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  • March 26, 2020
  • By Ian Jacobs, principal analyst, Forrester Research

To Succeed in Customer Service, Forget the Rule Your Parents Taught You

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‘You go to school and learn the golden rule/ So why are you acting like a bloody fool?’ —Inner Circle (‘Bad Boys’)

Twitter posts from hundreds of self-proclaimed customer service experts promise to help your company understand the arcane mysteries of keeping customers happy. Just today, I read a tweet that offered this advice: “Deliver a great experience to your customers, build relationships with them, and meet their expectations.” Another said this: “Satisfied customers defect all the time. If you want to gain competitive advantage from the customer experience you deliver, then strive for more than just mere satisfaction.” To be clear here, I’m as guilty as the next “thought leader” of clogging up the interwebz with these posts. I certainly ain’t innocent here!

The posts I listed above all sound great, and beneath the buzzwords, they all appear to offer different advice. But they are less unique snowflakes than they seem; in fact, they all have a common theme.

What wisdom do these online missives really offer? If I had to summarize it, I’d say it was summed up very well some 2,000 years ago, in the Golden Rule: Treat others as you would wish to be treated. The customer service posts use many more words to say that, sure, but at heart that’s really the advice. And there is a reason that thought has been so persistent throughout human history: It recognizes that while we need empathy from others, it is often hard for us to provide. We really do need the reminder that other people are real, with deep emotional lives of their own.

That said, counterintuitively, I’m going to argue that you cannot take the Golden Rule literally when it comes to customer service because it puts the emphasis on the business and not the customer. Think about it this way: The Golden Rule says that I should treat you how I want to be treated, but why is my preference assumed to be your preference? Why should my markers of a good experience match your markers?

This rule presumes that my experiences are universal, and we know—because I’m something of a freak around customer service, because I’m male, because I have a blended East Coast and West Coast approach to communications, because I am more relationship-focused than efficiency-focused—that this is simply not true. It might work out that you and I have the same preferences, but if that happens it can be chalked up to pure happenstance. Clearly, people are better off following the Golden Rule than being rude to each other willy-nilly, but we can do better. Instead of treating others as you would like to be treated, we need to find ways to treat others as they themselves would like to be treated.

Vendors have invested heaps of R&D cash into personalization technologies, and that is certainly one way to drive this mutated Golden Rule. Some vendors have been building tools that use artificial intelligence to attempt to classify consumers’ communication styles and match them with support staff with complementary styles. But technology approaches, no matter how much AI pixie dust we sprinkle on them, won’t get us all the way there.

We need a human element. Rather than our usual approach to hiring—“hiring for pedigree” as an article in the Harvard Business Review called it—we need to hire for emotional intelligence and true empathy. Personality tests don’t work for this. We need to talk to candidates—and references, if you have them—in a way that elicits concrete examples of their emotional intelligence. A challenging task, to be sure, but one with a huge payoff in the form of having staff that can treat customers the way they’d choose for themselves.  

Ian Jacobs is a principal analyst at Forrester Research.

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