Why the customer isn't always the top priority

Here’s the scene… You are placing your order at a fast food counter when someone suddenly interrupts you to declare a ketchup emergency.

“Can I get some ketchup?” the other customer asks frantically. They physically crowd the counter space, by-passing the line and wedging themselves into the scene to ensure their emergency takes top priority. In almost every case, the cashier stops taking your order and turns to help the other person.

Why does this happen?

There are two reasons. First, the ketchup person is rude. Not rude in a deliberate, “Step aside for the great ketchup king” kind of way, but rude in a “I have a ketchup emergency and I’ll die if I don’t get some ketchup right now” kind of way. They get tunnel vision and they just don’t consider you in their moment of panic.

The second reason has to do with how people pay attention. Without the proper training and awareness, most cashiers will unthinkingly respond to the ketchup emergency before completing your order.

How do we pay attention?

Our brains can focus our attention through two primary ways. One is called top-down and the other is known as bottom-up. Top-down attention involves consciously focusing our mind on a task, conversation, or thought. Bottom-up attention comes from external stimuli such as a loud noise, something visually catching your eye, or something touching you.

In the short run, bottom-up attention will override our concentration if the stimulus is strong enough. This is a human instinct that helps us recognize danger.

Let’s go back to the cashier in our ketchup emergency scene. The customer looking for ketchup captured their attention through bottom-up stimuli by talking in a loud, frantic tone and making themselves seen by physically crowding the space near the cash register. It's human instinct for the cashier to momentarily stop paying attention to you and notice the ketchup person.

It’s the next step that’s the cashier’s choice.

What the cashier does depends on whether or not they have a clear sense of priority. If the current customer is the top priority, then the cashier will utilize top-down attention to politely ask the ketchup person to wait and refocus on taking your order.

If no priority has been established then the cashier will most likely help the ketchup person. Why? Because we tend to follow wherever our bottom-up attention takes us unless we have a deliberate intent to focus on something else. The ketchup person will cause the cashier to instinctively pay attention for an instant, but without a conscious intent to refocus on your order, the cashier’s attention will remain with the ketchup person until the task is complete.

What can we do about it?

The best way to help your employees avoid situations like this is to establish clear customer service priorities.

I recently did a training exercise with a group call center agents where I asked training participants to list their priorities. Universally, they said the person on the phone was the top priority over instant messages, questions from co-workers, or emails. Once they learned about top-down versus bottom-up attention, they decided to limit distractions while they were on a call.

The results of their experiment were overwhelmingly positive. Just by taking the small step of concentrating on the caller as a top priority, they started paying more attention to their customers' needs. This, in turn, helped them identify more opportunities to serve their customers at a higher level.

If you’d like to read more, I’ve written a few other blog posts about how our brain pays attention. Chapter 7 in my book, Service Failure, is also devoted to this topic.

Jeff Toister is the author of Service Failure: The Real Reasons Employees Struggle with Customer Service and What You Can Do About It. The book is available in paperbook, e-book, and audio book formats.

You can learn more about the book at www.servicefailurebook.com or a copy on AmazonBarnes & Noble, or Powell's Books.


Good goals vs. Bad Goals

Companies that are serious about customer service set goals that motivate employees and allow them to evaluate how well they're doing. But beware - not all goals are created equal! Some will help drive the desired results while others can inadvertantly contribute to poor performance and bad behavior.

A notepad with the “Goals” written at the top.

The Motivational Impact of Goals

Goals can often cause people to focus their work and increase the intensity of their effort. Goals tend to foster positive behaviors such as innovation, teamwork, and healthy competition.

This short video highlights how goals can influence behavior. You'll also notice that a good goal itself is powerful enough to motivate people without an external reward like a prize or bonus.

Three Attributes of Good Goals

Setting appropriate goals requires some careful choices or you'll end up motivating people to do the wrong thing. Good goals have three distinct characteristics:

  • Focuses attention on the desired results, rather than diverting attention from the big picture.

  • Promotes teamwork rather than rewarding selfishness.

  • Relies on intrinsic, or internal, motivation to driver performance rather than external rewards.

This short video provides a more in-depth explanation of the difference between good and bad goals:

Use SMART Goals to Focus Your Team

The most powerful customer service goals follow the SMART model. SMART is an acronym that stands for five qualities every good goal should have:

  • S = Specific

  • M = Measurable

  • A = Attainable

  • R = Relevant

  • T = Time-bound

This tutorial video provides a more in-depth explanation of SMART goals and transforms a weak, "squishy" goal into a solid example:

Listening to customers is harder than you think

I was halfway through my question when the customer service representative interrupted me. “That’s actually a separate password than the one I’m resetting for you. That one is just for billing.”

Great, except that wasn’t the question I was about to ask. “I know, but I was going to ask if I can reset the billing password myself so that I…”

He interrupted again, “But you don’t need the billing password to access your online account.” 

Sigh… Still not the question I was trying to ask. Why do so many knowledgeable customer service representatives find it difficult to truly listen to their customers?

Believe it or not, one explanation is poor listening skills are a product of our brain’s natural wiring.

Our brains have a unique design feature that allows us to take a small amount of information and compare it to familiar patterns. This enables us to make quick sense of large amounts of data without getting bogged down in the details. It’s an ability that comes in handy in many ways, such as determining if something is safe or dangerous, recognizing people we know, or even reading.

Here’s a simple example. Try reading the sentence below:

People can easliy raed misspleled wrods as long as all the lettres are there and the fisrt and lsat letters are in the corerct position.

You can read sentences like the one above thanks to this handy pattern recognition ability. Your brain recognizes the pattern presented by the arrangement of the letters and the context of the sentence. It doesn't matter that the letters aren't perfectly placed. They are close enough for your brain to quickly interpret their meaning.

Unfortunately, this same ability gets customer service representatives into trouble when it comes to listening. The customer service representative I mentioned at the beginning of this post had likely heard questions similar to mine many times. The start of my sentence fit a familiar pattern so his brain naturally stopped listening and presented an answer to the question he thought I was going to ask. The problem occurred because my question was a new variation this pattern, so the answer that leapt into his mind was incorrect.

In other words, it was a natural behavior that caused the customer service representative to keep interrupting me.

We can learn to short circuit our natural wiring and become more adept at listening, but it takes training, effort, and practice. Here are a few things you can try the next time you are listening to a customer:


  1. Eliminate distractions and concentrate on what the customer is saying.
  2. Don't interrupt customers while they are speaking.
  3. Ask clarifying questions to confirm you understand their needs.


How to quickly find lost time and increase productivity

My wife, Sally, is an efficiency expert. From my perspective, this gives us plenty of exciting things to talk about at the dinner table. One recent conversation focused on why it takes me five times longer than she to pack for a business trip. You might be able to relate if you consistently find yourself running short of time at work or at home.

Explanation #1: We have different natural abilities
Sally has the ability to visualize what she wants to pack before she starts packing. When it comes time to pack her suitcase she simply goes to her closet, grabs the clothes she visualized, and puts them in.

I can't do that. I process information in a highly kinesthetic manner. When packing for a trip, this means I have to pull all sorts of clothes out of my closet and then imagine how and when I might wear them on my trip. I also have to write down the days I'll be gone and what I'll be doing each day so I can pair an outfit with each activity. (Not doing this almost always results in me over packing but still not having enough clothes to wear.)

Sally's ability to visualize gives her a natural ability to pack faster than I can. Natural ability definitely plays a role in our packing productivity.

Explanation #2: Self-imposed distractions
I usually put the TV on in our bedroom to watch while I pack. This seems like a good way to kill the monotony, but Sally correctly points out that it also slows me down. Each time I pause to pay attention to the television I slow down the process just a bit. This can really add up if something interesting like a Laker game is on.

Sally does all her packing without any distractions. Consequently, she focuses all of her attention on the task at hand and finishes much faster.

If you want to do something more efficiently, you should understand which obstacles are natural and which are self-imposed. The self-imposed obstacles are a lot easier to reduce or eliminate. If I want to pack faster the easiest solution is to simply turn off the TV. I still won't be as fast as Sally, but I'll be a lot faster than I am now.

Where did all the time go?
Sometimes these inefficiencies aren't obvious. A good way to spot pockets of inefficiency is to track your time for a week and then look at the results.

I've created a simple time tracking worksheet that you can use. You can download it here or watch the nifty how-to video.


Why customer service isn't always obvious

The video below contains a simple observation exercise. I encourage you to watch the short video before reading the rest of this post (it's less than 90 seconds long). (For my email readers, here's a link.)

Researchers Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons found that only 50% of people notice the gorilla in the video the first time they watch it. Why? A strange phenomenon called inattentional blindness where our focus on one thing causes us to miss something that would otherwise be obvious.

I recently saw an example of this first hand when dining at one of my favorite local restaurants with my wife and her parents. The restaurant was very crowded so the only open table was tucked into a corner in the back of the restaurant. Unfortunately, we hardly saw our server after she took our orders. Our water glasses sat empty, we finished our meals before we had a chance to order a few cocktails, and she took a long time to bring our check. From our perspective, it was obvious that she should have paid more attention to us.

So, what could have gotten in the way? I observed a few things that may have caused her to unintentionally neglect our table.

  • Our table was tucked away behind a wall and out of sight from the rest of her section.
  • A large group was seated in her section just after we arrived and it was quite a production to take their orders, bring them drinks, etc.
  • Our server carried only one plate at a time in each hand, even when picking up dirty dishes, hinting at a lack of experience in restaurant service.

If you imagine we were out of sight on a busy evening with an inexperienced server who was trying to keep all her tables straight, you can understand why we might have been forgotten in the frenzy.

A great question to ask about your own employees is what might be distracting them from seeing obvious customer service opportunities?