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May 2022


Sued because of a bad customer experience

This morning I had a rare opportunity to sit down at the breakfast table with my 17 year old daughter and catch up, just the two of us before anyone else awoke.  She surprised me with her perception of what makes a good customer experience!

She told me of her experience in trying to find an outdoor guide service willing to take a group of teenage Venturers ice climbing in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Together we’d identified a handful of guide services and she’d called them to find out which ones were capable and qualified to take a large group of youth. She told me, “Dad, those that were positive and encouraging about my interest in doing something new and exciting were the ones that I wanted to sign up with right away.  Those that I felt looked down at me… I didn’t want to have anything to do with them.”

In just a few moments on the phone, she instinctually knew which companies might get her business and very clearly which ones would NOT make her short list.

I’m reminded of Malcolm Gladwell’s book, “Blink” where he described the research of Wendy Levinson & Nalini Ambady that discovered accurate predictors of physicians that were more likely to be sued.  The researchers recorded hundreds of conversations between physicians and their patients.  Roughly half of the doctors in the sample had never been sued and the other half had been sued at least twice.  The researchers filtered the high-frequency sounds from audio clips of doctor-patient interaction so the words were unintelligible. Independent judges listened to a mere 40 seconds of audio and rated them according to four factors:

  1. Warmth
  2. Hostility
  3. Dominance
  4. Anxiousness

These judges knew nothing about the doctor’s skill levels, yet by listening for these factors they could identify with uncanny accuracy which surgeons in the study had been sued and which ones hadn’t.

The differences between the two groups were astonishingly simple, yet the consequences painful and dramatic.  The surgeons who had never been sued spent on average a mere three minutes longer with each patient.  They were more likely to make “orienting” comments such as, “First I’ll examine you, and then we’ll talk the problem over” or “I will leave time for your questions.”  They were more likely to engage in active listening.  There was no difference in the amount or quality of information provided.  The difference was nearly entirely in how they talked to their patients.

It is fascinating that these surgeons were sued not because of malpractice or incompetence, but by and large they were sued because of their demeanor.

They were sued because of a bad experience.

Think about all the interactions that a customer has with your business. What is the difference between a superb customer experience, and a customer ready to leave or worse yet, ready to sue your company?

Assuming that your products and services are roughly equivalent to your competitors, I postulate that the driver of your sales or your latest customer satisfaction scores is less about whether not you have a customer self service line, technologically superior products or other technology.  It is more about the demeanor of your call center reps, your salesperson, or even perhaps your own demeanor in dealing with customer issues.

Listen to your customer facing conversations-those between your sales, service, marketing, and even your billing departments and your customers.  Which of these do you hear?

  1. Warmth
  2. Hostility
  3. Dominance
  4. Anxiousness

Ensure that customers aren’t lost because someone on the phone is trying to prove something.  Listen for “orienting” language used to set customer expectations, minimize surprises, and prevent failed assumptions.

Is it worth spending an extra three minutes to ensure the customer is taken care of properly?  Is three minutes worth it to you if you can solidify a relationship and avoid a lost customer or even a lawsuit?

Like my daughter, your customers are unconsciously making emotional judgments about you every time they interact with you.  They make purchase decisions based on these sometimes irrational emotions, not on logic.  For many it won’t matter one whit that your product is technologically superior.  It WILL matter, however, how they feel they’ve been treated after they hang up the phone or shoo the salesperson out of their office.  Sometimes a better customer experience can even be had for free.