• February 22, 2016
  • By Marshall Lager, founder and managing principal, Third Idea Consulting; contributor, CRM magazine

Thank You for Your Whatever

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I had a sudden insight recently in the way we think about customer experience, and I want to share it with you. It's a pure coincidence that I was also desperate for a topic this month and I'm writing shortly after Thanksgiving. [Ed note: Lead time alert!] I posit that at its core, good customer experience is based on the feeling of gratitude.

Since this is coming from an epiphany and personal experience, my hypothesis is going to be more philosophy than science. I'm applying introspection to a broad topic, much like Freud did when he came up with his shtick. It worked great for him—dude is still famous 75 years after his death, and he changed the mental health field, even if he was mostly wrong.

Consider this: What are the interactions you remember most as a customer? While it's true we tend to share negative experiences more broadly than positive ones, the times we hold most dear are the ones where someone goes above and beyond the call of duty. When we really don't expect anything good but somebody rocks our socks off, we experience a wave of gratitude. When we expect excellence and still get something beyond our expectations, all we can say is, "Wow, thank you."

Whether it's a doctor making a house call—these are incredibly rare but they do happen—or a shelf monkey finding one more of an out-of-stock item you desperately need, the feeling is overwhelming. We just want to hug that person, shake their hand, give them a tip. This is why gratitude and gratuity look so similar. It even extends to cuisine, as au gratin is French for "Thanks for putting cheese on everything."

It's safe to say that the one phrase most commercial experiences have in common is thank you. I believe it is part of our genes. Humans, as I've said before, are social animals. We are hard-wired to work together, because individually we were no match for other animals or the callous hand of nature. When somebody does something for us, we experience a warm rush, a feeling that what just happened is fundamentally right, and we want to return the favor. This is not true for psychopaths, but they learn that in order to get along in life, they need to at least fake it well. They do. Not me, because I'm not one. No sir, no psychopaths here.

So if a single instance of gratitude stays with us so strongly, what about the establishments we do business with on a regular basis? I don't know about you, but there are a lot of companies I feel attached to but with whom I don't have any particular memory of a big thank-you moment. That's community at work. The businesses we go back to are the ones that have made us grateful several times, in ways strong or weak, so we are drawn to the feeling we get when we're there. It becomes home, a place where we are comfortable because we know we will have thank-you moments.

This is so ingrained into our social character that even when we're not getting good service, we say the same thing. How many times have we uttered a bitter or sarcastic thank-you to somebody who was failing us? It's all we can do in a society that tries to be peaceful and conflict-averse, because otherwise it would be the sound of neck bones snapping while James Earl Jones intones, "Apology accepted, Captain Needa."

It's when we start to take thankfulness for granted that we become more likely to lapse as customers. As with any good feeling from endorphins, repeated stimulus of the gratitude center makes it less sensitive, and greater effort is needed to get the high. This is something for businesses to remember—expressing our gratitude to customers for continuing to come to us is crucial to keeping the cycle going. They come to you and provide you the money to remain profitable, so you'd damn well better thank them and mean it. 

Marshall Lager would like to thank each of you, personally, for continuing to read this column. Get your gratitude at www.3rd-idea.com or www.twitter.com/Lager.

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