My Customer Service Philosophy: Lessons from a Ten Year Old

I was asked recently what my customer service philosophy is. I responded with this:

The customer isn’t always right but they’re usually not wrong.

What do I mean by that?

I mean that some behavior is simply unacceptable. Customers don’t have the right to abuse staff, to expect preferential treatment, to demand we make exceptions just for them. Basic human decency and respect are still required. I won’t tolerate threats to the safety of staff members.

However, in my experience, when someone is acting out there’s usually a reason for it. There’s usually a need or a want that isn’t being met—and that need or want is usually legitimate. Problematic behavior arises when someone can’t figure out how to get what they need or want. And while the behavior may be a problem, this underlying reason can be productively addressed.

A ten year old boy taught me this lesson.

For a few summers back in high school and college, I had a part-time job working as a supervisor at a youth sports camp. The camp was for kids ages 9-18, and I was one of two people responsible for the 9-11 year old group. One summer, we had a kid who was a bit of problem: he’d act out, get disruptive. He wasn’t a bad kid—he didn’t bully or hurt anyone—but he’d get loud and interrupt people and disrupt activities.

So, it was maybe the third time we had to report him to administration and it was looking like he was going to be kicked out of camp. The thing is, I didn’t want to kick him out. As problematic as he was, he wasn’t a bad kid. I walked him to the camp offices and we were waiting to talk to the director, and I just asked him point blank:

“Why do you keep doing this?”

He mumbled something about he just gets frustrated and he can’t help it.

I asked him what’s so frustrating.

He said, “The other kids never listen to me, they never include me in their groups. I feel like they’re always ignoring me.”

“You do these disruptive things because you want the other kids to start including you?”

“… yes…”

“Did it work?”

“… no…”

“Has it ever worked? Has acting out like this ever gotten other kids to start including you in things?”

“… no…”

“So why do you keep doing it if you know it doesn’t work?”

The look on his face when I said this made clear to me something rather complicated: it had never occurred to him to see his actions as separate from his wants. This kid saw no difference between what he wanted and how he acted because of what he wanted. Every time he got in trouble for his actions, he thought he was being punished for wanting what he wanted. He thought he was a bad kid for wanting the other kids to pay attention to him.

He wasn’t a bad kid. And there was nothing wrong with what he wanted. There’s not even anything wrong with trying to get what he wanted. It’s only that his specific actions were unacceptable.

To be clear: I had no idea what I was doing with this kid. I had no real training or education in child psychology or anything like that. I don’t think I actually succeeded in helping him very much. I suspect he was a bit too young to grapple with his own emotions in quite this way.

But I can say that we figured out how to work together more productively. We made a deal that he’d stop acting out so much and I’d do my best to make sure he got included in things with his fellow campers. He wasn’t exactly an angel from there on out, but I never had to take him to the office again for the rest of the summer.

I’ve worked many customer service jobs in the years since, always dealing with adults, and it amazes me how often this same situation comes up:

Someone wants or needs something—they can’t get it—they act out.

The behavior is a problem. But if you can get behind the behavior to address the want or need directly, it opens a path toward resolution. It sets the stage for a better relationship.

Hopefully. Best case scenario.

Sometimes people are just horrid—selfish, entitled, rude, abusive. Sometimes the behavior is so egregious that there must be consequences no matter what underlying need or want drives it.

As someone responsible for customer service, my job is try and find the most beneficial outcome I can. If I go into an interaction with a problematic customer assuming they’re just being horrid, then I leave myself no options to forge a good outcome. It stops the interaction before it starts.

If I assume there’s a legitimate need or want driving the problematic behavior, then I can do my best to address it. By addressing the need directly—by acknowledging the legitimacy of it—the interaction between us becomes more productive, calmer, and more mutually respectful. That allows for a better outcome, even if I can’t give them what they need.

Or maybe they’ll continue to show themselves selfish and unreasonable and horrid. In that case, I can then deal with them accordingly.

But usually there’s something behind the behavior that I can connect to. Most of the time, that leads to better outcomes than only focusing on the behavior.

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