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Stress and Customer Response

By Anil Pillai


Way back in 1932, to  Hans Selier, an Austrian physician goes the credit for coming with the term “stress” (a term he apparently borrowed from metallurgy) to mean the response system in animals which saves your life if it lasts very briefly, and makes you very sick if it goes on for too long.

Sapolsky makes an interesting connect

And to Robert Sapolsky (Why Zebras don’t get Ulcers) goes the credit of taking the concept of “stress” and enlarging our understanding of this very interesting, but yet tough to understand phenomena. Sapolsky in an experiment of his, discovered that if one were to give a mild electric shock to a rat, the rat would exhibit signs of stress such as an elevated heart rate in the short term, which then had the propensity to develop into stomach ulcers, should the rat be continually subjected to stress. Now take another rat and subject it to the same electric shock, but this time allow the rat to gnaw on a piece of wood after the shock was administered. Interestingly Sapolsky discovered that the rat given this choice of gnawing on the wood, thereby releasing the stress had a much lower probability of developing ulcers. This rat had an outlet for stress.

Now he tweaked this still further if a rat could be trained to anticipate the electric shock prior to receiving the shock( which he did in his lab), that is, if it knew what to expect on a consistent basis, what would happen, he wondered. This rat too had a lower probability of developing stress-induced ulcers. Eliminating uncertainty had reduced stress levels! In a third experiment, Sapolsky trained the rat to press a lever and thus reduce the likelihood of an electric shock and having tested this scenario, then disconnected the lever which again resulted in an increase in likelihood for the electric shocks. In both these cases, the rat had lower stress levels and a lower probability of stress-induced ulcers. A sense of control (whether or not real), was enough to de-stress the rat.

Impact on Customer-Centric thinking?

As professionals who advocate and practice caring for customers, what does this teach us? What we always perhaps knew intuitively. If we want our customers to be happy (as opposed to being stressed out), three important things matter. Ensure that customers know what to expect on a consistent basis. Customers do not like dealing with uncertainty.  No shock and awe here. They do not like getting their socks knocked off on one interaction, only to find the next one, gratingly substandard or even average. They prefer and stay loyal to organizations that do not have wide variations in their offerings and their service. Think of the elevated heartbeat (and the stress) that you went through whenever you had to face uncertain situations or had insufficient information that leads to uncertainty. You hated it, didn’t you? Think of those anxiety-driven moments and now think how many times do you put your customers through this.

An outlet for stress.

This is so true. Customers love having an outlet to let off their steam. This need is naturally hard-wired into our systems. Everyday life offers umpteen examples, you are angry with your kid for having spilled coffee on your shirt at breakfast. You know it is irrational to take your anger out on your toddler.

But the hard wiring (not to mention the physiological changes, like the sudden adrenaline surplus, the elevated heartbeat that knocks off your homeostatic control) makes it tough, so you take it out on the traffic, your carpoolers, your assistant at work! Then when you have done blowing steam, reason sets in, and you wonder what set you off! The angrier customers are, the easier it should be for them to vent their feelings and be heard ( Really heard, not just “pretend-heard”). Customers know that organizations like people will make mistakes, will falter. And when that happens and the customer suffers as a consequence, they want to share all that they feel. Most of this feedback is pretty valuable and spot on.

Put the customer in control of her interaction with you. Facilitate the interaction with the organization in such a manner that the customer is able to predict the outcome to a fair degree of certainty and if not satisfied is free to terminate that interaction, no questions asked. Think of the number of times you wanted to reach out to a decision-maker to either seek resolution on a complaint or for enhanced service only to be stonewalled by call centers and myriad technology barriers. Cede control. Managing customers is not a zero-sum game. Oh and of course if one were to continually ignore “customer interaction stress points” you would end up with a very “sick” organization, just as Selier and Sapolsky defined it for biological beings! 

Anil PillaiSpanning a professional career of two decades, Anil Pillai, co-founder of Terragni Consulting, is an experienced Customer Professional. He is one of the pioneers in India in the areas of Data Analytics and Customer Experience. Anil has a Masters in Business from LaTrobe University, Australia, specializing in Consumer Psychology and Customer Strategy. He is also a certified  Micro Expressions  Expert and Brain Coach. He is one of the individual founder members of CXPA, a global body of  Customer Experience Professionals.  His academic career includes serving as a  Consulting Professor of Marketing Strategy at the Symbiosis International University.