Customer service standards are a company’s rules or guidelines that inform and shape the customer’s relationship with the business at every step throughout the customer experience. Companies adopt these standards to empower customer service employees to resolve complaints, problems and questions as quickly and satisfactorily as possible, for both the customer and the company. Strong customer service standards can help a company retain more loyal customers and increase profits significantly.
What Are Customer Service Standards?
Customer service standards are a set of policies and expectations that have been created and adopted by a company. The standards cover all the points of contact the business may have with the customer. In a sense, they are the expectations or rules for conduct in any customer transaction and how you want customers to feel about their experience with your company. After all, customers buy based on emotions rather than logic or reason. Exceptional customer care inspires future purchasing behavior more than data and facts.
Sales and assistance after the sale is just one aspect of a company’s customer service standards. A thorough set of standards must address the company’s customer service policies and practices at all key points of contact with the customer. Customer service is an essential component of a company’s business. Whether the company sells its products to individual consumers or to other businesses, the importance of customer service to the company and its brand development efforts is the same.
Customer Service and the Buyer’s Journey
The buyer’s journey is a conceptual framework for thinking about your customer’s full range of experiences or contacts with your company. While the precise contours and points of contact will vary depending on the company and what it does or sells, generally it will consist of at least these three stages:
- Awareness: The customer becomes aware of a problem or a need, and has the desire to solve it or fill it.
- Consideration: The customer thinks about possible solutions and options available for solving that problem or filling that need.
- Decision: The customer makes a purchasing decision and buys one of the products or solutions he has considered in stage two.
Customer service should ideally cover each of these stages, as well as the post-purchase phase. In one sense, marketing is the art of helping customers move more rapidly and easily from one stage to the next.
Customer service serves as a support for people at every stage along the way, and beyond. Far from simply helping people who have already purchased to use the product more effectively, customer service is there to support both prospective and existing customers as they consider, evaluate, purchase and use a company’s products and services.
It may mean offering additional information about the need or perceived problem in the awareness stage, or stage one. In stage two, it could mean providing more detailed information about the lifespan of the product or service cycle and how it can help resolve the problem. Finally, in stage three, the decision-making phase, it usually revolves around assistance with the transaction itself or some aspect such as shipping and returns.
By crafting customer service standards to govern interactions with consumers at every possible point along the buyer’s journey, a company expertly crafts the specific experience it wants its customers to enjoy. Maintaining this sense of proactive design helps a business turn prospects and leads into loyal customers and brand ambassadors.
Importance of Service Standards
Taking the time and effort to formalize customer service standards is an important exercise for companies to undertake. The process of developing those standards and guidelines helps the company solidify its thinking about how it relates to its market and further enhance its brand.
Adopting formal customer service standards and communicating those standards to all employees who have any contact with customers is essential for the company’s workers, especially those filling roles that are explicitly devoted to the customer and technical service functions.
Additionally, adopting formal customer service standards helps the company in scripting the buyer’s journey. Furthermore, standardized customer service helps the company by ensuring the maximum positive response from the maximum number of customers.
A positive, enjoyable customer experience during a person’s first transaction with a company will often bring that customer back for future purchases. For most companies, from an economic standpoint, it makes much more sense to retain an existing customer than to acquire a new one. It could be up to 25 times more costly to gain a new customer than to keep an existing one.
What’s more, the lifetime value of a dedicated, loyal customer who expects and gets a pleasant transaction every time, can yield significant dividends for a company. Research suggests that simply increasing the percentage of existing customers – the customer retention rate – by a meager 5 percent can increase a company’s profits by up to 95 percent.
Best Practices for Customer Service Standards
Customer service standards may be aspirational in some aspects, but for the most uniform and positive results, a company should adopt standards that are measurable, specific, time-limited and based on real customer experience.
Goals and expectations should be measurable and assessed according to some objective metric such as time, money or some other numerical unit of measure. Measurable standards may be more easily and clearly communicated to customer service employees, who will then be better equipped to meet those standards.
Standards should also be specific and stated in “plain language” for the same reason. Vague standards such as “make the customer happy” and “the customer is always right” may motivate teams but don’t empower those workers to provide excellent service. Employees need to know exactly what they are expected and authorized to do in specific circumstances to improve the customer’s experience.
You should include time frames in formal customer service standards. Employees need to know exactly when responses and resolutions are expected, and what to do each step along the way. Specify when responses are considered untimely or unacceptably delayed, as well.
Perhaps most importantly, customer service standards should be based on the real experience, expectations and needs of the company’s customers. For this reason, it’s advisable to conduct interviews and surveys with existing customers before adopting formal standards. When customer service representatives operate under standards that reflect precisely how customers experience the company’s products and services, they’re better able to improve that experience.
Examples of Measurable Customer Service Standards
Measurable customer service standards are those expectations and rules that are capable of being assessed by some objective metric. In other words, they can be objectively measured and assessed as acceptable or unacceptable. This assessment helps foster a stronger sense of certainty for customer service employees, as well as the customers they assist. Measurable standards also create a more uniform experience for all customers.
One example of a measurable customer service standard is a rule establishing that customers will receive delivered packages in three days or less. Both the company adopting such a rule and their customers undoubtedly understand that situations may arise on occasion that make this goal impractical, such as weather conditions. Yet adopting such a measurable standard gives an immediate and easily analyzed benchmark against which the experience can be measured.
Measurable standards can also specify the maximum time it takes to answer and speak to a customer who calls into a customer service call center. Keeping dissatisfied and frustrated customers on hold for several minutes works against both the customer service employee and the company itself, by making it much harder for the employee to establish rapport with the customer and address the customer’s issue.
At the same time, a preference for measurable standards shouldn’t be inflexible. Situations can always arise that are out of the control of the employee and the company itself. For this reason, most companies adopting measurable customer service standards usually establish a percentage floor or ceiling standard along with the substantive standard itself.
For example, instead of adopting a firm rule that all customer service calls must be answered within two minutes, a company could require that 90 percent of all customer service calls must be answered within two minutes or less. This approach reflects a practical understanding that unforeseen circumstances can make meeting objectives difficult or impossible while still creating parameters for the company’s expectations.
Providing Excellent Customer Service on Social Media
Companies can no longer ignore the role that social media plays in customer service these days. Brands should maintain a presence on major platforms and networks, but more importantly, they must be active on whatever platforms they do join. If customers cannot find a company on the social sites where they already spend time, their frustration may increase.
However, if the company does have an account but doesn’t use it or doesn't update it, this can cause more damage to the brand’s reputation. An abandoned account will also increase a customer’s ire and in some cases more than if a company had no social media presence at all. Customers who have sent their complaints and inquiries to your channel as directed by your website, will not be happy to find it abandoned. Companies should have a plan in place to monitor their social media and the internet as a whole for searches of brand names, product names, the names of key personnel and the company name itself. Search and web alert services can help make this less time-consuming. The company should include a procedure for responding to these customer inquiries and mentions.
A plan must be in place for resolving complaints. Firstly, it's vital for companies to respond promptly to social media complaints, even if the response is “we’re aware of this, reviewing the issue and will be in touch soon.” Provide a way to get in touch with the correct employee who is authorized to resolve the problem in question, and then follow through promptly. Technology has opened up new avenues for customer communication, but that communication runs in both directions. When that customer communication is a complaint, a company that doesn’t respond immediately and appropriately can find itself at the center of a social media firestorm.
Some brands handle such crises well and even turn the incident into a positive by responding with compassion and taking full responsibility. However, it’s easy for a company to be caught unaware by social media complaints. If they don't respond appropriately to a complaint, it can lead to a full-on public relations crisis that has the potential to damage a brand’s reputation significantly.
How to Teach Customer Service Standards
Successful customer service training starts with hiring the right people with the right skills and traits. Empathy, for example, is a human trait that you cannot teach to someone. But a naturally empathetic person can be trained in a specific series of steps to resolve common customer problems. Likewise, patience and the ability to follow instructions are valuable customer service skills. Often complaining customers experience a heightened level of frustration, anger or even fear. These strong emotions can hamper clear communication and make it harder to help the customer.
For the same reason, front-line customer service representatives must also be somewhat thick-skinned. Angry customers can say things that that will be perceived as personal attacks, especially on social media where the built-in audience may encourage the customer to vent.
Customer service standards should be communicated to employees in initial training sessions as well as periodic refresher courses. The standards should be put in writing, formally adopted by the company and distributed to all employees. Ideally, customer service standards and any revisions to those standards should be communicated both in writing and in person, with practical training and roleplay.
- GrooveHQ: 7 Best Practices That Your Social Media Customer Service Strategy Needs to Follow
- Zendesk: Providing great social media customer service
- Pardot: Understanding the Buyer’s Journey
- Forbes: A Customer Service Training Example From Four Seasons Hotels: Working With An Upset Customer
- Forbes: Secrets of Consistent Customer Service: How to Be Great Again and Again
- HBR: The Value of Keeping the Right Customers
Annie Sisk is a freelance writer who lives in upstate New York. She holds a B.A. in Speech from Catawba College and a J.D. from USC. She has written extensively for publications and websites in the business, management and legal fields.