By Mathew Patterson, customer education at Help Scout
"You are the same today as you'll be in five years except for two things: the books you read and the people you meet," wrote author and speaker Charlie 'Tremendous' Jones.
There is no faster path to creating exceptional customer service than by learning from those who have done it before. You can take a course, but not everyone has time for that. You can learn on the job, but we're all familiar with those growing pains. The quickest way, and the one with the least impact on our day-to-day is to brush up on your skills by reading published advice from experts.
The right book can be a huge time-saver, helping you avoid common pitfalls and grow beyond the limits of your personal experience. But there are so many customer service books published that you could spend your entire career just reading them. But how do you choose which books are the best, so you're making the most out of your study time?
If you're starting, growing or working in a customer service team, we've collected the books we think are most worth your valuable time.
Books to improve your customer service
In his clear and fluff-free book, Jeffrey Gitomer teaches (and challenges) us to go beyond mere satisfaction and aim for customer loyalty. His "Customer Service Self Evaluation Test," one of several useful tools in the book, will give you an honest appraisal of your strengths and weaknesses in customer service.
Bill Price, Amazon's former Global VP of Customer Service, pairs up with consultant David Jaffe to offer a framework for reducing "bad contact" with customers--those conversations that aren't valuable for either party involved. Their Value-Irritant matrix is a powerful tool for focusing your customer service where it will have the most impact.
For years, every new Campaign Monitor support agent received a copy of this book by Leonardo Inghilleri and Micah Solomon on their first day. It's highly readable, with detailed analysis on crafting carefully planned customer experiences. Their example of Ritz-Carlton's "use" and "do not use" word list for team members is something many customer service teams could adapt to their own tone and approach.
Author Joseph Michelli spent two years figuring out how Starbucks was able to take a commodity product like coffee and sell it for several times the typical cost. His book is an overview of how Starbucks was able to grow and continue to delight customers over time.
Jill Griffin focuses on the factors that affect customer loyalty in this highly practical book filled with tactics you can implement in your own business. Griffin's core message is that there is no technological "silver bullet" that will solve your business's growth problems, so you need to get back to the basics of providing a service that your customers will want to use over time.
Author Matthew Dixon and his colleagues at the CEB use data collected from hundreds of companies and over 100,000 customers to bust a few common customer service myths, namely that "delight" is vastly overrated. They claim reduced customer effort is the one true driver of loyalty. The second half of the book outlines ways to reduce effort across the customer experience.
7. Be Our Guest
This book by the Disney Institute starts out with a promise to "take you behind the scenes to discover Disney best practices and philosophies in action", and it delivers on that promise. We love the idea that "Everything speaks" and that customer experience is more than how your team answers the phone--it's every interaction they have with you and your brand, wherever they occur.
Frederick Reichheld's Harvard Business Review article "The One Number You Need to Grow" introduced us to the now omnipresent NPS survey as a way to measure customer loyalty. In this book, he and his co-author make the case for customer loyalty as the most important factor in profitability.
John Goodman was involved in the study of consumer complaint-handling practices (conducted by TARP under the sponsorship of the White House Office of Consumer Affairs). Much of the book is spent breaking down his practical approach to creating a customer experience strategy that does the job right the first time, using feedback and complaints from customers to identify opportunities for proactive service.
Books to improve your communication
10. On Writing Well
William Zinsser's classic book is a wonderful collection of essays covering principles of writing, methods of improvement, and advice on varied writing types. Whether you're writing to your customer, team or management, this book will help you write with more clarity and impact.
In the age of social media and "shareable insights," the ability to write clearly and concisely is even more important. In this book, Roy Peter Clark teaches you how to say more with fewer words than you thought possible. Of course "short" is not the target in itself. The author asks, "Dare I suggest that when it comes to writing, it's not the length of the text that matters, but the power of the text for the length?"
12. Bird by Bird
Are there times when you doubt your ability to affect any change with your writing? Anne Lamott has the cure in her wiseand funny book on writing and life: "You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better."
13. Revising Prose
This is a wonderful book on writing. Professor Richard Lanham first outlines his multi-step Paramedic Method for finding and killing the "lard" in your prose, and then shows his approach in action by revising examples from newspapers, press releases, and non-fiction essays.
Nancy Duarte and Patti Sanchez highlight that communication is all about change--changing someone's understanding of a situation or changing their feelings about a decision. Through case studies like "charity: water", their book gives you the tools and strategies to guide people and organizations through periods of rapid change.
Years ago, the Common Craft team explained how RSS works in a way that was far more effective than any number of blog posts. Lee LeFever's book can help you understand how to communicate ideas and explain processes so that your ideas have the impact they deserve.
Books to help you build and lead a team
Scaling support often means changing your processes and behaviors over and over again. Chip and Dan Heath provide a framework to identify why those changes are so hard and how to make them more likely to happen effectively. Their imagining of your brain as an elephant and rider trying to work together is one that will certainly hit home during a period of uncomfortable change.
17. Start With Why
Simon Sinek's book and his 2009 TED talk explain why some companies and leaders are able to have a much bigger impact by focusing on their underlying purpose. Understanding Sinek's "What/Why/How" model will help you build a team that follows you by choice, not because of your position.
"I'm sorry, I can't help you with that" is the refrain of the dis-empowered customer service agent, who knows what needs to be done but doesn't have the authority or the tools to do it. Marquet's book explains, through stories of his Naval career, a new model for leadership that pushes the authority and control right down to the front lines with great effect.
Being great at doing your job doesn't mean you'll be great when you get promoted to manage the same role. Maxwell provides thorough, practical advice based on decades of experience to help you develop new skills as a leader.
Don't let the parable approach dissuade you from Lencioni's clear and applicable teaching on how teams can work together. If you have any experience working with a team, you'll recognize the issues and be glad for the direct and challenging advice.
Why should customer service jobs be a dead-end or a stepping stone to something "better"? MIT Sloan School of Management professor Zeynep Ton presents a heavily researched case that paying well and improving conditions can result in more success than cutting costs and treating people like replaceable parts.
If a big, low-margin retailer like QuikTrip can treat their frontline team well, there are few excuses for the rest of us.
Books to help create a customer service culture
Despite the name, Hyken is not writing about those "wow" stories of service that go ever-so-briefly viral. Rather, he defines amazement as "service that is consistently and predictably better than average," and he gives seven strategies for creating an organization-wide culture to generate it.
His mantra, "consistency creates confidence," is a reminder that repeatability matters more than the occasional "wow" moment.
The role of "Chief Customer Officer" is relatively new but rapidly growing, and this book contains a framework for building a more customer-focused company. Jeanne Bliss' work is especially useful for executives and leaders in larger groups who are looking to shift their businesses onto a customer-focused path.
Frei and Morriss start out their book with a blunt challenge: A business cannot be good at everything, and when you choose to excel in one area, you must underperform in another.
If you truly understand your customers, you can make the best decisions on where to focus and where to dare to be "bad" This is a book that won't let you take the easy, ineffectual path of being "pro-service" without backing it up with action.
Zappos founder Tony Hsieh shares his entrepreneurial journey to building a famously and relentlessly customer-centric company and culture.
You've probably heard about ordering a pizza from Zappos, but the book reveals both Tony's reasoning and the strategies behind his creation of a company where team members can stay on the phone with a single customer for 10 hours.
Derek Sivers, founder of CDBaby, tells his personal story of his business growth and ties it to his persistent focus on his customers. He is honest about his mistakes and clear about his successes, making this a fascinating read.
A customer service classic, this is the story of a company that built customer service deeply into its culture. The book is filled with excellent, detailed examples of the hard decisions that were made to stay true to that culture over decades.
Early in the book, authors Spector and McCarthy quote Nordstrom's internal newsletter: "We don't determine what good service is; the customer does." It's a good standard we could all use as we work to create the best customer service experience.
Reading is just the beginning
Pick up any of these books and I'm certain you'll find something valuable for you or your company. Of course, the real work is not in the reading, it's in the application and the execution!