How to Develop Your Own Customer Service Ethics

How did you react the last time you faced unjust treatment from a company? Did you shout at the service rep, write a bad review, or did you just silently swear to never buy from there again?

It doesn't take a lot of reflection to realize that treating customers unfairly is a serious matter. That's why customer service ethics are so important.

To give a definition, customer service ethics are the moral principles that govern a company's conduct with its customers, potential customers and ex-customers. They are based on a particular set of values relating to the question of what is “right” or “wrong.”

We're not here to pull a Moses and share the 10 ethical commandments your customer service team should abide by. Instead, we’ll walk you through a few questions that will help you construct your own code of conduct – and explain how it applies to a few common situations.

Why do we need customer service ethics?

In customer service, doing the right thing is an end in itself. But a firm code of ethics also shows good business sense. You’ll soon notice:

It attracts customers. Millennials, for example, are shown to be particular about the brands they buy from . They look for companies that fit their criteria of social responsibility: investing in the betterment of society, making a positive impact on the world, being honest about their efforts and “giving back” to their community.

It attracts talent. A reputation as an ethical company is also an asset in attracting talent . Companies with a poor moral reputation actually have to pay a salary premium to incentivize people to work for them.

It minimizes bad reviews. The rise of review platforms has given disgruntled customers a stronger voice than they had a few decades ago. A clear moral code as a basis for behavior and reference helps decrease your number of bad reviews .

It maximizes customer loyalty. Customers are likely to drop you the minute they feel unethically mistreated. Showing utmost respect and care for your customers is an easy way to build loyalty.

But isn't it all relative?

Moral relativism says that there is no single true morality. As long as different cultures with different values exist, we can never truly have a worldwide ethics agreement. So why bother?

Cartoon of the Earth.

While moral diversity definitely complicates matters, it's not a valid argument for discarding ethics altogether. Although we will never all agree, it’s entirely possible to find common ground for discussion.

According to the Moral Foundations Theory , the full diversity of human morality can be reduced to six moral foundations:

  • Care/harm. This reflects the intuitive attachment we feel toward others and our ability to empathize with pain.
  • Fairness/cheating. When we help others, we appreciate those who return the favor. This is because we value justice, equality (receiving our fair share) and proportionality (being fairly compensated).
  • Loyalty/betrayal. Humans naturally form coalitions and value those who are loyal to it. This reflects our virtues of patriotism and self-sacrifice for our group.
  • Authority/subversion. We have a natural ability to form social hierarchies, which is determined by our virtues of leadership and followership as well as our respect for traditions.
  • Sanctity/degradation. Stemming from our desire to live with nobility and dignity, we repel anything that disgusts or contaminates us.
  • Liberty/oppression. We feel tension when under extreme authority or if we’re unfairly dominated. This causes us to come together to take down oppressors and fight for liberty.
Book cover showing an angel versus the devil

In “The Righteous Mind,” author Jonathan Haidt explains how people's moral intuitions diverge along these foundations. He shows how they can conflict with one another and the way this reflects in structural political and religious division within and between societies.

So while moral diversity exists, we can still reason with each other on the basis of these foundations. But because we have unwavering preferences, it’s necessary to specify which are important to you.

What should you base your customer service ethics on?

As we’ll soon show, the respective moral foundations are more or less helpful depending on the service scenario in question. Your own value preferences play an important role as well.

However, the care/harm and fairness/cheating foundations are exceptional, as they are largely universal and therefore the easiest to apply. This is a good place to begin when thinking about your morals.

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I’m sure you’ve heard the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” It perfectly encapsulates these two main foundations. Since remote service is often faceless, it’s all too simple to lose empathy and dehumanize the customer. But if you don’t enjoy long waiting times, hidden charges, nasty contract clausules, a clueless sales staff or dismissive agents, then why should your customers tolerate it?

Some customer situations are also complex. Say a customer asks for a refund on a charge that he overlooked in the contract. Unless you’re part of the 1% who reads entire contracts and terms of conditions, you can sympathize with their mistake.

The veil of ignorance has a similar idea, but from a community standpoint. It forces us to imagine a more just society where we can harmoniously coexist:

The Veil tests your fairness in customer service situations. If you wouldn't know whether you'd be on the giving or receiving end of a specific customer policy, how would you set it up?

With all of this in mind, ask yourself these questions:

  1. Would you feel comfortable sharing all of your customer responses with the public?
  2. If your customers were to write reviews about how fairly you are operating, what percentage of them would be positive?
  3. If interviewed, would your support team say their actions at work were in line with their values?

Now let's look at some archetypal service scenarios that require our sense of ethics:

  1. Rejecting customers
  2. Sales support
  3. Customer policies
  4. Setting customer service standards

Rejecting customers

This is a tricky topic that we continue to struggle with at Userlike. Sometimes there are business models or services we simply can’t support.

Each company has to draw the line for themselves. What is unacceptable to us may be peachy for you. However, there are some situations that have less of a moral gray area than others:

  • The customer deals in illegal business
  • The customer is rude or harmful to your team
  • The customer asks you to go against your moral values

Other less cut and dried scenarios require a firm understanding of your own ethics when making a decision. For example, deciding whether or not to work with a company in an “unethical” industry. Most businesses have no problem partnering with meat distributors, but for vegan- and vegetarian-friendly companies, this could be worth considering.

According to Shaurya Jain, founder of Attention Always , sometimes you have to reject a customer because you risk harming them :

You need to be sure that you will be able to add more value to your customer's business than you charge them. I always ask my potential clients how much their website traffic is worth to them and what is the conversion rate of that traffic. If the expected increase in site traffic and leads is less than my fee, I reject to take them on for their own good.

If it’s clear that a customer doesn’t need your service or product, are you able to walk away or would you push the sale?

Sales support

Customer support before the sale is called sales support, and it's often indistinguishable from traditional sales .

It’s important to distinguish persuasive from manipulative sales techniques to determine if you’re backing your potential customer into a corner, or giving her the power of choice.

A useful framework for determining your company’s morality is the Manipulation Matrix . For it to work, consider these questions about your product or service:

  • Would I use this product/service myself?
  • Will it help users materially improve their lives?
Chart with four squares that say from left to right Peddler, Facilitator, Dealer and Entertainer

The Facilitator, one who uses their own product and claims it improves lives, is likely to be trusted by customers and provide fair customer service. The Dealer is in it for the money and traffic and likely to have a poor reputation.

Because your ethics in selling is contingent on your product’s value to consumers, you need to determine where you fall. If it's clear that a potential customer would not benefit from what you offer, are your team members empowered enough to apply their ethical judgment? Could your incentive system get in the way of their values?

Customer policies

Customer policies are established so your team knows the appropriate steps to resolving issues in a fair, transparent way. Ideally, they help avoid misconduct and improve customer satisfaction.

But not all customer problems are cut from the same cloth. Unique situations require unique solutions, so you would do your company a disservice if you treated your policies like rules. Which, unfortunately, happens too often.

A train ticket inspector wanted to fine me for riding without a valid ticket. I didn’t understand how this was possible because I was using a train card that was issued to me by my new job just the day before.

“It’s not valid until tomorrow, the first of the month,” said the inspector.

I figured once I explained that I was new to Germany, that I was unaware that the card isn’t valid right away and that I would be more than happy to buy a ticket to make up for the journey and my mistake, he would let me go fine free. But I’m not in Texas anymore. This is the Kölner Verkehrs-Betriebe, where policies are heavily enforced!

I walked away with a 65 Euro fine.

Even though Userlike is a German company, we prefer viewing policies as principles, malleable enough to suit different circumstances. This approach helps you make humane decisions, like when issuing reimbursements or fines.

If you’re still unsure of where your morals lie, imagine the customer as one of your close friends or a family member. How would you behave toward them? Take it a step further; would you feel comfortable honestly sharing the way you treat customers with your family during dinner?

When setting service standards

As I mentioned above, remote customer service makes it all too simple to dehumanize the customer. When we fail to set customer service standards that our company and agents must meet, we show that we don’t care to do the bare minimum.

Both the fairness/proportionality and loyalty/betrayal foundations apply here. If your company is meeting the minimum expectations, there are a few easy ways to go the extra mile:

  • Improve response times and efficiency by using live chat software, like Userlike .
  • Keep your customers in the loop by regularly updating them about any changes or fixes.
  • Use a Customer Health Score to monitor customer happiness, and approach them when something seems wrong.
  • Make sure your agents have the right resources and training to confidently answer customer questions.
  • Create a website that is easy for customers to navigate and provides all the information they need.

These fixes show that your company is aware of the frustrations customers face and is doing something about it.

Define your customer service ethics, because they define you

Intuition and gut reasoning only take you so far. Creating a values statement or compliance policy sets the tone of your company’s conduct.

People who make unethical decisions don’t typically wear a devil’s mask. Despite our good intentions, we’re all vulnerable to making choices that negate our personal morals. This is why I like Harvard Business Review’s advice to create a list of unethical things you would never do:

Write a list of actions you will not take. Re-read it from time to time. Writing a list of things you won’t do doesn’t shield you from temptation. It doesn’t guarantee you won’t do something you’ll regret later. It doesn’t make you rich or famous; you don’t get credit for not doing something. It doesn’t resolve questions about lesser evils. But your list just might help you recognize where your slippery slope begins.

Once you’re able to identify your moral strengths, you can apply this to your business. Take a firm stand for your customer service team to promote and uphold.