There’s a concept in psychology called priming. According to a helpful overview from Psychology Today, priming refers to “activating particular representations or associations in memory just before carrying out an action or task.”
The theory is that the primer influences the way the action or task is carried out.
One famous priming experiment had participants create sentences from a list of scrambled words. A group of participants was given a set of words such as “old,” “bingo,” and “lonely” that primed them to think of the elderly. Another group was given a set of neutral words. The experiment found the participants who were primed to think of the elderly took more time to walk to the elevator after leaving the study than the participants who weren’t primed.
Priming is also the core subject of Napoleon Hill’s famous self-help book, Think and Grow Rich. Originally written in 1937, Hill argued the secret to financial success was to imagine it. In other words, prime yourself to be successful and it will happen.
Can customer service employees be primed to provide either good or poor customer service? I think so.
Names as Primers
Word association is a powerful priming tool. This can hold true for the names employees call their customers.
Shep Hyken, author of Amaze Every Customer Every Time, recently wrote a blog post that suggested we find more positive words to refer to our customers. For instance, a gym calls its customers “members” while a hotel calls its customers “guests.” Hyken’s research shows this subtle change in language can positively influence a company’s culture. He shared the example of an Ace Hardware store that started referring to customers as “neighbors.” Employees there began viewing their customers, or neighbors, in a whole new light.
Micah Solomon, author of High-Tech, High-Touch Customer Service, took it a step farther in a recent article he wrote for Forbes. Solomon argued that we shouldn’t think of customers by any name at all other than their own. Each customer is an individual and should be treated individually.
Changing what you call your customers isn’t a foolproof plan to improve service, but it does have some merits.
Think about your own experiences where you knew a customer by name. Greeting that customer like an old friend may have primed you to provide even better service than you’d provide to someone you’ve never met before.
Positive and Negative Preconceptions
A 1968 study by Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson found that students’ academic performance improved at a higher rate than their peers when their teachers were primed to think of them as high-achievers. This idea that positive expectations can become a self-fulfilling prophecy is known as the Pygmalion Effect.
There’s also an opposite to the Pygmalion Effect. The Golem Effect stipulates that negative expectations can also become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The Pygmalion and Golem effects can be observed in a customer service setting. If we think someone will be a good customer or a big tipper they often turn out to be just that. If we think someone will be a difficult customer or skimp on a tip that often happens too.
I’ve consulted with a few medical device manufacturers. One thing that struck me is the walls of their offices were decked out with pictures of patients who’ve used their devices. The emphasis was on the person, not the device itself.
My clients told me they wanted employees to think of people when they went to work each day. Their products were more than just things. For one client, their products helped people with injuries become more mobile. For another client, their products were literally used to save lives.
The pictures of people were there to prime employees to go above and beyond.
You too can use visuals to prime yourself or your employees to deliver outstanding service. Start by creating a visual that depicts successful customer service and then spend a moment looking at that image at the start of each day.
You can see a couple of examples in in a blog post I wrote called Learn From the Pros by Visualizing Outstanding Service.
Why is Priming Primary?
In my observation, employees who intend to provide great service generally find a way to get it done. They find creative solutions to challenging problems. Angry customers don’t phase them. These employees appear to be perpetually cheerful and optimistic.
The specific intention to make their customer happy becomes a primer for great service.
Without the intention to be great, employees tend to retreat towards harmony and comfort. If a customer is easy to please then great service is a result. If the situation is difficult then a good result becomes less likely.
Scientific-types will hate this explanation because it can’t be replicated in a tightly controlled experiment. To that I say, “What’s the harm in trying?”
Set the intention to be make your customer ecstatic and then see what happens. You can do it!