Re-cap of Customer Service Meet-up at

Last night, Jeremy Watkin and I co-hosted a customer service meet-up at It was a small, informal gathering of customer service professionals from various industries within San Diego. 

Our goal was to facilitate dialogue and the exchange of ideas around the types of customer service challenges we have in common.

Jeremy’s the Director of Customer Service at, so he and his team were kind enough to host us. They even provided pizza, beer, and wine!

The evening kicked off with Jeremy sharing a little bit about’s approach to customer service. He told us that everything ultimately boiled down to one philosophy: communicate better.

Jeremy Watkin providing an overview of's awesome customer service philosophies.

Jeremy Watkin providing an overview of's awesome customer service philosophies.

This works for them on a few levels.

  • On a product level, because they’re a telecommunications company. 
  • On a service level because they’re constantly striving to improve customer service.
  • On an internal level, because they rely on teamwork to get things done.

Of course, Communicate Better is also the name of the blog that Jeremy co-authors with’s Jenny Dempsey.

Jeremy also gave us a brief tour of their contact center before we re-convened for some open discussion. 

Here were a few of the big topics we discussed.


Voice of Customer Data

It seems like every organization struggles with this on some level. Here are some of the challenges we discussed:

  • Combating negative reviews on external sites like Yelp and Angie’s list
  • Using customer service data to generate actionable insights
  • Getting executives to worry less about the number and more about improvement

Jeremy mentioned I recently facilitated two webinars on this topic. One was on designing customer service surveys and the other was on analyzing and acting on survey data.


Service Standards

The concept of customer service standards generated a lot of great discussion. There’s a delicate balance between consistency, authenticity, and flexibility. 

We all agreed that it’s a bad idea to make customer service standards that are too rigid and scripted. This takes away the employee’s ability to adapt their service to each individual customer. 

Check out my recent post on the Zendesk blog if you’d like to read more about the potential downfalls of service standards.


Balancing Quality and Efficiency

This was another interesting discussion. Customer service leaders are constantly feeling pressure to increase productivity while still creating amazing customer service experiences.

We did an impromptu networking activity where people had to introduce themselves to three people in three minutes and learn three things about each person. This simple exercise turned out to be very difficult and only one person was able to successfully complete it AND remember the three facts about three people.

The challenge is we’re just not naturally great at being both fast and engaging with customers. We can learn it, but it takes time and practice. 

The top customer service organizations value both quality and efficiency, but they prioritize quality. In other words, helping the customer is more important than serving the customer quickly.


Will there be another meet-up?

It all depends on interest and volunteers. Is there an audience for this sort of event? A few people suggested their organizations might be willing to host the next event, so we may have the volunteer side covered.

If you’d like to learn about future customer service meet-ups in San Diego, please take a moment to add your name to the interest list below:

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The Fight or Flight Response in Customer Service

Human beings are hardwired to deal with danger.

Our defense mechanisms automatically kick in when we’re confronted with a physical or psychological threat. We instinctively fight off the threat or flee it.

This instinct is known as the fight or flight response and it comes in handy in many situations. 

For example, let’s say you’re accosted by a growling, barking dog. There’s no time to take a rational inventory of your various options before deciding how to react. You make an instant assessment of the situation and then make your move purely on instinct.

Customer service is one place where this instinct doesn’t serve us well. A physical or verbal altercation with a customer is never a good idea. Fleeing isn't acceptable either since our job is to try to make the customer feel better.

Here are few examples of what a customer might do to trigger this instinct:

  • Yelling at you
  • Making derisive comments about you or your company.
  • Accusing you or your company of wrongdoing.

The infographic below illustrations our physiological reactions to a “fight or flight” situation. You can also watch a short video (<6 minutes) that explains this reaction in greater details. 

Source: Jvnkfood

Source: Jvnkfood

Recognize that this is a powerful instinct. Pithy advice like “don’t take it personally” isn’t enough to handle it. Customer service employees need something more.

I have two suggestions for overcoming this challenge:

  1. Learn from experience.  Every experience that triggers the fight or flight response can be a powerful teacher if you stop and reflect. The experiential learning model can help.
  2. Prime yourself for success by establishing a positive vision. You can read more about this concept in my post on why priming is essential to outstanding customer service

American Airlines Tried to Send Me to the Wrong Airport

The airlines have cut back on a lot in recent years. There’s a charge for checked luggage. It takes more miles to earn a free trip. You don’t even get peanuts anymore.

Last week, American Airlines sunk to a new low when they tried to send me to the wrong airport.

I was traveling from San Diego to Washington Dulles, connecting through Dallas Fort Worth. My flight from San Diego to Dallas Fort Worth was delayed because American didn’t have a flight crew available on time. This caused me to miss my connecting flight.

The good news is I was automatically rebooked on a new flight. The bad news? The new flight was to Washington Reagan, not Washington Dulles. 

As you can see from this handy map, these two airports aren’t the same.

It was an error caused by a big, dumb computer system. It was exacerbated by unfriendly and unsympathetic employees. 

The only apology I received was a perfunctory “sorry for the inconvenience” sent via direct message on Twitter. (I had contacted the American Airlines twitter team for help getting re- re-routed to my correct destination.)

I eventually landed at Dulles five hours late. 

Perhaps I should feel lucky. In January, a Southwest Airlines plane landed at the wrong airport. The incident prompted the National Transportation Safety Board to issue a bulletin to airlines that was headlined by this blinding flash of the obvious:

Check and confirm destination airport.

Ok, so I’m lucky. I ended up in the correct destination. But this experience still highlights three big customer service lessons:

  1. The experience must match the promise
  2. Your employees can fix problems
  3. You have competition


Lesson #1: The Experience Must Match the Promise

The CX Journey blog provided some nice coverage last year of American Airlines’s rebranding effort. One of the posts contained this quote from an American Airlines representative:

Through the fusion of technology and the human touch of our people, we aim to elevate and modernize the travel experience so our customers feel at ease and connected.

Denise Lee Yohn’s terrific new book, What Great Brands Do, does a terrific job of explaining how the best brands work diligently to ensure the customer experience matches brand promise. Great brands know these statements aren't just marketing slogans. They're blueprints for doing business.

American Airlines clearly has their work cut out for them as my experience was the opposite of their promise.

The technology tried to send me to the wrong place. I felt uneasy as I tried to connect with a helpful human or the right technology to fix the problem.

The human touch was non-existent. No empathy. No courtesy. Not even a smile. Gate agents on this trip didn’t even make eye contact or return my “Hello” when scanning my boarding pass at the gate.

It’s okay to make brand promises. Just make sure that’s what your customers actually experience.


Lesson #2: Your Employees Can Fix Problems

It was just a year ago that I wrote about another service failure caused by a big, dumb system at American Airlines.

That time, I gave a few of their employees credit for their kindness and empathy. It was enough to earn my continued business.

So, what’s different a year later?

It’s probably been pretty hard to work at American Airlines lately. There were widespread layoffs threatened. A merger with US Airways created uncertainty. The airline has been navigating through bankruptcy.

That’s the real shame. I encountered several American Airlines employees on this journey. Anyone of them could have given me what I really wanted: a heartfelt apology and a little empathy. I didn’t get it.

I certainly wouldn’t be writing this blog post if someone at American had made it right.


Lesson #3: You Have Competition

The Communicate Better blog recently had a terrific post describing how a website offering the same product, for less, as Amazon lost the business to Amazon anyway. The reason? The experience lagged far behind what Amazon could deliver. 

Apparently, American Airlines hasn’t figured out there are other airlines. Their service is consistently awful with a lowly 65 point rating on the American Customer Satisfaction Index. That’s United Airlines territory.

Other airlines, like Alaska, offer much better service. 

Ironically, I recently flew Alaska from Washington Reagan to Los Angeles. My flight was delayed when the airport temporarily closed due to a snow storm. Alaska employees were cheerful and helpful the whole time. 

It wasn’t a great travel day due to the weather, but the service I received nonetheless cemented my commitment to fly Alaska whenever possible.