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

Why Priming is Essential to Outstanding Customer Service

Are you primed to provide outstanding service?

Are you primed to provide outstanding service?

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.


Positive Visualizations

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!