The Vulnerable Customer

June 16, 2010

Here’s a word you don’t hear often in customer service: Vulnerable

A lot of ink has been spilled (or perhaps these days, pixels rendered) on customer service. Keeping customers happy, creating positive experiences, earning their loyalty, and so on.

But let’s look for a moment at that little window of time when a customer reaches out to us, whether to procure what we’re offering, or because they need help. What’s really going on in that moment? I suspect connection with the true vulnerability of a customer wanting something would yield quite fruitful results.

Studies show there’s lots of room for improvement. A recent Jupiter Research survey of Internet companies revealed that about a third of them took three or more days to answer customers’ help queries. Another study from Portland Research Group showed that on average, a customer needs to call a company 2.3 times before their issues gets resolved.

Brick-and-mortar companies’ service correlates. When I worked briefly for a large restaurant evaluation company, we gave scores for “eyes, teeth, and tone.” Did someone greet us right away with a smile? Exactly how long before eye contact was made? Was their tone of voice warm and enthusiastic, or dull and listless? In other (my) words, did make an authentic attempt to connect?

I was surprised at how often the person behind the counter didn’t try to connect. Friends more internationally traveled than I have pointed out how my whole critique of customer service is culturally biased–in many countries, particularly less industrially developed ones, a visitor might be lucky to get talked to at all.

I agree with this–and yet, here we are, impatient U.S. residents ready to turn heel, get disgruntled and give bad reviews to companies who don’t jump to meet our needs. And although our hierarchy of needs may be met by greater opportunities for consumption than anywhere else on the planet, still, a human reaching out and getting no response remains, well, vulnerable. Connection is, after all, a universal human need, and when we don’t get it, we’re even more vulnerable.

Here are some ways customers can be vulnerable before we even hear from them:

  1. The customer wants what they’re trying to purchase, (or to be able to properly use what they have purchased). That might sound like a truism, but consider what state we’re in when we’re wanting. To want something means being aware of a lack: we don’t yet have what we want. So in the process of trying to obtain it, we experience a tension between the time we first become aware of our lack, and the time it takes to fill that lack.
  2. They’re considering, or have already decided to part with some money to get what they want. Especially in today’s economy, this is no small thing. Giving up money for your product or service means they won’t have it for something else. So likely, unless they’re filthy rich, they’re feeling at least a little bit of anxiety about the transaction at hand.
  3. They’ve made a decision to purchase your product or service over another. Unless someone is buying an exact replacement for something, they’ve likely shopped around and compared attributes before deciding to plunk down their money for your Widget X, or eWhatever. Even if they’re sure they’ve found what they wanted, they might be carrying a bit of doubt that they’ve made the right decision.
  4. Unless they’re a repeat customer, they’re unfamiliar with the process they’re about to undergo. They don’t know whether the page they’re filling in will drop all their information. They don’t know whether or how long they’ll be on hold. They don’t even know if they’ll get to talk with a live human being when they call you. Not having information about what’s happening puts one in a vulnerable place.
  5. They’ve had bad customer service experiences before. Unfortunately, as the research above suggests, these still abound. The customer is likely afraid that once again, their needs will not be met. So already, before we even interact with them, they may have their guard up, prepared for the worst.

How might this awareness transform business-as-usual to help customers feel more secure and less vulnerable as they navigate our business, and in turn, meet their needs and win their repeat business?

A couple of weeks ago, I had an opportunity to sell my baked goods, Jiggies (organic, high-end twinkie-esque cream-filled cakes) at San Francisco’s Underground Market. I watched customer after customer stop in front of my booth. I wish I had recorded the expressions on some of the faces. People were puzzled. Those not old enough weren’t sure exactly what my product was; and those who remember Twinkies do so as that chemical cake with a shelf life of thirty years. Anyone who wanted to know more had to approach me and ask.

My answer to their vulnerability, and in particular, their lack of information about what the heck I was selling, was to share my joy with them, listen as they asked questions, or told me what it was they saw (These are Hoho’s right? Which inspired me to entitle the chocolate cake with vanilla cream “Who’re you calling a Ho, ho?”), invite samples (which drew them in with quintessential immediacy), and make eye contact right away–each time, every time.

I knew from my days in retail clothing stores not to “sell,” but rather to connect. Connection helps soothe any of the issues that stem from customer vulnerability and helps insure that whatever’s to come unrolls smoothly. In the case of the jiggies, the journey from unfamiliarity to joy was literally sugar-coated.

By contrast, I watched a particular table of young vendors nearby throughout the night. They didn’t smile, didn’t make eye contact, and looked pretty bored the whole time. I felt sad for them and their potential customers. People came to the market to partake in the joy of grassroots food artisans, and these folks proffered listlessness.

If we really get that our customers are vulnerable, what might we do? For a while, McDonald’s reportedly had a policy of greeting each customer with “Sorry to keep you waiting.” Aside from the problem of reinforcing the already-high levels of customer entitlement I mentioned above, a little acknowledgement–and connection with the customer’s position–can go a long way. When your customers feel you understand them, they’ll feel less vulnerable, and more relaxed. And best of all, they’ll be more likely to come back.