The psychology of great customer service
There’s nothing more off-putting than a human who acts like a robot.
Unfortunately, that’s what you get when you deal with most “customer service” representatives.
You can tell that you’re not talking to a genuine person at all. They’re just regurgitating canned lines (“best practices”), and following some complex decision-tree they were taught during some boring training sessions.
In robotics, there’s this concept called the “uncanny valley”. It’s the idea that things that are almost human are more off-putting than things that are obviously not human at all.
So a robot that looks like a cartoon (C3PO) will be more likable than a robot that almostlooks like a real-life person (think Ex-Machina). Those almost-but-not-quite-human robots give us the heebie-jeebies.
I think that terrible customer service agents produce a similar feeling of revulsion in us—they’re in the same uncanny valley… almost human, but not quite. You can tell they’re not being themselves; they’re not speaking in a natural way. They’re not being “Susy” or “John”, they’re being “employee #2376” or “employee #2378”.
Why am I bringing this up?
Because this weekend I had yet another terrible Airbnb experience.
I’ll tell you the full story in another email, but let me tell you the exact moment I knew I had to find a new place for the next few days.
I went into the kitchen to grab a drink I had placed in the fridge. As I was pulling it out, I heard a door behind me creak open and the voice of my host. “Hey—what are you doing in here?!”
I explained to her that I was grabbing one of my drinks from the fridge. Then, in a hysterical, raised voice she started telling me, repeatedly, that she was “going to the emergency room”.
Concerned, I offered to help her, to which she replied: “No!”
She then began uncontrollably rubbing her hands all over her body—as if she was scratching dozens of mosquito bites, or attempting to knock invisible insects away from her body.
She had told me about needing more ‘pain pills’ the day before… so I decided that it was probably a good idea to find a new place to stay this coming week.
I called Airbnb and told them about the whole situation, and was then involved in one of the least productive 30-minute troubleshooting sessions I’ve ever participated in.
I won’t bore you with all the details, but the whole situation got me thinking about good service and the psychological dynamics of satisfying customer support.
And you know what I think the key to providing good customer support is?
ACT LIKE A HUMAN.
Complicated, isn’t it?
But you would be surprised by how few customer service organizations actually give their employees the freedom to do this fundamental thing.
And that’s what it boils down to: autonomy.
If you hire the best people you can, and give them the freedom to handle situations the way they see fit, you’ll create a great service group.
That’s the story of the most revered customer service organization of the modern era: Zappos.
They don’t treat phone bank employees as interchangeable, dime-a-dozen cogs. They actually work hard to get the best people possible and, when they get these people, they let them be themselves.
Sure—the company trains them and gives them all sorts of suggestions and help… but, at the end of the day, Zappos realizes that the only way you’re going to provide good service is by letting those who are on the phone create a real, empathic connection with the customer and solve the situation using their best judgment.
This, unfortunately, is not the norm. Most companies seem to treat customer service as something that ‘has to be done’ instead of a core part of the business. They don’t seem to realize that a bad situation, handled properly, can actually be good for a business. It can create even more loyal customers.
Why? Because, generally, when people call up a support line they’re in a heightened emotional state—a heightened negative emotional state. They’re in a precarious position. If you handle the situation properly, and make them feel good, you’ll create an even more loyal customer; maybe even a customer for life. People expect companies to be selfish, so when one is empathetic and giving, it’s a truly pleasant surprise. It increases trust. The company is actually protecting, instead of taking advantage of, you!
If you mishandle the situation, though, you’ve got an enemy. And enemies don’t just stop purchasing from you, they also talk sh*t about you to their friends, and do little things to make sure that your business isn’t a success.
I won’t lie, after 3 botched customer-service interactions with Airbnb over the last 2 years, I’m a full-blown detractor. If I could push a button and tank the whole company, I probably would.
But that’s what you get when you rob your employees of autonomy. You put them in the uncanny valley—and that’s not a place you want to wander through…
PS: If you want great customer service from me, you should become one of my first supporters on Patreon. And, as a gift for your support, you will get access to my future products/books before they're released, and you can even get access to an exclusive monthly Google Hangout I'm going to start hosting. Sign up before the slots fill up.