Our Tribal Past and Modern Customer Service

 

1448348613What is good customer service? There has been a lot of ink and pixels spilled on this subject, so I am covering old ground. Poor service continues to be a problem in our growing service economy, so perhaps more can be said.

I subscribe to the evolutionary psychology theory that human beings are still tribal hunter-gatherers at heart. For most of our existence, Homo sapiens lived in large, semi-nomadic tribes, following game. These tribes tended to be no bigger than 100-150 individuals, and everyone was related in some way. Everyone knew everyone else, closely. There was someone in charge, but few “laws”. Mostly there was custom and reputation. At this level, being very unpopular could be fatal.

Today, the world is vastly different. We interact with people outside a day’s walk on a regular basis. The people we live next door to may be unknown to us, while we are close to someone 500 miles away. Religious worship, work, play, all may be with different groups of people. The least intimate of our interactions comes when we buy goods and services. In these cases, we are talking to a rotation of strangers, who may or may not care about us on a superficial level, and most likely don’t care on any deeper level. This is the real impact of our hunter-gatherer brains; we can only really know around 100-150 people well.

While this state of affairs works OK at the local discount store, it makes us uncomfortable when the service or product is costly, or very personal. If you are going to spend $2000 on a TV, you want to think the guy in the electronics store is not just angling for a commission, but really invested in helping you. I feel very fortunate to “have a guy” to take my car too. I have for years, and we have enough of a relationship that I can feel comfortable. When Tom Shane says “Now, you, have a friend in the diamond business” this is exactly what his sales pitch is aimed at. I am wanting more than a straight transaction of money for a product, I am wanting expert advice.

High end clothing retail stores continue to exist because people are willing to pay money for the service. I can get a decent pair of shoes at Walmart cheap. They wear out in a year, but they are effective. If I go to a high end store, I can have someone match shoes to an outfit. They not only will be a higher quality product, but “I’ll like the way I look”, as the ad used to say.

Service providers often talk of “guests” or “members” instead of customers, to differentiate from a more casual retail transaction. A guest in a four-star hotel is still a customer, but the experience of the stay is as important as the extra amenities. How the person feels treated is key. Disney Cast Members (not called employees) say to any guest checking in “Welcome Home.” Membership implies a special relationship with the organization. You are “in” as part of the club. There is an expectation of different treatment than for a non-member. Further, as someone pays more money, there is a human assumption of better services. If you pay for the penthouse suite, you expect better service, regardless of whether it is explicitly included in the package. There is an implicit contract. You see this action in the film, Pretty Woman, where the big spender gets special treatment.

This effect is even more pronounced with health care services. Here, the customer as at their most vulnerable. Emotions and anxiety can be running very high, and solutions to problems can be difficult and painful, and outcomes are in doubt. As with hotels, the fact we don’t call people “customers” with health care shows we think of receiving healthcare differently. Of course, healthcare is so removed from the patient as payer, it struggles to provide the service one would expect. This leads to people maybe liking their doctors, but hating their insurance companies. If the person never gets to see the same doctor, they usually do not even like that experience. True customer service in health care requires a sense of relationship with not just the doctor, but the staff along the way.

What people want is that feeling of being part of the tribe. The person taking care of my needs is going to treat me like we are part of the same 100-150 people in a semi-nomadic tribe. This is why there is nostalgia for small-town America, people imagine a place where “everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came.” What they are not looking for is an experience where they are a number, where the staff can take or leave them, or worse, treat them with hostility. People do not want someone who they think is out to con them, selling them things they do not need.

Most of all, people want to feel heard. They want to feel like their voice matters to the company. The more intimate the service, the more the need to feel heard. I have defused more complaints by simply listening to the client, and hearing them out, than I have by jumping straight to fixing the problem (though I try to do that too).

It has always amazed me at how poor so many organizations are at this simple task. Employees, managers, even top leaders can be more interested in defending their company, or each other, than to listen. Maybe the customer did something wrong, and that is all the employee can talk about. Even when the customer is wrong, if they do not feel heard, you risk losing the customer. I won’t go so far to say the “customer is always right,” but I will say the customer always needs to be heard.

So my challenge to anyone with customers, is to listen to them. Try to provide the same ear you would give to someone in your tribe. I know that person yammering at you is not part of your tribe, but give them time. If you hear them say they want an apology, give it. If you hear they have a valid complaint, make sure you correct it, and assure the person it will not happen again to them or to anyone else. Hear them. Then you can act.

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  1. Jamie Lockett Inactive
    Jamie Lockett
    @JamieLockett

    Well said, this is a foundational concept in customer relations and its interesting to see it connected to human psychological evolution.

    • #1
  2. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    Jamie Lockett:Well said, this is a foundational concept in customer relations and its interesting to see it connected to human psychological evolution.

    Thank you.

    I am trying to get the people in my Behavioral Health organization to understand it!

    • #2
  3. Judge Mental Member
    Judge Mental
    @JudgeMental

    My customers are usually senior level managers in big banks or corporations; I’m an individual contractor.  So my goal is to be part of their tribe, make them part of mine.

    Interesting notion on tribalism, though.

    • #3
  4. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    Judge Mental:My customers are usually senior level managers in big banks or corporations; I’m an individual contractor. So my goal is to be part of their tribe, make them part of mine.

    Interesting notion on tribalism, though.

    A perfect example. They need you to be their “shaman” to their role of chief.

    • #4
  5. Jamie Lockett Inactive
    Jamie Lockett
    @JamieLockett

    Bryan G. Stephens:

    Jamie Lockett:Well said, this is a foundational concept in customer relations and its interesting to see it connected to human psychological evolution.

    Thank you.

    I am trying to get the people in my Behavioral Health organization to understand it!

    Do you think there is a book in there for business people? Something to help explain to them why they should do the things they do?

    • #5
  6. Jamie Lockett Inactive
    Jamie Lockett
    @JamieLockett

    Judge Mental:My customers are usually senior level managers in big banks or corporations; I’m an individual contractor. So my goal is to be part of their tribe, make them part of mine.

    Interesting notion on tribalism, though.

    Hey mine too…

    • #6
  7. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    Jamie Lockett:

    Bryan G. Stephens:

    Jamie Lockett:Well said, this is a foundational concept in customer relations and its interesting to see it connected to human psychological evolution.

    Thank you.

    I am trying to get the people in my Behavioral Health organization to understand it!

    Do you think there is a book in there for business people? Something to help explain to them why they should do the things they do?

    In my head? I am sure, I am not patient enough to write it though. And the won’t listen, anyway.

    • #7
  8. Jamie Lockett Inactive
    Jamie Lockett
    @JamieLockett

    Bryan G. Stephens:

    Jamie Lockett:

    Bryan G. Stephens:

    Jamie Lockett:Well said, this is a foundational concept in customer relations and its interesting to see it connected to human psychological evolution.

    Thank you.

    I am trying to get the people in my Behavioral Health organization to understand it!

    Do you think there is a book in there for business people? Something to help explain to them why they should do the things they do?

    In my head? I am sure, I am not patient enough to write it though. And the won’t listen, anyway.

    I would and I have more than a few customer service reps. Such a book would also be useful for sales people.

    Hey, I’m trying to make you a best seller here. My commission is only 2%.

    • #8
  9. Goldgeller Member
    Goldgeller
    @Goldgeller

    Very good post. As a former claims adjuster, I tried to bring good customer service. And I think I did in some very difficult situations. Listening is very important. Looking like you care is also important.

    But it isn’t just a personal matter. It is a difficult organizational behavioral/moral problem. There are a variety of answers one could give. Any one or two sentences would seem incomplete, of course.

    On the personal level–be a person of integrity and honesty. At the end of the day you should be able to say you did honest work. You will be judged. Don’t go to bed with shoddy work hanging over your head. If you can’t find ethics you are proud of in your company, leave, cause you do owe your company loyalty as well.

    But it is also an organizational issue. Some organizations just aren’t built for customer service. The incentives aren’t in line with responsibility and accountability. And I think we do have to pay attention that when we set systems up.

    We get so excited with measuring stuff that we don’t think about what we are doing to our ability to learn and react and make judgement calls. We have so many regulations and processes and systems that our hands are tied– we can’t always solve problems for our customers even if wanted to. It helps when management is actually receptive to input as well.

    • #9
  10. Jon Gabriel, Ed. Admin
    Jon Gabriel, Ed.
    @jon

    Great post. I recently had the opportunity to attend a conference at a Ritz-Carlton. The staff was impeccable — everyone politely greeting me, asking how they could help. I didn’t notice so much as a spot of trash on any surface and everyone, from the janitorial staff on up, smiled as they worked. I found out their motto was “ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen.” They made every guest feel appreciated, and the guests returned the favor.

    • #10
  11. Mendel Inactive
    Mendel
    @Mendel

    Goldgeller: But it is also an organizational issue. Some organizations just aren’t built for customer service. The incentives aren’t in line with responsibility and accountability. And I think we do have to pay attention that when we set systems up.

    This can’t be stressed enough.

    One of my first jobs was in the guest services department of a huge resort. During our week-long training, we spent hours talking about good customer service, and many of Bryan’s (very applicable) points were driven home again and again.

    But once we actually started working we discovered the company was so poorly run that just being able to relate with customers and feel like part of their tribe wasn’t nearly enough. When a customer didn’t have a working toilet in their room for 12 hours and couldn’t be moved to another room (because the resort was overbooked), that person deserves to get their money back – but we weren’t allowed to do so.

    Good customer service starts at the top, not at the point of service. And step one is running the business well to avoid the types of issues that will upset customers in the first place.

    • #11
  12. Trink Coolidge
    Trink
    @Trink

    Oh Bryan, this was good.

    “Tribe”- that ancient need to “be seen – to matter – to be known” – keeps my husband and I on this little wooded suburban street just north of Toledo when we could have ” . .  moved on up.  . ”

    Front porches.  Sidewalks. All ages.  Neighbors we’ve known for years.  Everyone on this street is at least acquainted.  And yes  ” . . . knows your name . .”

    • #12
  13. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    Jon Gabriel, Ed.:Great post. I recently had the opportunity to attend a conference at a Ritz-Carlton. The staff was impeccable — everyone politely greeting me, asking how they could help. I didn’t notice so much as a spot of trash on any surface and everyone, from the janitorial staff on up, smiled as they worked. I found out their motto was “ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen.” They made every guest feel appreciated, and the guests returned the favor.

    The Ritz is built on it.

    • #13
  14. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    Goldgeller:Very good post. As a former claims adjuster, I tried to bring good customer service. And I think I did in some very difficult situations. Listening is very important. Looking like you care is also important.

    But it isn’t just a personal matter. It is a difficult organizational behavioral/moral problem. There are a variety of answers one could give. Any one or two sentences would seem incomplete, of course.

    On the personal level–be a person of integrity and honesty. At the end of the day you should be able to say you did honest work. You will be judged. Don’t go to bed with shoddy work hanging over your head. If you can’t find ethics you are proud of in your company, leave, cause you do owe your company loyalty as well.

    But it is also an organizational issue. Some organizations just aren’t built for customer service. The incentives aren’t in line with responsibility and accountability. And I think we do have to pay attention that when we set systems up.

    We get so excited with measuring stuff that we don’t think about what we are doing to our ability to learn and react and make judgement calls. We have so many regulations and processes and systems that our hands are tied– we can’t always solve problems for our customers even if wanted to. It helps when management is actually receptive to input as well.

    If the organization, (unlike Ritz-Carlton), is not geared for it, they won’t be able to do it. You see this often in monopoly situations, or in situations where repeat customers are not a thing.

    • #14
  15. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    Trink:Oh Bryan, this was good.

    “Tribe”- that ancient need to “be seen – to matter – to be known” – keeps my husband and I on this little wooded suburban street just north of Toledo when we could have ” . . moved on up. . ”

    Front porches. Sidewalks. All ages. Neighbors we’ve known for years. Everyone on this street is at least acquainted. And yes ” . . . knows your name . .”

    What we have now are more than one tribe in our lives!

    • #15
  16. Goldgeller Member
    Goldgeller
    @Goldgeller

    @bryangstephens; @mendel

    I think, as  you say, it certainly depends on whether the org is “geared” for it, and whether management is paying attention to it– certain @bryangstephens point about the organization’s environment/incentives matters.

    But sometimes its just the HR system. As an example– people like data, or feel they need to collect data to justify their department. They don’t realize that the type of data they collect will change the organizations’ behavior. The whole “goals displacement” thing. That happens in customer service as well. Example: The goal is to not deal with complaints. That hurts your score. And there is no way to get credit for solving a complaint. So send the complainers to another department! Incentive employers to not deal with problems: “Oh I’ll get you so and so.” And then they never learn how to service customers, only how to shift their burden.

    Or: If you work very fast and do a great job you just get more work!

    Or: There is no way for your manager to know that the work you do is actually harder than what other people do, and that doesn’t show up in “the numbers.”

    There are so many little things. But your manager will show you “the numbers.” I was actually really fortunate/blessed cause our company really started to take a more comprehensive view of our work product, but I’ve been through some misguided attempts/failed experiments, and I know some people who suffered.

    • #16
  17. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    Goldgeller:@bryangstephens; @mendel

    I think, as you say, it certainly depends on whether the org is “geared” for it, and whether management is paying attention to it– certain @bryangstephens point about the organization’s environment/incentives matters.

    But sometimes its just the HR system. As an example– people like data, or feel they need to collect data to justify their department. They don’t realize that the type of data they collect will change the organizations’ behavior. The whole “goals displacement” thing. That happens in customer service as well. Example: The goal is to not deal with complaints. That hurts your score. And there is no way to get credit for solving a complaint. So send the complainers to another department! Incentive employers to not deal with problems: “Oh I’ll get you so and so.” And then they never learn how to service customers, only how to shift their burden.

    Or: If you work very fast and do a great job you just get more work!

    Or: There is no way for your manager to know that the work you do is actually harder than what other people do, and that doesn’t show up in “the numbers.”

    There are so many little things. But your manager will show you “the numbers.” I was actually really fortunate/blessed cause our company really started to take a more comprehensive view of our work product, but I’ve been through some misguided attempts/failed experiments, and I know some people who suffered.

    There are ways to measure this stuff. It is always the right thing to do, when you fill out the survey after you deal with customer service. Tell them it was a good service if it was.

    • #17
  18. Mendel Inactive
    Mendel
    @Mendel

    Goldgeller: As an example– people like data, or feel they need to collect data to justify their department. They don’t realize that the type of data they collect will change the organizations’ behavior. The whole “goals displacement” thing.

    Yup. It’s disheartening how few people in the private sector understand the basic truths that “incentives matter” and “unintended consequences lurk behind every good intention”.

    • #18
  19. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    Mendel:

    Goldgeller: As an example– people like data, or feel they need to collect data to justify their department. They don’t realize that the type of data they collect will change the organizations’ behavior. The whole “goals displacement” thing.

    Yup. It’s disheartening how few people in the private sector understand the basic truths that “incentives matter” and “unintended consequences lurk behind every good intention”.

    The Private sector?

    Try working in the public one!

    • #19
  20. Mendel Inactive
    Mendel
    @Mendel

    Bryan G. Stephens:

    Mendel:

    Goldgeller: As an example– people like data, or feel they need to collect data to justify their department. They don’t realize that the type of data they collect will change the organizations’ behavior. The whole “goals displacement” thing.

    Yup. It’s disheartening how few people in the private sector understand the basic truths that “incentives matter” and “unintended consequences lurk behind every good intention”.

    The Private sector?

    Try working in the public one!

    Oh, I agree it’s much worse there. But we like to hold up the private sector as the area which “knows how the real world works”, and it’s disappointing to repeatedly experience how little workers in the private sector do understand basic incentives. The main difference is really just that the people in the private sector who don’t get it eventually go out of business (hopefully), not that they’ll ever necessarily see the light.

    • #20
  21. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    Mendel:

    Bryan G. Stephens:

    Mendel:

    Goldgeller: As an example– people like data, or feel they need to collect data to justify their department. They don’t realize that the type of data they collect will change the organizations’ behavior. The whole “goals displacement” thing.

    Yup. It’s disheartening how few people in the private sector understand the basic truths that “incentives matter” and “unintended consequences lurk behind every good intention”.

    The Private sector?

    Try working in the public one!

    Oh, I agree it’s much worse there. But we like to hold up the private sector as the area which “knows how the real world works”, and it’s disappointing to repeatedly experience how little workers in the private sector do understand basic incentives. The main difference is really just that the people in the private sector who don’t get it eventually go out of business (hopefully), not that they’ll ever necessarily see the light.

    That monopoly thing helps the Comcast’s of the world

    • #21
  22. Basil Fawlty Member
    Basil Fawlty
    @BasilFawlty

    “The customer is always right.” Discuss.

    • #22
  23. Eugene Kriegsmann Member
    Eugene Kriegsmann
    @EugeneKriegsmann

    Basil Fawlty:“The customer is always right.” Discuss.

    I was the tech supervisor in my school for four years. That made me responsible for sixty teacher/administrator computers and a couple of hundred student computers. I gained some real sympathy for tech support people who work for the bigger ISPs or computer manufacturers. I found that, for the most part, people wanted a toaster, and didn’t really want to take the time to figure out how their equipment worked. Such things as the on/off switch on a power strip being turned off proved to be the cause of any number of calls. The vast majority of calls were of comparable technical difficulty. These were my colleagues, however, so I strove to never make them feel stupid.

    On the other hand, I have had on occasion the need to call into my ISP or Applecare when a problem I am experiencing is beyond my ken. In variably the ISP tech support assumes you are an idiot and has you run through a series of tests, all of which I have performed along with a bunch of others prior to making the call. I tell them that, but they are invariably scripted and can’t jump ahead, only one chapter ahead of the customer they are there to help.  It is frustrating to deal with. Anonymity allows them to be condescending, and this does little to ameliorate the problem of customer dissatisfaction.

    • #23
  24. Eugene Kriegsmann Member
    Eugene Kriegsmann
    @EugeneKriegsmann

    Contn. #23

    The difference between my ISP and Applecare is notable. I have found for the most part that Applecare people are well-versed in the products that they are assigned to. They are also willing to admit that the problem exceeds their particular skill set, and they move you along to the next level of support. One difference maybe due to the fact that Applecare is a paid service for a specified period of time. As one who owns multiple Apple products, I buy Applecare warranties with my computers and iPhones. I wouldn’t do that if the service was anything less than sterling. I believe Apple is aware of that, and insures that the people the customer speaks to all are aware. It shows.

    When I had satellite TV, every tech support call I made began with their attempting to convince me that the problem was my equipment, not theirs. I find the same to be true with my phone company and ISP, a subgroup of my phone company. They want you to feel like an idiot and grateful to them for restoring your service which probably don’t deserve to have in the first place.

    • #24
  25. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    @EugeneKriegsmann

    I know what you mean on IT on both sides. I used to be the go to person at my site because I was the guy under 30 (those were the days). It was not my job, but I tried to be nice about it. Still, when you ask someone “did you reboot” and they say yes, you expect they did it. In fact, when you go to their office and all they did was restart the software, and when you do reboot the machine it works, it is hard not to fuss.

    I too, would like a card when I call for IT support, that takes me to Tier 3 right off. I have already tried everything Tier 1 and 2 are going to suggest. I need real help.

    • #25
  26. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    Basil Fawlty:“The customer is always right.” Discuss.

    This is not the case, of course. A customer gets the wrong time on their flight and is late, that is their fault.

    However, in that sort of case, hearing them out and helping them find a solution is the right move. Telling them “You are just stupid” is not helping (even though it might be the case).

    • #26
  27. Goldgeller Member
    Goldgeller
    @Goldgeller

    Bryan G. Stephens:

    Basil Fawlty:“The customer is always right.” Discuss.

    This is not the case, of course. A customer gets the wrong time on their flight and is late, that is their fault.

    However, in that sort of case, hearing them out and helping them find a solution is the right move. Telling them “You are just stupid” is not helping (even though it might be the case).

    Exactly. When I had to deny someone on a claim, I’d always make sure to spend the time discussing the claim and my inspection. I’d let them know that this was about what the policy said. And I’d make sure I answered all their questions. You can’t get scared and run. I’d also make sure they knew what steps they could take should they want to contest the denial.

    Something important here– it really helps if everyone in the company is working together. We always let the agent know if there was an issue so the agents aren’t blind-sided by angry customers. Agents can definitely smooth things over sometimes.

    And it helps if you set expectations on the front end, before you are scrambling. And it helps if you actually give them the service (in my case, a full and thorough property inspection) before denying them. People will believe you when you say “I looked but unfortunately no coverage” if you actually look and let them participate.

    • #27
  28. Pilli Inactive
    Pilli
    @Pilli

    My definition of “Good Customer Service”: I get what I want and I get it quickly.

    I used to run a retail electronics store.  My crew was on commission or hourly pay which ever was higher.  Incentive: sell.  Incentive: brush off complainers, problems.

    I was paid on profit.  Incentive: get lots of repeat customers.  Incentive: deal with problems so the customer came back again.

    I worked a deal with my crew.  If I’m in the store and there is a return or problem, give it to me.  You go back to selling.  I almost always satisfied the customer and gained a friend.  And No @basilfawlty, the customer is not always right that’s why I said “almost always”.  Sometimes the customer is a jerk.  Then, my definition of good customer service was give this jerk what he wants and get him out of the store.  I don’t want him rubbing off on any other customer.

    • #28
  29. Basil Fawlty Member
    Basil Fawlty
    @BasilFawlty

    Pilli: Then, my definition of good customer service was give this jerk what he wants and get him out of the store. I don’t want him rubbing off on any other customer.

    In other words, the customer is always right, right?

    BTW, have you read A Firing Offense by George Pelecanos? I suspect you’ll enjoy it.

    • #29
  30. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    Pilli:My definition of “Good Customer Service”: I get what I want and I get it quickly.

    I used to run a retail electronics store. My crew was on commission or hourly pay which ever was higher. Incentive: sell. Incentive: brush off complainers, problems.

    I was paid on profit. Incentive: get lots of repeat customers. Incentive: deal with problems so the customer came back again.

    I worked a deal with my crew. If I’m in the store and there is a return or problem, give it to me. You go back to selling. I almost always satisfied the customer and gained a friend. And No @basilfawlty, the customer is not always right that’s why I said “almost always”. Sometimes the customer is a jerk. Then, my definition of good customer service was give this jerk what he wants and get him out of the store. I don’t want him rubbing off on any other customer.

    Someone who refuses to hear you is a problem that I did not talk about above. At that point, they are not seeking to be part of a tribe, but to be a problem. They are an example of the loss of tribe in reverse. Since there is no censure for their behavior in terms of shunning, they run wild. It is best to get them out of the store.

    • #30

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