Pavlov's Customer Service Reps

Pavlov’s Customer Service Reps

We are human beings first and customer facing professionals second.

We are subject to the same psychological processes on the job as we are off. We carry with us the same baggage and perceptions — and the same conditioned responses.

On the job, we generally do a better job of regulating these responses — but they are there nonetheless.

Of course, we do not just bring our psychological triggers with us to work. They are created on the job as well. Our conditioning is not a static system but a dynamic process continually evolving and devolving as we experience more things, both in and out of the workplace.

Pavlov and Those Slobbery Dogs

In the early 1900’s, Ivan Pavlov, a Russian physiologist (not psychologist) accidentally discovered the idea of conditioned responses. Pavlov's Customer Service Reps

Pavlov was studying salivation in dogs in response to being fed when he noticed that the dogs would salivate prior to being presented the food when something happened that they associated with being fed — for instance, a lab assistant entering the room (or, later, a bell being rung).

Salivating in response to food is hard-wired in the dogs — it is an unconditioned stimulus and an unconditioned response. The lab assistant or bell is a neutral stimulus that the dogs learned to associate with food, the unconditioned stimulus. This association is called a conditioned response.

This process of rapid conditioning served us well in a world where being eaten by tigers was a real threat; in modern life, however, it more often than not does us a disservice.

A Ringing Bell Doesn’t Always Mean Dinner

Sure, we still need to learn that stoves are hot and that when the earth shakes beneath our feet we might be in danger. But in modern, developed society, threats to our existence are few and far between. The rapid way in which our brains associate stimulus can do a disservice to us in our human relations, and in our customer relations.

Tell me if you’ve ever head something similar to this from a family member or spouse:

“You do ____ all the time.”

Now, how many times have you heard this when you’ve only done ____ once or twice.

People can quickly associate that because X happened once, it happens all of the time. They can also associate that because X happened once it means Y.

Here are some examples of how conditioned responses can manifest themselves in our organizations:

  • “Looks like that lunatic customer from Thursday night is back. Don’t make eye contact or ask to help her, maybe she’ll leave.”
  • “I worked the night shift last week and, wow, are the nighttime customers crazy. I’m never covering for anyone on the night shift again.”
  • Ma’am, I’ve got you setup in the computer, but to be honest, our finance department screws up most of these transfers, so if they do just call this number and someone will fix it for you.

The Pavlov Problem in Organizations

As you can see from the examples above, our conditioned responses can often be inaccurate or at least misleading. Whether it is a customer having a bad night, a particularly difficult shift, or one mistake by the finance department, people can easily take one moment and create a rule from it.

In Monday’s post, we discussed the dangers of relying upon anecdotal customer feedback. We used an example of a single complaint about the new store music manifesting itself into a global comment that “customers hate the new music.” This type of generalization has its roots in conditioned responses.

Here are some of the effects of rapid conditioning that manifest themselves in our organizations:

  • Prejudging — This effect was captured in the classic Julia Roberts on Rodeo Drive scene from the movie Pretty Woman. Associating that people who act a certain way or dress a certain way will always behave a certain way.
  • Negative Expectations — An extension of prejudging customers is expecting a negative experience. This expectation can easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy. When you go into an interaction expecting it to be negative in tone, guess what happens?
  • Defensiveness — That’s what happens. If you are expecting a negative encounter, your guard will be up. You will be defensive, and we all know how well human interactions go when one person is on the defensive.

What can leaders do to correct this dynamic? Obviously, we cannot change human biology, so we must find ways to manage it.

One quick tip: Try arresting the conditioning process before it becomes too engrained.

Have a team member who thinks the customers on the night shift are awful? Show them the data that shows that the night shift has higher sales per hour than any other shift. Then have your team leader assign the person to take care of some of the company’s best night shift regulars.

Try to replace the negative associations with positive ones.

Through the use of awareness and self-analysis, you can often help team members break bad conditioning and replace disempowering associations with more constructive associations.

But don’t take it from me. I still come running when I hear a dinner bell.


By Adam Toporek. Adam Toporek is an internationally recognized customer service expert, keynote speaker, and workshop leader. He is the author of Be Your Customer's Hero: Real-World Tips & Techniques for the Service Front Lines (2015), as well as the founder of the popular Customers That Stick® blog and co-host of the Crack the Customer Code podcast.

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