The 8 Core Principles of Good Customer Service

Performance in any field is guided by a few core principles. Say you want to improve at swimming. One way would be to go for a daily swim at your local lake. Will you improve? Sure. But only until a certain plateau.

An alternative approach would be to get a teacher who makes you understand the core principles of swimming, like decreasing drag and improving propulsion.

A deep understanding of a field’s core principles sets you up for an autonomous path of continuous improvement.

That also holds true for customer service. You could dive right in with specific customer service techniques; or you could start with the core principles governing the quality of customer service in the first place.

Here are the 8 core customer service principles.

1
Speed

Speed or responsiveness shows up in almost all studies as a main determinant for service quality. According to a Warwick University study, responsiveness has the highest impact on both customer satisfaction (fast response) and dissatisfaction (slow response).

Infographic of resolution time and customer satisfaction as the first of the customer service principles.

We've all endured the frustration of hotline waiting queues. The average American spends 13 hours per year and 43 days per lifetime on hold for customer service. Alex Stone describes it as a "timeless form of torture."

So if you want to improve your service, responsiveness is a good place to start. You can track various types of service speed, like:

  • First response time. How quickly a customer receives a response on her inquiry. That doesn’t mean the issue is resolved, but it’s the first sign of life – showing the customer that she's been heard.
  • Average response time. The total average time between responses. If your email ticket was resolved with four responses, with respective response times of 10, 20, 5, and 7 minutes, your average response time is 10.5 minutes.
  • Problem resolution time. The average time before an issue is resolved.
  • First contact resolution ratio. The number of issues resolved through a single response, divided by the number that required more responses. According to a Forrester research, first contact resolutions are an important customer satisfaction factor for 73% of customers.

Service speed is based on various factors, like:

Contact channel. Some communication channels are faster than others. Email is slow. It could take longer than a day to receive a response. Customers use the phone because they want to get help now, but the waiting line experience often shatters this hope. Live chat is probably the fastest support channel due to one rep being able to chat with multiple customers simultaneously.

The Userlike Chat Window.
Live chat and messaging are the fastest contact channels.

Employee skills. Amar Sagorica explains the impact of your staff's knowledgeability on problem resolution time. The more knowledgeable, the fewer questions the rep needs to grasp and solve the issue. Also, training can boost typing speed, the mastery of macros, and explanation techniques.

Infographic the impact of employee skills on issue resolution time.
More skilled employees require less time to resolve issues.

Employee empowerment. The extent to which frontline employees can make decisions and bend the rules on their own. What sets service operations apart is the intensity of variability caused by the customer. In other words, there will always be unexpected situations.

A non-empowered employee needs to escalate the issue to her managers. An empowered employee, on the other hand, can make the judgment call herself — which drastically reduces costs. Chris DeRose and Noel Tichy share some good tips on how to empower your service reps.

2
Accuracy

Besides being fast, your service answers should, obviously, be correct. Johnston's study shows that customers regard accuracy as the minimum. It won't raise customer satisfaction, but inaccuracy definitely causes dissatisfaction.

One metric for measuring accuracy is things gone wrong. Originating from the Six Sigma approach, it tracks the ratio of "fails" — mostly complaints — per 100 or 1000 surveys.

Understanding Cultural Diversity in Customer Service

When you’re dealing with a multitude of people every day, being aware of cultural diversity is a must.

Mr./Mrs. Worldwide

The Accuracy Principle gets interesting when we look at the factors affecting it:

Training. Even more than for speed, service training is crucial to raise accuracy. While training for speed focuses more on skills, training for accuracy is about expanding knowledge.

The most successful companies invest in continuous staff education honing their employees' soft skills, like active listening and empathy.

Bill Quiseng

Information systems. The generation, flow, and access to information are crucial for service accuracy. When your contact channels aren't properly integrated, for example, your customer will have to repeat herself at every touch point. Or worse, she'll receive conflicting messages.

With a fluid integration of your database, CRM, and helpdesk systems, service reps will have the relevant information at the right time.

Team work. Support is a team sport. To solve an issue you will often depend on the input from your colleagues. But the quality of this internal communication depends heavily on the quality of your company culture. Internal politics, competition and inter-departmental misgivings can block effective collaboration.

3
Clarity

Clarity is about how processable your communication is. When accuracy is the what, clarity is the how.

We all know some people who just have a knack for explaining things. Those who make the complex sound simple, natural born teachers. What is it that makes a sentence easier or harder to grasp? A few factors:

  • Simplicity. The mother of clarity, but sadly often not receiving the respect it deserves. Talking in a simple manner isn't easy. Simplicity is a matter of efficiency. The less mental effort it takes to process the same meaning, the better. To raise simplicity, reduce the length of your sentences and words, minimize commas and dependent clauses and use common words.
  • Structure. Structure increases processing fluency. Just consider how you'd go about memorizing the phone number 0616131744. It becomes much easier when you split it up in a clear structure: 06 - 1613 - 1744. It works the same with sentences. You could stick to a what? So what? Now what? structure, for example. Or, popular among sales people, to a Features - Advantages - Benefits structure.
  • Familiarity. People have a hard time grasping new concepts. That's why explaining through analogy is so powerful. You reduce the core message down to something we can all relate to, thereby reducing the scare of the topic. Jargon is a common destroyer of clarity. By using words your customer is unfamiliar with, you give her mind cause to doubt and wander off. That's why ELI5 (explain it like I’m five years old) is a technique frequently used by support professionals.

4
Transparency

"What the hell is taking so long!?" We all recognize this feeling. Not knowing what is happening or why makes us uneasy. Which is why transparency is just as critical to service as speed and accuracy.

Known versus unknown waits. The Psychology of Waiting Lines explains that uncertain waits, not knowing how long the wait will be, and unexplained waits, not knowing the reason for the wait, both make queueing more painful.

The labor illusion. An interesting Harvard research showed the power of the labor illusion — a show of effort to meet the customer's request. In one of their experiments, two groups of participants searched on a website for airplane flights.

After typing in their destination and date, group A was shown the typical loading bar (known wait). Group B was shown not only the loading bar, but also a list of all the airlines being searched.

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Both groups were presented with the same results page. But while the website of group A showed the results instantly, the website of group B loaded for 30 - 60 seconds. Still, group B gave higher service ratings! Seeing the work that went into delivering the results gives satisfaction.

Infographic of the labor illusion.
Seeing the work put into the service raises the satisfaction.

One side note: the labor illusion only works when the end result is good. A similar experiment was conducted with dating sites. When the shown matches were good looking, the effect was positive. But when the matches... adhered less to the stereotypes of beauty, the effect was negative. "You went through all this work and brought me this?!"

Because justification. A now famous Harvard experiment shows the power of explanation. It tested how willingly people would allow someone to cut in line at a photocopying machine. The people in the line were asked 3 slightly varying questions.

  1. “Excuse me, I have 5 pages. Could I use the Xerox machine?” 60% of the people agreed.
  2. “Excuse me, I have 5 pages. Could I use the Xerox machine because I’m in a rush?” 94% of the people agreed.
  3. “Excuse me, I have 5 pages. Could I use the Xerox machine because I have to make some copies?” 93% of the the people agreed.

This experiment shows that the actual reason isn't so important. As long as you give some reason.

From my experience of doing live chat support, I know the temptation of diving right into solving mode upon a customer issue. But the transparency principle suggests to first explain what you'll look into, even if it makes the wait a little bit longer.

5
Accessibility

If your customer has a problem, how easy is it for him or her to get in touch?

For a long time, the entire customer service theory focused on delighting the customer — on exceeding expectations. Research by CEB, however, showed that it pays off more to focus on reducing customer effort instead.

Infographic of customer satisfaction and costs
The marginal benefit of investing in customer satisfaction levels out fast.

While effort also depends on factors like speed and accuracy, accessibility is its biggest hurdle.

Customer service only helps me deal with a service that has failed in some capacity; so as a customer who is trying to accomplish something by hiring the service, having to contact the customer service department means that I’m struggling.

Mike Boysen

One way to measure this is the Customer Effort Score (CES). You can get this data through post-service or in-app surveys.

Contact channels. How many actions does a customer have to take to get an answer to her question? Live chat on the website has a low effort score. So does messaging, support via e.g. Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp.

Don't confuse this with omnichannel. CEB actually showed that customers value fast and easy resolution over choice.

Infographic of relative preference for the effort to resolve and availability of preferred channel
Source: CEB.

Availability. At what times is your service available? Many customers will think of questions outside of standard office hours. Although expensive, 24/7 support strongly raises accessibility.

Self-service options. When there are no service reps around, accessibility can still be maintained through e.g. a well-structured FAQ page or video tutorials.

6
Empowerment

We all like to feel in control. A good service offers this feeling to its customers.

Flexibility. The reason we hate bureaucracy is because it lacks flexibility. When there's a corner case issue – and there always is – a bureaucratic machine jams. That's again why empowered employees are crucial.

Ratings/comments. If you've just received the best or worst service of your life, you want to express that. Besides providing valuable feedback to the company, a service rating gives customers a sense of control.

Self-service. There are few things more empowering than taking care of things yourself. Some people don't like to be assisted at all. For them, well structured self service options are crucial.

Transparency. "Knowledge is power." Not knowing what is happening or why makes you feel powerless, which makes transparency worth repeating here.

7
Friendliness

That brings us to the human side of the equation. All service is based on human-to-human communication, even the self-help kind. Unless your FAQ was written by an AI, of course. The complexity and nuances of the human interaction can have a great positive or negative impact on the experience.

Friendliness & Politeness. These are qualities that are almost impossible to train; your service rep either has them or not. At Userlike, we pay great attention to this when hiring. Jörn and Michael, our customer success duo, are guys who are simply great at making customers feel good.

Michael and Jörn, Userlike's customer success duo.
Michael and Jörn, our killer customer success duo.

It's surprising how a company like McDonald’s has neglected this for so long. The fast food giant recently confessed to its franchisees that 20% of its customer complaints are about unfriendly employees.

A you-focus. A common mistake businesses make in their communication is that they make it all about themselves. In a blog post about a new feature, for example, they explain how they "wanted to make it easier for their customers to adjust their designs." A noble intention, for sure. But look what happens when we rephrase this sentence with a you-focus: "This makes it easier for you to adjust your designs." The second sentence is friendlier (and shorter), because it focuses directly on what's in it for you. It's not self-centered; it's you-centered.

Personality. There's one major downside to eCommerce. It has stripped away most of the human interactions that used to be commonplace in everyday transactions. Service experiences are one of the few remaining moments of humanity.

Cartoon of cyborg.

Yet plenty of companies manage to ruin that as well by making their service entirely inhumane. They speak in overly formal language, use service cliches, withhold service rep identity, etc.

Customers should be able to stay anonymous if they want to. But if you're offering a service, stripping it from personality will hurt you.

Fairness. Another finding in The Psychology of Waiting Lines was that unfair waits appear longer than equitable waits. Who isn't triggered when the other line at the supermarket is moving faster, or when the couple that entered the restaurant after us is served first?

Fairness gets closest to Johnston's concept of integrity. Like accuracy, its presence won't raise satisfaction. But its absence will definitely cause dissatisfaction.

The friendliness of your service is influenced by your hiring decisions, by empowering employees, and to a minor extent by training.

8
Efficiency

You can have the world's best service, but what's the use when it's eating up all of your profits? Efficiency will always be a crucial factor in customer service. What has changed is technology; some tools let us bypass yesterday's trade offs.

Take speed and costs. Back when phone was the only channel, you couldn't offer fast service at low costs. To offer instant service, you'd have to maintain an army of idle phone reps to cover for peak times. Customer queueing was the only way to press costs.

Infographic about differences between contact channels.
Because they are based on text and synchronous communication, live chat and messaging allow for one rep to serve multiple customers simultaneously.

But technologies like live chat, messaging, and chat macros have bypassed this tradeoff. Because one live chat agent can serve up to 10 customers simultaneously with the help of predefined chat macros, the combination of fast service and low costs has become a reality.

Great service in the 21st century isn't scaled through bigger budgets; it's scaled through smarter investments. May these customer service principles guide you to them.