Every Day is Saturday

Finding Joy in the Here and Now

The Case for Being Average

on September 17, 2013

L&N customer service

Today I attended a presentation about how to give fantastic customer service.  At the heart of the speaker’s message was the notion that we have to engage our clients on an individual level and treat everyone with whom we come into contact as THE MOST IMPORTANT PERSON EVER!  The speaker was skilled – she knew when to make the audience laugh and when to drive home her points – but I’ve heard the same message from others.  I’ve seen the same video of the gorilla walking through the circle of people bouncing the basketball (spoilers!), and I know the quote “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel” by heart.  It’s a good message, one that all of us should live by, but even as I was trying to pay attention to the presentation I could hear my cynical self (I’ll call her Cynthia) chatting away in my ear:

“You know all this.  This is not new.  Why does everyone act like this is new information?  Doesn’t everybody know this already?”

Cynthia’s a real bitch.  But Cynthia has a point.

If everybody knows that in order to stand out they have to give memorable, emotionally authentic customer service, then why oh why are we STILL talking about the fact that 79% of customers in any industry you care to name only rate their experience as “Average” or lower?  If we all know how to give great customer service, why aren’t we doing it?

OK, I get it, sincerity is hard to fake.  Just kidding – everybody fakes sincerity, which is a waste of time because most people have the emotional intelligence to know when someone is being insincere.  We put up with it because it’s how the whole thing works even when we inwardly yearn for people to mean what they say, to break out of the pack and be extraordinary.  At least, that’s what we say we want.

I have another theory, and you’re not going to like it.  I don’t like it.

My theory is this:  it’s the average people that, on average, get ahead, and that’s why we live in an average world.  I believe that the system is weighted in favor of the “good enough” crowd, the folks who don’t “rock the boat”.  The brilliant people are the disrupters.  Their insistence on constant improvement, their unwillingness to be satisfied, their devotion to excellence – well, frankly, it’s a pain in the ass.  They challenge the status quo, and sometimes the leadership (which are often the same thing).  They make everybody else look bad by comparison.  They blow the curve. They’re the showoffs, the workaholics, the know-it-alls.  And nobody likes an insufferable know-it-all, right?

I’m not saying that there aren’t instances of extraordinary people in customer-facing roles – there are.  But they are the exception, and they’re the ones that get talked about in keynote speeches.  It’s the rest of the crowd who make the exceptions exceptional.   And we, by accepting lethargic service, exacerbate the problem.  We are so desensitized to the crappy way we get treated by the people whose goods and services we are buying that these businesses have come to believe, rightly, that they can treat us like that and still make money. And if anyone inside the organization has the nerve to stand up and say “No!  This is wrong!  We should be better!”, they are silenced.

I also think that many people don’t know the difference between average and extraordinary.  They just can’t see it, so they go with the expected, the nonthreatening.  Exceptional people require those around them to raise their game, and that can be confronting.  Some folks would rather just not have to deal with it.  So they reinforce the average to the surprise and dismay of the exceptional.

I’m also going to say this.  Sometimes there’s not a damn thing you can do to make a customer love you.   I have been in a situation where I know I gave great service, but my client turned on me, and she never, ever told me what I had done to change her from loving me one day to freezing me out the next.  I did something, I must have.  I’ve gone back over every conversation, every interaction, and I know I wasn’t rude or disrespectful or anything that could possibly have justified the instantaneous about-face.  Whatever it was it must have tripped some switch in her own mind, and from that moment on, we were through.  Since she wouldn’t talk about it there was nothing I could do.

In those instances it’s best to fire your customer (even if they fire you first), because you’ll drive yourself crazy trying to please someone who cannot be pleased.  Or pleasing them would require you to behave in a way that isn’t who you want to be.  When this happens it’s confusing and painful and it goes against everything we’re told about how if you give exceptional service you’ll be remembered and people will be loyal to you.  My friends, I am very sorry to say this, but that isn’t always true, and you need to be prepared for the disappointment.  I wasn’t.

So, if being exceptional is going to get us ridiculed, ostracized, and possibly fired, should’t we just be average?  That is the choice we must make, and even though I seem to be railing against average, I understand its allure.  I understand why people choose, daily, to go along with the scheme.  I understand the pressure of wanting to keep your job and your friends and your customers by being as amenable and nonthreatening as possible.  But I can’t help but be sad about it.  What a wonderful world this would be if we all stopped expecting an average life and started demanding an extraordinary one.  The 79% would be amazing, and we’d listen to keynote speakers talk about how to set the other 21% free.

Do I think I’m exceptional?  Yes, sometimes I do.  There is no virtue in false modesty; sometimes I totally rock.  Other times I don’t.  But the only time I truly fail is when I begin to accept the average in myself.

photo credit: mod as hell via photopin cc

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