Customer service is the role dedicated to helping customers get the value they paid for from a product or service, especially when things go wrong. Many businesses have a dedicated customer service department, but those invested in delivering great support experiences make providing their customers the right level of support a company-wide responsibility.
Customer service sometimes is undervalued due to its reliance on so-called soft skills. That’s an outdated point of view. Support has become more technical in recent years, and many of the most important customer service skills don’t come naturally to most people—even to entrepreneurs, who frequently act as customer-facing employees in the early days.
It takes time to become great at the distinct and ever-evolving skill set needed for customer service. But no matter what product you sell or where you support your customers, there are a few essential skills that lay the groundwork for all the rest.
1. Know your product inside out
Few things provoke a customer’s ire like asking a question and getting a wrong or incomplete answer. It doesn’t matter whether you offer an expansive a selection of items, you’re dropshipping, or you’re new to your product category—not knowing your products is like a singer forgetting the lyrics to a song onstage.
Both you and your staff need a deep knowledge of what your product is and how it’s used. Training new hires, even if they’re part-time, should always start with a lesson on what you sell and how it fits into customers’ lives.
You can’t provide great customer service without being an expert on your product, especially in categories with a knowledgeable customer base, like niche hobbies.
2. Learn to use positive language
Being positive doesn’t mean confining yourself to an artificially cheery and upbeat tone—it’s about avoiding negative phrasing that can, in turn, cause customers to have a negative reaction.
Positive language focuses on solutions, not problems, and gives people a sense of agency. Phrases like “you have to” or “I need you to” might be straightforward and accurate, but can cause customers to feel the burden to solve the problem is on them, even if it wasn’t their fault. You can go from negative to positive by making a few simple changes:
Negative: “To start, you’ll have to check your order number. OK, thanks. It says here that product won’t be available for a few weeks, so I can’t place an order for you until it arrives at our warehouse.”
Positive: “First, let’s verify your order number. Great, thank you! It looks like that product will be available next month. I can place an order for you as soon as it reaches our warehouse.”
Customers don’t want to be lectured on what you can’t do for them—they want to hear what options are available to solve their problem. To keep a customer in your corner, show them you’re committed to finding a solution, and use language that invites them to collaborate with you on finding that solution.
3. Adapt your tone to the context
There are two important concepts in business communication: “voice” and “tone.” Essentially, voice is the underlying style you want your brand to have, and tone is the appropriate style for a specific context. (To see how Shopify handles voice and tone, check out Polaris, our publicly accessible style guide.)
A fun-loving dog brand might want to mirror the enthusiasm their customers have for their furry friends. However, responding in that voice without adjusting your tone to an email about a late shipment or a damaged order might come across as grating. Similarly, while your brand’s voice generally should be consistent, consider matching the tone of customers who have a different conversational style.
It can be challenging not to abandon your distinct voice for cold corporate speak during a support conversation with a customer who has a problem. Stay consistent and use your brand voice as a foundation while adjusting your tone based the customer’s temperament and their reason for contacting you.
Learn more: Customer Experience Management
4. Crystal-clear writing skills
One of the biggest causes of miscommunication is writing that’s clever at the expense of being clear. Creativity is an important part of making a support experience stand out, but your first priority is writing clear, direct answers that can’t be misunderstood.
It’s easy to assume everyone knows what you know—an unintentional bias known as the curse of knowledge. To avoid this mistake, treat customers as competent, but don’t make assumptions about what they know.
For example, if you’d like a customer to share their order number, don’t just tell them to look for it in their inbox. Provide step-by-step directions on how and where they can find it. Think about the instructions you’d give, and how you’d phrase your response, if you were helping a friend of a friend troubleshoot a problem.
Something else to consider is the way you style your replies, especially over email. Careless styling can cause confusion. Favor easy reading by making liberal use of bullet points, line breaks, and boldface to break up long replies into scannable sections.
5. Advocacy for your customers
Traditionally, businesses are expected to have empathy for their customers. But empathy is only a passive first step in the equation. More important than empathy is advocacy. Advocacy is championing the concerns of your customer and being active in identifying potential solutions. Advocacy works because it’s easy to identify and understand—it’s felt through action and through descriptions of attempted action.
Customer interactions have three phases:
Sensing: This happens at the start of a conversation, when you ask questions in order to pinpoint what caused the customer’s issue.
Seeking: After the problem is identified, you then explore what can feasibly be done to solve that problem.
Settling: Once solutions are surfaced, you can work with the customer to decide on the best outcome.
Advocacy most often occurs during the “seeking” phase. Telling a customer what solutions you’ve explored can make them even more receptive to a less than perfect outcome. If a customer can see the logic that led you to suggest what you did, they’ll be more understanding. If you offer a lackluster solution with no context, they might assume you’re trying to brush them off.
The worst thing you can do on a customer service call is appear uncaring. Don’t let a placating “We’re sorry!” do all the work for you. Take control of the situation, show the customer you’re motivated to identify real solutions, and suggest a firm next step or a shortlist of realistic options.
Learn more: Effective Strategies for Lead Generation
6. Creativity to deliver frugal wows
“Frugal wows” are gestures that have no monetary value for a customer, but create lasting loyalty through the gesture’s thoughtfulness.
Customers are drawn to things that are free, but free items alone don’t necessarily make them loyal. Frugal wows rely on creativity over capital. Here are a few examples:
Sending handwritten thank-you notes
Including creative packaging inserts
Providing samples that complement a purchase
Offering surprise post-purchase discounts
Creating personal connections with short videos
As your business grows, it’s good to find ways to deliver repeatable wow moments. Strategically, it’s better to delight many customers a little than one customer a lot.
Margot da Cunha, formerly of Wistia’s customer success team, created a personal connection by using a video in her email signature. Da Cunha tracked her engagements and found that 87% of customers she emailed clicked on the video and often watched all the way to the end. The only cost was a few minutes of her time.
In the quest for efficiency, it’s easy to forget that word of mouth isn’t gained through neutral experiences. Wow moments shouldn’t be the main pillar in your support strategy, but this type of little unexpected extra for your customers still will go a long way in helping build your reputation.
7. Understand how to set the right expectations
Setting the right expectations can directly influence how customers perceive the quality of your support and make the difference in whether they walk away happy or dissatisfied.
Even minor details make a difference: if your chat widget says “Get an answer instantly” and your average response time is actually three minutes, your customers will end up frustrated for reasons you could have avoided.
The golden rule is to under-promise and over-deliver—something that’s easier said than done. There will be times when you’ll feel internal pressure to make unrealistic promises, like if you’re unsure exactly when an item will be back in stock, or if something went wrong with an order and you want to make it up to the customer. Big promises you’ll have a hard time living up to, let alone exceeding, can inflate a customer’s expectations.
Be especially careful in regards to time. Let customers know at important touch points (such as on your contact page) how quickly they can expect a response. Don’t make promises in areas where you can’t exercise complete control, like ambitious shipping times.