How Invisible Ropes Ruin the Customer Service Experience

The prank was pure genius.

Two boys, each about 12 years old, stood on opposite sides of the road. As a car approached, the boys would pantomime picking up a rope and pulling it taught across the road. 

This caused speeding cars to slow down as the drivers perceived they were about to run into whatever the boys had stretched across the road. They couldn't see anything in front of them, but the boys' actions told the drivers' subconscious brains that some danger lurked ahead.

Of course, there was no rope. The drivers were reacting to their perception, not reality.

Customer service is often the same way. The experience is almost always amplified for good or bad by invisible ropes—things that alter your customer's perception of reality.

This post will help you identify invisible ropes that might annoy your customers and ruin their experience.

Sign asking customer to wait to be called.

Wait Time

Customer service often involves waiting. Waiting in line for help. Waiting in line to make a purchase. Waiting on hold for a customer service representative to answer the phone. 

Long waits tend to make customers very unhappy, but there's an invisible rope here.

A 1996 study by researchers Ziv Carmon and Daniel Kahneman revealed that people overestimate wait times by as much as 36 percent. They discovered several factors in particular that increase our perception of how long we've been waiting:

  • Expectations: The wait time is longer than we expected it to be.

  • Fairness: People are cutting in line.

  • Competition: Another line appears to be moving faster.

  • Movement: The queue is moving slowly.

  • Line Length: We can see a long line.

  • Boredom: Our wait time perception increases when we are bored.

  • Unpredictability: There is no information telling us how much longer it will be.

The easiest fix is to shorten the actual wait., but that's sometimes not possible. So some companies have found a set of techniques to make the wait time feel shorter.

Contact Friction

Customers must often deal with an unnecessary amount of friction to contact a company, even for the most basic of transactions.

A 2015 study from Mattersight found that 66 percent of customers who called a contact center were frustrated before they even started talking to a live person. The amount of phone menu hoops we have to jump through is ridiculous.

I recently tried to sign up for a webinar that looked mildly interesting. The registration field for this free event contained 20 required fields. Suddenly, I was no longer interested.

A certain florist has been sending me several spam emails per day, ever since I made the mistake of ordering flowers through its website. I never signed up (hence, spam), and I've clicked "unsubscribe" on multiple emails. All to no avail.

Perhaps I can send a simple direct message on Twitter? Nope! The "primary" Twitter handle directs customers to the customer service Twitter account. That account still uses outdated techniques, such as requiring customers to email, or follow the account so the customer can san a direct message. 

I won’t be ordering from that company anytime soon. (Side note, if your company uses Twitter, make sure your account is set up to allow customers to send you a direct message without following you, like mine.)

In reality, this extra effort might add an additional minute or two to the interaction. That's really not too much, but it's the perceived waste that really annoys us.

The solution here is simple. Make it as easy as possible for customers to contact your company. If you’re having difficulty getting support to make necessary changes, ask your executives contact your company through the same channels your customers use. That should get their attention.


So many customer service situations can be solved or ruined based on the perceived friendliness of the employee. 

A restaurant meal can become "an amazing experience" or the "worst meal ever," depending on the rapport the server can develop with their guests.

A retail shopper can become "a customer for life" or vow to "never go back," based on the retail associate's ability to listen carefully to the customers' needs.

A cable company can ensure a problem is "quickly solved" or deliver "nightmare customer service" based on the technician's ability to solve a problem and make customers feel okay in the process.

Yet getting employees to be friendly isn't as simple as demanding or expecting it from the people who report to us. They need a work environment where they can actually be happy. They want to feel respected, and support products and services that make them proud.

And when they don't feel great, acting friendly can be incredibly difficult.


You can see an example of the invisible rope prank in this short video. It's a great example of how perception can alter the way we see reality.

Look for invisible ropes in your own organization. A sure sign is when customers complain about something unreasonable or their complaint seems untrue. That's often an indicator that an invisible rope tripped them up somewhere along their customer journey.

Another solution is improving your ability to set clear expectations. You can identify some situations with this short video.

Lessons from The Overlook: Trust, But Verify

Note: Lessons from The Overlook is a monthly update on lessons learned from owning a vacation rental property in the Southern California mountain town of Idyllwild. It's a hands-on opportunity to apply some of the techniques I advise my clients to use. You can find past updates here.

It's sometimes tempting to dismiss problems when you find an easy explanation.

A few months ago, I received a call from the water department. The water meter reading for The Overlook was unusually high. Even worse, it appeared the meter was running when an employee took the reading.

The news wasn't initially too concerning. I had gotten the same call after the last billing period, only to discover the culprit was an error reading the meter. So perhaps another mistake had happened.

I also wasn't too worried about the meter running. The meter reader had noticed lights were on at The Overlook, and I verified with our property manager that a cleaning crew was onsite prepping the cabin for our next guests.

It seemed like the problem had been solved, but there was a nagging doubt in the back of my mind. What if there really was an issue?

In business, we often rely on others to get things done. It's important to trust our employees, colleagues, vendors, and contractors to do what they say they will do. It's equally important to verify it gets done.

This is the third time the coffee table needed a repair.

This is the third time the coffee table needed a repair.

The Broken Coffee Table

One of the services our property manager provides is inspecting The Overlook before and after guests stay with us.

The pre-arrival inspection is to make sure the cabin has been properly cleaned and everything is in good working condition. The post-departure inspection is intended to look for any potential issues, such as this broken coffee table. The guests had somehow broken the face off of the drawer (how, I have no idea) and did not report it. They simply left the broken piece for someone to find.

This is a trust, but verify system.

Our property manager generally trusts the cabin is fully cleaned and in good condition, but a final inspection just before guests arrive verifies it truly is. Likewise, our property manager generally trusts that guests will share any issues or concerns, but an inspection can sometimes reveal an unreported problem.

A Slow Leak

Let’s go back to our water issue. The water department re-checked the meter reading, just like last month. This time it was correct. We had somehow used four times as much water this billing period as we normally do. 

Two of our toilets had recently been repaired. When I got the call from the water department, I quickly contacted our property manager and asked her to check on the cabin. In particular, I asked her to check out the toilets. Trust, but verify.

It's fortunate she did. One of the toilets had a small leak in the tank that caused it to constantly run, but the leak was so small you could easily miss it. The problem was immediately fixed once it was identified.

Set Up a Verification System

Managers have become so afraid of the dreaded micromanagement that they go too far in the opposite direction. They delegate without any follow-up.

Verifying work isn't micromanagement, it's validation. You can praise people when work is done correctly while having the peace of mind that everything is okay. And when something goes wrong, you have the opportunity to give feedback and help your team make any necessary corrections.

We have an inspection checklist we use each time we visit The Overlook. The cabin is a two hour drive from my home, but I try to go at least once every six weeks. Most of the time, I’m simply verifying our property manager is doing a terrific job maintaining the cabin and my feedback is, “The cabin looks great!”

However, there’s always something to improve or repair, and it’s easy for one person to miss something.

That’s why our checklist covers quite the gamut, from checking for leaks, looking for burned out light bulbs, checking dishes and glasses for damage, and making sure the furniture is in good condition. There are also preventative maintenance items, such as changing the furnace filter and treating the septic tank.

I did an extra inspection of the plumbing system the next time I visited after the toilet leak. The toilet appeared to be in good working condition, but I discovered some other issues. Pipes can freeze during the cold mountain winters, and I found two places where exposed pipes were uninsulated. 

This one was on me. I thought I had insulated all of the exposed piping, but I clearly missed a couple of places. The lesson here is trust, but verify is helpful even with your own work. Having a system in place, even a simple checklist, can help you do that.

How Lyft Drivers Provide Great Service Without Training

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I started using Lyft about 18 months ago.

One thing that immediately surprised me was how consistently positive my rides have been. Drivers are almost unfailingly friendly and courteous. We often have a conversation that makes the ride go faster—something that rarely happened in all my years of riding in taxis.

I wanted to see if my experience was unique, so I posed a question on LinkedIn to ask people about their experience using services like Lyft, Uber, and Grubhub that rely on independent gig workers. Most people felt service quality was good, though somewhat inconsistent from city to city. 

Which leads to a big question. How do companies provide outstanding customer service without giving their service providers any formal training?

I took a closer look at Lyft, since I'm a big fan. What I found was the company shares several key attributes with the customer-focused companies I profiled in The Service Culture Handbook.

Image courtesy of Lyft.

Image courtesy of Lyft.


Every driver has their own story. 

Some are retirees, making extra income to pay for their next trip or just keeping busy for a few hours a day. Others are putting themselves through school. Many use Lyft to supplement what they earn from a full time job.

A driver in Dallas told me about his plans to become a music producer. He was driving for Lyft to make enough money to get his business off the ground. One of his idols was Shark Tank's Daymond John, and we talked about the power of John's entrepreneurial message. Coincidentally, I had just finished reading John's incredible book, The Power of Broke, so I gave it to my driver.

I’ve never started an impromptu book club in a taxi.

The thing that unifies all these drivers is a clear purpose. They share a sense of personal ownership, no matter what their reason for driving. Lyft promotes the vision, Drive toward what matters to you on its website. The website features several video profiles of drivers' stories like this one of Lamont, who wants to travel the world.

A team lead on Lyft's customer support team shared some additional insight on the Lyft culture with me. "I think our secret is that Lyft's platform attracts like-minded people from the get go. Our core values embody the principals of inclusion and celebrate diversity. Our drivers believe in those same core values and, in return, show it through the service they provide to passengers."


There are some unusual features in Lyft's feedback system that help promote great service.

Passengers are asked to rate their driver on a scale of 1-5 stars at the end of each ride. One thing that stands out is the way Lyft defines the scale:

5 stars means the ride was great and met Lyft standards. Anything lower than 5 indicates that you were unhappy with the ride, so we want to know why! Use the comment box in the app after the ride to leave feedback.

These ratings contribute to the driver's overall rating. Consistently low ratings put drivers at risk of deactivation, and Lyft suggests drivers aim for an average of 4.8.

Having a scoreboard gives drivers natural motivation to earn good ratings. The rating is an average of the driver's last 100 rides, so drivers know that each ride can have an impact on their score. Passengers can leave additional feedback, and drivers get a weekly summary of that, too.

Passengers also see a driver's rating when they request a ride are matched with someone through the app. Seeing a high rating (typically 4.7-4.9) naturally primes the customer to expect good service. This is a psychological trick where our expectations are likely to become self-fulfilling. If we think service will be good, we’ll probably think it’s good.

Another unusual feature is drivers also rate passengers. Mutual ratings tend to promote better service perceptions. For example, a study from Boston University on vacation rental ratings discovered that when customers and service providers rate each other, ratings tend to go up. There’s also a practical reason for people to be good Lyft customers—a low passenger on Lyft rating can make it more difficult for you to get matched with a driver when you request a ride.


An excellent product makes customer service so much easier.

The app generally works very well. I've used it to get rides from airports, hotels, office buildings, and restaurants. Wait times are typically minimal, the prices are very reasonable, and the automatic payment process is easy.

The few times I've had a small issue, such as the driver arriving at the wrong pick-up location, the driver was almost always knowledgeable enough about the app to make suggestions to improve my experience.

One time, I was charged a no-show fee even though I was standing in the correct location and the driver never appeared. A quick message to customer service cleared that up immediately.

In fact, I've found Lyft's customer service team to be very helpful and empowered the few times I've needed them for something. While it's best to avoid problems, having the support you need one something goes wrong can be the difference between an angry or a loyal customer.


There's a lesson here for internal teams.

Customer service leaders tend to over value the importance of training. As a training professional, I'd like nothing better than for training to solve every problem. But the reality is there's more to great service.

Lyft delivers consistently great service with a strong culture, consistent feedback, and a good product.

Why You Need to Analyze Survey Comments

I'm putting the finishing touches on the second edition of my book, Getting Service Right. The book was originally called Service Failure, and I've now updated both the title and some of the research.

The cover is one of the most important sales tools for a book, so I worked with Anne Likes Red to come up with a few designs. I then launched a survey to ask readers for their feedback on three cover options. The survey was up for just a few days and a 135 people responded.

Here were the results:

Option A (28%)


Option B (52%)

Option C (20%)

Picking cover option B should be a no-brainer, right? After all, more than half of all survey respondents picked that option.

Without qualitative information, I might have made that mistake. Fortunately, I also included a comment field in the survey. When you analyze the comments to learn why someone chose a particular option, a new pattern emerges.

Searching for Themes

I recently hosted a webinar with Alyona Medelyan, CEO of the customer insight firm Thematic. Medelyan brought actual client data to reveal some interesting insights that a survey score alone wouldn’t show:

  • A cable company found customers with modem issues were impacting overall NPS by -2 points.

  • Another company discovered one variable that caused customers to spend $140 more per year.

  • An airline learned passengers were 4x angrier about missed connections than delayed flights.

The point Medelyan made is we usually get deeper, more actionable insights when we analyze the comments and not just the scores. So I applied this concept to my book cover survey and found two significant themes contained in the comments.

The first was quite a few people chose B because they liked the subtitle below the title better than the way it was shown in option A and C. So it wasn't just the color that's drove people to option B.

The second theme was quite a few people who selected option B mentioned they liked the title arrangement of option B, but preferred the color of option A. There were even a handful who picked B but mentioned they liked the color on option C best.

Suddenly option B isn't such a clear and convincing winner. Here's what happened when I revised the survey results to account for color choice alone:

Option A (40%)

Option B (39%)

Option C (21%)

Now I have two insights:

  • People prefer the blue cover shown option A

  • People like the title arrangement in option B

Keep in mind I only made adjustments where respondents were explicit in their survey comments. If someone didn't explain why they chose B, they may have done it for the title arrangement, the color, or pure whimsy.

Making a Final Decision

I did a similar survey with my last two book covers, and both times I ended up choosing elements from different options. I did the same thing this time.

Going with option B's title arrangement was a pretty easy decision. There were numerous comments describing option B as the preference without any support for the layout of options A and C.

I ultimately chose the blue color from option A. 

Several survey comments mentioned color theory, and my friend Jim even shared this helpful resource from Quick Sprout. According to the guide, the color blue symbolizes tranquilty and peace and has more positive associations across various cultures than purple and green.

The kicker is the blue is my personal preference. I really like it, and it's important for an author to really like the cover of their book! Here's the final cover:

It was also important to consider how the cover will look when shown together with my other books on Amazon, in a bookstore, or at a trade show. Here's how it will look displayed next to my other books:

Take Action

You can gain so much more from a survey if you combine the fixed choices (ex: option A, B, or C) with comments. Try analyzing one of your own surveys to see what hidden insight is revealed.

You’ll find a lot of simple analysis techniques in the webinar with Alyona Medelyan from Thematic.

You can also get more help with your survey on this survey resource page.

The Police Interrogation Technique That Calms Angry Customers

You've probably seen the good cop, bad cop technique in the movies.

A suspect is interrogated by two cops. The first one, the bad cop, does their best to intimidate the suspect. They yell, threaten, and generally act like a jerk. Then the good cop intervenes and appears to defend the suspect. The good cop acts like they're on the suspect's side, and suddenly the suspect spills the beans. 

It's a neat trick that can actually work. And there's research that shows us how to use this technique when serving an angry customer.

With a little modification, of course.

Police officer interrogating a suspect.

Startled Into Compliance

Imagine you were approached by a student in a crowded market who asked you to spend five minutes to fill out a questionnaire for a school project. Would you help them?

I did this multiple times myself for projects in college, and it can be tough work. Researchers in Poland conducted an experiment where just 30 percent of people agreed to assist the student. 

But they increased that number to 56 percent with a second group of participants by adding a new element.

Immediately before encountering the student, participants in the second group were grabbed by the shoulder as they walked through the doorway. The startled people would turn around and see someone wearing dark glasses and carrying a white cane, giving the impression the person who grabbed them was blind. The blind person simply said, "Excuse me." Once the subject realized being grabbed was a mistake, they would turn around and keep walking, where the student would then approach them a few steps later.

Why did this nearly double the amount of people who complied with the student's request?

Psychologists have found that a rapid seesawing of emotions from an extreme negative  to sudden relief makes people more compliant. In the crowded market experiment, the fear of being grabbed by an unseen person quickly turns into relief when the subject sees someone they think is a blind person.

In police interrogations, the good cop, bad cop technique relies on the same mechanism. The bad cop incites extreme negative emotions and then the good cop brings sudden relief by intervening and seemingly getting the bad cop to back off.

Using the Technique in Customer Service

There's an obvious modification here. I'm in no way suggesting that you partner with a colleague and one of you berates the angry customer before the other steps in to smooth things over.

The modification is using this technique when a customer is already riled up at you. Whether or not you like it, you're the "bad cop" in the eyes of a customer who is really angry and perceives that you're part of the problem.

So all you need to do now is introduce someone else to take over and bring relief.

It could be a supervisor, but you could also turn to a colleague. What matters is the new person should appear empathetic to the customer and try to make the customer feel they're on their side. 

In my experience, this often brings a sense of relief that immediately helps the customer calm down.

Make no mistake, this is an advanced technique. For many of us, the natural instinct is to avoid transferring an angry customer to a colleague or supervisor. There are a number of reasons for this:

  • It's a matter of pride, and can feel like failure.

  • A supervisor or colleague may get agitated with us for transferring the customer.

  • A supervisor may not be available and a colleague may not seem sufficient.

The key here is being able to swallow your pride and politely offer to connect the customer with someone who is "better able to assist them." Only you and your coworker will know what you're really doing.

Take Action

I've seen this technique work many times as a frontline employee, as a supervisor, and as a customer waiting in line observing another interaction. More often than not, the customer mysteriously calms down as soon as a new person takes up the interaction.

My advice to you is to try your own experiment. The next time you realize a customer has designated you as the "bad cop," try bringing in a colleague or supervisor to take over the interaction and bring some relief.

Check out my new book, Getting Service Right, for even more solutions to counterintuitive and unusual customer service challenges.