First, I'd like to thank Joan at Verizon and "J" at the office of the Commissioner of Jurors. This column has nothing to do with you; you're golden.
A little more than two years ago (October 2010, to be precise), I wrote about the best kind of customer service being the invisible kind. I was riffing on the concept of proactive service—but I still think there's value in being as unobtrusive as possible when providing a service.
Sometimes this isn't possible. If a customer needs to interact with you, invisibility isn't an option. If I'm on the phone with a CSR and I don't hear speaking, typing, or breathing for more than a couple of seconds, I check to make sure I haven't been disconnected.
Better service people go beyond clarity and reach for empathy. When the topic turns to emergency customer service, the most memorable parts are when satisfied customers talk about how understanding the CSR was, calming the customer's anxieties while providing the necessary assistance. Commercials for insurance companies are lousy with examples like this. Many are also just lousy, but that's a matter of opinion.
The absolute best service one can provide is the kind that detects and reacts to the customer's input. An example of this is the recent series of Discover Card TV spots, the ones with the tag line "We Treat You Like You'd Treat You." I'm sure you've seen them: A customer calls Discover with a question or a problem, and the agent on the other end is a near-mirror image, with similar appearance, voice, and mannerisms. It's a cute idea.
The cute idea fails for me, though. Sometimes I don't want a conversation; sometimes I just want to get some information and go on with my day. There's something to be said for professional detachment. I won't take up any more of your time than I have to, and I might want the same from you. Don't crawl into my pocket trying to help me.
Detachment becomes geometrically harder with proximity. Truly personal service, like haircuts, mani/pedis (which I've had, don't judge), or bra fittings (which I haven't had, but I've heard tales), requires different boundaries and a lot more sensitivity. Good professionals will take their cue from the customer, offering friendliness but backing off when it's not welcome. Medical or dental care—give or take a few essential differences (such as the presence of sharp instruments)—operates under the same premise.
I don't want to suggest people in service jobs are somehow beneath me (unless they're down there fitting me for shoes). But our lives are framed more and more by the service interactions we have daily, and at some point enough is enough. I don't want to swap personal anecdotes with every cashier, waiter, and physician's assistant I encounter. You can try to draw me out if you really want to, but please let me pick my conversations.
My inspiration this month comes from one of the barbers I use. I've known him for quite a while, and I've known his father even longer. I admit that it can be hard to have a conversation with the old man sometimes, since more than 40 years in the States hasn't softened his Italian accent or improved his listening skills much. The son, however, is a piece of work. His work is very good, and he's quite outgoing. Unfortunately, he thinks everybody is his friend, and that we all share his views on family, politics, and race relations. He also doesn't seem to get that no response or monosyllabic responses mean "I don't want to be having this conversation with you." There's no good way to say "Shut up and cut my hair" without sounding like a jerk and probably getting barred from the shop, and I can't imagine going someplace else in the small town where I live, but the small talk is painful. Maybe I should learn to cut my own hair.
Marshall Lager is the founder and managing principal of Third Idea Consulting, solving hairy problems for vendors and users of CRM. Chat him up, or not, if you prefer, at email@example.com or www.twitter.com/Lager.