Exceptional customer service is critical to keeping your business humming. Getting there can involve all kinds of strategies, but the real key is to grasp that most difficult customer- service experiences involve reactance theory. Wrap your head around this one principle and you might see your customers singing your praises.

The basic idea.

Reactance theory is a psychological concept developed by American psychologist Jack Brehm way back in 1966. The basic idea is that when you make people feel restricted in some way, they want to rebel against that restriction because they feel like you're threatening their freedom and autonomy. It connects to reverse psychology in that, if you tell someone they can't or shouldn't do something, they'll feel compelled to try to do it.

Connecting reactance theory and service.

When a company representative tells a customer what they can't or have to do--for example, you can't send your order back or you have to call 1-800-BAD-HELP--reactance theory kicks in and makes the customer defensive. They feel like you're trying to make yourself into the big person on the top of the hill, and they're threatened by the possibility they don't have any power or authority. The more you try to lay down the law by stating policies or procedures, the worse their offense and fear becomes and the more they want to challenge you.

So why do so many companies fall into bad service?

Rules and processes give companies a way to script responses and standardize service. That scripting holds the promise of clarity and efficiency. Companies desperately want those elements because in this busy, tech-centric world, customers want fast responses and solutions. If a business can offer that, they can save money and win loyalty in one swoop.

What you can do.

Understanding that customers want equality and to be heard as much as they want fast service, here's how you can avoid triggering the negative ramifications of reactance theory when responding to customer complaints or requests.

1. Treat the customer like they're an expert. 

The customer is the one who knows what's wrong, what goal they're after, and the details you need to find a solution. So right from the start, ask for information in a way that makes them feel empowered. For example, instead of saying, "What can I help you with today?", try "What issue would you like to resolve today?"

2. Be patient and take the time to empathize.

Remember, people just want to be acknowledged. They're less likely to feel threatened by any can'ts or have-tos if you show you get what they're feeling. For example, if they say they're frustrated, you could say something like, "I'd feel exactly the same way. Let's see if we can..." or "Yep, I hear you--it reminds me of when I..." or "Yeah, this kind of stuff is always such a pain for me too." Even if they don't explicitly state their feelings, you can say something such as "I can see how that would be really frustrating [disappointing, annoying, etc.]."

3. Eliminate the "but."

In an effort to focus on the positive, companies often tell their representatives to say something like "I can't do x, but I can..." But this format puts what the customer won't get first, which actually can make it harder for the customer not to focus on the restriction or perceived loss. So skip the preface! Just start with "I'd love to do x for you... so you can [customer goal]" or "We can..."

4. Offer options.

People feel more in control when they have a choice and get to make a decision. So let's say they can't buy what they're looking for in their local store. Don't just say, "I'm sorry, we don't have that in stock." That's a dead end. Say something like, "Would you like me to help you find it on our website or send you an email alert when our inventory changes?"

5. Stop talking about how committed you are.

Even if you really want to bend over backward for your customer, if you mix statements about commitment with statements that say what the customer's not allowed to do, the customer is going to see your "commitment" as a farce, corporate jargon, just a way to save face, or all talk and no action. They think, "If you were really committed, I'd be able to/you'd..." Instead, focus on what the customer is asking for and ask them if you can give their feedback to your managers. Be upfront about where you are, including difficulties, and communicate your immediate operational plans.

Customer service is challenging enough from the logistics standpoint. There's no need to make it harder by ignoring the fact that people will guard the freedom they feel entitled to. Also, no two customers or situations are exactly the same, so you have to be willing to talk on the fly. Just imagine what you'd want if you were on the other side of the call and let honesty replace your canned response as much as you can.