The Psychology of Customer Service

The more you understand how your customers’ minds work, the easier it will be to achieve your business goals.

People buy from people they like. That’s a fact. You may believe that if you have the best products at the lowest price, that’s what really matters. However, if a potential client doesn’t like you, they are likely to do business somewhere else. When it comes to dealing with customers, it’s all about human psychology.

Despite the importance of involving psychology in customer service practices, there are still far too few businesses that have undertaken this effort.

If more people knew there was this social science behind how we treat customers, then more people would learn and practice how to give great service, according to Rich Gallagher, president of the Point of Contact Group and author of Great Customer Connections: Simple Psychological Techniques That Guarantee Exceptional Service. “If people learn how to use the ‘Can-Can’ tool or the ‘Staging Technique’, they will find that dramatic things happen even in their most difficult customer situations compared to how they used to go,” Gallagher said.

The “Can-Can”, Gallagher said, is a simple but important tool for preventing confrontations when you cannot give customers what they are asking for. By opening the customer interaction with something you can acknowledge and you can do, you are sending a clear message to the customer that you understand and respect his or her issue, even when you cannot provide the solution they are asking for.

The Staging Technique involves giving the customer feedback on a difficult situation in stages rather than all at once. It involves the following three steps:

Step 1: Introduce what you are going to say before you say it.

Step 2: Explain what you are saying as you say it.

Step 3: Empathize with the customer—whatever his or her response is—after you say it.

“The process is not terribly different than what psychotherapists do when they are dealing with a crisis,” he said. “Staging is really hard, because it goes against our human nature. Most people won’t change the way they deal with customers unless they write down how to change the mechanics of what they say in situations like these. If they don’t write things down or have a coach, generally they don’t change them.”

Gallagher also teaches the importance of throwing away stereotypes when dealing with customers. He uses a technique called reframing, which is essentially thinking of one unique thing that you respect about each customer, and picturing it clearly in your mind. “When you see someone who’s dirty or grubby, you may think this person is crude,” he said. “You should think that they are a good person and a hard worker. By using mental images to think one good thing about a person before you speak to them, you change your mental image of them and it changes the way you interact with them.”

Customer service has always been around, but never to the extent to which it is today, according to Dr. Rosanne D’Ausilio, an industrial psychologist, president of Human Technologies Global, Inc. and author of Customer Service and The Human Experience.

“While expectations are higher than they were 20 years ago, they are still very low, she said. “Twenty years ago, we didn’t have the Internet and huge customer service call centers. If you had a problem with customer service, you maybe had a phone number to call or took it back to the store. What customers need today are options. I don’t mind the idea of self-service, but when I’m stuck, I need to talk to a human.

Understanding the psychology of customer service may prove more challenging for small businesses, according
to Gallagher.

“The average small business owner knows less than someone who’s making minimum wage working at a big-box store, because they’ve been trained on how to deal with difficult customer situations,” he said. “If you are a small business owner that has employees, how you train them has a huge impact on how they’re going to deal with customers. Positive, strength-based training is critical.”

D’Ausilio on the other hand, believes that people are people, and regardless of the business’ size, it’s all about the mission of the company and being dedicated to their customers. “I think if all companies treated customers like they were small businesses, the world would be a better place,” she said. “The difference between small businesses and big businesses is that if you have a problem, you have a face and you have a name. When a company gets too big for its britches, then the focus shifts.”
Unless people are trained in the mechanics of what to say to customers in certain situations, even the most experienced person will fail.

Most businesses have no idea why customers behave as they do, because they don’t put themselves in their customers’ shoes, D’Ausilio stated. “For example, say someone designs a website from a technological standpoint; they need to think about how easy it would be for me as a customer to navigate through the site,” she said. “I’m not a techie and I don’t walk their walk. A good idea in that case might be to go to the website and be a mystery shopper. See where you get stuck and where there is no contact number to call if I have a problem.”

Gallagher added that the most challenging customer service situations revolve around not being able to speak like the customer. “This is a dance that involves two people,” he said. “Very often when a professional feels that a customer was rude during their encounter, it was because the interaction involved a lot of cant’s, paraphrasing and body language. About 85 percent of the time, the most difficult situations have their roots in the mechanics of how to respond to the person. You don’t validate their feelings, independently of whether you can or can’t do what they are asking you to. The other 15 percent of the time, no communication technique will work for you.”

The most effective way for a business to analyze and define your customers’ needs is to talk to them, said D’Ausilio.

“Ask the customer ‘here’s what I want to know.’”

“What’s missing?”

“What’s your biggest complaint?”

“It’s not enough to just gather this information, you have to do something about it. When nothing changes, nothing changes,” D’Ausilio said.

If you have a business meeting, make sure all of the front line people are there, because they hear the complaints from your customers, she added.

Whatever your business, your customers need to feel like you understand their business needs and they can trust you and if you don’t—your competition is right up the street.

“Unless people are trained in the mechanics of what to say to customers in certain situations, even the most experienced person will fail,” Gallagher said. “The kind of people who bring me in to train for them are good at what they do, but they get stuck in certain situations.”

Sometimes discovering what your customers really want is like pulling teeth. However, if you recognize certain customer behaviors, you can adapt to each individual to ensure a positive experience.

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Reader Comments

Wednesday, August 26, 2009 at 6:54 AM
Rafael Gonzalez says:
This is such an important article for all business owners, especially the ones starting their own business. I can't tell you how many times I have gone into a business for service and as I was walking out thinking that that business could do so much better if their customer service was at least decent. I have had the experience that good customer service is very hard to find and that's one of the reasons business struggle getting and keeping customers and then they wonder what is the problem. I prefer to shop at business B with great customer service and a little higher prices, than to shop at business A with lower prices and bad customer service. Customer service is one of the legs of the stool in deciding how successful a business going to be.
Wednesday, February 4, 2009 at 6:52 PM
James Jackson says:
Very informative. Walking in the customer,s shoes is exactly the kind of info I was looking for. You have to be able to feel your needs in order to provide the right ones
Wednesday, February 4, 2009 at 6:15 PM
Hakim says:
Hey, I thank this is good point, I believe also that you always want to seem to be on the customers' side regardless of the situation. You want to hear them out fully and see exactly what it is that they want. You also will have to find ways to maybe be negotiable with the customer in a way that can be of least discomfort to you and them. I usually will come in and usually if it's a female, i would say "Hey whats going on sweetheart, what's the problem?". Just this simple initiating statement can loosen up the tension alot if there is a prevailing argument, most customers just want sympathy and you have to play that role as smoothly as possible. I have experience with these situations good and bad being a Store Manager for T-Mobile. Just feel bad for the customer regardless of the situation and fix the problem whatever it may be, they usually understand that certain olicies have to be followed, you must stress that in a very "polite and easy-going manner".

Hope this helps! : )

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