Why Customer Service Isn't Our Top Priority

Source: Wikipedia (author unknown)

Source: Wikipedia (author unknown)

Customer service is not our top priority in life. At best it’s fifth. Understand this and you can understand what really motivates customer service employees.

Don’t take this into account and you run the risk of service failures.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s great when customer service is a top priority for a company. Making service your number one business focus is an insanely good idea. No arguments here. 

Just understand that there are more things to life.


Customer service is our fifth priority

In 1943, Psychologist Abraham Maslow first proposed a framework that ranked our basic human needs in priority order. 

  1. Physiological
  2. Safety
  3. Love and Belonging
  4. Esteem
  5. Self-actualization

According to Maslow’s theory, our focus shifts when a higher priority need is not being met. For example, we all value our physical safety, but we’d be willing to risk injury or death if our physiological need for food or water wasn’t being met. The framework, known as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, has since become widely used in the management, training, human resources, and psychology fields.

Providing outstanding customer service is a form of self-actualization, the fifth priority in Maslow’s model. Service professionals typically enjoy solving problems, attending to their customers’ needs, and making people happy. They also have a difficult time being their absolute best if more important needs such as esteem aren’t being met.

I explored this topic in Chapter 10 of my book, Service Failure where I wrote about the emotional roadblocks that can get in the way of outstanding service. Here, I want to go a bit deeper with some additional examples.



There are times when working in customer service can really challenge your self-esteem. 

First, there are angry customers. The worst can be rude, demeaning, and insulting. Our actions would likely be different in any other situation where we encountered this sort of behavior. We’d either confront the person or try to get away from them. 

In customer service, we get to do neither. The expectation is that we keep a big smile on our face while we take it all in, acknowledge that the person is right (even if they’re not), and then try to make it better. 

Bosses often challenge their employees’ self-esteem too. They hand out “discipline” for poor performance while failing to recognize positive contributions. Employees are often treated like interchangeable parts where one can be discarded and easily replaced with another. Psychologists have even found evidence that it’s surprisingly easy for bosses to put their employees in awkward positions by asking them to do work they’d never do themselves. 


Love and Belonging

I recently had an extraordinary experience at the end of a customer service workshop I had facilitated. Two participants approached me after the class. They nervously looked around to make sure everyone else had left the room and then one of them asked, “What do you do when your boss is the problem?”

The two proceeded to tell me about their experiences with a recent re-organization. What had once been a cohesive team was now a difficult place to work. Roles were unclear. Policies seemed to change constantly. Bosses didn’t communicate. Long-time co-workers had begun to mistrust each other. 

After a few minutes of conversation, one of them let down her guard and began to cry. Her co-worker tried to comfort her with a big hug and soon found herself crying too. 

Clearly, their need for love and belonging in their job wasn’t being met. This made it hard to display the confidence that’s so critical in customer service but is difficult without self-esteem. It also made it nearly impossible to give their best performance in a job where they no longer felt a sense of belonging.

You can’t expect greatness from employees when they feel a sense of hopelessness and dispair.



The primary function of a customer service leader is to make it easy for employees to provide outstanding customer service. This includes creating a work environment where employees feel a sense of love and belonging and enjoy high levels of self-esteem.

Are you up to the task? If so, here are a few things you can do:

  • Ensure that leaders foster caring and supportive relationships with employees.
  • Give customers as little as possible to be angry about.
  • Never tolerate a customer who crosses the line with an employee.

That’s the big picture. It’s simple in concept but difficult in execution. You can check out some of these resources if you want some more specific ideas.

  • The Communicate Better Blog exemplifies taking care of priorities 3, 4, and 5 in one project. It's written by Jeremy Watkin and Jenny Dempsey, two of Phone.com's customer service leaders. They're an impressive duo that I've previously profiled.

  • The Employee Engagement Cycle is a helpful tool for understanding how you can be deliberate about keeping employees focused on self-actualization.

  • My recent blog post on employee emotions as a new frontier for efficiency.

Don't let the wolf in your hen house

Last week, my plumber hired a drywall guy to come to my home and patch up some holes from a plumbing repair. After completing the job, the drywall guy handed me his business card and said, "Let me know if you ever want to do any remodeling - I specialize in kitchens and baths." The problem? My plumber also has a remodeling business that specializes in kitchens and baths.

This situation is a modern-day example of sending a wolf to check on your hen house. Sure, the wolf has excellent references and works for a reasonable rate, but the wolf ultimately wants to eat your chickens! Any situation where someone you hire has very different interests than yours can result in unwanted consequences.  Economics fans refer to this as the principal - agent problem: both parties are guided by their own self-interest, so it is important for the principal (the plumber) to create the proper structure so the agent (the dry wall guy) doesn't work against the principal's interests.

Here are some more examples of wolves in the hen house:

  • A customer service rep is hired to provide outstanding service. The customer service rep wants a an easy, stress-free job. The result: the customer service rep only provides outstanding service in situations that are stress-free.
  • A company hires a salesperson and pays her a commission on gross sales. The sales rep wants to make as much commission as possible, so she offers discounts to make the product more attractive to customers. The company's sales look good, but their margins are so poor there is very little profit.
  • A company hires a technician to make house calls and do in-home repairs. The technician loves the technical work, but can't stand dealing with people. The repairs are always done correctly, but the company's customers frequently complain about poor service provided by the technician and often take their business to a competitor.

The solution?

These situations aren't necessarily simple to resolve, but the starting point is deliberate alignment. You can use our simple competency model to work this out for anyone you plan to hire -- before you hire them! Download our competency model.