Are You Customer Service Reps Eating the Marshmallow | Picture of Marshmallow | Walter Mischel's Marshmallow Experiment

Are Your Customer Service Reps Eating the Marshmallow?

In yesterday’s Monday Motivation, a Monday email sent to subscribers to our eNewsletter The Customer Conversation, we spoke about Walter Mischel’s famous  experiment on self control and delayed gratification in children. Here is part of the email:

Are You Customer Service Reps Eating the Marshmallow | Picture of Marshmallow | Walter Mischel's Marshmallow ExperimentResearcher Walter Mischel at Stanford devised an ingenious experience back in the Sixties to test self control and the ability to delay gratification in children. He put a marshmallow in front of a child and told them they could either eat the marshmallow or wait up to 20 minutes and then get two marshmallows. Most kids couldn’t do it.

However, a few could, and the researchers found something interesting about those who could: later in life, they seemed more successful, across every metric measured, than those who could not delay gratification. Those who gave in quickly…

  • Got lower S.A.T. Scores
  • Struggled in stressful situations
  • Had trouble paying attention
  • Had difficulty maintaining friendships

Easy Service Marshmallows

In Mischel’s study, those who could delay gratification, got higher rewards in the end. Unfortunately, frontline service reps take the one, easy marshmallow too often and cost organizations and themselves the two marshmallows that would follow from delaying gratification.

In customer service, this dynamic occurs in a number of ways. For instance, it is practiced by the frontline rep who…

  • Gives a comp or refund early to fix a problem but never addresses the underlying issue,
  • Doesn’t take the extra time to document a service issue so that the next rep will have the whole story, or
  • Tells the customer that they’re unable to accommodate their request without taking the time to tell them what they can do

In customer service, easy marshmallows are all around. It’s easy to offer an apology and a sincere word to get you through the moment, without putting forth the effort to uncover issues beneath the surface or (in an act requiring even more self discipline) attempting to preempt or forward resolve future issues.

Two-Marshmallow Thinking

What can organizational leaders do to encourage two-marshmallow thinking?

First, encourage reps to ask open-ended questions, to care about understanding the customer and not just resolving the issue at hand.

Second, make sure operational metrics are not encouraging one-marshmallow thinking. For example, a call center that blindly focuses on first contact resolution to the exclusion of everything else will generally discourage any attempt to uncover other issues or to try to preempt future issues. The drive to check the “resolved” box is too strong.

In customer service, it’s always easiest to eat the marshmallow on the table in front of us; it’s just rarely the way to get the biggest payoff.


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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