A Customer Service Lesson from the World Champs

As humans, most of us strive to do our best, whether we’re playing in the World Series or just helping valued customers. We train, practice, and think about ways to improve.

When things don’t improve, or we experience setbacks or losses, we regroup, diagnose, and get back out there.

Because we’re intelligent, we tend to back up our efforts with research and insight.

Some days, though, trying to do our best can feel exasperating.

In the world of customer service, many variables are out of agents’ control. There’s no predicting what issues (or personalities) you’ll be dealing with, how well your technology and tools will expedite a resolution, and so on.

We can get so lost — in our stress and our data — that it can almost feel like we’re blowing a 9th inning lead in Game 7 of the World Series.

How do we stay grounded? What, if anything, can customer service agents learn from the Chicago Cubs and their gutsy World Series performance? They blew a late lead in Game 7, but didn’t give up. They ultimately stormed back to defeat the Cleveland Indians, breaking a 108-year curse by winning the 2016 World Series.

We can learn that the game’s not over until it’s over. As long as we can stay present, in the moment, there’s a chance to turn things around.

While both baseball and customer service are endeavors that rely heavily on data and analysis, it’s the human element that wins.

To dive more deeply into what customer service agents can learn from the World Series champs, let’s take a quick step back in time to November 2nd, 2016…

Game 7 (And One Crucial Moment)

It was the most-watched baseball game in 25 years, but the real magic happened when the world wasn’t watching.

November 2: Cleveland, Ohio.

The game opens with a lead-off home run courtesy of Dexter Fowler, stoking the [cautious] euphoria of Cubs fans across the nation.

The game progresses as a back-and-forth affair, with nearly every inning seeing at least one run scored by either Cleveland or Chicago.

With two outs in the bottom of the 8th, the Cubs lead 6 to 3. Flamethrower Aroldis Chapman, a.k.a. the Cuban Missile, is brought in to start closing things down. But he promptly gives up the lead, stunning Cubs fans.

The 9th inning comes to a close with the Cubs and Indians still tied up at 6. Elevating the intensity and anxiety, a rain delay is called.

After a 17-minute delay, the Cubs score a pair in the top of the 10th, off of a clutch 2 RBI double from Ben Zobrist.

The bottom of the tenth is drama-free, and a wild (and wildly deserved) celebration ensues.

Did you catch the crucial, magic moment? Likely not. It wasn’t really televised or talked about. It didn’t even happen on the field — it happened during the 17-minute delay.

First baseman Anthony Rizzo called it “the most important thing to happen to the Chicago Cubs in the past 100 years,” adding, “I don’t think we win the game without it.”

What happened is that outfielder Jason Heyward, who found himself largely relegated to a bench role for much of the postseason (despite his hefty $184M contract), called his teammates together for an impromptu meeting.

What was his message?

“I told them I love them. I told them I’m proud of the way they overcame everything together. I told them everyone has to look in the mirror, and know everyone contributed to this season and to where we are at this point. I said, ‘I don’t know how it’s going to happen, how we’re going to do it, but let’s go out and try to get a W.’”

I’ll be the first to admit, this is not the most eloquent or original speech, but it served its purpose. It was an authentic message, coming from an authentic mouthpiece. It was real, and it was human—a product of the moment (rather than data/statistics).

And sure, it sounds like a sports movie cliché…but it’s what the guys needed to hear. And if there is ever a moment for a clichéd sports movie moment to manifest in real life, it would be when the Chicago Cubs are on the verge of breaking the longest championship drought in professional sports history.

What does this have to do with 2017? What does this have to do with customer service? Well, that single, largely-unseen moment seems to have provided the foundation for Chicago manager Joe Maddon’s mission for the team’s upcoming campaign, which is something we can all learn from.

The Real Point of the Story

The World Series win was (obviously) huge, but there’s more to it.

Maddon’s brief remarks on the team meeting (and message) fascinate me. After acknowledging that “things went badly for a bit” (you know, when the 5–1 lead was blown, leading to the tie at the close of the 8th), he explained:

“We came back and regrouped because our guys got together in a room void of any kind of statistical, video, analytical information. They went in there as human beings and came out unified. I don’t want us to forget the heartbeat — ever. It’s a daily effort […] to balance the old-school and new-school methods and make it into the school of what’s happening now.” [MLB.com]

As a baseball fan, I can’t resist hearing inspirational music swell as this plays out in my head.

What Maddon’s saying, though—and what really happened—couldn’t be much less mystical.

Let’s unpack Maddon’s comments.

First, on a baseball level:

  • “We…regrouped…void of any…information.” This sounds a little crazy. Modern baseball is a game saturated with statistical analysis. The Sabermetrics community has taken over, finding ways to quantify and analyze everything from the spin rate of slider, the exit velocity of a line drive, the efficiency of a fielder’s route to make the play, and so on. For Maddon to view an absence of data as advantageous is unique.
  • The fact that the players came together “as human beings” reveals a lot about the personalities and the culture that have become “the Cub way.” Egos were checked, outside noise was tuned out, and a collection of human beings with a shared goal simply came together to focus on getting the job done.

On a basic, human level, applying these ideas is simple — so simple we tend to outsmart ourselves. Things are going to go well sometimes, and not so well other times. It is up to each of us to not over-analyze and psyche ourselves out. Remembering the heartbeat keeps us connected to the individual moments that comprise the larger experience of life.

Finally, on a [human-to-human] customer-service level, every interaction is an opportunity to remember the heartbeat, to remember that you are one human helping another.

A couple other concrete lessons come into focus as well:

  • Every day is comprised of countless opportunities to reset/regroup; between each customer interaction, remember the heartbeat. Just breathe and focus.
  • Remember your customer also has their own heartbeat; listen and empathize. Learn their story. Be genuinely curious, in order to connect with the human being behind the data. It’s much more beneficial to connect with a human being than with a data set (or case, or issue).

Final Thoughts: Mindfulness, Not Madness

While working to resolve customer issues in a contact center may not carry the fame, fortune, and prestige of being a World Series Champion, this idea of remembering the heartbeat is universal. No matter what we do, we’re going to have good stretches and bad. At times we’ll feel invincible and other times it might feel like the world is conspiring against us.

It’s rarely so dramatic, though: we just have to regroup, as human beings, and remember the heartbeat.

Perhaps the best distillation of this whole philosophy was expressed in Maddon’s pre-2016 push for his players to “know we are not perfect but we can be present.”

Later in the season, he elaborated on the concept:

“Sometimes players get so caught up in the physical/mechanical part of the game that they forget to just purely compete. At the end of the day, it comes down to what team competes better in the moment.”

When you’re in “the school of what’s happening now” (rather than the school of past rumination or the school of future anxiety), a blown lead doesn’t matter. The weight of history doesn’t matter. As long as the game isn’t over, there are still moments left. It’s what we do with those moments that matters — that’s how the human element wins.

The trick is quieting all of the noise so you can hear the heartbeat. When you can be present enough to appreciate the soft thump of a literal heartbeat, or the ethereal release of a single breath, that’s mindfulness.

Mindfulness is about resisting autopilot and quieting the internal dialogue/distractions (regrouping, to paraphrase Maddon, as a human being), to just do what you are doing (and not a bunch of other things). Even if it’s something unsexy like helping to reset a customer’s password, it’s focusing on that resolution. In that moment, it’s what matters.

And if it happens to be fielding the final out of the World Series while grinning euphorically, then you are National League MVP Kris Bryant…and clearly you know what you’re doing.