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

Improve your service instincts with this simple technique

Honing your instincts can help you choose the right path. 

Honing your instincts can help you choose the right path. 

Anyone can say they’re good at service. 

It’s easy to describe what we would do in a hypothetical situation. What really counts is what we actually do in the moment of truth when we’re serving a customer.

It’s in that moment that customer service is largely instinctive.

Our personalities, training, and experience combine to guide our instinctive behaviors while serving customers. We don’t pause to recall five step acronyms for handling upset customers; we just try to make the person feel better. We don’t stop to ponder the various communication components that enhance our likeability; we attempt to be likeable. We don’t browse through our mental database of hero-worthy actions; we simply seize the moment to go the extra mile.

These instincts serve us well when they guide us in the right direction. They can also be a liability when we instinctively make a wrong turn. 

Research from my book, Service Failure, reveals that our instincts often do push us in the wrong direction.  Here are a few examples:


Changing instinctive behavior

It’s hard to alter our instincts in the moment when there’s imminent pressure to perform. However, we can influence our instincts before or after experiencing a moment of truth.

An experiential learning model developed by David Kolb and Ronald Fry provides a simple way to hone our customer service instincts.


All of us have experience to draw from. It’s the addition of the three other steps that inspires learning.

  1. Reflect upon what went well and what didn’t in your experience.
  2. Decide what to do differently the next time you encounter a similar situation.
  3. Experiment with your new approach.

This cycle leads back to experience which gives you an opportunity to start the process all over again.

A client recently asked me for some advice on getting their frontline employees to stop saying “No problem” in place of “you’re welcome.” In the midst of discussing this challenge, a member of my client’s management team caught herself reflexively saying “No problem” in response to a co-worker. It was then she realized this was an instinctive response for her too.

Here’s how I used the experiential learning model to advise my client:

  1. Reflect on the reasons you should avoid saying “No problem.”
  2. Decide what you’ll say instead the next time a customer says “Thank you.”
  3. Experiment with your new phrase at the new opportunity.

That’s it. Setting the intention to try something different can help guide our instincts the next time a customer thanks us.


A Note for Leaders

If you are a manager or supervisor, you can use this experiential learning model to help your employees hone their customer service instincts. There’s just one caveat:

Avoid telling employees what to do.

It’s much harder to change instinctive behavior if you just tell people what to do. That’s because telling someone to do something doesn’t require their brain to process the information. You can get much faster results by playing the role of a coach or guide when using this model.

Here’s how:

  1. Ask your employee to reflect on their experience.
  2. Help your employee decide what to do differently in the future.
  3. Encourage your employee to experiment with their new idea.

As a leader, it’s important to add a fourth step and follow-up with employees to understand their experience when trying a new approach.