Why experience can be a liability in customer service

The legendary Tommy at the Strathisla Distillery in Scotland. 

The legendary Tommy at the Strathisla Distillery in Scotland. 

In customer service, as in many aspects of life, experience is prized. It’s asked for in job ads, touted in advertising, and used to headline resumes. “I’ve got experience” is said with pride.

There are even cautionary tales about undervaluing experience. Circuit City famously fired its most experienced employees in a last ditch effort to avoid bankruptcy. It failed.

As terrific as experience is, it can also be a liability in customer service. That's because there are certain situations where experience can make service failures more likely to happen. Here are three reasons why:


#1 The Video We’ve Seen Before

There’s an incredible video on YouTube that highlights research on a phenomenon called selective attention. Watch the video below first before reading further or skip it if you’ve seen it before. (Click here to view it on YouTube if it doesn’t appear on your screen.)

Pretty crazy, right? 

The researchers have since published a second video highlighting their research. Take a look at this one and see how you do the second time around. (Click here to view it on YouTube if it doesn’t appear on your screen.)

How did you do? 

For most of us, the experience we gained by watching the first video inhibited our ability to spot new changes in the second video. We became locked in, delighted that our experience let us in on the trick until it turned out that really wasn’t the trick at all.

Experience often works the same way in customer service. We develop a laser focus on what we know while missing new opportunities to serve.


#2 Lightning fast recognition

I once wrote a post explaining why listening to customers is harder than you think. The problem gets amplified for experienced employees.

Our brain has the amazing ability to make sense of large amounts of data by comparing it to familiar patterns. It’s how we recognize familiar faces or even read written words. 

You've probably seen this famous example involving misspelled words: 

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.

This pattern recognition ability can also cause problems for experienced customer service employees. If they’ve heard the same story 100 times before their brain will quickly sense a familiar pattern. Listening stops as their brain instinctively anticipates the rest of the story. 

The experienced brain often anticipates correctly, but not always. This ability can be a problem when the brain automatically cuts off listening and returns the wrong answer. 


#3 Everyone loves Tommy

My wife and I visited the Strathisla Distillery in Scotland last year where we met a man named Tommy. He had made Scotch for years until he retired and moved to the visitor center. We couldn't pass up a chance to snap a photo of Tommy holding a bottle of 12 year old Scotch that he had made years before. Tommy was a legend.

We recently dined at a restaurant that also had an employee named Tommy. This Tommy had worked there for 45 years. His official role seemed to be schmoozing with guests and telling stories. Everyone loved Tommy.

A lot of companies have a Tommy. He or she has worked there for years and knows all the ins and outs. Tommy is beloved by customers, co-workers, and even the boss. 

There’s also a downside to all this deference to Tommy. Sometimes, Tommy slips a bit or has a bad day. Perhaps he starts taking his role for granted or, like all of us, he needs a little feedback to stay on course. 

However, unlike everyone else, Tommy doesn’t get this feedback. He isn’t held accountable. Nobody wants to hurt Tommy’s feelings.


Overcoming the experience problem

Customer service leaders should prize all the good qualities that come with experience while helping to minimize the obstacles that come with it. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Turn them into trainers and mentors. Taking knowledge they know like the back of their hand and explaining it to someone else allows them to see it from a new perspective. Plus, less experienced employees will gain from their wisdom.
  • Teach new tricks. One way to overcome the problem of familiar patterns is to give experienced employees new assignments and special projects. This challenges them in new ways and slows down the problem of familiar patterns.

  • Suck it up and go there with Tommy. You don't want to upset Tommy. I get it. But there's a good chance Tommy will appreciate a little feedback and coaching if he's approached with the proper amount of respect. Make it clear that Tommy’s experience and wisdom is valued, but be firm about the expected performance.

Three performance myths, part 1: the myth of experience

I am currently in Alexandria, Virginia working on a project for a training industry association, the American Society for Training and Development. There are training and development experts from around the country here, so naturally our dinner conversations turn to learning and performance. An interesting topic tonight was the myth of experience.

Experience feels like a safe bet when predicting someone's future performance. We rely on it when hiring employees, justifying promotions, and even choosing vendors. But experience can be seriously misleading. To quote one of my colleagues, "You can have twenty years of leadership experience, but you might have been doing it badly for those twenty years."

A much better predictor of future performance is what someone knows and what someone can do. This is harder to assess, but infinitely more valuable.