Our Thoughts

The Unreasonable Customer

6th March 2019

One of the privileges of my job is that I get to meet such a wide range of customers. One day I might be running a focus group with social renters in arrears, and the next interviewing a board member from a FTSE 100 company.

Going out to meet customers is endlessly fascinating, and one of the most important lessons is that customers of all sorts are much less terrifying than many believe. Customers, in my experience, are less demanding, less unreasonable, and less angry than my clients expect them to be. This is important when it comes to understanding the customer experience.

"There is no such thing as an unreasonable customer." - Seth Godin

I use this quote a lot. It should be front of mind for everyone involved in customer-facing teams. Seth goes on to explain what he means in more detail - if you'd had the same experiences as the customer who seems to be acting unreasonably, then you'd be acting exactly the same way they are.

It's very hard to remember this when it's you that the customer is shouting at, because of a cognitive bias called the "fundamental attribution error". This describes our tendency to view other people's actions as reflective of their character rather than external factors, although we're more forgiving when it comes to our own behaviour. For example, if you don't do the washing up it's because you're lazy; if I don't do it, it's because I'm leaving the dishes to soak.

This bias is quite understandable, but it has two seriously damaging consequences when it comes to the customer experience:

It prevents action. Instead of trying to understand the situational factors which have led to the customer's behaviour, factors which we could often do something to address or alleviate, we blame the customer's character. That might make us feel better, but it prevents us from addressing the true causes, and it means we'll be creating more "unreasonable" customers in the future.

It encourages a negative atttitude towards customers. The more often an organisation creates situations which lead customers to behave "unreasonably", the more "unreasonable" customers staff will encounter. That builds up a negative attitude towards customers, which serves to exacerbate the poor experiences and create a death spiral of hostile interactions.

So what's the solution?

First of all, embrace Seth Godin's principle as a starting point for all customer interactions - assume that the customer is behaving reasonably, given the situation they're in, and see what you can do to help.

Secondly, build empathy for customers throughout the business, either by speaking to them directly (you can put away the hazmat suit), or by using qualitative research techniques to bring them to life.


Stephen Hampshire
@shampshire

Hazmat image by Jeff Eaton https://www.flickr.com/photos/jeffeaton/6586676977

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