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The secret ingredient to exceptional customer service

SMB owner


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It’s no surprise that customer service needs to be a priority if you want your small business to succeed. We’ve all heard it before—happy customers make repeat purchases, send referrals your way, and boost your company’s reputation.

In an age where it’s so easy for customers to leave negative customer reviews or shop online for an alternative option—while they’re waiting on hold with support—it’s not enough to just have good customer service. To turn your customers into raving fans, you need to go above and beyond. Your customer service needs to be exceptional.
And as a company that helps customer service teams communicate and collaborate with both customers and coworkers, we know why great customer service is so important—especially for small businesses.

Today, we’re diving into the kind of truly exceptional customer service that wows your customers and makes them stick with you (even through customer retention hazards like price increases and lapses in your customer experience).

Most importantly, we’re going to reveal the secret ingredient to how companies can provide truly exceptional customer service. (Each of the three examples from real-life companies we’ll analyze has this one key element.) So, read on to find out:

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What does exceptional customer service really mean?

We all know what good customer service looks like—it’s agile, respectful, responsive, solves your problem, and hey, maybe the customer service agent even knows your name. But the thing is, this shouldn’t be the goal.

Why? Because this kind of good customer service is quickly becoming the baseline for small businesses looking to wow customers. Yes, this kind of service, which would’ve wowed the socks off our parents and grandparents, is now becoming commonplace. It’s unfair.

That also means that if you aim a little higher and build a culture where good customer service is the minimum, you’ll raise the bar overall in your business because your customer support team will make going above and beyond the rule rather than the exception (and banish bad customer service forever). It’s a little bit harder, sure. But we can’t say it’s a bad thing.

So, what do we mean when we refer to exceptional customer service? Here are the three calling cards of exceptional customer service:

  • Generous
    • Generosity might be sharing free products, extra discounts, or surprise expedited shipping with customers. It can involve going above and beyond to fix issues by offering refunds and an extra coupon or replacement item. But it doesn’t always need to be a monetary offer; just anticipating the next issue or question a customer might have and proactively offering to help is one way you can be generous with your attention and time.
  • Unexpected
    • The service or product that you’re delivering might vary, but you should also try to deliver something that the customer doesn’t see coming. It’s that wow factor that really makes service exceptional, and it’s the key to exceeding (not just meeting) your customers’ expectations.
  • Personal
    • Another characteristic of great customer service is that it is personal. Encourage staff to show they’re listening, and get to know customers while they’re on the phone. Asking casual questions may open up opportunities to surprise and delight customers. You may even have to overstaff slightly to allow the time and space for agents to have slightly longer calls with customers, allowing more time for personal connections.

Key indicators: how to know if you’ve actually got exceptional customer service

As with all business goals, it’s not enough to just declare that you want to have exceptional customer service. You have to establish processes and goals that’ll let you know when you’ve actually achieved it.

When you’re thinking about indicators of exceptional customer service, consider the outcomes that you’re shooting for. These are the core reasons that are driving your desire to have such awesome customer service.

💡 Pro-tip:

Examples of outcomes that might fuel a company’s exceptional customer service include repeat customers or increased referrals. These are the indicators you should use as you’re setting your customer service KPIs or call center metrics.

If you want to know if you have exceptional customer service, watch for these indicators:

  • You don’t just have customers; you have evangelists. You get a ton of referral business, even if you don’t have a formal referral program.
  • You don’t experience much churn for subscription customers, or you have a lot of returning customers. (This is why it’s good to have a handle on your customer service analytics—so you can actually measure these numbers.)
  • You hear personal stories of gratitude from customers. When someone asks to speak to the manager, it’s usually to share a compliment, not a complaint.
  • Morale is high and your support team is happy, fulfilled, and free to do great work.

Here’s an example of how this kind of customer feedback would look in, say, a Tweet from your customer:

Dave Bell tweet

3 exemplary customer service stories from real-life companies

One of the best ways to be clear about what you mean when you say exceptional customer service is to share stories of great customer service with your team.

Don’t just try to hit a “decent” response time or add the customer’s name to a customer support email—we’re talking exceptional here, not basic. Instead, share these stories with your team and see if you can provide suggestions on how your team might translate that kind of service for your industry.

1. Zappos and the best man

Shoe company Zappos is well-known for having the kind of customer service that truly wows their customers.

They built this reputation by giving their agents the freedom to have long conversations and get to know their customers—as well as the financial freedom to upgrade shipping, refund orders, and even send flowers to customers.

In one instance, a best man named Jay used Zappos to order a pair of shoes for the wedding he was attending, but accidentally had the shoes sent to the wrong address.3

When he realized his mistake, he called Zappos, knowing there was no way that he’d get the shoes on time for the big day.

Not only did the Zappos customer service agent overnight him the shoes he needed as a replacement, but they also gave him a full refund and upgraded him to VIP status so he’d have free shipping in the future.

The kindness and human compassion that the support agent showed Jay is the stuff that awesome customer service stories are made of—and probably created a customer for life in Jay.

💡 Pro-tip:

Get more customer service tips here.

2. Southwest supports a cancer patient customer

Airlines don’t have the best reputation for customer service, so it’s especially impressive the way a customer support agent at Southwest was able to turn around a lost bag story into a positive experience.4

When a customer on a Southwest flight arrived home in Pittsburgh without her luggage, it wasn’t just her shampoo she was missing. Her bag held medication as well as lucky charms and a rosary for the chemotherapy treatment she was headed to the next morning.

Though it was already late at night, the Southwest agent promised to do all she could to bring the customer her bag before her 9 a.m. chemotherapy appointment.

And she didn’t disappoint, personally driving the bag to the customer’s house at 3 a.m. since airport couriers were off for the night, and even leaving a note encouraging her to “kick cancer’s butt!”

Stacy Hurt Facebook post
This is another example that showcases the importance of creating a human connection with your customers, a shift that empowers your support agents to go above and beyond to create an incredible customer experience.

It goes beyond customer service; it’s simple human kindness.

💡 Pro-tip:

Are you practicing these customer service best practices?

3. Starbucks employee learns sign language to ask a regular his drink order

When one Starbucks employee in Leesburg, Virginia, noticed how challenging it was for a deaf customer to communicate with herself and other Starbucks employees, she took it upon herself to find a solution.

So, the next time he stepped up to order, she handed him a note: “I’ve been learning ASL, American Sign Language, just so you can have the same experience as everyone else.”

That’s right—the barista had spent three hours of her personal time learning enough sign language to ask this customer his drink order. As she said, “If he’s a regular, and I want to make that connection with my regulars, I should be able to at least ask him what he wants to drink.”

This story garnered national news, but that’s not why she did it—and not for a good tip, either.5

Again, it was all about thinking of a way to unexpectedly serve the customer better that took this story from good customer service to truly exceptional.

Build the foundation for exceptional customer service

A great customer experience depends on having a team with the right skills—and giving them the freedom to use them. Whether your customer service department is one person right now or a larger team, prioritizing a culture of wowing customers can begin right from day one.

There are three steps to create a foundation for exceptional customer service at your company:

1. Use technology to deliver great customer service

With online customer service becoming more and more crucial, you need to build your foundation for exceptional customer service with the right technology. If your support team is fumbling to find the information they need or can’t get their questions answered quickly, how can they wow your customers?

Show your team that providing great customer service is truly a company priority by choosing communication tools that make it easy to knock your customers’ socks off.

And the first priority in choosing that technology or customer service app? Flexibility. As more of us become phone call-averse, providing flexible options for support communications is a no-brainer.

Note that we said “phone call-averse,” not that phone calls are going to disappear altogether. Why? Because according to a survey of consumers, people still prefer to call companies after a purchase:

Graph: Preferred Communication after Purchase
That’s why you should make sure your customer service software allows you to communicate with customers however they want—whether it’s voice, chat, text, email, or even video conferencing. For example, here’s how that looks in RingCentral’s Contact Center platform:

💡 Pro-tip:

Learn about omnichannel customer service

The concept of flexibility doesn’t end with your customer’s communication preferences either. There’s your customer support team too. Using a cloud communications platform means you can have incoming questions ping all of your agents at once—even if you have a remote customer support team.

Whether you want the flexibility to hire a remote team or just want to be sure your team can still work even if they’re snowed in, RingCentral ensures that customers can always access the support they need.

Finally, don’t underestimate how important team communication is to delivering a good customer support experience—and building the foundation for an exceptional one.

By ensuring that support agents can connect with team members across the company quickly, the right internal communications platform sets your whole team up to serve customers. Using RingCentral, you can keep that internal and external communication in one place, avoiding wasted time between different communication platforms.

2. Nurture exceptional customer service… skills

To begin creating a great customer experience, it’s crucial to look for and encourage the right skills in your support team. Communication and collaboration are two foundational customer service skills that you should look for in support agents.

Good communication skills are, of course crucial, since that’s the bulk of what your support team does all day. (Here are a few empathy exercises to try.)

3. Trust your customer service team

The most important factor in creating exceptional customer service, though, is hiring the right agents and then trusting them with the freedom to do their jobs well. Autonomy: this is the key ingredient!

So often, even great support agents feel trapped by the rules, systems, and scripts they have to adhere to as a member of the team—worrying they’ll risk their jobs if they stray from the set path. By overregulating your customer-facing team, you’re actually sapping them of their ability to relate to customers in a human-to-human way.

Customer service teamwork is great, but give your customer-facing team members the autonomy and space to deliver a truly great experience. That means having a certain amount of trust in your team and giving them the freedom to be human.

Skip the script and empower your support staff to communicate in a way that reflects your brand but is also natural for them. Educate your team on your brand voice and customer values so that you’re confident that they can be a good representative of your company.

You can even provide a small pre-approved budget designated for wowing customers. Ritz-Carlton Hotels famously allows any employee, from housekeepers to managers, to spend up to $2,000 per guest, per day, to resolve a problem without speaking to a supervisor.1

That might sound like a lot of money, but even a small budget for customer satisfaction—Helpscout calls it the “frugal wow”—will empower your support agents to create an exceptional experience for customers.2

💡 Pro-tip:

As you create a culture of superior customer service, it’s important to center the customer in your company discussions. From training to high-level brand and culture discussions to quarterly reviews, keep the focus on customers to emphasize throughout the company how important exceptional service really is.

How to take your customer service from good to exceptional

It’s one thing to have good customer service—the kind where calls are answered quickly and agents are polite.

But if you truly want to create loyal customers and earn a stellar reputation, good customer service is no longer enough. Now, it’s all about taking service to the next level. To be truly exceptional.

Beyond just having the right technology and skills, you can take it up a notch by training your business as a whole to focus on the customer, giving your agents the freedom to connect with customers, and celebrating service interactions that go above and beyond.

With these tools, be prepared to watch your support agents wow your customers and start reaping the benefits of your new, stellar service reputation.


Originally published Jun 01, 2020, updated Jul 01, 2022

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