Lessons Learned From Seth Godin

Sometimes, I “starred” posts on my RSS feed to look back later, whether to see how they held up or just to remember what the trend of the time was. And a confession, one of the blogs on my feed was that of marketing guru, Seth Godin. Was he insightful about people in a way that a lawyer wasn’t? As a marketer, was it not his job to understand people better than others? And as one of the top voices in marketeering, surely he knew something.

So this was a post of his I starred.

Appearing to care

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.

Almost as good: an organization that consistently acts like it cares.

Is that what “we” all know, or does the “we” refer to marketers? Do we want them to “act” like anything?

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.

Curiously, Godin sees the alternative to actually caring as caring “the way the customer cares.” If you can’t care that way, and you can’t, Godin explains, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t “try,” which may mean caring the way the customer does or something else. But then, Godin is speaking to marketers, not humans, which is why he panders to their “emotional labor,” as they don’t do any actual labor and would otherwise feel useless.

The other day, my buddy Mark Bennett griped a bit about the customer service given by a boy named “Sue” from the Philippines, who read from the script like a champ but fixed nothing, as reflected in this totally made-up dialogue:

Hi, Sue, I have a problem.

Hi, Mark*, I am so sorry to hear that you have a problem and I want to help. Please tell me all about your problem.

So this thing I bought from your company does not work.

I understand your frustration. It is very frustrating when you buy something and it doesn’t work the way you want it to. I am so sorry to hear that and will tell everyone that you are unhappy. Is there anything else I can do for you before hanging up?

The question, of course, is whether Mark feels better, the same, or worse, for Sue have pretended to care about Mark’s feelings and having resolved nothing.

When Bette Midler shows up on stage in Hello Dolly, the audience would like to believe that she’s as engaged and excited as she was on opening night. And she might be. Or not. What matters is that we can’t tell.

Marketers may be good at marketing (or not), but not necessarily analogies. When you go to a Broadway show, the show is what you’re buying. While the nature of artistic services is very different from that of a consumer product, you still expect the show to be done well. Whether Bette is excited may or may not play a role in it, but whether she sings and acts well does, as that’s what the audience is paying to see.

When they buy your widget, it’s just a widget and should work as a widget. It’s not a human being and it has only one job to do, be a widget.

If you care, that’s great. If you don’t, at least right now, well, it’s your job. That’s the hard part.

Acting as if, doing it with effort and consistency, is what your customers need from you.

Maybe it’s just me, but what I need from the customer service representative is a working widget. When I purchase something, what I need is for that something to do what it’s supposed to do. I hope never to have a reason to call “Sue” because I have a working widget. But if I do have to call Sue, it’s not to feel the glowing warmth of Sue’s empathy, but to address whatever the problem is with the widget. I don’t blame Sue for reading her script that includes all the empathetic words as part of her emotional labor. That’s Sue’s job, and I know she won’t go home and lie in bed that night feeling my “frustration” over my non-working widget that causes her so much anguish but which cannot be returned, replaced, fixed or otherwise caused to widget again.

Seth’s enlightenment was posted in 2017, almost five years ago. It was exactly the sort of marketeering advice that made customer service a deeper circle of Hell, delivering the pretense of caring in place of the effort of fixing. Few of us have been so fortunate as to have not met Sue when we reach out to customer service, the olds by calling and the young by text message. Some of us recognize when we’re being placed to faux appeals to concern and no solutions, whether because Sue doesn’t care, understand or have the authority to do anything more than read her script.

And if it’s working in the context of customer service, why not politics? Once they’ve figured out that we will continue to buy even if they sell us crap and, when we complain that it’s crap, utter the empty words of empathy, we will be owned. Maybe Godin knew what he was talking about.

22 thoughts on “Lessons Learned From Seth Godin

  1. Henry Berry

    I’ve run into an interesting version of this lately with respect to a trespass case against me in Connecticut. The state’s attorney and judge dismissed the case when recognizing it for the farce that it was. After the dismissal, I made criminal complaints to the Fairfield Police Department for among other acts, false statements, witness tampering, fabrication of evidence. The Fairfield Police Department has offered me services for dealing with my “stress”.

    1. SHG Post author

      Since you chose to post this comment, I’m going to approve it as a courtesy to you. But I think it’s ill-advised, Henry.

  2. B. McLeod

    I think we are seeing that it doesn’t work in politics either.

    The best customer service post I can remember reading was survey-based, and theorized that customers want a smooth experience. Not empathy, not service that exceeds their expectations, but basically service that meets their expectations and does not resemble a trial by ordeal.

    1. Henry Berry

      Customers want accountability. Is the item as described? Does it work? Simplicity is the answer. This is why Amazon has been so successful. From what I see in my dealings with it, it sets the bar for customer service. Amazon is so confident in what it sells that it offer a “trial period” for clothing. You get it, try it on — if you don’t want it, return it. This isn’t difficult if you have products you would stand behind and understand basic consumer psychology. No one likes to be tricked and fiddled with.

  3. Jake

    You seem to be confusing marketing and customer service, which is a shame. These days marketing is responsible for far greater offenses than the audacity to avoid making you angrier while being powerless to solve your problems so the numbers come out right at the end of the quarter, in spite of decades of continuously record-breaking gains in profitability. Your qualms are with late-stage capitalism, my friend. Even if you can’t see it.

    1. Elpey P.

      In late-stage capitalism, not only is every department staffed by Retention Specialists but they also crowdsource it.

  4. Erik Hammarlund

    The Hello Dolly analogy demonstrates Godin’s stupidity.

    The entirety of a Broadway show is “emotional labor,” or what used to be called “acting.” Comparing that to a service where there are real-world problems (broken things) is ridiculous.

  5. L. Phillips

    “Sincerity is the key. Once you can fake that the rest is a piece of cake.”

    From an acquaintance who brokered time-share sales. He probably stole it from someone else.

  6. Rcjp

    Back in my days as a corporate marketing guy, there was a revolution callled “authenticity.” Marketers did much navel gazing and columnizing about how to “appear authentic”.

    The answer was so close they could almost feel it. For real. Almost.

  7. Drew Conlin

    The old days: Call Service station directly for AAA road service. Attendant at station was curt, succinct ; where are you? What kind of car? Tow? Jump? Usually was there in 20 minutes or less…
    Now-a days: 800 number , the customer service person, the perfunctory concern for your predicament…and about a 1-2 hour wait!

    1. Richard Parker

      Try calling AAA from deep in the desert. You passed the nearest cross street 2 or 3 or 4 miles ago. In the dark. The phone agent won’t dispatch the truck without a cross street. There is no cross street. The tow truck knows that, but the customer service agent doesn’t.

      You learn to be creative. “Yes mam, its west of Passed Big Rock on the Left Road.”

  8. phv3773

    “Caring” is nice, but when you have to deal with 6 or 8 people over a period of two weeks, and they are all very nice and they all want to help, but the problem doesn’t get fixed, “caring” is not enough.

    There, I said it, and I didn’t even mention Verizon.


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