What Is Signal Stripping?

February 11, 2020
What Is Signal Stripping? | Customer Service Communication Channels | Man with no face

Signal stripping is a term I came up with back in 2016 to explain the differing dynamics of different customer service channels. 

The signals I am referring to are what we’ve labeled “human signals” and they just mean the many communication signals that humans send and read that are not the actual words delivered.

In our customer service training, we’ve found this understanding of how humans are wired to interact with one another is essential to being successful on different customer service channels. 

Here’s the deal. We are wired for the savanna to some degree. We still have cave person brains. We’re designed to detect lack or attack, scarcity or threat. We’re wired to read other people — to read their body language, their tone of voice, their facial expressions — mostly so we can determine if they are a threat or not.

Our instinctual, automatic brain was wired ages ago to decide in a split second whether someone we met was a threat — and we see this wiring at play today in the many studies showing how quickly and automatically we form first impressions.

In fact, we are still so good at reading human signals that one study actually showed that we can not only detect a smile on the phone but can differentiate between different types of smile.

Human Signals Help Us Understand Each Other

So what does this mean for us and customer service?

It means that as we work our way down the channels, from face-to-face interactions to text-based or textual communication, many of these human signals are stripped away and when these human signals are stripped away, there is more opportunity for us to be unclear in our communication and for our message to be misunderstood. 

Of course, this doesn’t mean that just because we’re face-to-face that someone will understand us. If that were true, police officers wouldn’t be called to break up fights every night of the week.

What it does mean is that our odds of miscommunication increase every time we move down the channel chain, we are less likely to be understood and more likely to be misunderstood due to the lack of signals in certain channels.

We are less likely to be understood and more likely to be misunderstood due to the lack of signals in certain channels.

One of the big focuses in many of our customer service training is working with these channel dynamics.

How do teams account for the different ways to interact in chat through email, on phone, on video or face to face?

With all of the talk about omni-channel service, what sometimes gets lost is the importance of tweaking communication including word choice and timing for the specific channel.

Give Context to Make Up for the Lack of Human Signals

As mentioned, this is a topic we can spend hours on in training. For this blog post, I just want to share one principle that you can use to better communicate with this dynamic in mind.

It’s simply this, the fewer human signals you have, the more you have to make up for those lack of signals by giving context to your communication.

The fewer human signals you have, the more you have to make up for those lack of signals by giving context to your communication.

Now, some nuance. First of all, the stakes matter.

The significance of what is being communicated about married with the degree of tension in the interaction should dictate how much effort one puts into the communication.

If the customer’s upset and you’re sending an email, you have to take more care with your language. Let’s put aside the fact whether or not you should not use email at all. Some customer-facing teams have no choice.

If you’re just breaking down something operationally in an email, and you’re not working through a problem. The client relationship is good, and you’ve been communicating with them regularly, then you don’t have to spend a lot of time giving context.

However, if you’re doing issue resolution, you have an upset customer and you’re using email as a channel, you have to give significant thought to your language and word choice to make sure your communication is not misinterpreted.

Wow, so, you have to communicate more carefully with an upset customer: thank you Captain Obvious!

Here’s the thing, it’s one thing to know that intellectually; it’s another to execute it professionally. Carefully worded textual communication takes time and energy. That’s why we’ve all received a lot of emails in our lives that have made situations worse, not better.

In fact, in our training, often we explore how easy it is to miscommunicate in all channels, it’s just easier when you’ve stripped away many of the human signals we use to convey things like understanding, kindness, and empathy. 

Well, I hope this idea of signal stripping can help you think differently about your channel dynamics and how you approach customer service on different channels and help your team successfully navigate those interactions.



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