Advice on providing outstanding customer service tends to fall into two distinct categories.

One is based on platitudes such as "The customer is always right"; they sound good but don't give your employees much in the way of practical guidance. The other turns customer service into a series of checklists and canned responses; this sounds useful, but every customer is different and there's no way to codify all the possible responses.

And then there's the approach taken by Derek Sivers, founder of CD Baby and HostBaby.

Here's Sivers on the six key mindsets that create the foundation for providing outstanding customer service:

I was honestly surprised that my company CD Baby was such a runaway success. But I was even more surprised to find out why.

CD Baby had lots of powerful, well-funded competitors, but after a few years they were all but gone and we dominated our niche of selling independent music: 150,000 musicians, two million music-buying customers, $139 million in revenue, $83 million paid directly to musicians.

What was the secret to CD Baby's success? I honestly didn't know. I never did any marketing. Everyone came by word of mouth. So whenever I was out talking with my musician clients, I'd ask. For years I asked hundreds of clients why they chose CD Baby instead of the alternatives. Or I'd just listen as they raved to others about why they loved it.

Was it the pricing? The features? Nope. The No. 1 answer by far was this:

"You pick up the phone! I can reach a real person!"

Callers got a real person on the second ring instead of an automated call-routing system. Or they emailed and got a surprisingly helpful personal reply instead of an impersonal scripted FAQ response.

And that was it.

Who could have guessed that despite all efforts put into features, pricing, design, partnerships, and more, clients would choose one company over another mainly because they liked their customer service?

I structured the business to match this priority. Out of 85 employees, 28 people were full-time customer service representatives.

Since then, many entrepreneurs and interviewers have asked for my customer service tips and tricks, but I recently realized it's not something you can add on top. It's really a philosophy--a mindset that has to come from the core.

I'm no expert on the subject, but I've learned a few things from 16 years of experience, so here are the six key mindsets that I think guide great customer service:

Mindset 1: You can afford to be generous.

The most important mindset to have before engaging in communication with a customer or client is that your business is secure. Even if it's not, you have to feel that it is. Money will come your way. You will do well. You are one of the lucky ones. Most are not so fortunate. You can afford to be generous.

All great service comes from this feeling of generosity and abundance.

Think of all the examples of great service you've encountered: free refills of coffee; letting you use the restrooms even if you're not a customer; extra milk and sugar if you need it; a rep that spends a whole hour with you to answer all your questions.

Contrast those with all the bad experiences you've had: not letting you use a restroom without making a purchase; charging an additional 50 cents for extra sauce; salespeople who don't give you a minute of their time because you don't look like big money.

All terrible service comes from a mindset of scarcity, from business owners who feel they'll go out of business if they don't fiercely guard their bottom line.

They say the reason those in poverty so often stay in poverty is that short-term thinking of desperate survival doesn't leave room to think of long-term solutions. If you really feel secure, abundant, that you have plenty to share, then this feeling of generosity will flow down into all of your interactions with customers.

So share. Be nice. Give refunds. Take a little loss. You can afford it.

Of course it's also just smart business. Losing 10 cents on extra sauce can mean winning the loyalty of a customer who will spend $1,000 with you over the next 10 years and tell 20 friends you're awesome.

Mindset 2: The customer is more important than the company.

Think of a time when you had to make a big decision. For example, the choice between taking a job that pays more money versus one that pays less but gives you more freedom.

Do you remember how it felt when you were conflicted between two such choices? Weighing the pros and cons and going back and forth? The way you resolved it was to finally decide which value was more important to you. For example: more money or more freedom.

Most of us don't decide which value is most important to us until we're forced to make this decision.

But if you want great customer service, you need to make this value choice up front and decide that your customers' happiness is your top priority, even above company profitability, and then make sure everyone in your company knows it and acts that way.

You can't micromanage the details of every possible scenario, so make sure everyone in the company knows that whenever he or she has to make a decision about the right thing to do, to always do what's best for the customer, what would make that person the happiest, and not to worry about the company. The customer is more important than the company.

Mindset 3: Customer service is a profit center.

Companies put tremendous energy into getting people to buy, but they don't put nearly the effort into improving the customer experience after people buy.

Anyone can see the reason to focus on getting customers to buy. The profit is obvious. But it takes wisdom, experience, and long-term thinking to understand that keeping your existing customers thrilled is even more profitable.

Customer service is not an expense to be lessened. It's a core profit center, like sales. It's something you put the best people on, not the cheapest.

You've heard the old business truism that it's five times harder to get a new client than it is to get repeat business from an existing client, so this is where you put it into practice.

Hire the sweetest, most charming people, and make sure they have all the time in the world to spend with your clients. Make sure your customers feel so engaged, so cared for, and so happy with your service they'll tell everyone they know.

Hire enough people so that they have the time to pick up the phone, instead of routing people into an automated system. If they're so busy that their communications are getting too succinct, it's time to hire again. It's worth it.

Mindset 4: Every interaction is a moment to shine.

Probably only 1 percent of your customers or clients ever bother to interact with customer service.

So when they do, that's your time to shine. Three minutes spent talking to a customer shapes his or her impression of your company more than the combination of your name, pricing, design, website, and product features. This is your shining moment to be the best you can be, to blow the person away with how cool it was to contact you.

If your customer service representatives are taught to be efficient, they send the message "I don't really want to talk with you. Let's get this over with quick."

Since that's what everyone else does, do the opposite. Take a few inefficient minutes to get to know anyone who contacts you.

For example, at CD Baby, if someone would call and say, "I'd like to talk with someone about selling my music through you," we said, "Sure. I can help. What's your name? Cool. Got a website? Can I see it? Is that you on the homepage there? Very cool. Is that a real Les Paul guitar? Awesome. Let me listen to a bit of the music. Nice, I like what you're doing. Very syncopated. Great groove. Anyway … so … what would you like to know?"

I can tell you from my own experience of being a self-promoting musician for 15 years that it's so hard to get anyone to listen to your music. So when someone takes even a couple of minutes to listen to you, it's so touching that you remember it for life.

That's not just some sales technique, by the way. It's decent human behavior. It makes life better. It makes work more fun. It's the right thing to do.

And it pays off.

When people would call to buy music, we would ask where they heard about the artist: not in some monotonous scripted way but as part of engaging the customer in a genuine conversation. Then we'd include those details in the order on the back-end so the musician could see it, too. It helped the artist be more connected to fans, and helped him or her and us understand why people were buying the music.

Imagine what you'd do if Paul McCartney called. You'd drop everything, gush some praise, be thrilled that he'd contact you at all, and give him all the time in the world for whatever he wants. So that's how we should treat everyone that contacts us. Why not? You don't have time? Make time. It's how everyone deserves to be treated.

Research shows we don't smile because we're happy; we smile first and the physical act of smiling makes us happy. In the same way, the act of being sincerely interested in others and taking the time to make each person happy even if you weren't initially in the mood is a great way to actually be your best.

Mindset 5: Lose every fight.

Customer service often starts when someone has a problem and is upset.

But just like you need to feel secure for your business to be generous, you need to feel secure enough to lose every fight.

Whenever a customer is upset, let the person know he or she was right and the company was wrong. The customer wins. You lose. And you're prepared to do whatever it takes to make the person happy again.

And don't forget there is no private communication in customer service. Anything you say is likely to be shared and seen by everyone. So you must be the best version of yourself. You must let customers win every fight.

Over the years my company had some huge evangelists: people who loudly told everyone they met that they absolutely must use CD Baby to sell or buy their music. The funny thing was, when I would look back through an evangelist's history of communication I would often find that the first time the person contacted us, he or she was loud about something.

Lesson learned: Loud people are loud people, whether complaining or praising, so when you get a loud complaint, see it as an opportunity to do whatever it takes to make that person happy enough to become a loud evangelist.

Mindset 6: Rebelliously right the wrongs of the world.

There's a little passive-aggressive move we all do when we don't like how someone is behaving; we instinctively "take the high road" to show them how to behave.

Say someone is talking too loudly in a quiet place; we speak extra quietly to them. Or if someone is being a complete slob, we clean up our zone before confronting that person.

It's a kind of defiant act that says, "No. You're doing it wrong. Here. Watch me. I'll show you how it's done."

Your business is your little part of the world where you can right all the wrongs of the world, and show everyone how it's done.

To do that you need to be rebellious. Don't follow norms. Don't do what the other businesses are doing. Instead, think of the worst you've experienced and do the opposite. Show the others how wrong they were. It's very cathartic.

And it will make a huge impact on your business.

Published on: Oct 6, 2014
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