Customer Service Scantily Dressed

Authored by Kayla Brehm
Published on June 8, 2015

Guest Blog by Chip R. Bell


Even a child can spot a big phony!  I took my six-year old granddaughter with me to the grocery store.  She is normally gregarious and feisty with a delightful touch of sass!  As we were approaching the fresh fruits and vegetables a neighbor approached us with a “too loud and too proud” greeting.

“Oh, Chip, is this your gorgeous little granddaughter?”  She is so cute and adorable,” she shrieked with the decibel level that brought everyone within a city block within earshot.  Her perfume overpowered the floral department nearby and her high heels, hat and jewelry looked like she had just come from a fancy ball.  “What is your name, cutie?” she asked my granddaughter. Cassie’s non-verbals, suddenly shy and defensive, signaled a one-word response was going to be the limit of her verbal exchange.

As we walked toward the meat department, I asked the now perky Cassie why she was so shy toward Ms. Smith.  Her wise response got me thinking about customer service.  “She had on too many dresses.”

The fact is she was wearing only one dress.  It was a Barbie-like metaphor for my neighbor’s total lack of authenticity and compassion.  Phony spells “be cautious,” even to a child.  Trust emerges from an emotional connection that signals kinship and sincere care.  And, the world of service looses a relationship with the customer when it is adorned with “too many dresses.”



I was keynoting a conference of financial service company CIO’s.  At the end of my presentation a CIO asked a penetrating question:  “How can we maximize efficiency and reduce expenses by minimizing the customer’s involvement in our call center?”  I was taken aback.  I asked him:  “Are you asking…how do you take service out of customer service?”  His retort made the audience laugh:  “Actually,” he said, “we’d like to take the customer out as well.”  It was a “too many dresses” signal.

We all enjoy the ease and convenience of self-service.  It turns 9-5 into 24/7.  It brings flexibility and choice to our busy lives.  It is also a major source of angst when it fails to deliver.  I stopped at a rest stop on the interstate route from the airport to my home.  From the bathroom I heard glass shattering.  Emerging, I was told by a bystander that a truck driver, piloting an 18-wheeler, walked up to the vending machine out front, put in a dollar, pulled the lever and his potato chips failed to drop.  He walked back to his truck, got a tire tool, and smashed the vending machine glass.  The bystander indicated he only took the chips he had attempted to purchase.  His frustration was apparently as obvious as Cassie’s reserve in the grocery store.

Self-service without an easy backdoor or access to a human problem solver is like a vending machine waiting to be vandalized.  It feels to customers like being stuck in an elevator without their cell phone.  While most customers don’t resort to criminal activity, most customers take their fury out by abandoning the service provider and/or trashing their “too many dresses” stance through their venomous “word of mouse.”


Customer Relationship Management

It started out as a great way to provide a more personalized response to customers, especially when an organization had too many to serve in a “reach out and touch someone” manner.  It became a tool to gather valuable customer intelligence.  But the more mechanical it became, the more customers found the middle word--“relationship”-- missing from the encounter.  The by-product of the “too much IT; too little WE” was aptly characterized by a friend describing her bank.

“They installed this new customer relationship management system so all my correspondence from them is now tailored––they even knew my son was heading off to college this year.  Now, when I call and give them my account number, they comment on the fact that I have a new Buick, financed by their loan department.  But all that is just mechanized.  When I walk in any branch no one acts like they know me or even wants to get to know me!  Give me back old-fashioned personal service, not this customer-ized baloney.  It’s no more genuine than the ATM.”

Most customers like tailor-made service.  We enjoy a service provider that knows our preferences and caters to our unique needs and expectations.  But, we still want the service provider to treat us like an important and valued person.  We want to know that inside customer service is a human, not a program.


Penny-Pinching Leadership

“We’re on break!” the warehouse attendant barked in response to the customer’s repeated, “Hello! Anybody home?” as he waited for assistance at the service desk.  It was the customer’s third encounter with apathy that Monday. The first was the coffee shop employee who gave him a curt, “what’s good about it?” response to his morning greeting.  The next was the gas station owner who offered no verbal response or eye contact as he enriched the station’s coffers by twenty bucks.  And now, “We’re on break!”

Apathy comes in many shapes and sizes.  It can be complete emotional indifference by the cashier, the sleepwalking actions of a hotel housekeeper, or the wooden sound in the customer service representative’s voice.  While not a life-threatening malady, it is a spirit-squashing affliction that communicates a deadly message of indifference to customers.  Continue to spend your money with us or not, says the language of apathy – we’re okay either way.

Apathy is often fueled by penny-pinching leadership who believe the best way to lower costs and increase margins is to have fewer and less expensive people as front-line ambassadors.  Unfortunately, as the workload increases and capacity to effectively deliver decreases, the best people leave.  They are replaced with employees who only need to pass the “can you fog up a mirror?” employment test.  Often they are thrown on the front line with little preparation since, “we are too short-staffed to take time for training.”  And, when the paperwork and jump-through-many-hoops requirement to add headcount gets too laborious and draconian, supervisors simply give out, give up, and give in.  The byproduct is customers walking away puzzled by how such front line apathy could be tolerated.

We need more customer service scantily dressed.  Customers today long for old-fashioned service with genuine care delivered by people who enjoy serving people.  As customers’ bank accounts get thinner and their budgets get more scarce, they are no longer tolerant of service delivered with nobody home.  There was a time when it took bad service to send customers packing; today, all it takes is insincerity, insensitivity and indifference.


Chip R. Bell is a renowned keynote speaker and the author of several best-selling books.  His newest book is Sprinkles:  Creating Awesome Experiences Through Innovative Service.  He can be reached at




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