two people talking at a job interview, one person smiling and facing the camera
courtneyk/Getty Images

If you’re unprepared, an interview question like “What does customer service mean to you?” could catch you off guard. Is your interviewer asking you if you understand your own profession? Or are they looking for a personal confession of what your job or career path mean to you? Well, it’s actually somewhere in between. To avoid freezing up on the spot, prepare your answer to this common interview question ahead of time. Here’s everything you need to know to get it right.

Who Gets Asked This Question?

As you’ve probably already guessed, if you’re interviewing for a customer service job, you should expect to be asked what customer service means to you. But in practice, “This popular question could be asked in [an interview for] any role where you directly or indirectly impact customers,” says Muse career coach Kristine Knutter who has coached customer service workers on how to answer this question. Most commonly, candidates applying for customer service, reception, technical support, member services and account management, hospitality, retail, and food service should be ready to share their definition of customer service in an interview.

“Beyond typical jobs that have ‘customer service’ in the title, review the job description to see what type of people skills are required and with whom you would be interacting,” says Muse career coach Barb Girson, who has experience working in sales at all levels herself as well as leading recruiting and training for sales roles. If you see that you’d be working with customers or clients in any capacity, this question could be coming your way.

Why Do Interviewers Want to Know About Your Customer Service Philosophy?

“Interviewers want to understand the value you place on customer service and how you define it,” Knutter says. “This way, they can get an idea of the ways you would interact with and treat customers.” After all, if you’re being hired to represent the company, hiring managers will want to know you’ll be painting the organization in a good light—and that interactions with you will encourage customers and clients to invest or buy more.

Every company has a different philosophy around and approach to customer service, however. For example, if you’ve ever been to a Trader Joe’s, you likely experienced cashiers raving about their personal enjoyment of the products you chose as well as starting conversations well beyond the, “Did you find everything you needed today?” refrain that’s common in other grocery stores. Whereas if you’ve been to an Aldi, your memory of the cashiers is probably more focused on how fast they could grab, scan, and transfer your groceries into the cart next to them, addressing issues only if you ask about them. Both these versions of customer service have their place and their audience (personally, I’m Team Aldi). So interviewers will also be “looking for an alignment between your vision of customer service and the organization’s expectations,” Girson says.

3 Tips for Nailing Your Answer to “What Does Customer Service Mean to You?”

Here are a few tips to follow as you prepare to answer this interview question.

1. Research the Company

Since your interviewer wants to see how your attitude toward customer service matches the company’s, you’ll have to find out what the company’s philosophy is. You can “check for a customer service policy or mission statement on the company’s website and see how the company interacts with its customers on social media,” Knutter says. While you’re looking at these things and doing your broader research on a company, Girson suggests you ask yourself a few questions:

  • Does the company’s website make any promises about its customer service?
  • What do the company mission, vision, and/or values say about how not only customers and clients, but also employees, are regarded?
  • Does the company offer any guarantees such as a lifetime warranty on its products, a 100% satisfaction guarantee, or 30-day “no questions asked” return policy?

You might also consider reading reviews of the company’s products to see if anyone mentions its customer service or, as Girson suggests, setting up an informational interview with someone who currently works for the company to find out more about their approach to customer service.

2. Craft Your Personal Customer Service Philosophy

With your research in mind, take some time to think about how you approach customer service in a way that aligns with the company’s philosophy. But don’t just regurgitate what the company says they believe, Knutter says. It’s important to be authentic and talk about your thoughts and feelings on customer service in your own words.

“Speak your truth, be sincere, be you, and you will have the best chance of connecting to the culture and company that makes you a great fit,” Girson says. If you just say what you think the company wants to hear, you might end up in a job you don’t like or where you can’t provide the type of customer service you’d like to (or you might not get the job at all if the interviewer picks up on a lack of authenticity).

So what goes into a personal customer service definition? “Typically, excellent customer service, at a minimum, means listening carefully to customers and providing them with what they need,” Knutter says. “It may also include finding ways to go above and beyond for customers.” But you need to personalize your answer a bit more than that.

For example, Girson suggests including your mindset and attitudes around customer service. Mindset encapsulates your beliefs, feelings, and goals, Girson says. So you might say something along the lines of, “I like to think of providing customer service not as an interruption to my day, but as my reason for being there.” Then, attitude is about how your mindset translates into your behavior. So you might say something like, “My goal is to greet each person with a smile and strive to make their day better.”

3. Give an Example of Great Customer Service

“Examples bring credibility to your interview answers, helping the interviewer envision you in action,” Knutter says. When interviewing, you should have stories prepared for a number of questions and types of questions, and “What does customer service mean to you?” is no exception. As Girson puts it, “Stories make you memorable.”

You should always talk about an example of how you’ve provided excellent customer service in the past. “Include enough details to show you are thinking from the customer point of view, and paint a picture of the situation.” Girson says. However, Knutter says, “Your answer should be brief and to the point, so make sure you don’t share too many details.” One way to ensure that your story is coherent and well-structured is to follow the STAR method and hit on each of the following points succinctly:

  • Situation: any background the listener will need to understand the story
  • Task: a statement about your role in the story
  • Action: anything you did in response to the situation and task (hint: thinking about the situation from the customer’s point of view is an action)
  • Result: the outcomes of the actions you took

In addition to sharing a time you’ve provided excellent customer service, you can also talk about excellent customer service you’ve received. With these stories, you should also share how it felt to be treated well, Girson says. “If you are talking about being the recipient of customer service that left an impression on you, be sure to wrap your response with how you will strive to deliver this type of service to others.” Knutter adds that, if you have one, you can “share an example of great customer service you received as a customer of the company at which you’re interviewing for a job.”

Example Answers for “What Does Customer Service Mean to You?”

If you’re applying for a customer service representative role for a tech company, you might say something like this:

“Customers are the reason that any business exists and products are usually created to solve a problem. So, to me, customer service is all about solving problems for the customer. I like to go into every support call curious. I want to find out everything I can about the problem before I start troubleshooting solutions. Plus, I’ve found that taking the time to really listen and genuinely caring what the customer has to say makes them feel better about the interaction even if I’m not ultimately able to solve their issue. But most of the time, if I really listen, I’m able to help.

“For example, at my current job with LMNOP Org, there was a period of about two months when most of the calls we were getting were about our software freezing as a user tried to create and export an invoice as a PDF. Our product team was well aware of the problem and working on a fix, but in the meantime we were supposed to walk customers through a workaround where they would export invoices as a different file type and then convert. One day, I got a call transferred to me after the customer had already gone through two of my coworkers and grown frustrated. The first words out of her mouth were, “Don’t tell me to export it as a .docx.” Immediately, I could tell she didn’t feel listened to.

“I asked her to explain the problem to me again if she didn’t mind. It did sound like the common issue at first, but once I had her go through the process again while on the phone I learned that her software was freezing a step before most people’s. Once we’d pinpointed the real issue, I was able to walk her through the right fix within a couple of minutes. The customer was so grateful that when we figured it out, it honestly made my day and even my week better. That feeling of making things easier for someone else really lets me know when I’ve provided great customer service.”

Or, if you were interviewing for a retail role, you might say something like this:

“To me, customer service is providing shoppers with a personalized experience—along with knowledge and insight—that they wouldn’t get if they just ordered products on Amazon or went to a large department store. Maybe it’s old-fashioned, but I still remember this bookstore I used to go to as a kid where the staff was so knowledgeable that they could tell you what they or someone they knew thought of any book and could often recommend things based on the last book they remembered you buying. It felt like everyone involved—the customers and the employees—just loved the experience of the store.

“So I’ve really taken that with me into my retail jobs. For example, at my last job, I was working at an art supply store, and an older woman came in and looked overwhelmed by the stock. I asked her if she was looking for something specific or if I could help her figure out what she needed—it was the height of the COVID-19 pandemic so ‘just browsing’ was down to a minimum. She told me that her daughter suddenly found herself working from home with three young kids who were doing remote learning. Her daughter was across the country, so the woman couldn’t fly out to help, and she wanted to send her grandkids some activities that would keep them entertained without adding to her daughter’s stress.”

“So I asked her to tell me a bit about her grandkids as we walked through the store together and found a few things that were well suited to each child’s age and interest based on what I knew my kids liked as well as what other parents who shopped at the store had reported back. I even helped her order a few things and had them shipped directly to her grandkids—to save her a trip out during COVID. In the months since, she’s been back a few more times to buy supplies for her grandkids’ new hobbies, and she can’t wait to bring them to the store in person when they can finally visit her.”