How Your Pride Is Losing You Customers

September 17, 2011

In customer service, pride is a double-edged sword. Pride in your organization can cause team members to go the extra mile. However, pride of the don’t-disprespect-me variety can cause team members to respond unfavorably to upset customers. When the personal reaction to an unhappy customer trumps the professional reaction, pride has won, and your organization has lost.

As much was we strive to setup customer service systems that proactively create great customer experiences, we will fail our customers on occasion. Sometimes it happens because we failed to deliver, sometimes it happens because of circumstances beyond our control, and sometimes it happens because even flawlessly executed our performance was not to the satisfaction of the customer.

We can be as proactive as we want; there will always be times when we need to react to a dissatisfied customer.

And it is in the reaction to dissatisfied customers that pride becomes a problem.

Way Too Proud to Beg

In many years working with employees and management on customer service, one of the biggest impediments I have seen to giving great reactive service has been the professional’s pride. From a psychological standpoint, most of us have been programmed to take the reactions that are typical of upset customers as disrespect or rudeness. Raised voices, sharp comments, angry ultimatums — all of these reactions are part and parcel of servicing customers, but they are also actions that can provoke a undesirable subconscious response.

Upset customers will push people’s buttons (if you don’t agree, then you’re not in retail). And it is your job as a customer experience professional to un-press those buttons, to react as a person whose job it is to delight the customer and not as a person who needs to buoy their self-esteem by “winning” the argument. If you want to create a world-class experience for your customers, then always remember…

Unless you are the company’s legal counsel, taking crap from customers is your job.

And therein lies the challenge. Personal reactions are natural reactions. However, part of what separates humans from animals is the ability to supplant instinctual reaction with conscious decision making.  As a group, we are able to overcome our reactions, and act within the context of a larger framework. As individuals, some of us are better at it than others.

Why Everyone Is Not Right for Customer Service

The inability of some to depersonalize conflict behaviors is one reason I disagree with the assertion that anyone can be trained to be great at customer service. While I do believe that anyone who has the ability to be a good employee has the ability to deliver a create proactive customer experience (in other words anyone who cares enough to go beyond the bare minimum), when you get into reactive service, particularly into problem management, the subset gets smaller.

Some people just aren’t constituted to handle it well. They cannot detach themselves, and they take the customers’ criticisms personally. They get their back up and being right becomes more important that winning the customer over.

If you win the argument, you almost always lose the customer.

I think the issue of pride in customer service is rarely talked about because it is difficult to address. It’s easy to drop platitudes like always be professional (I do it too), but in my experience, platitudes are not enough to over come basic human emotions and reflexive reactions. You need something stronger than professionalism — you need a mission. A mission to make sure that every customer has a great experience, and a mission to try to right the wrong when that does not occur. To succeed at that mission, team members need the self-awareness to not sabotage their own dedication to the mission with reflexive responses and subconscious defense mechanisms.

Attempting to eliminate pride from the service experience is a challenge. Each individual is different and trying to suss out these traits in the interview process will not always be easy. Like any organizational position, success comes from hiring people with the right temperament for the position and giving them the tools to be successful.

I will discuss techniques for helping customer experience professionals overcome prideful reactions in a future post. For now, when training for customer service, discuss pride openly. Help your team become more self-aware. And then, most importantly, heed your own advice.

So, does pride goeth before a bad customer experience? Have you ever had someone give you bad service because they wanted to be right not helpful? Have you ever delivered service below your own standards because your pride got in the way?

44 thoughts on “How Your Pride Is Losing You Customers”

  1. We can be as proactive as we want; there will always be times when we need to react to a dissatisfied customer.

    And it is in the reaction to dissatisfied customers that pride becomes a problem.

  2. Adam, I wish you’d been in charge of the training department when I did customer service over the telephone. This approach here is much more effective than the “no really, don’t get mad at the customer” stuff I had to listen to over and over. Or the “you’re dealing with people’s money and their health, that is why they are mad so you should understand them etc etc” stuff we got. None of that unpressed my buttons when they would call me names or act rude!

    1. I appreciate that Jenn! That’s a really nice thing to say. 🙂

      I bet that was a tough gig. Doing service over the telephone is often much worse than face-to face. That distance of not looking someone in the eye certainly tends to embolden the disgruntled. And you’re so right, just saying “understand them” is not enough by itself. Just as important is understanding ourselves and how we react.

      Thanks for the view from the trenches!

    2. I worked at a chain pharmacy and we didn’t get any customer service training. In fact, our manager constantly reminded us we were a “team,” with the meaning that the customers were the opposing team! You can imagine the shenanigans–even outright lies–told just to save the pride of some workers.

      1. Oh Shakirah, that is both funny — and a bit depressing. I do like the frame of “the team” for a company, but in all my years I have never heard of the customers being the opposing team. That is terrible. I guess once you have established that as the company’s mindset, customer service is pretty much out the window!

        1. It really was rather sad, especially when dealing with customers coming to be taken care of. I really, genuinely liked my job, but the way it was carried out around me was a bit depressing to the spirits after a little while.

  3. Hiring the right person is so key; however, in the high turnover industries like restaurants sometimes there’s a trade-off just to get bodies. We have all seen people who are very ill-suited for customer service but seem to find their way anyway.

    There is a fine line of how much you can take and I know with my team I would like to think my employee comes first, not the customer. However, there is a tactful way to deal with boorish behavior and if I have to part company with someone who becomes intolerable I will do so. However, I also have the flexibility to move team members around for the right fit as well.

    Sometimes it’s just best to pause and count to five before you respond because the tendency can be to fire right back.

    I will be interested to see your post on ways to deal with these situations. Thanks for sharing, this is so appropriate for my industry.

    1. Hey Bill, No doubt. There is certainly the “abuse exception.” When customers cross that line from upset to abusive, it is time to part ways. I always want to protect our people from those types. Where the line between upset and abusive is — that is definitely a individual choice for each business. But I also think that you have to be able to handle a good deal before it gets to that level. To me, if you believe in service, that’s the job.

      You hit the nail on the head. Counting to five, taking a deep breath, etc. is key. If you are firing right back, you are probably doing so defensively, not helpfully.

      Good to see you! Hope you are dodging the love bugs. They don’t seem as bad this year.

  4. G’Day Adam,
    I agree with you both about pride and who works in customer service. I think that at least part of the answer is tied to the way many companies view customer service staff. It’s seen as asort of “addon” service. It should inform the way you do business.

    My plumbing client, The Clean Plumber, has no customer service specialists. It’s everybody’s job. They aim to provide what they call a “seamless experience” for every customer. From the time the customer phones until the plumber’s completed the work and left the house, the customer must feel that the whole experience is to satisfy their needs. Any employee involved is responsible if they’re in touch with the customer for any reason.

    Incidentally Adam, I’ve sent that article I promised to you at inquiries -at-

    Make sure you have fun

    1. Hey Leon, I couldn’t agree with you more — pretty much everyone is in customer service, no matter what their job is. Customers do not judge the company just by how well the customer service department handles their issues; they judge the company by every interaction they have and how those interactions combine to create their customer experience.

      Thanks for the article! I received it and will get into it asap.

      Appreciate the thoughts as always. Have a great day!

  5. I get bad customer service occasionally because the sales person wants to be right but mainly because as Shakirah said they get zero coaching and are simply shoved out into the bullring.

    The most consistent marvelous service I have received is from Apple Mac. Bearing in mind the dire state of customer service in general today, they are on another planet. With the kind of ‘mission training’ you have talked about they actually see a purpose to their work. Their smiles are genuine not robot-like with eyes that say ‘how many hours left?’

    I have actually asked Apple store workers what Apple puts in the water they drink? And these young, unusually impassioned sales workers have simply said they love their job.


    Then people like me keep going back where we know that nothing we ask for will be too much trouble. And we proselytize on our blogs on their behalf, unpaid:

    I always struggle to understand why companies don’t see the benefit of this strategy in the long run.

    1. Pea, you make a great point about Apple. I just switched to Mac in May. The switch was a challenge but the Apple store employees were very helpful and extremely service oriented. I will say they have a built-in advantage due to the nature of their products, but the reality is that other companies have great products too and they don’t deliver like Apple does. I am curious (though in no way anxious) to see the reputation put to the test when we have the first problems with our Macs.

      Like you said, the service approach really does reap benefits in the long run.

      Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts!

      1. The beauty is, (and forgive me for sounding like I have shares in Apple – I don’t!), if they remain the Apple of MY experience, every trip back will continue to impress you. The other thing is, with Apple products your trips back with problems SHOULD be few and far between.

        Welcome to efficiency and a computer that doesn’t shut down as and when it pleases, downloading things you haven’t asked for for hours!

        1. Well Pea, I’m getting off topic, but it’s funny you mention the crashes with PC’s. That was the number one reason we moved to Mac. We were spending almost an hour a day each rebooting and dealing with locked up computers. I haven’t quite joined the Cult of Mac yet, but I’m definitely starting to sip the Kool-aid. 🙂

  6. My pride when I was 16 years old cost me my job. I was a waitress in a tea room in a quaint village in the South of England. I was waiting on a table of older American ladies who were enjoying their afternoon tea. They were incredibly needy and did EVERYTHING to ensure their demands were met. When they left they left behind a 5 penny tip … I was ENRAGED. I quickly picked it up and called out to them and politely said “Excuse me but you forgot this” and handed them the 5 pence piece. I was fired instantly.

    It was an important lesson – UNLESS I am prepared to lose the client I take it and make it right. I have been known to fire my client before I have to compromise my services and let pride get in the way. At the end of the day being professional and letting your pride get the better of you is something that must be distinguished.

    1. At least you learned the lesson at a young age Ameena! Of course, you get points for being witty about it … “you forgot this!” 🙂

      To your larger point, I read a lot in the blogosphere about firing clients/customers. To me, that is a last resort. I’ve done it, but only after working to make it work first. I am willing to bet that some of the people who talk about firing clients a lot don’t do it as often as they might indicate. In the end, I have a similar philosophy to yours; unless I am prepared to lose the customer then I need to be willing to take some flak. Pride and hurt feelings are almost always an impediment to professionalism.

  7. Adam, I’m really looking forward to your tips on how to counteract prideful, instinctive responses to disgruntled customers! I agree with you that there’s a certain personality type that just can’t detach enough to deliver excellent customer service when the customer isn’t happy.

    I’d also warn folks about “firing” clients. There’s a way to end a professional relationship without causing the other side to react with pride and outrage. In today’s social media world, your reputation can be destroyed, or at least harmed, by people you’ve angered, even if you’re 100% right and they’re 100% wrong.

    1. Uh oh Michele, you’re the second person to comment on the follow up post. I appreciate the encouragement. I guess I need to not wait too long to write that one! 🙂

      As for firing clients, see what I said to Ameena above, but you’re dead on point, that severing a relationship with a client or customer does not mean you should take the approach of “well, I’m getting rid of them, now I can tell them how I really feel.” I think you should do your best to end it professionally and attempting to leave as little ill will as possible. They might not feel the same way, but at least you tried.

  8. I think its a two way process and its all about understanding. Customer service reps should act professional in conveying with people and give their best in meeting the customer’s needs. Same thing is true for customers. even though we have that saying – “Customers are always right”, we should at least be sensitive in the part of CSRs.

    1. Mika, you bring up a good point. This post was written from the business standpoint, but we are all consumers and get frustrated on occasion. We should always try to give the CSR the benefit of the doubt when possible.

  9. Lack of training and lack of support kill more good people than I can count. I agree that some people aren’t cut out for customer service but many of those who have trouble could be “fixed” if they were taught a few techniques.

    1. I do agree about training and support. That is definitely the bulk of the problem, and I’ve seen what happens first hand when I haven’t given people enough of both. Yet, there is a school of thought out there that anyone can be great at customer service — and I do think some people are just not suited to handle the reactive part well.

      Good to see you Jack.

  10. Man, these past two weeks I’ve experienced some less than stellar customer service, with a pinch of bad attitude thrown in. But these experiences were in restaurants, and who knows how new these people were. Or maybe it came from the top down and this kind of attitude and service is common. Not sure, but I didn’t say anything to start it, swear :), I just received some bad treatment. Oh well. Maybe they need a good coach.

    Whenever I have to deal with a tough client, I take a deep breath, try not to take it personally and then work to, like you say, “un-press those buttons.” Depersonalizing conflict is tough, and takes practice. I really like to take as much time as I can to respond, and this is usually easy now, because people usually complain to me via email. Not that I get that many complaints. Hey, I’m good, and easy to work with, but I do get difficult clients 🙂

    Sure there are some people that just setup for this kind of thing. They can’t let go of the pride. But really they need someone like you, Adam to go in and tell them how to do it right. Nine times out of ten that would work I think, just not done often enough.

    1. “Depersonalizing conflict is tough, and takes practice.” I think that’s a key takeaway Craig. You can train yourself to be better at it. Taking that deep breath is not most people’s instinctual response; firing back immediately is. And email makes it much worse because there is so much more room for misunderstanding. Adapting the principle of this post to email has been more challenging in many ways than face-to-face.

      And I would agree with you, the great majority really can do well at this — just not everyone.

      Thanks for the great comment and the kind words!

  11. Adam, if you would have seen me shrug when I read you title, it would have made your day! Is it me or is pride ego’s best friend?!?

    Right after my shrug, I had flashbacks of no less than five occasions where I had let my pride get in the way of providing excellent customer service. Most were in the early days of my retail career, but I also thought of a couple that occurred with my sign company.

    Funny enough, pride almost got me again today. One of my salespeople ran an email past me that was sent from a prospect. The prospect was upset at the length of time it was taking to provide a proposal. He even went on to say that we should stop blogging so much and take that time to provide better customer service.

    Had my pride gotten in the way, I would have intervened and told him what blogging was doing for company….and a few more kind words 😉 Instead, I talked it over with the salesperson and we laid out a plan to right the ship. We still may not get a new customer, but at least I know we tried.

    Terrific post man!

    1. Adam, I think the first key is what you relate in your comment — being honest with yourself about how you’ve handled past situations. For the most part, if you’re looking back and thinking “what a jerk; I told him” you’re not in a service mindset. If you’re looking back and going, “wow, I completely got defensive for no reason” then you are at least being self-aware and can hopefully do better next time.

      That’s a tough situation you had, especially that comment (“ouch”). Of course, I’m not privy to details, but sounds like you made a great call! Defending your blogging would have been for your benefit, not the customer’s.

      This was an awesome comment Adam! Thanks for sharing so openly.

  12. Adam,

    This is the best article that I read about customer service. I agree that if you want to have an excellent customer service in your business, you must hire excellent employees too. I also believe that humility is the key and upon interview it must be one of the things to be checked before hiring.

    1. Hi Gary, You make a great point about humility. It’s not the easiest trait to spot in a quick interaction like an interview, but it is a really useful trait in the service mindset.

      Thanks for checking out the blog!

  13. If you win the argument, you almost always lose the customer. This is really true and based on the experience that I have in customer relationship. It is not right to argue with them. It only lead to trouble and lots of it.

  14. I agree not everybody is cut out for a job in customer service, but also not every country has the same level of customer service. I lived in Germany for 24 years and customer service there is nowhere near the level it is here. I remember my first job in the US, my boss would always say about our biggest client, if they ask us to jump we should reply how high…

  15. I always imagine what is the salesperson that I’d like to meet, and how would I want them to react if I went a bit crazy.

    Then I take all that into consideration and I make a “persona”. Once I have it, I become that “persona” at work which makes it way easier for me to understand that bad words and rude comments are not meant for me but for the “salesperson” that is servicing those rude people.

    1. That’s an interesting approach, taking on a persona to depersonalize the situation. If you are able to do that while remaining genuine in your interaction, then it seems like it could be a really helpful technique.

      1. I’m glad that you take interest in it, because it’s been very helpful for me. I think that you have to make a balance between the “persona” and your genuine act. If you think it through, you see that your “persona” is not something that just came out of the blue. It’s also a part of you and your “reflection” but slightly modified.

  16. Adam, this is such a great post. I do a lot of work on-site in businesses to “watch and hear” how staff deal with customers, both internal (their co-workers) and external (the customers).

    In most cases, poor customer service and the compelling need some employees feel to “be right”, rather than solve a problem, stems from a complete lack of training. We utilize role plays, immediate feedback loops and group discussions to see how sticky situations can be dealt with by realizing: the demanding or irate customer is mad about a situation. They are mad at you only if YOU give them reason to take it out on your personally.

    So although the tirade feels like it’s a personal attack, it’s really the customer’s own frustration, short-coming or lack of civility that is being expressed.

    I’ve found 2 things to be most helpful:

    First, have employees practice body stance, language, breathing, facial expression and techniques for “keeping your cool”, and then have them ask: “What can I do to solve this for you?”

    Second, empower all employees to exercise their best judgement in solving someone’s problem (with, of course, an identified level of authority and responsibility)

    And oops! I think I responded to this post with answers that might better have been left for your next one:) Cheers! Kaarina

    1. Ha! I appreciate it Kaarina; I like it when my friends save me work! 🙂 I agree that training is at the heart of most of these issues. It is so rarely personal, but it is very natural for many to take it personally.

      You give some great tips on how to help take a step back when in the heat of the moment and to help rectify situation at the time (when possible).

      Thanks for the excellent thoughts!

  17. Whereas I do agree that customer service should definitely be paid more attention, I also understand why so many people in the customer support branch act so proudly. No matter how much you are paying for something, you are dealing with another human being, just like yourself. There is no way anybody can be above anbody’s dignity.
    I was in the customer service branch for some months and I never really had a problem with my customers. i think the secret is to put yourself in their position and not take things personally. I’ll be the first to admit I had a lot more positive than negative experiences. When you are respectful and understanding, you’ll be able to unpress those buttons. But, like I said, respect has to come from both sides.

    1. Hi Rod, You make a great point, that we are all human beings and should all be treated with dignity. However, the reality is that customers get upset, and in CS, it is our duty to try to serve them and assist with their problem. You are right, respect has to come from both sides, and no one should have to put up with behavior that has crossed the line into abuse. But we should always the respect the customer enough to understand the role we might have played in their dissatisfaction, and how we can help remedy it.

      Thanks for the great thoughts!

  18. I’ve witnessed a good example of this happening with a past client who got defensive and arrogant about a customer service issue. The customer was so miffed she wrote a very negative and honest Yelp review. It would have been better to just accept the return. Unbelievable.

  19. Pingback: Monthly Mash: Customer Experience Tools and Epic CustServ Fail

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