What is Good Customer Service? Common Misconceptions of Good Versus Bad Customer Service

On an average day, most people will deal with a customer service representative anywhere from one to five times. Some customer service experiences are classified as “good” while other are disdainfully referred to as “bad”. If someone experiences what they would consider good customer service, they typically just about their day as if nothing out of the ordinary happened. If this same person experiences bad customer service, they will not hesitate to tell everyone who will listen. Typically I ignore the latter of the two for one very important reason: does anyone really know what good customer service is?

Having worked close to ten years as a customer service representative and manager in multiple industries, I have experienced my fair share of customers who were not happy with me. And to be completely honest, very few of them really had any cause to be upset. They called me ready to fight.

Past Experience Can Lower Expectations

In some cases, previous instances of truly poor customer service can leave one with a bad taste in their mouth regarding customer service representatives, and cause them to go on the offensive from the moment they get someone on the phone. I’ll give you an example: years ago I joined a gym and signed up for some personal training sessions. After a while, I found that the sessions were too expensive and I really didn’t have much time to attend them, so I decided to cancel the service. It took me at least an hour of dealing with the original salesman, his manager, and the general manager to finally get it resolved, and even then I had to pay a cancellation fee. They tried to convince me to sign up for a cheaper plan, postpone my sessions instead of cancelling, and even take time off from work to make more time for the sessions. Absurd.

A few months ago I found myself in a similar situation with a different gym. The trainer sessions were not going to be worth the money and were ultimately going to conflict with other things that I had going on. I called the gym, already in a foul mood because I was expecting a fight with whomever I had to speak with. Much to my surprise, the first person I spoke to simply cancelled the sessions, no questions asked. Here I had gotten myself pumped up, ready to lay into the first person who gave me a hard time about my cancellation, and it turned out to be one of my most enjoyable customer service experiences.

Customer Service Is About Perception

However, often times what a customer considers “bad customer service” really is not bad at all, it is simply their perception of the situation. The furniture industry is a classic example where a customer’s misconception of what customer service really is can lead to them deciding that they have received “bad customer service”.

When I worked in the furniture industry I often found myself dealing with people who would, scream, yell, and even insult me because of a clearly written policy in place. For instance, furniture deliveries are typically given a four hour time window in which the drivers will arrive. This is an industry standard simply because everyone’s house is different, so there is no telling how long each delivery will take until the drivers get there. Deliveries are arranged geographically to enable the drivers to complete as many stops as possible, so a specific time of day is not guaranteed. The concept of delivery time frames and how they are scheduled was explained to every customer as they bought their furniture and again when their delivery was scheduled. Of course, for some customers, this simply was not good enough. Despite being told twice before, and having the written delivery policy attached to their sales receipt, they somehow had it in their heads that they were different from every other customer, and could pick their time of delivery. While we were open to the idea of trying to accommodate them, often times it was impossible when the trucks were already loaded. Those phone calls typically ended with “this is bad customer service”, “I will never shop with you people again,” “this is NOT how you run a business,” or my favorite, “I’m going to tell all of my friends to not shop here.”

Common Misconceptions

There are two common misconceptions about what customer service really is. The first is that a customer service representative’s job is to do everything the customer says, no questions asked. This is absolutely not true. A customer service representative’s job is to provide service to the customer and assist them in any way they can, but like any other organization, company’s have guidelines that their employees must abide by and specific rules that apply to customers. An employee’s inability or refusal to break these rules should never be viewed as poor customer service. In many cases, rules are put in place to protect the customer. In the case of a medical supplies retailer, a large portion of their items tend to be non-returnable due to hygiene reasons. When it comes to products such as toilet seats, shower chairs, and bathing aids, this policy makes perfect sense. However, despite this policy being clearly posted for customers to see before purchasing the item, it does not stop an alarming percentage from attempting to return the items anyways. Even though they know the product is non-returnable, and they would never consider purchasing an item of that nature that is used, they still believe that the retailer should take the item back if they decide they do not want it anymore. And if the retailer refuses, the consumer perceives the situation as “bad customer service”.

The other misconception is that a customer service representative’s job is to take verbal abuse from the customer. This behavior is completely unwarranted, and to be completely honest, immature. Problems are never solved by yelling, screaming, or insulting the person on the other end of the phone. 99 percent of the time, the person the customer is speaking to is not at fault for the reason they are calling in the first place. Whether a customer has had a bad day or previous bad experiences with a company, it does not excuse them to take out their frustrations on the first person who picks up the phone. Countless times I found myself hanging up on someone because they have crossed the line and resorted to personally insulting me because they were not happy with the company.

Customer Service Tips

So what is good customer service? Good customer service consists of several things that combine to make the ideal customer service experience.

1. Clear, precise explanations: An upset customer is typically an uninformed customer. In the case of the furniture company, a customer should get a thorough explanation of how the delivery process works. Never assume that the customer already knows. If you cannot do something for a customer because a rule is in place, clearly explain to them why it cannot be done. In the case of the credit card company, the representative should explain to the customer that regulations regarding account changes are in place to protect the cardholder and the credit card company from fraud.
2. Calm, polite demeanor: If a customer service rep does not sound polite on the phone, or simply is not nice to people, they need to find another job. The way a representative sounds when speaking to a customer will directly affect the way the customer speaks to them in return. A good customer service representative addresses the customer respectfully, only using their first name if given permission, and NEVER raises their voice. A customer service rep should never try to talk over a customer, nor should they raise their voice if the customer begins to get louder. No matter who seems to win a shouting match between a customer and a representative, the customer service rep has lost by being drawn into it.
3. Pay close attention (write it down if needed!): The worst thing a customer service representative can do is not pay close attention to the customer they have on the phone. It is important they put away all distractions and listen to the customer carefully, writing down notes if needed. A good customer service rep does not need to ask the same question more than once.
4. Under-promise, over-deliver: This is an old saying but will always ring true in the world of customer service. A large part of how a customer views their overall experience will be based on the expectations that were set. If a situation requires the customer service rep to call the customer back, it is important to allow enough time for the call back. A good representative will never exceed the time in which they promised to call the customer back, and will always give themselves more than enough time. The same goes for when products are being shipped to a customer; if the time in transit is typically 3-4 days, quote the customer 4-6 days. If the product arrives sooner, the customer will be even happier, and perceive their experience as “good customer service.”
5. Clearly posted policies: This is especially important for internet-based retailers. If a product is non-returnable, it is the responsibility of the retailer to post that in a place that customer can and will see it before the item is purchased.

The customer-client relationship is a tricky one, especially when it comes to determining what good customer service is and what bad customer service is. The key is for both sides to remain patient with each other and keep in mind that they need each other equally in order to achieve their overall goal: a good customer service experience.

Customer Service Improves Sales

Henry Ford said ‘The only foundation of real business is service’. In many companies, the customer service function sits outside of the sales channel as it is seen in some way inferior to sales. Yet customer service is integral to sales success. Without good customer service there will be no repeat sales, and repeat sales are the most profitable revenue any company can generate.

The selling process is not complete merely because the customer has stated that he or she will buy your products or services. Throughout the entire selling process, the maintenance of goodwill is important, but even more so after the purchase. Regardless of your customer’s previous feeling towards your company, the experience they have after they have bought will have a significant impact on future sales. Customer service doesn’t complete the sale; it reignites the sales cycle. A worthwhile maxim to adopt is: ‘a customer cannot be regarded as satisfied until we get their next order.’

Whilst customer service represents the last element in many standard sales processes it could also be argued that it is the first element in a recurring sales process. Ask yourself:

Did I ensure that the agreements reached with the customer actually happened?
Did I attempt to up-sell?
Did I ask for a referral?
What records are kept and maintained?
What feedback did I get about how the customer benefited from my product/ service?
How could customer service be improved?

Why Is Customer Service Important?

There are a number of empirical studies on the value of customer service and the effect of repeat business on the bottom line. Frederick Reicheld and Earl Sasser said that ‘if companies knew how much it really costs to lose a customer, they would be able to make accurate evaluations of investments designed to retain customers’. They found that customers become more profitable over time as increased sales; reduced costs of distribution; referrals; and the opportunity to up-sell all add to the bottom line.

Heskett, Sasser, and Scheslinger collaborated on a training programme to assist managers in understanding the lifetime value of customers and in addition advised on the importance of developing a culture whereby employees are engaged to contribute to the value chain. They postulated that employee satisfaction leads to service value which produces customer satisfaction and which in turn results in profits and growth. It is hardly surprising that happen employees produce happy customers.

What is Customer Service?

Is it just about smiling and being nice to customers? It’s a good place to start but it can’t just be about that.

It is generally accepted that it is very difficult to deliver high standards of customer service. Some say we have not been educated for it – it is not our tradition. This observation is often justified by stating that since late Victorian and early Edwardian times fewer and fewer people have worked in ‘service’. What was a major employment sector in those days has now dwindled to almost nothing.

While this has happened, employment has increased in manufacturing, sales, administration, information technology, and social sciences. Through the years ‘working in service’ came to be regarded as a dead end job that nobody wanted and would only take as a last resort. As a result, the label ‘service’ has almost fallen into disrepute, and many people see giving service as something beneath them that lesser mortals do.

However, the truth is that everybody likes and appreciates good service.

Difference between Good & Poor Service
An often quoted but unattributed statistic is that where people have been asked the question – ‘what would you say was the main difference between somewhere where you received good service and somewhere you received poor service’ – in 70 percent of cases the response has been – ‘the attitude and behaviour of the person delivering the service’. Whether true or not, it seems probable that if we receive poor service from somewhere we are unlikely to buy from that source again.

It is therefore reasonable to assume that good customer service does not involve the quality of the product (unless you have advertised a product as being something it is not) but the quality of the people delivering the product or service, and the experience the customer has of buying your product or service.

It is also reasonable to assume that you yourself know the difference between good and poor service and can put yourself in the customer’s shoes when buying your product or service.

It should be relatively easy to establish a list of thing you have purchased in the last couple of months and determine whether the experience you had of buying was good, bad or indifferent. Obviously a lot of buying and selling these days happens without the interaction of people (e.g. buying on the web) and for the purposes of this exercise perhaps you should record those activities separately. Although it might appear simple, an appraisal of your own experience, coupled with putting yourself in the customer’s shoes should provide you with a wealth of information regarding the difference between good and poor service.

Analysing Good Customer Service

Ask the customer

A simple yet highly effective way of establishing the quality of your customer service is to ask the customer. Attached is an example of a customer service questionnaire used in a car distributor showroom (customer service questionnaire).


You might check out the set of customer service standards as determined by the Institute of Customer Service. In 2007 they conducted some research into what they believe customers wanted. The top ten responses were as follows:

Overall quality of the products/ service
Friendliness of staff
Handling of problems and complaints
Speed of service
Helpfulness of staff
Handling enquiries
Being treated as a valued customer
Competence of staff
Ease of doing business
Being kept informed


In 2004 the Institute of Leadership published the results of a survey with staff regarding the reasons for poor customer service. The top four reasons given were:

60% of staff believe that the main contributing factor contributing to poor customer service was bad line management
45% claim that their relationship with their line manager impacted significantly on the service they provide to the customer
60% felt they were not praised enough for good customer service, and
10% said they never receive any praise for a job well done


I have defined customer service as being:

A set of business behaviours which seek to provide superior service to existing and prospective customers; build customer loyalty and repeat business; and influence the acquisition of new customers.