Five Ways to Humanize Customer Service

Humanity in customer service is getting rare.

We shop online without ever interacting with a person. Go on a trip and you can check in for your flight, summon a ride to the airport, and check into your hotel room all from your smart phone.

Got a problem? There's a self-service portal for that. Try to call and an interactive voice response system will do its best to dissuade you from talking to someone.

Even when you do interact with a live person, it doesn't always feel that way. There's a whole class of transactional employees whose jobs are at risk of being automated because they don't add any uniquely human value.

Self-service is great and makes a lot of things easy. Yet there's still times when a friendly word and a genuine smile is needed to create an exceptional experience.

Here are five ways you can make sure that happens on your watch.

Start with Vision

Unite your team with a shared definition of outstanding customer service, called a customer service vision.

The vision should focus the team on people, not transactions.

Shake Shack was one of the customer-focused companies profiled in The Service Culture Handbook. The company's customer service vision is Stand for Something Good.

You can see this vision in action when you visit a Shake Shack. Employees are smiling, engaging, and helpful. Their humanity is contagious. Even at a crowded New York City location, you somehow find yourself enjoying other people.


Create Connections

Interesting things happen when service providers and customers see each other on a human level.

In restaurants, one study revealed that satisfaction increased 17.3 percent when customers and cooks were able to see each other. 

One of my favorite restaurants is Glen Ellen Star in the Sonoma Valley wine region. Here, you can sit at the chef's counter and have a conversation with the chef while you eat. Its website has a great video of this in action.

Find ways to help people who don't normally interact with customers make real connections. 

One exercise Clio used to develop its award-winning culture was a "Know Your Customer" campaign, where each person in the company interviewed at least one customer. The idea was help employees do their jobs with more empathy.


Give People Time

Time pressure often prevents human-to-human connections.

Employees feel the need to rush through interactions to get to the next person in line. People instinctively struggle to maintain a warm and friendly demeanor when they are focused on speed.

Increased staffing is one solution. Another way is to focus employees on first contact resolution. While counterintuitive when we're pressed for time, slowing things down can actually prevent additional contacts which frees up more time in the future.


Use Connecting Techniques

Help your employees develop specific skills to create human connections.

One of my favorites is the 10 and 5 Rule. This is used in retail, hospitality, and other settings where you have face-to-face customer interactions.

Employees use this technique by giving a non-verbal greeting to anyone within 10 feet. This can be a nod, a wave, or a smile. Give people a verbal greeting when they're within 5 feet.

Another option is the Five Question Technique. Employees think of five questions they can potentially ask customers that break the ice and uncover an additional need to serve. At least one of those questions will likely be useful in nearly any situation.


Create Human Procedures

Whenever I call for customer service, I like to introduce myself and greet the other person by name.

This often breaks the ice and creates a warmer interaction.

Some customer service reps must follow procedures that discourage them from doing this. They must follow a script that requires them to ask for an account number or some other information.

These procedures are typically created for efficiency. This can backfire if the customer bristles at the lack of warmth. Studies show that people are less open to ideas when they're angry, which means the interaction can take longer than it would if the employee was able to develop rapport with the customer.


Want to Practice?

These certainly aren't the only five ways to make customer service more human.

You can practice your human-to-human skills by making this a two-way conversation and leaving a comment or dropping me a line. Let me know how you humanize your service!

Confirmation Bias and The Power of First Impressions

First impressions set the tone. 

First impressions set the tone. 

We all know that great first impressions are important in customer service. But exactly how do first impressions influence customers’ perceptions of service quality?

One factor is a powerful force called confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias occurs when people have strongly held opinions. There’s a natural tendency to selectively filter new information, facts, and experiences based upon whether it confirms our opinion. We conveniently hang on to anything that supports our point of view while ignoring or dismissing any evidence to the contrary.

If you want to see confirmation bias in action, all you have to do is strike up a conversation with someone about politics, religion, or sports. Find out where they stand and then try to change their mind. Good luck.

In customer service, a strong first impression can form the basis for future confirmation bias. This can work in your favor if the impression is good or against you if the impression is bad.

Here are two examples from recent hotel visits:


Good example – Sheraton JFK

Evette greeted me as I arrived at the hotel shuttle pick-up area at New York’s JFK airport. I was tired from a long flight but her cheerful greeting immediately lifted my spirits.

“Hi! My name is Evette. I’m your greeter.”

The shuttle came on demand, so she radioed the hotel to request a shuttle to pick me up. Evette kept me company while I waited by giving me some additional information about the hotel and transportation options in the area. I was also impressed to see her helping people headed to other hotels find their shuttles.

Evette told me, “I work for the Sheraton, but it doesn’t cost me anything to help people going to other hotels since I’m already out here.” She was a great example of what Steve Curtin talks about in his book, Delight Your Customers. The spirit of service is separate from your job function, it’s voluntary, and it’s often free.

When the shuttle arrived she introduced me by name to the driver, Mike. It was a short ride over to the hotel where a friendly front desk associate named Livingstone checked me in. 

The positive first impression created by these associates did more than just start my stay off on a good note. It helped me form the opinion that this hotel offered good service. Once that opinion was formed, I became biased towards observing and remembering positive aspects of their service while dismissing or ignoring any minor occurrence that didn’t confirm that opinion.


Bad example – budget hotel

I recently stayed at a different hotel that created a less than stellar first impression. 

There was only one associate at the front desk to check in a long line of guests. I was tired from a long day of travel and the line felt like one more obstacle between me and relaxation. When I finally got to the front of the line, the associate seemed as tired as I felt while she plodded through the check in process.

To make matters worse, my key didn’t work when I got to my room so I had to go back to the front desk. Ugh.

This negative first impression left me irritated and tired by the time I got to the room. It gave me the opinion that this hotel provided poor service and it was all too easy to find additional examples throughout my stay. Each new service failure compounded my disappointment until I decided to document the problems on a short video.



The reality is I probably experienced a mixture of service at both hotels. The Sheraton JFK certainly provided better overall service but there were a few things they could have done better. I likely would have noticed more, or have been more bothered by what I did notice, if the first impression they created hadn’t been so good.

That other hotel also had some positive aspects too. There’s a very good chance I would have noticed more of them if the initial impression hadn’t been so poor. 

Most of perceptions about a company are really comprised of several experiences over time. This makes the first impression so important since it can serve as a reference for future experiences. I illustrated an example of this continuum in a post about Verizon that described how good service I had received was really a combination of good, outstanding, and poor experiences.


How to make a good first impression

Making a good first impression is usually easy if you follow a few steps.

Step 1: Observe first impressions from your customers’ perspective. This can quickly show you what’s working and what’s not. For example if you manage a call center, you could call to see how long it takes to reach a live agent, how easy it is to navigate the phone menu, what it feels like to be on hold, and what type of greeting you receive when you finally do reach a live person. You can use this same approach with many other types of businesses simply by tracing the same steps a customer would.

Step 2: Ensure you have adequate staffing to make a good first impression. Customers hate to wait, so immediately putting them in a long line isn’t the right way to get things started. If a wait is unavoidable, you can still employ a few jedi mind tricks to make the wait seem shorter.

Step 3: Learn and use customer names. Calling customers by name is a great way to make a customer feel welcome by personalizing the service they receive. Don’t forget that names are a two way street. Customers are much more likely to give service high marks if they remember your employees’ names.

Additional resources: Here are some other blog posts that also focus on positive first impressions:

You lost me at hello

How hotels can generate loyalty on the first visit

Five question technique


Connecting rapport to five star service

I often write about service failures and what we can learn about them. This post is about the other side of the coin. Specifically, I want to share ways that building rapport can have an inordinate on customers’ perceptions of service quality.

First, let’s define rapport.

According to Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, rapport is a “relation marked by harmony, conformity, accord, or affinity.” In a customer service context, this involves connecting with customers in a way that causes them to see you as a real, likeable person.

Operationalizing Rapport

Terms like rapport can be a bit squishy, making it hard to observe, quantify, and even train. One way to operationalize the definition of rapport is to count how often people mention someone by name in the comments section of your customer service survey.

I started noticing a very specific trend around names while helping a client analyze their customer satisfaction data. Their survey had an overall satisfaction question where customers were asked to rate their service on a three-point scale:

  • Above Expectations
  • At Expectations
  • Below Expectations

A definite pattern emerged when I separated the comments section by rating. Individual employees were mentioned by name much more frequently when customers gave their service an “Above Expectations” score. Here’s the distribution for one of the groups I worked with:


Just for fun, I analyzed the Yelp reviews for my favorite Italian restaurant, Antica Trattoria. Their overall rating is 4.0 stars with slightly more than half the reviews giving 5 stars. However, you’ll see a familiar pattern if you look at the reviews that mentioned an Antica Trattoria employee by name:


Will this trend hold up when you analyze your own voice of customer data? I don’t know, but it is worth a look.

Barriers to Rapport

If rapport is highly correlated to outstanding service, why doesn’t it happen more often? One explanation might be that customer service professionals face a number of barriers that can make rapport-building difficult.

  1. Speed. It’s hard to build rapport when employees are in a hurry.
  2. Skill. Many people simply don’t know how to build rapport with customers.
  3. Sales. It’s really hard to like an overly aggressive salesperson.
  4. Task-focus. Rapport takes a hit when tasks are prioritized over service.
  5. Customers. Some customers are jerks and resist rapport.

Are there other barriers that I missed? What do you see?

How to Build Rapport

You’ll have to remove these barriers if you want your employees to build more rapport with customers. Here are three simple steps to help your employees become rapport-building champions.

Step 1: Look at the Data

Review your customer satsifaction data to see how rapport might be impacting service quality. Do you see evidence of greater rapport in your top box survey scores? Are some employees consistently mentioned in customer service surveys while others are not?

Step 2: Observe

You can learn a lot by assessing the current situation before doing any tinkering. Watch your employees serve customers. Can you observe any of the barriers to rapport mentioned above?

Step 3: Engage the Team

Share your observations with your employees and ask them to help you find solutions. You might be surprised at how many good ideas your team can come up with. You’ll also notice they are more like to implement ideas that are their own.

In many cases, employees just need a little bit of training to help become more adept at building rapport. One of my favorite exercises is called the five question technique. It’s based on the idea that having a short list of conversation starting questions at the ready can make anyone seem like a rapport-building pro.

Here’s how it works:

  1. Ask employees to brainstorm a list of five rapport-building questions.
  2. Have employees practice using these questions with customers.
  3. At least one of these questions will be effective in almost any situation.

You can learn more about this and other rapport building tips in my customer service idea bank.

Make sure they know your name

You probably knew that you can personalize your service if you learn and use customer names. Did you know that customers tend to give even higher ratings when they know your name?

A review of customer satisfaction surveys reveals that customers who mention an employee by name are 2 - 3 times more likely to give the highest rating.

Tips to ensure customers know your name

  1. Introduce yourself
  2. Invite customers to ask for you personally if they need assistance
  3. Hand a business card with your name on it
  4. Write your name on a receipt
  5. Use their name in conversation (it encourages them to remember yours) 

Remember that we all tend to forget names quickly without a little repetition. Find a way to remind your customer of your name a couple of times so it will stick with them.