Short Take: Because They Care (No They Don’t)

Marketing guru Seth Godin usually offers interesting insights into human nature, which is a worthwhile thing for people whose job it is to persuade folks to heed. But sometimes, his insights produce that gag reflex, as a little vomit finds its way upward. This was one of those times:

We know that your customers will put up with imperfect, but one thing that they’d like in return is for you to care.

Marketers keep making big promises, and organizations struggle to keep those promises. Sooner or later, it leads to a situation where the broken promise arrives on the customer’s lap.

In that moment, what the customer wants most is someone to care.

Because what people really want is the deepest expressions of concern by the most talented customer support representatives in all of Manilla and Bangalore. At least that’s been the marketing mantra. Not that people want their problems solved. Not that people want the stuff they buy to work. Not that people want the grand promises met. They want some faceless person to apologize for the “inconvenience.”

But that’s just reading off a script to feign giving a damn. What about the poor CSR who has to put on an act for the idiot customers who bother them by calling with their petty concerns?

It’s a mistake to believe that you actually have to care the way the customer cares, and that anything less means you shouldn’t even try. In fact, professionals do emotional labor all the time. They present the best version of their professional self they are capable of.

And there are the new magic words, “emotional labor.” In the Age of Emotion, feelz are now an independent form of human capital. It’s so exhausting. But Godin takes it a step further, as the brutally hard work of feelz can be too much for some, so just fake it, like “professionals.”

Lawyer: The jury felt just awful about the case, about the suffering you must be going through.

Defendant: They convicted me! What the fuck are you talking about?

Lawyer: But they felt really, really bad about it. They realize how hard your life must have been, vulnerable and marginalized, suffering the degradation of systemic discrimination.

Defendant: But they convicted me?

Lawyer: And I feel really awful about that. Believe me that I understand what you’ve been through, the trauma you’ve suffered.

Defendant: But they convicted me. I’m going to prison for the rest of my life.

Lawyer: I know, I know. It’s so horrifying. I’m sorry for the inconvenience.

Defendant: Oh, oh. Now I feel better.

Is that how it works, Seth?


24 thoughts on “Short Take: Because They Care (No They Don’t)

  1. JAV

    My professional life has all been in CSR work, and I admit that “care” is perhaps too strong a word for how competent reps should approach customers. Professional commitment is more like it; get to the bottom of the issue, answer the questions and provide the solutions* available decisively.

    *The particulars of my work sometimes mean that the answers and solutions are not happy ones for the customer, but it’s worse to ignore them than admit them.

    1. SHG Post author

      I’m sure there are busier people than me, but I don’t want CSR’s to be my bestest friends, to inquire as to my health or how I’m doing today, or to express anything whatsoever about me or my world. I want one thing. I want it quickly. I want the reason for my call addressed.

      My problem with Godin’s “advice” isn’t with CSRs. They’re just people doing a job. My problem is with the philosophy that caring, or pretending to care, is the job. Listen to my question and tell me what, if anything, you can do to fix it. If you can’t, then the ball is back in my court to deal with it. It’s just a business call, not an invitation to a sleepover.

      1. wilbur

        A sleepover could be fun, though. We could make JiffyPop and plot Kardashian murders.

        I call Khloe.

  2. DaveL

    I think that, judging from my own experience with Customer Support, that Godin’s patter about caring and emotional labor is in fact an elaborate euphemism. What he means is that the purpose of CSRs is to absorb the wrath of dissatisfied or problematic customers and insulate Management from the same.

  3. John Barleycorn

    Does this mean you are going to stop trying to attach G.I. Joe’s parachute to Seth’s action figure?

    If so, does that mean you are going to start storing him with the Barbies or are you still going store him in a sitting psition on the edge of the Transformers shelf?

    Pro Tip: if you keep him on the Transformers shelf, remove his head and let it sit in his lap. If you do this you will stop having bad dreams about having too much Disney stock in your portfolio and not starting up a Roth IRA soon enough.

  4. JC

    Case-in-point: I purchased a lemon of a Maytag refrigerator from Lowes (5 service visits in < 2 yrs). The warranty basically forces me to sell my body in the streets before I get a buy-out. Lowes' service vendor doesn't show up at promised times.

    I call Lowes' warranty CSR to complain, and they are the nicest, most apologetic, most feelz-aware people I speak to all week (and they're actually American). Despite their expertise in "emotional labor," do you think I'm ever gonna buy another Maytag, or another appliance from Lowes, ever again? Wouldn't doing so make me an idiot?

      1. tabstop

        And just to close the circle, clicking on the (presumably now-dead) “built-in refrigerator” link there shows you just how … passionately … they care.

  5. Nemo

    I could speculate as to what, precisely, Godin was trying to communicate, but I won’t.

    Having been on both sides of the customer service divide, I submit that what the customer wants, generally speaking, is enough empathy to feel that the CSR understands that they are a human being, and that the CSR cares about getting the problem fixed. The first isn’t hard, and the second is their job. One can quibble about the order of those, but personally, when I was in a CSR position, I found those things to be interwoven. If you don’t care about the problem, then you can’t actually care about the customer, and vice-versa. There are, of course, a host of qualifiers to go with that, but IMO that’s the crux of the thing.

    I could add a couple of lengthy anecdotes to illustrate, but I will limit myself to this: Pretending to care can be boiled down to the oft-heard line “Please hold, your call is very important to us. Stay on the line, and your call will be taken in the order received.”.

    1. SHG Post author

      There is nothing more important to a customer than the validation of their feelings they receive from a random person on a telephone far away while telling them they’re totally fucked. That’s some good shit you’re smoking.

      1. Nemo

        Interesting response. I’ve gone over my words, and did not find the words “validation of feelz” anywhere in there. “enough empathy to feel that the CSR understands that they are a human being” is there, yes, but that means something rather different.

        Perhaps I shouldn’t have edited for length twice, since my words appear to have been misunderstood. Not sure how just enough empathy to let them know that the CRS considers them to be a human being, rather than a nameless, faceless nonentity can be confused with “validating their feelings”, but clearly, it’s possible.

        To answer a point made below, I’m not talking about “empathetic chatter” here. I’m not talking about pretending to care when you couldn’t care less about the client and her problem, and I’m certainly not talking about giving the client the run-around when what they want is to get the issue fixed. Bored indifference can work, if the customer’s problem is solved quickly, but I wasn’t talking about simple fixes. For complex stuff, I’ve found that treating the customer like she and her problem are getting in the way of going to watch your kid’s softball game to be counter-productive. YMMV.

        As for what I’m smoking, it’s a cheap cigarillo. A really cheap one. Want me to send you a three-pack of them?

        1. SHG Post author

          It’s ironic, given the foundation of your view is based on your experience of being an empathetic CSR, that you don’t listen. No one misunderstands you. You were quite clear before, and quite clear again:

          Not sure how just enough empathy to let them know that the CRS considers them to be a human being, rather than a nameless, faceless nonentity can be confused with “validating their feelings”, but clearly, it’s possible.

          Who gives a fuck what some nameless, faceless cog in a machine with which we’ve got a problem thinks of us? In the best of all possible worlds, a CSR pays attention to the problem, fixes it or admits that he can’t fix it, and we’re done in 30 seconds. We don’t want to spend time bonding. We have our own life, and we’re not calling to fill an emotional void. You can add in qualifications, if you think that saves your argument now from what you originally wrote, but it changes nothing. It’s not a social call and we’re not old pals.

          Don’t ask us how we’re doing. Don’t apologize for the inconvenience. Don’t feel deeply about our sad problem. Don’t understand how frustrating it must be for us. Just fix it or tell us you can’t. That’s all anyone wants from a CSR. And if you really to get out of there to watch your kid’s softball game, then fix it faster and go watch. We’re both better off for it.

    2. Patrick Maupin

      I’ll second Scott’s criticism. The CSR can either do the job or not. If the CSR does the job, I’m fine, no matter their attitude. If the CSR isn’t actually going to do the job, I much prefer a clear, upfront indication that the CSR doesn’t give a shit; that’s all the excuse I need for “let me talk to your supervisor.”

  6. Jim Ryan

    I get to the point where I know what I want as a solution and ask, point blank, “Can you make this happen? Yes or No?
    If the answer is No, then it’s above their pay grade, escalate (Give me your boss).
    I’m often told, “My Boss will tell you the same thing.” I say great, then I’ll hear it direct from your boss.
    If the answer is Yes, then make it happen explain to me why you won’t.
    When all else fails, a call to the president of the company is made, where you’ll typically get a higher level CSR.

    1. SHG Post author

      I see two separate issues at play here:

      1. Do I want to engage in empathetic chatter with a CSR.
      2. Can the CSR solve my problem.

      Godin suggests my answer to one is yes. I reply that it’s not. I don’t call for “caring” and I have no interest in what they feel or pretend to feel. None.

      1. Jim Ryan

        It was explained to me years ago that I had made a strategic error in sitting down and letting a waiter take my order at Katz’s Deli. It was explained to me that you should always be eyeball-to-eyeball with the actual guy slicing the corned beef for your sandwich and tip him direct as well. I much prefer eyeball-to-eyeball. But then, I am perfectly reasonable, very polite and the size and physical presence of a small grizzly bear.
        Do i want to engage in empathetic chatter? Absolutely not, hence the Yes No question.
        But as far as the chatter goes, the first time they say we’re so sorry, I tell them to stop with the sorry’s as they are not a substitute for poor performance. Can you fix it, Yes or No?

      2. Patrick Maupin

        Of course, one of the elephants in the room is that oftentimes, the CSR gets graded by his employer on how well he does #1. And don’t get me started on the bloody 2 minute follow-up surveys for the call that should have been 30 seconds.

        At a lot of companies, the “bonding” is seen as a prelude to an up-sell. One time I went into OfficeMax to buy a $150 uninterruptible power supply, and after the obligatory pleasantries, the lady asked me “Would you like a warranty?” and as soon as I said “No thank you.” it was “You can get $30.00 off this if you get an OfficeMax credit card today.” to which I replied “No thank you. I’m here to buy this and leave. Can we do that?” She acquiesed and started ringing me up, but then her boss (who had heard the interchange) decided to come over and explain that the company required the clerk to ask those things. I replied that I understood my problem was with the company and not the clerk, but I really just want to buy this and nothing else and get out of here and not waste my time on chit-chat. She opened her mouth and got really huffy, and I walked out the door without the UPS.

        1. SHG Post author

          You make an important point that wasn’t at all clear in my comments. It’s not the CSR, personally, but the script, the company, the marketeers to inform the company that us customers want our feelings to be appreciated and the marketing gurus, like Godin, to whom the corporate marketeers pray.

  7. David Nieporent

    When I’m standing in Penn Station at the end of a long workday packed like sardines waiting for New Jersey Transit, and there are no trains leaving because of power problems and an earlier disabled train and a herd of water buffalo on the tracks and the engineers are all on strikes, the very most important thing to me is the pre-recorded announcement saying, “New Jersey Transit apologizes for the inconvenience.”

    I’m hungry and tired and not home with my kids, and I may be dying of heat stroke in the crush of passengers, but the recording is very sorry, which makes it all worth it.

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