The 5th Habit of Customer Service: A Shout Out to Stephen Covey

July 19, 2012

The illustrious Stephen Covey passed away earlier this week. Covey was a legend in the business community. Author, speaker, and educator, Covey was most famous for his huge bestseller The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

The 7 Habits had a major influence on my life. It was released when I was in business school, and I was lucky enough to be exposed to it at a still formative adult age. Though I lost touch with it for a few years, I soon rediscovered it’s simple message and difficult challenge.

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People:

  1. Be Proactive
  2. Begin with the End in Mind
  3. Put First Things First
  4. Think Win-Win
  5. Seek Fist to Understand, Then to be Understood
  6. Synergize
  7. Sharpen the Saw

I could probably write a 3,000 word post about the genius of the habits above and their applicability to customer service. However, Habit 5 has always been the differentiator to me — the single habit that, if adopted, can change relationships, change organizations, and change the world (think about it for a moment).

The Power of Seeking First to Understand

Seeking first to understand our customers is the charge of customer service and has obvious implications in reactive customer service. Taking the time to listen to the customer’s challenge before attempting to tell your “side of the story” is a crucial technique in the successful resolution of customer issues. As we discussed in Want to Help You Customers? Then Just Shut Up:

“In the first scenario [offering answers without listening], we have started down the path of listing every reason or excuse in our playbook and hoping one of them sticks, instead of clarifying what it is the client feels or wants. Sure, we know they were aggrieved in some way by the cashier, but we have not delved into what that really means to them.

In the second scenario, we have given them a chance to be heard. We have shown that we care about what they feel — half the battle — and we are gaining valuable information on how to really address their needs in the process.”

Yet, Habit 5 does not only extend to reactive service. Habit 5 is also crucial to proactive service.

  • We must first understand our customer’s needs to fulfill them.
  • We must first understand our customer’s expectations to exceed them.
  • We must first understand our customer’s problems to solve them.

Whether it be in the pursuit of effectiveness in either proactive or reactive customer service, seeking first to understand is the cornerstone of great customer care, and if you believe in the wisdom of Stephen Covey, a great foundation of life as well.

Are you a fan of the 7 Habits? Which habit means the most to you?

13 thoughts on “The 5th Habit of Customer Service: A Shout Out to Stephen Covey”

  1. Shut up and listen, huh? Way too often I am formulating the answer in my mind as I’m ‘listening.’ I’m aware of it and trying to do a much better job of fully engaging while the other person is talking.

    If you don’t seek to understand then it becomes all about you and that is never a good foundation for any kind of interaction or relationship.

    1. I’m with you. You know, I think a tiny fraction of people are born with seek first to understand as their natural response. For the rest of us, we are usually “formulating the answer.” It really is a matter of training, caring and self-discipline.

  2. Dare I admit…I have never been a good business book reader. Mind you, I buy them all, begin and earmark and highlight to my heart’s content. Then, I carry on beating to my own intuition and somehow it manages.

    But, Covey became a brand powerhouse, and what he wrote was so simple. Tried and true to live by.

    1. I think we’re on the same reading plan… I’m so glad about the advent of eBooks; at least I won’t destroy another forest in the Northwest buying business books over the next 20 years. I too have a number of shelves of unfinished business books. The 7 Habits was one I finished; the message was, as you say, tried and true.

  3. We’re birds of a feather today Adam:) My favourite line of Covey’s is the one you highlight: Seek first to understand…

    I also have a line from Lance Secretan’s Book, Living the Moment, that I always use: “live in my moment, not in your future”, as well as Robin Sharma’s “It’s not important what I say. It’s important what you think after I stop speaking.” The latter example is a bit of the reverse of listening, but it’s about seeing and seeking if you were understood in what was said. Cheers! Kaarina

    1. “Live in my moment, not your future.” I like that. Quite a clever turn of phrase. As for the second quote, it’s a good point: if we expect people to listen, we need to say something worthwhile.

  4. Hi Adam,
    The news about Stephen Covey passed me by this week so thank you for bringing that to my attention. A great loss.

    I think Habit 5 is essential in delivering great customer service but it is also a lesson that we should not forget when dealing with anyone in our lives whether they are our customer, our team member or someone from our personal lives. If more people did this more often I suspect the world and all of our businesses would be better for it.


    1. Hi Adrian, I couldn’t agree more about Habit 5. We would be hard pressed to find many areas of life where this habit could not greatly improve our outcomes. Of all the habits, I think it is the one that gives the greatest Return on Effort.

      Thanks so much for stopping by!

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  8. Holly Jahangiri

    #5 is applicable everywhere. Listening is a lost art. People are clamoring to be heard and understood, but in the process, they’re talking and shouting AT each other.

    I had a small example of #5, yesterday: Someone asked about Disqus and whether they ought to be wary of authorizing a connection with their Facebook account. I thought they were merely worried about security, but after chatting a bit – listening, talking, listening some more (even though the exchange was in email), it came down to the fact that this woman wanted a GRAVATAR. She wanted to know how to get her profile picture next to her comments like all the others she’d seen elsewhere, and thought signing in through Facebook might do it. If I’d just tossed out the first answer and not engaged in a little chatter with her to make sure that she understood what I was trying to say, I would not have gotten the additional information that enabled me to understand what SHE was trying to accomplish, and her problem would not have been solved at all.

    1. That’s a great story Holly! It’s amazing what seeking first to understand can do. There’s a quote, I think attributed to a few different people, that the opposite of speaking isn’t listening, it’s waiting to speak. You said it — a lost art indeed!

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