What a rainy night in a rental car taught me about customers
My colleague and I had no choice but to rent a car one night when a canceled flight left us stranded, five hours away from our destination.
Two hours into the drive, we encountered what felt like a monsoon. It was then we discovered that one of the windshield wiper blades was bare metal, sans rubber. Though I am a fan of some alternative music genres, metal scraping on glass is not one of them.
It was pitch black, the only light source coming from large trucks. At times we had to stick our heads out the window to see where we were going. We called the car rental company (a large national chain we all know) for roadside assistance, which amounted to them suggesting we find a 24/7 Walmart. No luck.
Prognosis: we were down one blade for the entirety of the trip, forced to listen to metal on glass wipe back and forth for hours. It was dangerous and excruciating.
When we returned the car, we were given a $100 gift certificate (good for one year) and went on my way. I wanted to ask for a free future rental along with a full repayment of my graduate school loans, but the customer service rep was so nice and empathetic I took the gift certificate.
One year and three days later I needed to rent a car again, but I was told that the gift certificate’s expiration was final and “absolutely nothing could be done.” We can successfully perform a heart transplant on someone but issuing a new gift certificate for a rental car, that’s beyond our human capability. For several weeks after I dealt with reps that told me there was nothing they or anyone could do for me. They saw “one year” and their brain thought, “game over.”
Here was a customer service department deeply rooted in what Carol Dweck calls a “fixed mindset.”
If you haven’t read Mindset yet by Carol Dweck I highly recommend it. I have been rather obsessed with the concept of fixed vs growth mentalities she outlines. A fixed mindset being one that, in plain terms, believes change is not possible, whatever the scenario. A growth mindset would be one that believes the possibility of change does exist, whatever the scenario.
If you struggle with your piano lessons at first and have a fixed mindset you’ll think you’re never going to get better, it’s not going to get any easier, and it’s a waste of time. Someone with a growth mindset will approach the task thinking that while it’s difficult now the fruits of their labor will ripen later.
Many of us can feel the hot breath of a fixed mindset when we are on the phone with a customer service representative for a large corporation. If you want something from Comcast or Verizon that involves anything resembling a discount before your plan is up chances are you’re not going to get it, but then tell them you want to cancel your plan and suddenly you are transferred to the customer retention department who are leading the way in growth mindset, albeit much to our annoyance.
It’s understandable why large corporate customer service departments would have rules to follow. Without them, there is no consistency. However, perhaps one of the rules should be:
“Remember that customers are calling because they need help.”
The mantra “the customer needs help” should pulse throughout customer service departments. When people need help they are in a position of vulnerability. Vulnerable people have their guard up, primed to fight, expecting their needs will not be met. It takes very little to turn a situation from bad to ugly or conversely surprise someone with just a modicum of empathy.
A fixed mindset in customer service creates a vacuum. It suffocates the interaction between customer and company. A growth mindset breathes oxygen into the conversation, allowing for empathy.
There is a story I love in Tony Hsieh’s book Delivering Happiness where he and some Sketchers reps are hanging out in a hotel room and they want to order a pizza but don’t know who to call. Hsieh has them anonymously call Zappos to prove how amazing his customer service department is. The Zappos rep they speak with does in fact find them a pizza place in their area that will deliver to them. That type of culture starts with the premise that someone is calling you because they need help. Zappos is not in the business of finding pizza delivery, but they are in the business of customer service.
After reading Mindset I am convinced the fixed vs growth mindset debate is at the core of all failures and successes, whether in business or our personal lives. With a tight fixed mindset every time you get into a fight with your romantic partner you will call it quits. You will then get into that same fight in every subsequent relationship. The fixed mindset will prevent you from ever evolving from that fight. The fixed mindset puts a stranglehold on your personal evolution.
A growth mindset will lay the grounds for emotional maturity. Even if you don’t agree with the other person’s point of view you can rise above it and think, “I don’t agree with their argument but what is it they want? Maybe we can get to where we both want to be without insisting the other agrees with us.”
When it comes to customer service, a rep can think, “I have to adhere to my company’s policy but maybe there’s something I can do to help.” It comes down to the individual. How do you want to lead your life? How stuck or unstuck do you want to feel?
If you are a customer service rep and someone calls with a request outside of the company policy it is very easy to simply say “No.” You don’t have to make up your own rules to have a growth mindset though. The reps I spoke with could have thought, “I don’t have the power to issue a gift certificate but I empathize with her experience of listening to metal on glass, and being afraid for her life. Maybe I can help her in some way, maybe I can plead her case to my manager.”
This requires more energy and verve. It requires effort. Work. That’s where the wall goes up. The aversion to effort blocks our human potential. It’s not just about being a good customer service representative, it’s about being a fellow human being, listening to what’s being expressed to you, and having empathy. And energy!
There are of course factors other than company policy at play here: how much reps are paid, the success of their personal lives, everything that has happened to them in their respective lives before getting on the phone. All of those experiences combined with their emotional make-up have contributed to them having either a fixed or growth mindset.
The good news is our stories can be rewritten — and our brains rewired — simply by encouraging, training and helping reps have some freedom of thought.
Which is why it is important to empower your customer service reps to have some freedom of thought. Establish a policy that puts service first and reminds them that people are calling — not because they love to argue and complain — but because they need HELP.
This post was originally featured on Equilibrialeadership.com.
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Nicole Lipkin, Psy.D., MBA is an organizational psychologist and the CEO of Equilibria Leadership Consulting. She is the author of “What Keeps Leaders Up At Night” and the co-author of “Y in the Workplace: Managing the ‘Me First’ Generation.”