loved one wasn’t what was expected. In any case, answering rude with rude is not an option.
  • Rudeness.  This seems incredibly self-evident, but 42% of customers leave buying relationships because they are put off by rude or unhelpful staff. Particularly in person and on the phone, rudeness and sarcasm are very easy to detect. Patience and good humor are as important as any skill in a customer service rep.


So, as we review the tools and practices of Customer service, keep in mind:

  • Know who your customers are.  Whether you use a sophisticated CRM system or a handwritten list, make sure everyone in the organization knows who your top customers are.
  • Anticipate common questions and be ready for them. Again, whether in a Business Information (BI) system, or in Excel, keep track of common questions and their answers.  Ideally, put this list on your website.
  • Be open, communicate upcoming changes and make it easy for subscribers to get help. Make sure your phone number and an “info@” email address are prominent on your website.
  • Always be calm, empathic and truthful. It can be challenging – and upsetting – to work with very angry subscribers, but keeping your cool will reap benefits no matter what the outcome of the conversation.
  • Plan for various Customer service scenarios.  Encourage your teams to bring “what if” customer service questions to team meetings, and discuss how to handle them.
  • Measure your success. At first, just getting a handle on who’s contacting you, how often, and why will be a big effort.  As you implement integrated CRM, Call Center and Marketing systems, you can track various metrics by frequency, duration, response times and satisfaction.
  • Share the knowledge you gather throughout your organization. The team meeting, again, is a good place to do this; so is the company intranet.  Transparency here works best too – good or bad, let the Customer service team know how they’re doing, and work on continuous improvement.

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