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3 Ways to Reveal the Hidden Causes of Customer Anxiety Why do shoppers put bent cans of vegetables back on the grocery store shelf? Here are ways to to care for and protect subtle but vital service hygiene.

By Chip R. Bell Edited by Dan Bova

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.


It was her first flight. Her parents had finally settled a bitter divorce resulting in her dad moving three states away. The 10-year-old was nervous about pretty much everything. As soon as she was settled in her seat after being handed off to a flight attendant, the pilot announced there would be a brief delay due to a mechanical problem. She heard a dog whimpering from the storage bay in the belly of the plane below her. There was an empty water bottle under the seat in front of her, obviously missed by the maintenance clean-up following the previous flight.

After a 30-minute delay, the plane was finally in the air. Her view of the ground disappeared as the plane moved into the thick clouds. The plane began to bounce and fall as it encountered predictable air turbulence. She began to cry and pray.

Related: American Airlines Grounds Flights Amid Tech Issues

Customers use detail management as an indicator of a company's commitment to delivering a positive service experience. But, there is a more profound element of detail management entrepreneurs often hidden. While both server and customer might agree that certain outcomes occurred, assessment of the experience is in the eye of the beholder. A customer's perceptions about a bus driver with obvious alcohol breath, for example, are not just about the driver's personal habits. As customers, our perceptions can take us way past what we observe to what we conclude.

Why do we put bent cans of vegetables back on the grocery store shelf? Why do inexperienced flyers take out flight insurance before boarding the plane, but don't bother with taxi insurance when boarding a cab? Why do we FedEx or UPS a large check when speed of arrival is not a requirement? An important part of understanding service basics is that it involves perceptual features which, if missed, mangled or in jeopardy, trigger alarm, not anger. And, experiences characterized as frightful are remembered long after irritating moments are forgotten.

How do service providers interpret customer complaints about minutia? When is customer faultfinding just plain nitpicking, and when is it born of anxiety? If taking care of the basics comes largely from factors customers sense and infer, how can organizations get customers to teach them about the link between assessment and anxiety?

Related: 4 Ways to Show Customers You Are Listening to Them

Here are three ways:

1. Create customer sounding boards.

When John Longstreet -- now executive director of the PA Hotel and Restaurant Association -- was the general manager of the Harvey Hotel in Plano, Texas, he realized the taxi drivers who transported guests to the airport after their stay were an informational gold mine. John reasoned that Harvey guests would more likely volunteer their impressions and be candid with the taxi driver than to answer the smiling desk clerk's "How was your stay?" question. So, he set up periodic focus group meetings with the drivers. Their conversations not only revealed ways to improve service but pointed up subtle aspects of the guest experience rarely found on a comment card.

2. Conduct complaint forensics.

Many organizations do complaint-frequency counts in order to ascertain the most prevalent issues that leave customers disappointed. Complaint forensics, however, involves looking at complaints with the assumption they are simply a symptom camouflaging the real customer concern. It takes a more methodical investigation that can yield a more complete understanding. Ask customers to recall when their displeasure with an organization began and what was happening that triggered it. As customers increase their candor, elevate your enthusiasm to learn. You might discover that a customer's exit was only the tipping point of a long held attitude of grave concern.

3. Implement anxiety monitors.

My firm was doing a focus group interview with nurses of a large hospital. "We were swamped one day," said one nurse, "and it took me longer than normal to respond to a maternity ward patient's call button. Since she had been only two centimeters dilated ten minutes earlier, I was confident her call was not an emergency. By the time I got to her room, she was hysterical. She finally calmed down enough to tell me she could not locate her lunch menu. I thought it odd that something so small would make her so upset. But, as I was leaving her room, she revealed the hidden truth: 'How soon will you come if my new baby is in serious trouble?' I got a new appreciation for the symbolism behind the call button."

Service wisdom lies in appreciating its complexity, understanding its impact and shepherding the details that trigger angst in customers. Smart organizations major in the majors when it comes to ensuring customers reliably get exactly what they expect from the organization. But, they also major in the minors -- taking the initiative to care for and protect subtle but vital service hygiene.

Related: Battling Brand Sabotage: The Angry Critic

Chip R. Bell

Keynote Speaker, Author and Customer-Loyalty Consultant

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

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