If You’re Not Following this Rule, You’re Not Delivering Excellent Service

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Jess Graham, M.S.

bSci21 Contributing Writer

As the service manager for a customer-facing organization, I have one rule in my team that we all follow (no matter how difficult):

Don’t blame the customer!

Every single day, professionals in service roles who are faced with an issue, frustration, or lack of success, cite customer behavior as the one and only cause. You may have experienced this yourself if you’ve said or heard the following phrases in your workplace:

“They should have read my email.”

“They don’t follow my instructions.”

“Things would be easier if they would just…”

“We would have had more success if only they had…”

While it may be hard to accept for those of us who care deeply about the customers we serve, this type of language indicates that we may be blaming the customer. These statements may be factual, and they may feel satisfying to say, but blaming the customer only carries negative consequences for a business. It can:

  • Devalue your service
  • Be a barrier to problem solving, preventing improvement
  • Create a culture of resentment with employees
  • Drive customers elsewhere

What do to instead

Instead of focusing on and thinking about the list of grievances we have about what our customers do, don’t do, should be doing, or the things that frustrate us about them, we could be spending that time and energy thinking about how to improve our services to give them a better experience. Otherwise we get stuck in the blame-game, and without taking action to make things better, we are helpless.

The trick is that while we can’t control our customers’ behavior, we can influence their behavior through our own actions to get a better outcome. There is an oft-cited figure from DuPont safety research that 96% of incidents have a behavioral contributor. In my experience in Service Management, this is absolutely the case with customer service – if the customer has a negative experience, complains, or leaves, there is behavior that could have been done differently to get a better result. They didn’t like the new software? Well someone developed it (behavior), approved it (behavior), launched it (behavior), and trained the customers on it (behavior). Surely it’s worth exploring where along the line the customer experience could have been improved.

Seek first to understand

By using some behavioral science principles, we can better understand and influence customer behavior. The ABC Model (Antecedent-Behavior-Consequence) helps us to understand why customers are doing/not doing what we want. If you’re prompting or requesting an action from a customer (Antecedent), and it’s reinforcing for them to engage in that action (Consequences), then they’ll be likely to do so. Generally speaking, if something is easy to understand, low effort, quick, and convenient, they will be highly likely to engage.

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If we send a customer an email that’s multiple lines of text, using overly syllabic and jargon-filled language, are they likely to read it? Would they be likely to spend time trying to learn a new system that’s cumbersome and confusing, when the standard for a good UX is ‘one click’ nowadays? It’s not because they are lazy, or don’t care, it’s just science, plain and simple. If they aren’t doing it, it’s because engaging in the requested behaviors is just not reinforcing. Understanding the contingencies at play will help us determine when and how to make our Antecedents clearer and more effective, and when to build more reinforcing Consequences into the process. By regularly analyzing these two improvement areas, we can create a situation where the customer is happy to engage with us.

Bring in the reinforcement

Once we know where the Antecedent and Consequence gaps are, we can begin to engineer reinforcement into the process or request. The best way to approach this is to consider Herrnstein’s Hyperbola (a.k.a. Matching Law). This research on behavior has demonstrated that the amount of effort elicited matches the amount of reinforcement available – and if there is more reinforcement for doing something other than what you want them to be doing, that’s what they’re more likely to do.

Think of this: if you had 2 different Starbucks on your way to work, and one of them served you luke-warm coffee 10% of the time, it might not seem like a big customer service fail – but which one do you think you would choose to get your latte from? We will always put our effort, time and dollars into the actions we perceive will result in a positive outcome. The customer always has a choice to engage in the behaviors we want, to pay for a service or not, or to go elsewhere completely, so we are obligated to make engaging with our services as reinforcing as possible.

Problem Solving Starters

Of course there will always be situations where there are misses, issues, or undesired customer behavior. In these scenarios, we can avoid customer-blaming by using a healthy problem solving focus. Instead of saying “They…”, as yourself questions about “I/we”:

  • “What could we have done differently to get a better result?”
  • “What do I know about this situation/individual that could give me clues why this didn’t work?”
  • “What can we learn from the customer about how to make this process/service more user-friendly?”

Want to become an expert at ‘don’t blame the customer’ behavior? Have each team member track how many times they say or hear a ‘don’t blame the customer’ phrase, and then discuss your numbers at the end of the week. Share a few of the phrases and decide what problem solving phrase could have been used instead, and reinforce those when they happen. Now you’re thinking like a behavior expert!

Do you have any other ideas for improving your customer service?  Let us know in the comments below, and be sure to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!

Recommended Reading:

Daniels, A.C., & Daniels, J.E. (2006). Performance Management: Changing Behavior that Drives Organizational Effectiveness. Performance Management Publications.

Herrnstein, R. J. (1970). On the law of effect. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 13(2), 243–266.


Jess Graham, M.S., is an experienced business person, and formally trained behavior analyst who has been creating results in business through behavioral science for 15 years. She believes everyone deserves to work for, and be served by, businesses that are successful and healthy, and is especially passionate about helping others learn the behavioral technology to make this happen.

Jess has dedicated her career to making a positive impact through influencing workplace culture, leadership development, and service excellence, to affect business results and make a difference in the quality of the lives of employees and their clients. Through applying the science of behavior and continuous improvement, she has contributed to the success of change strategies in a wide range of businesses, including manufacturing, mental health, education and customer service settings. In coaching leaders at all levels, and sharing the science of behavior with thousands of individuals, she has loved seeing firsthand the positive effects of implementing behavior-based strategies in any type of workplace.

She earned her Bachelor of Science in Psychology from Western Michigan University, and Master of Science in Applied Behavior Analysis from Florida State University. After 4 years of living and consulting abroad in Australia, Jess brought her skills and experience back to the corporate sector in the US and is currently enjoying an Organizational Development role in a Fortune Global 100 company. You can contact her at [email protected].

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