As customers, why do we get annoyed when a store clerk is texting on their phone even though we don’t need them at the moment? Why do some of us walk out of a store simply because we weren’t acknowledged upon entry? Why do we feel slighted when we are told that we can’t do something as it is against policy even when it’s clear that we overlooked what was plainly stated on a receipt or sign in the store? Have we all become over-demanding customers with unreasonable expectations?
As a service provider, you may ask this question. You may fret at times wondering why customers act in ways like this especially when you think you are doing everything right; however, take some comfort in knowing that much of this behavior is largely because of how all of us are wired. People are inherently untrusting, not because of some flaw or social construct, rather, as a necessary part of our design.
Our brains are built to look for anything that could harm us because its first priority is our survival. Thus, our brains start from a position of distrust and apprehension. They are itching to find anything that might harm us and they do not see the difference in getting the wrong change in a store and a gun held to our head, both are registered simply as threats, and not just idle threats, our subconscious brains see any threat, even ones we might consciously think of as insignificant, as a threat to our very survival. It takes some effort on the part of others to help remove this armor we carry, no more so than at the outset of a relationship, particularly relationships like customer and seller where we are largely meeting for the first time and also carry potential negative emotional baggage from past experiences where things went poorly. Essentially, as a service provider, you have to go beyond the call of duty to make sure you portray how trustworthy you are and to lessen this natural tendency toward anxiety.
Modern science can shed some light on some of the perceptual features which, if missed, trigger subconscious anxiety that gets demonstrated in subtle resistance and difficulty, not necessarily outright anger.
It’s important to note that most of customer anxiety starts in the mind and is based on subconscious triggers. Thus, the best strategy is to preempt these subconscious fears and concerns rather than react to them after the fact.
Recent neuroscience spearheaded by David Rock, author of Your Brain at Work and founder of the NeuroLeadership Institute, has identified five fundamental triggers known by the acronym SCARF that register as threats in social situations like service interactions. Paying attention to even a few of these things can significantly build customer trust and subdue the subconscious triggers fueling resistance and anxiety.
Here are the SCARF components and a few ideas on how to leverage their potential for making service interactions more successful:
- Status: Our brains are more comfortable when we believe we are regarded with a level of recognition and esteem. Simply put, we like to feel some sense of importance; we like to be recognized as individuals who make some significant contribution. So some preemptive strategies to address status would be to personalize the experience by using people’s names whenever possible and appropriate, and to give people your undivided attention in interactions. Basic courtesy and respect is always appropriate and adds to making people feel the status they crave.
- Certainty: Our brains like to know what’s coming. They do not like walking down blind alleys in the dark. When we know what’s going to happen, even if it’s not so good, we feel more comfortable than being uninformed. With customers, keep them in the loop and let them know what to expect or where things are in the process. Tell them about products, the pros and cons; let them know all of the steps in a process, etc.
- Autonomy: When we feel some sense of control, anxiety decreases. This means having choices, some decision-making ability, and the ability to have input into what’s happening. A best practice is to give customers choices whenever you can and to always encourage their input.
- Relatedness: Human beings are pack animals, we naturally need group interaction. This means we have a desire to be included and to belong. When we feel even nominally that we are not welcome, anxiety increases, so in customer interactions, this is why welcoming people and making them feel accepted is so important. However, the amount of this need for attention varies so a keen sensibility for people’s openness is required. At the least though, a smile and a greeting is rarely a bad thing. Be sure to make people feel that they belong and then gauge your continued interaction on their initial response.
- Fairness: We all like to feel that the playing field is level and that consideration for our needs is at least as important as consideration for other things. The continued adherence to policies rather than some reasonable consideration of alternative solutions is one typical way things are seen as unfair and will raise the alarm bells quite quickly. Simply showing a willingness to be flexible and look for solutions can be enough to make people feel they were treated fairly. Responding with a “here’s what we can do” attitude is a good strategy for moving the finger off of the subconscious trigger.
Doing even a few of the things listed above will significantly build customer trust and disarm the subconscious survival mechanism that sparks anxiety and resistance. This means better customer interactions, more and better communication, and ultimately more sales and higher revenue. Making a few behavioral tweaks can make all the difference. Just implement some or all of the steps above to reduce customer anxiety and improve your business.