One evening, after visiting a client on the West Coast, I was sitting in the airport waiting for my late flight home on a particularly rainy night. After a three hour delay, it was no surprise when I heard the announcement that they were cancelling the flight. I groaned and, like everyone else, bolted to the front desk area at the gate to try my luck at rebooking my flight. One spot ahead of me, an overbearing man was yelling relentlessly at the flight attendant behind the desk--berating her, the airline, the weather, and anything else he could think of. I watched, cringing, until he finally exhausted the last of his sentiments, picked up his bag, and went off in a huff. I was up.

I gathered my bags and moved tentatively toward the agent, who was looking down at her monitor--face flushed and angry. She looked up with me with glaring, guarded eyes, surely anticipating another angry, aggressive passenger. I stared back, with empathetic eyes, and said in a quiet tone, "Wow. That was rough. I'm so sorry you had to go through that." Her shoulders softened and she looked back at me with gratitude. I continued, "I feel badly having to ask you what I'm sure everyone is asking you tonight. What are my chances of getting on another flight to New York this evening?" She took my boarding pass and, after a few clicks of her keyboard, I had a new boarding pass for another flight that evening.

I'll never know if I got on a flight that evening because of my empathy toward the gate agent, or for some unrelated reason. But consistently, throughout my experiences as a customer, I have found that the nicer I am, the better service I get.

Michael Schrage, in a recent Harvard Business Review article, suggests that organizations can train their customers to be better customers--and we agree. Even JetBlue recently addressed this in a series of "Jetiquette" videos aimed at helping passengers to think differently about behaviors that caused many air-rage incidents this past year.

But what does it actually take to be a good customer? Let's start with what it takes to be a good customer service representative. In our work at Hospitality Quotient, we teach teams in organizations how to approach customer problems and complaints with a mindset that is conducive to problem-solving. The key is to reduce the "us v. them" feeling that easily arises in a customer service issue. Customers who complain typically assume that they are going to have to fight for what they want. Customer service representatives, similarly, tend to assume that they are going to be yelled at or berated. With each side arriving to the conversation with pent-up anger and a defensive stance, a positive outcome is unlikely.

In working with clients, we develop systems and structure to help foster a genuine mindset of empathy and problem-solving--or as we call it, "finding the yes". By putting themselves in the shoes of a customer and understanding the world from their perspective, customer service providers can usually find a solution to most any problem, even if it's not quite what the customer wanted. This requires a transparency, empathy, and a genuine "on your side" mentality.

Being a good customer is not much different. If you want to get the best out of your customer service transactions, try applying a dose of empathy yourself, as I did with the gate agent. Whether in an airport or in a restaurant, customers who demonstrate an emotional awareness will get to solutions a lot faster with a positive mindset.

In our Union Square Hospitality Group restaurants, our servers often tell us that our customers are nicer than in other restaurants where they have worked. Why? Because cultures that emphasize empathetic, authentic customer service tend to promote empathetic, authentic customer behavior in return. When you demonstrate this attitude to a customer, you're setting the tone for a positive, mutually respectful transaction. By being transparent, you take away the fear and the suspicion that you are withholding something from the customer. Only by being on the other person's side can you expect a positive interaction with a rewarding outcome--regardless of which side of the transaction you start from.



Published on: Jan 28, 2015
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