Customer service definition, skills, and important principles for 2021

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

By Courtney Gupta, Customer Service Enthusiast

Published June 13, 2020
Last updated May 5, 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 is the act of supporting and advocating for customers in their discovery, use, optimization, and troubleshooting of a product or service. It's also the processes that support the teams making good customer service happen. The goal of customer service is to foster better customer relationships.

The main difference between service today and service 10 years ago is that customers expect premium service to be built-in from the first sales or marketing interaction and carry through to the moment they ask for help, post-purchase, and back again. To position themselves for success, businesses must integrate service into the journey at every interaction point.

The COVID-19 pandemic changed customer service for good. What started as a global health crisis became the accelerant in our transition to a truly digital-first world. Customers are more online than ever—and they expect online experiences that are on par with, or better than, in-person experiences. And the surge to online has put the spotlight on customer service, with half of customers surveyed in our 2021 Trends Report reporting that CX is more important to them now compared to a year ago.

The pandemic has also underscored the importance of empathy in the customer service experience. It’s not enough for companies to simply provide fast, friendly service. In a world marked by uncertainty, customers are seeking empathy and want to buy from companies that reflect their values. Our research also revealed that 66% of customers report being more loyal to a company that shows they’re empathetic and understanding when a customer has an issue.

What is good customer service?

Good customer service means meeting customers' expectations. That involves everything from interacting with customers over messaging channels because they expect convenience to investing in your knowledge base because they expect to find answers on their own. And meeting customers' expectations pays off: 75% of customers are willing to spend more with companies that give them a good customer experience, according to our 2021 Trends Report.

Customer expectations have been rising for years, so meeting their needs is not an easy task. A good place to start is by understanding what customers want, and in 2021, that's speed, convenience, and friendliness, according to our research.

What are the 4 principles of 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: fast resolutions, having the ability to find answers 24/7, interacting with a friendly, empathetic agent, and being able to contact support via the most convenient channel.

What are the 3 most important things in customer service?

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

  1. Make things easy for customers
  2. A good customer experience is an effortless one. Companies today have to provide seamless experiences. In fact, 65% of customers surveyed in our Trends Report want to buy from companies that offer quick and easy online transactions. And for that reason, 49% gave Amazon the highest marks for service.

  3. Support your support team
  4. In an increasingly distributed world, companies must rethink how they work smarter across teams. In fact, investment in internal help desks is forecast to double post-COVID, according to our Trends Report. The takeaway? Customer experience and employee experience are inextricably linked.

  5. Keep the business in sync
  6. Good customer service goes beyond the customer service department; it involves the entire business. But when technology and tools aren't connected on the backend, it makes things frustrating for agents and customers. With apps and integrations that bring together department information—from marketing automation software to billing tools—support teams can provide more personalized and efficient CX.

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 the human elements of customer service. Customers want speed and convenience, but they also look for empathy and commitment to the issues that they care about. 61% say they’ll spend more to buy from a company that is empathetic and understanding, according to our Trends Report.

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 reaches 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 difference between customer service and customer support

customer service

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 will vote you off the island if you don’t. In fact, our Trends Report 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%.

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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

customer service

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

  • Improving customer retention: According to our research with ESG, companies that prioritize customer service are more than six times more likely to exceed their customer retention goals
  • Increasing customer lifetime value: Our research with ESG also revealed that companies with high-performing customer service teams are nearly nine times more likely than their low-performing peers to have significantly grown customer spend during the COVID-19 pandemic
  • Boosting customer loyalty: Our Trends Report showed that 77% of customers report being more loyal to a company that offers a good customer experience if they have an issue

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.

Learn the top customer service skills for 2021 in our blog post.

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.

Examples of good customer service

What are some examples good customer service? Here are a few (hopefully) familiar examples of excellent customer service.

  • Resolving issues quickly
  • 73% of customers say quick resolutions is the top factor of good customer service.

  • Providing convenient solutions, 24/7
  • Over 40% of customers believe 24/7 support is a key component of great customer service.

  • Serving your customers in the channels of their choice
  • Customers want to connect with you on the same channels they use to talk to friends and family. So being able to help a customer on their preferred support channel is one of the best ways to create an excellent customer service experience.

  • Being proactively helpful
  • Great customer service often means anticipating your customer's needs before they even have to tell you.

  • Personalizing interactions
  • 75% of customers want a personalized experience.

  • Helping customers help themselves
  • 69% of customers want to resolve as many problems as possible on their own, and 63% always or almost always start with a search on a company's website.

  • Using customer feedback to get better
  • If you want to provide better service for your customers, you have to listen to what they have to say. Instead of approaching customer complaints as a game of dodgeball, customer-focused companies use their feedback to create a better experience.

All year every year at Zendesk, some of the world's sharpest analysts are doing research and then painstakingly interpreting it to illuminate the coming year's biggest trends in customer service. A few of the top customer service trends in 2021:

  1. Speed up your digital timeline
  2. 75% of company leaders agree that the global pandemic has compressed the timeline for acquiring new technologies to reach customers and connect distributed service teams.

  3. Customers expect companies to lead with their values
  4. 63% of customers want to buy from socially responsible companies. 54% want to buy from companies that prioritize diversity, equity, and inclusion in their communities and workplaces.

  5. The rise of messaging
  6. Nearly a third of customers messaged a company for the first time in 2020, and 74 percent of those say they will continue to do so.

  7. Automation improves experiences for customers and agents
  8. Interactions with automated chatbots jumped 81% in 2020.

  9. Emphasis on agility
  10. Managers cited difficulty adapting to change as their biggest pain point last year.

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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